Research methods and critical thinking

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Sharing Ideas on the Teaching of Psychology

Douglas A. Bernstein

University of South Florida

University of Southampton
It has been my experience that when students are introduced to research methods and are presented with lectures on concepts such as independent and dependent variables, control groups, and replication their eyes begin to glaze over. It was obvious to me that there had to be a better way of introducing the concepts associated with scientific research methods.

I decided that the first step was to motivate students to want to use research methods. I wanted to interest the students in setting up experiments designed to understand a phenomenon that they were very curious about, but could not explain. This was easier said than done. Then I hit upon the idea of giving students the opportunity to figure out, through experimental research, how certain simple classroom magic tricks are accomplished. In an effort to heighten students' motivation for this research enterprise, I decided to follow the lead of one of my colleagues, and present the magic tricks as demonstrations of alleged psychic phenomena. My assumption was that those students who were skeptical about such phenomena would be anxious to debunk my demonstrations and that those who were convinced of the reality of "paranormal" phenomena would be challenged to think scientifically about them, if only in an effort to show that they could not have been done through trickery. Psychology colleagues and an amateur magician friend of mine helped me to choose a set of easy to perform, but very impressive magic tricks. I describe some of the most effective of these below.

I start my first class session with all of the necessary and important information about the course. As soon as I finish the introductory material I mention that, because of the tight schedule in the course, I will only have time to mention and quickly demonstrate one of the most important topics in the field, that of paranormal phenomena. I then perform one or two “psychic” demonstrations. Once most of the students are convinced that I have some psychic abilities, I debrief them by revealing that what I did were simple magic tricks. I then assign the students to read the research methods chapter of the textbook and to come to the next class prepared to use those methods to evaluate hypotheses about how the tricks were done.

At the next class, students are usually eager to begin their research. I let them choose the trick that interests them the most and simply ask for possible explanations. It is very easy at this point to include the proper experimental terminology such as, "Your hypothesis then is that I memorized the phone book." In the process of asking students how they might test their hypotheses the concepts of independent variables, dependent variables, and other experimental ideas will arise, though the terms themselves may not be used. This makes it easy to label them ("OK, in scientific research terms, whether or not I am blindfolded would be called an independent variable.") Students will challenge other students' designs and point out such things as control groups, confounding variables, sampling errors, experimenter bias, and the need for a double-blind design. This session invariably becomes a good discussion about experimental methods.

The most difficult aspect of this exercise is that, eventually, your students will ask how you really did each trick. If you ever want to use the trick again you cannot give the answer. My solution to this problem is to say something like the following: "Some of your hypotheses were very close to the truth. However, scientists never know for sure when they have found the truth; they can only eliminate plausible alternative hypotheses and reach a conclusion with a statistically significant, but not absolutely certain, likelihood of being correct. Like scientists, you will have to be satisfied with this situation." As an alternative, simply tell the students that magicians cannot reveal the secrets behind their tricks. Here are some other useful tricks you might want to try.

For the first, you will need two identical phone books. After placing an accomplice out of the students' sight (in the hallway, for example), randomly choose a student to whom to give one of the books. (A dramatically random way to choose this student is to hit ping pong balls into the class, with the student catching it becoming the subject.) Ask a second randomly selected student to choose a page number from the phone book (be sure to use the white pages). A third randomly chosen person chooses a column on the page, and a fourth person chooses a line on that page. As the page, column, and line are being determined, the student holding the phone book is asked to find and concentrate on the telephone number thus identified. What the students don't know, of course, is that your hidden accomplice is doing the same thing and then writing that number with a heavy black marker on a piece of cardboard in numerals large enough for you to read from where you are standing. Be sure the accomplice is placed so you can see the cardboard, but the students can't. Also be sure to repeat the page, column, and line information a few times so your accomplice will write down the correct phone number. (You can do so as if to assure yourself of this information: "Okay. We are on page 341, we are in the right-hand column, and line 31.") The class will be stunned when, through "telepathy," you correctly "read your student's mind." (To make the demonstration even more dramatic, write the number on an overhead projector, then turn it on for all to see).

