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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 1998
Engaged Learning
in Psychology at Furman

Julie L. Earles, Furman University (SC)

Furman University is a small liberal arts college with approximately 2,500 students. A major goal of the psychology program at Furman is to engage students in active learning. We encourage students to be active processors and developers, rather than passive recipients, of knowledge. This article summarizes some of the many ways we attempt to engage students in the learning process.

Our Program
During the summer of 1995, the psychology faculty decided on some major goals for the next few years. One of the most important and ambitious goals was to provide undergraduate research opportunities for all students who wanted them. During the 1995-96 academic year, we made a concerted effort to let students know about the opportunities for and benefits of conducting research projects in psychology. Our efforts created a demand for summer research opportunities that was much larger than we expected. Because so many students were interested in conducting research, we had to look hard for student funding and for faculty supervisors.

In the summer of 1996, 20 students, including some from other universities, worked on research projects in our department. Students were involved in research projects on such varied topics as taste-aversion learning in rats, self-esteem instability, aging and memory, prospective memory, and conditioning in honeybees. In addition to the students who conducted research at Furman, six students participated in research at other universities. These research projects are summarized in Table 1.

We are not a large department. We have seven full-time faculty members, and we graduate approximately 30 majors each year. With 21 Furman students involved in summer research, we are approaching our goal of providing such opportunities for all interested students. We have also fostered an attitude among our majors that participating in these activities is important to their education. The idea that participation in research is a good opportunity is gaining momentum. Students have quickly discovered that research is very hard work, but that also provides many rewards.

Engaged Learning Begins in the Classroom
We believe that engaged learning begins in the classroom. Too often when people refer to engaged learning, they refer only to experiences outside of the classroom, such as research and internships. We aspire to have every student in every class engaged in the learning process. Our curriculum contributes to the enthusiasm of our students for psychology, our department, and the university.

By taking psychology courses, students become interested in conducting work outside of the classroom. Our curriculum is carefully designed to help students develop an active approach to learning. Students who major in psychology take an experimental and statistical methods course in their sophomore year or early in their junior year. Students thus become knowledgeable about methods of research early in their training. In this course, students conduct two research projects. They learn how to design experiments, analyze and interpret their data, and write papers in the style of psychologists. They become very familiar with the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (4th ed.). Students who excel in this rigorous course have skills for developing their own research projects. Later courses supplement this basic training by requiring labs, papers, and research projects. Students come to feel confident about their research capabilities, which contributes to their desire to conduct their own research.

Departmental and University Support
Attitudes of the faculty toward research are important to a successful program. Members of our department believe in the importance of research. We work very hard to provide opportunities for students, and our enthusiasm is conveyed to students. Furman University also supports our efforts to increase student participation in research and internships.

Financial Support
Much of the success of our summer program is due to financial support from several sources. We receive some summer funding from the university, especially the Furman Advantage Program. This program began in 1984 with a grant from the Charles A. Dana Foundation, and continued funding by the university allows us to pay several students $2,000 each for 10 weeks of summer work. University support is an essential part of a successful research program.

In addition, we funded eight students from a National Science Foundation Research Experiences at Undergraduate Institutions grant, and several others through the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of South Carolina, the Carolinas and Ohio Science Education Network, and individual grants of faculty members. Because of these sources, students who could not otherwise participate in summer research due to financial need can take part in our summer research program.

Endowed funding is another important goal for a successful research program. Through generous donations from private citizens with ties to the university, we have an endowed fund to support research. These funds supported two students last summer. These funds also supported students to attend meetings of the Southeastern Psychological Association and the National Conference on Undergraduate Research. Another important benefit of these funds has been to allow us to bring to Furman speakers from all over the country to tell our students about their research projects.

Skills for Lifelong Learning
We work hard to provide research opportunities for students because research in psychology offers many benefits, and not just to students who plan graduate work in psychology. These benefits include contributing to students' abilities to read with comprehension and to write and speak clearly, helping students to learn scientific reasoning and critical-thinking skills, teaching students how to use information technology, encouraging students to collaborate with others, reinforcing a strong work ethic, instilling a sense of responsibility, and rewarding self-motivation. Students thus learn many skills that will be important to them regardless of their occupational choice.

Reading, Writing, Speaking
A major educational goal of our program is to help to improve students' abilities to read, write, and speak. Every research project begins with the reading of articles related to the proposed research. Students must not only comprehend what is written in a single research article, but they must also be able to integrate material from many articles. They must go even farther in their understanding of the material when they move from integrating the ideas of others to generating their own ideas based on what they have learned from reading.

