5 reasons why evaluating every study is a bad idea.

Travis DixonTeaching Ideas

When it comes to teaching critical thinking and getting kids exam prepared, I definitely think slow and steady wins the race!

I’ve been teaching the new IB Psychology course for two months and haven’t evaluated a single study in my class. In this post you’ll see why.

If you’re evaluating all the studies you’re using in your course, I’d strongly recommend dropping this approach in favour of some alternative approaches. In this post I’ll explain why I think “evaluating as you go” is ineffective and then if you’re convinced (or just curious) you could read about my alternative strategies in this post.

I started writing this in response to a question on facebook , but realized that the explanation was getting out of hand. But it’s one that I think might be valuable for some teachers, so I decided to make it a post. 

Reason One: It could do more harm than good

Always evaluating studies reinforces the idea that students always have to evaluate studies in essays. This might actually lose them marks. For instance, if they evaluate a study based on external validity and the question’s about ethical considerations, they could lose marks for being focused on the question. In fact, as you’ll see below, it’s perhaps a minority of essay questions that explicitly require methodological evaluation of studies.

Students need to develop the skill of evaluating arguments – evaluating the evidence is just one way to do this.

Reason Two: Evaluation of studies isn’t essential for top marks

There’s a very good chance that the essay question asked won’t require any evaluation of studies. For instance, these types of questions could be answered without methodological evaluation of studies:

  • Use of research methods (and/or technological techniques)
  • Ethical considerations
  • “To what extent…” essays
  • Questions on relationships between variables and behaviour

All of these questions require conceptual understanding and the level three command term requires them to go beyond understanding and critically reflect.

For example, when discussing or evaluating research methods, it’s not the study itself that’s being evaluated – it’s the method. The studies need to be used to highlight the limitations of the method, not evaluated independently.

To give another example, for questions on to what extent a variable influences a behaviour, evaluating the evidence is one way to go about this. But another is simply to look at other moderating or mediating variables that might be influential in the relationship. For example, an excellent “to what extent does one hormone affect behaviour” answer could have a counter argument that also explains how other specific factors, such as cognition, developmental, social, cultural and/or genetic influences could also be factors to consider in explaining the behaviour.

So you might have spent all this time in your course evaluating individual studies when actually they’ll never use it in an exam. But what they definitely will use, is a conceptual understanding (central argument) and the use of evidence (a study) to show what that understanding is based on. This is where our focus should be, I think, not on studies.

Teaching the course in an integrated manner embeds the critical thinking within the course structure, so the ability to evaluate arguments doesn’t add time to the course.

Reason Three: Application is more important than evaluation

By exam time, students have a hard time remembering the methodology of studies covered, let alone evaluative points. This is especially true if you’re teaching the course over two years. I think time is better spend recapping methodology of studies regularly and applications so they at least understand the study and can apply it. According to examiner reports, most students can’t go beyond describing studies and struggle to apply them to a question – I have a hunch that this is because too much time is spent on evaluation that’s introduced at the wrong time –  I am basing this on my own experiences and past practices.

See this post for a tip on how evaluation of studies can be streamlined for exam preparation.

Reason Four: Students learn at different speeds

A good evaluation of a study will only take place if students comprehend the methodology and can apply it to a given phenomenon, situation or problem. It is very rare that all students in the class will reach this point at the same time, since they all learn at different speeds. To introduce evaluation at the wrong time (i.e. when a kid is still trying to understand the applications or even comprehending the methodology) will lead to half-baked evaluative points like “this study was a laboratory experiment so it lacks ecological validity.

Reason Five: Time

We’re pushed for time in IB Psychology so as much as possible we need to find ways to work smarter, not harder. This is for our own sanity and for the sake of our students. Also, if there’s one thing I’ve learned to be a fact in teaching it’s that everything takes longer than you think. I’m constantly surprised by how long it takes students to grasp what I think are some pretty basic ideas and studies, but then again I have to keep reminding myself how long it took me to comprehend these same basic ideas and studies the first time I was introduced to them.

The results for IB Psychology students aren’t very impressive and my own over the years could have been a lot better. I think we’ve been a bit misdirected in our approach towards achieving best marks, and I so I think it’s time we had some new ideas.

So when is the right time to introduce evaluation? This post outlines a few tips that I think might help.