Another "telepathy" trick needs no accomplice. You need only a box (or a clean wastebasket), a pad of paper, and a pen. Stand at the front of the room with the pad and pen and ask your students to name some European cities. Paris will eventually be mentioned. You should appear to write each city name of a separate sheet of paper, wad it up, and throw it into the wastebasket. However, write "Paris" on every sheet, no matter what the students say. So by the time Paris is actually mentioned you will have a wastebasket full of crumpled papers, all of which say "Paris," but which your students assume are all different. (If Paris is named near the beginning of the demonstration, keep going until you have plenty of "different" cities in the basket.) Now ask a student to choose one of the crumpled balls (holding the wastebasket high so the student cannot see into it), open it and concentrate on the city name. Students are again amazed when you say "Paris," but this trick cannot be repeated in the same class, for obvious reasons.

Another simple "mind-reading” trick in which you can apparently mentally influence most of an entire class to think of the words orange, kangaroo, and Denmark.
Ask the class to:
1. Silently choose a number between 2 and 9
2. Multiply that number by 9
3. Add the two digits of the resulting number (the result will always be 9)
4. Subtract 5 from that result (always leaving 4 as an answer)
5. Think of the letter of the alphabet that corresponds to the number arrived at in step 4 (this will always be D, because 1=A, 2=B, 3=C, 4=D)
6. Write down the name of a country that begins with the letter determined in step 5 (most people will think of Denmark)
7. Write down the name of an animal that begins with the last letter of the country chosen in step 6 (for most, that letter will be K, and most people will then think of kangaroo)
8. Write down the name of a color that begins with the last letter of the animal chosen in step 7 (for most, that letter will be O, and most people will think of orange)
9. Look at and concentrate on the listed country, animal, and color
You can then show that you influenced your students’ minds by saying something like "there are no orange kangaroos in Denmark." Better yet, you can present a PowerPoint or overhead transparency on which you have written the words orange, kangaroo, and Denmark. Most of the class will be amazed.
To perform yet another amazing “mind-reading” trick, create a deck of 52 identical playing cards and wrap it in a rubber band. Tell the class that you are going to let several students look at the deck and that you will then try to name the cards they saw. Randomly select a student and tell him or her to carefully separate the deck and peek at a single card. Explain that, in order for you to get a clear mental picture of the card the student sees, it is important that he or she looks at only one card (the rubber band helps insure this). After the student has looked at a card, have him or her pass the deck to someone else in the class, and repeat this procedure four or five times. Now, after some dramatic psychic effort, slowly name several cards (one for each student who looked at the deck). Be sure that one of the cards you name is the card that makes up the phony deck. Then ask your student volunteers to raise their hands if you named the card they saw. They will all do so, of course, and because everyone will assume that they all saw different cards, it will appear as though you discerned what each of them saw. This is a neat trick because you can actually repeat it, with the same result. Have a new set of students look at the deck and, after they have done so, name another set of cards (just be sure one of them is again the card in the deck).
To make it less likely that anyone will notice that the deck is rigged, you can create a deck made up of, say, five different cards, arranged in repeating sets. So even if a student accidentally sees more than one card, it will probably not be a duplicate. If you use sets of five cards, be sure to have at least five students look at the deck, and then be sure to name at least one of those five cards during your “mind reading.”
If you know other magic tricks, by all means use them. Or buy a book on magic and practice some that you find there.
Sharing Ideas on the Teaching of Psychology