After completing a research project, students are expected to write a paper in which they discuss their research findings. Students often enjoy writing this paper more than other papers because it concerns something that is important to them. They have spent much time and effort on their project; they are often very proud of it and want to express their ideas clearly. These circumstances provide an excellent opportunity for faculty to help students improve their writing skills.

Almost all of our summer students will have the opportunity to present their findings both to their Furman colleagues and at a research conference, such as the meeting of the Southeastern Psychological Association in Atlanta, Ga. (1997), and the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Austin, Tex. (1997). These opportunities allow students to learn how to communicate about something that they are really excited about and really want others to know about. The students work hard at making sure that both their papers and presentations are examples of their very best work. They feel a great deal of pride after a successful presentation.

Scientific Reasoning, Critical Thinking
During their summer research, students practice and expand their scientific reasoning and critical-thinking skills. Students learn that good psychological research does not come out of thin air. Rather, good research builds on a history of science. To conduct good science in psychology, students must be aware of the context in which they are working. They need to be aware of past work as well as of implications of their work for humanity and future scientific endeavors. Students must generate hypotheses and devise ways to test these hypotheses. They must think about what effects variables in which they are not interested may have on the variables in which they are interested. Once the data are collected, students must then analyze their data and make sense out of the numbers.

As students read about their area of research, they often quickly realize that when it comes to the study of human behavior, the culture to which the individual belongs is very important. Students try to determine how far the results of their study can be generalized, which is not an easy task. For example, students who studied memory this summer must think about the age groups to which their results apply, students who studied rats or bees must think about whether or not their results apply to humans, and students who studied self-esteem must consider gender and ethnic group when deciding how to apply their findings. Determining the generalizability of a study leads to an increased awareness that a phenomenon that is observed in one group may not be observed in other groups. Students must think critically and not just assume that their results apply to all individuals.

Information Technology
Students in our research program use computers in their work. Many students program their own experiments. Also, students analyze their results using SPSS, a computerized statistics package that is very useful to psychologists. As students analyze their own data, using sophisticated statistical concepts and procedures, they realize that math skills they have acquired are useful. Most students become more enthusiastic about using computers to help them to accomplish their research goals.

Students also learn to work with other people and that good ideas often result from collaborative efforts. The research experiences contribute to camaraderie within the department. Students build closer bonds with faculty members and with each other as they work closely together on their projects. Students become friends as they work and play together during the summer, and these relationships continue throughout the school year. Their enthusiasm for psychology increases as they become part of this psychology community.

Work Ethic
Students also develop a strong work ethic and an increased ability to be self-motivated. Students are expected to complete their projects with guidance from their faculty supervisor, but the project belongs to the student, who is responsible for completing it. Completing a research project gives students a sense of accomplishment and increases their self-confidence.

Students also become more accountable for their actions. They learn that the responsible collection and recording of data are essential to a good research project. Without accurate data, a project is worthless.

Ethical Treatment of Participants
Ethics is also an important consideration in psychological research. Whether dealing with humans or animals, students must make decisions about what is and is not ethical treatment of their participants. Situations in research are often ambiguous. For example, when older adults do not do well on a memory test, they may have negative feelings about themselves. Students must try to minimize risks to participants. They learn how to be responsible in the consideration of risks and benefits.

The Ultimate Goal
The broadest and most important stated goal of Furman University is to help students develop "a commitment to independent thought and lifelong learning." This summer 26 psychology students made progress toward this goal. They learned that they can generate ideas and enjoy both the generation and pursuit of these ideas. They learned that they can formulate meaningful research questions and find answers to these questions and that the answers often lead to new questions. They learned that learning does not stop at the end of a project. The end of one project is just the beginning of many new projects. The experiences of students in the psychology research program at Furman University have helped them to become better scientists, better students, and better people. In part because research experiences contribute to an active, engaged approach to learning by students, we in the psychology department at Furman are more convinced than ever that providing research opportunities to all interested students is an important goal for our department.

Julie L. Earles, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology at Furman University.

The author would like to thank Charles Brewer and Gil Einstein for comments on an earlier version of this paper.

Please address all correspondence to Julie L. Earles, Department of Psychology, Furman University, Greenville, SC 29613-0470. E-mail:

Copyright 1998 (Volume 2, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology



Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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