Teaching Tip: Research Methods

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Research Methodology, Revision and Exam Preparation, Teaching Ideas

Giving students the opportunity to find their own patterns will deepen understanding.

When I first started teaching IB Psychology I followed the syllabus pretty much as it was laid out in the guide, beginning with the biological level of analysis. I even taught the LOs as they appear as well. But after a couple of years I realized that teaching the ethics, principles and research methods first in a unit (as they appear in the guide) didn’t make much sense. This is because the students didn’t have the foundation of knowledge upon which to build conceptual understanding of said ethics, principles and research methods. It was like trying to build a house by starting with the roof.

I then made sure to teach these at the end of a unit, and it was far more successful. To teach research methods, for instance, I’d follow this basic plan:

  1. In groups of three students brain dump all the studies that they can remember from the unit.
  2. They then identify the method used in each study, and find the most common method/s.
  3. They figure out “how” that method is used by looking for common characteristics* (see bottom for example).
  4. They discuss “why” this method is used, being sure to clearly link it to the particular approach/level of analysis.
  5. Students do small group presentations to the class, or groups present to each other.

Why it works

Developing conceptual understanding is about being able to see connections across multiple examples and being able to abstract ideas from these concrete examples. As I mentioned earlier, to teach the how and why particular methods are used before students have any deep understanding of the specific examples, would be like trying to build a house from the roof down.

It’s my hunch that many student answers to questions about research methods skip the how and why part of the question and jump too quickly to giving examples because while they can identify the examples of studies that use particular methods, they haven’t been given the opportunity to see the connections and to stand back from the approach and look for the bigger picture.

In the new curriculum

We’ve had a big increase in requirements for understanding research methods in the new course, because it’s not about how and why methods are used at approaches/levels of analysis, but rather individual topics. This is a major increase in content, as explaining or discussing how and why a laboratory experiment is used to study hormones and behaviour, is similar but still quite different to its use to study genetics, cognitive processes or treatments of disorders. If students are to perform well on exam questions about research methods, they need to be well-prepared to address these topics individually.

This is why I will be focusing on research methods on three separate occasions in my course.

  1. Introduction
  2. Quantitative methods unit (right before the IA)
  3. During exam review

Introduction: this is just a few lessons that gets students prepared to know what to look for before they’re thrown into the criminology unit. I used to make the mistake of trying to do too much with this unit, which is why I’m going light to begin with, and will save more time for later in the course when they’ve got a better foundation.

Quantitative methods unit: in my course (and the student guide) there’s a unit (chapter) devoted to quantitative methods, which is designed to come after criminology and social influence, and right before the IA. Each of the major quantitative methods are discussed in relation to particular approaches, so students can get an understanding of how to discuss how and why methods are used in particular approaches. This unit also goes into detail about ethics and experimental design, in order to prepare students for their IA.

During exam review: At the very end of the course I will have a substantial amount of time to review the course. But this won’t be “study halls” where students independently review; the demands of the course mean that this would be an ill-advised approach. During this time, I intend to spend at least a few hours working through the use of research methods and topics in the course in the way that I’ve outlined above. I’m hoping we can do the use of at least one research method in one approach (three topics) per review lesson.

Cutting content tip

The fact that students need to discuss how and why specific research methods are used, and explain examples, across topics instead of whole approaches increases content requirements without adding much to the course, so I’m more than happy to help find some shortcuts.

In the cognitive approach, two of the topics are “cognitive processes” and “reliability of cognitive processes.” So you might get an SAQ exam question like this:

  • Outline the use of one research method used to study cognitive processes.

I intend to prepare students on the “reliability of cognitive processes,” because this is still the study of cognitive processes. That is to say, they can use the same understanding and materials to address a question like the one above. Make sense?

A similar approach can be taken for the sociocultural level of analysis where the second and third topics are very similar to one another, so students could use materials for either topic. This means there are now only 7 topics instead of 9 to study for.

You could merge core with options and cut down even further. For example, the use of experimental research in the study of the effectiveness of treatments of disorders often involves the manipulation of biology with a measure of the effect on the brain (e.g. through drug therapy), so this material could be used for research methods on “the brain and behaviour” and “treatments of disorders.” A similar approach could be done with “the individual and the group” (sociocultural) and “group dynamics” (human relationships).

This is another reason why allowing time at the very end of the course for this could be a good approach. I will be getting students to try to find their own connections and making their own plans for how they can overlap material from different parts of the course. The more they can make sense of it, the more effective their revision will be.

Example explanation of “how” a research method is used

*For example, laboratory experiments are often identified as being common in the biological approach/level of analysis. A common characteristic is that the IV is a biological variable and the DV is a behaviour. Another common characteristic is that animals are often used as the subject of these experiments that involve the manipulation of a biological variable and a measure of its effect on behaviour. It is this type of general explanation of how the method is carried out that shows deep understanding, but is often lacking in student work.