Douglas A. Bernstein

University of South Florida

University of Southampton

Here is a simple, interesting, and enjoyable way to help students understand the potential and the problems associated with drawing inferences from nonreactive measures in general and archival data in particular. Pose the following question to your class. What archival records about a person would be most useful for gathering information about a person's behavior and mental processes? The answers will undoubtedly include such sources as diaries and letters, and you can point out the use of such sources in case studies (especially the famous Letters from Jenny, published by Gordon Allport in 1965). One of the less frequently mentioned, but potentially valuable sources is a person's checkbook register, whose entries constitute a sort of informal diary that can provide information not only about income and expenditures, but about a person's (1) day to day whereabouts, (2) spending priorities and habits (and thus their motivational patterns), (3) life events, issues, and problems (and how they have attempted to cope with them), and (4) some of the significant people and events in their lives.
To illustrate the potential value of this data source, and create discussion of possible confounds and errors that might threaten the validity of inferences drawn from it, ask several students to volunteer to have their checkbook register examined in class. This tends to work best when the class is divided into small groups, each of which examines a different register (if possible, make copies of it for each group member) and attempts to agree on as many statements as possible about the owner of the register. Obviously, no one in the groups should be acquainted with the owner of the register they are examining; ideally, no one should even know whose register it is. After fifteen minutes or so, reconvene the class as a whole and ask each group to say what it can about their target person. This can be an especially valuable exercise if that person is willing to be identified and confirm, deny, or correct the inferences made by the group.
Sharing Ideas on the Teaching of Psychology

Douglas A. Bernstein

University of South Florida

University of Southampton
These demonstrations, first described by Herman von Helmholtz in 1850, and popularized by E.W. Scripture in 1895, help students to understand, through personal experience in simple experiments, that (1) even simple mental processing takes a measurable amount of time and (2) neural transmission is a physical process within their bodies that can, like the speed of other physical processes, be measured.
The first step in these demonstrations is to have your students stand and form a circle in which each student faces the back of the student in front of him or her. The "circle" line may wind through the classroom, if necessary; in very large classes, you may want to choose a subset of fifteen or twenty students to participate in the demonstration. Now ask the students to close their eyes and place their right hand on the right shoulder of the person in front of them.
Tell the students that they are to briefly squeeze their neighbor's shoulder as soon as they feel their own shoulder squeezed. When everyone is in place and understands the instructions, stand behind the last person in the line and squeeze his or her shoulder while, at the same time, starting a stopwatch. Stop the watch when the chain of squeezes arrives at the other end of the chain of students. (It is important that the students keep their eyes closed so that they do not inadvertently pick up any visual cues by watching the "wave" of squeezes move through the room.)
The elapsed time on the watch, divided by the number of students in the line, gives a reasonable estimate of the average reaction time to the squeeze stimulus. In other words, it estimates the average amount of time it takes for a person to perceive a stimulus, select a response, and execute that response.
By repeating this procedure several times, the students will find that their reaction times get shorter with practice, primarily because they get faster at selecting and executing their responses.
To demonstrate that even a small increase in the complexity of response selection must necessarily involve more neural circuitry, and thus more time, have the students place both hands on the shoulders of the person in front and tell them to squeeze that person's right shoulder if their own right shoulder is squeezed, and that person's left shoulder if their own left shoulder is squeezed. Now go to the back of the line and squeeze either the left or right shoulder of the last student. The average reaction time should now increase somewhat. To add even a little more complexity, ask the students to squeeze the shoulder of the person in front which is opposite to the one which they themselves feel being squeezed. Reaction time will increase even more.
The increases and decreases in reaction times are due, as mentioned above, mainly to more or less practiced or complex response selection and execution processes. Presumably, the speed at which the squeeze stimulus reaches the brain and the speed of the motor neurons' "squeeze" messages to arm and hand muscles are relatively constant. How fast do these messages travel? Your students can find out about the transmission speed in the sensory neurons, at least, by squeezing ankles instead of shoulders.
Have everyone sit in their chairs or on the floor and grasp with their right hand the left ankle of the person next to them (if the students are in their seats, they may have to move them in order to make a continuous chain). Now go to one end of the line, have the students close their eyes, and repeat the squeeze experiment with ankles instead of shoulders.
Even after some practice, the elapsed time for a wave of ankle squeezes to reach the other end will be quite a bit longer than for the shoulder trials because the squeeze sensations must travel a longer distance to reach the brain. The increase in elapsed time (compared to shoulder squeeze trials), divided by the number of students will provide an estimate of the increase in individual reaction time due to the extra sensory travel distance. If this figure is then divided into the average of that extra distance (i.e. from ankle to shoulder; about three or four feet), a reasonably accurate estimate, in feet per second, of the speed of sensory neural transmission will result.
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