Current trends in academic assessment reflect the importance that faculty, institutions and accreditation bodies place on the demonstration of both process and outcome competencies by students. The objective of balancing knowledge of content with the development of critical thinking is an emphasis of study that has been seen in recent publications on teaching in psychology. Tools for measuring process and outcome of active learning provide critically important supplements to the instruments used for measuring the outcome of traditional learning of content in psychology (i.e., exams).
Our focus is on the use of a senior research thesis and the role of the faculty member in guiding the student research experience. As a valuable method for assessing the skills specific to critical thinking, learning and reasoning, the thesis is also important in developing research methods and statistical skills which lie at the core of education in psychology. We discuss practical suggestions for the effective implementation and use of an undergraduate research requirement as one method to assess active learning in psychology.
The senior research project at Saint Anselm College, a small liberal arts college with approximately 200 psychology majors, consists of either an extensive review of the literature on a particular topic or an empirical investigation. The project requires students to review the literature, formulate a hypothesis, and gather, analyze, and interpret data using APA format.
For many years, those interested in the teaching and learning of psychology have come together to address the critical issues for contemporary undergraduate education (McGovern, 1993). Although changing times bring new concerns and challenges, a number of goals stand out as consistent and enduring. McGovern, Furumoto, Halpern, Kimble and McKeachie (1991), summed up the common goals for the psychology curriculum.
Knowledge base: Students should know facts, theories and issues basic to the discipline.
History of psychology: "While knowledge of major contributors to the field is basic, students need an appreciation of the sociocultural context in which psychology emerged." (p. 602)
Language skills: Students should develop thinking, reading and writing skills.
Information gathering and synthesis skills: Students should be familiar with library resources, computer information management, and related areas.
Research methods and statistical skills: Development of statistical reasoning and research methods, both qualitative and experimental, need to occur over a sequence of courses which include student discussions and presentations to foster student independence.
Interpersonal skills: "The ability to monitor one's own behavior; to be sensitive to differences and similarities in the way people are treated because of gender, race, ethnicity, culture and class, and to work effectively in groups are outcomes that should complement the cognitive achievements of the traditional course of study in psychology." (p. 602)
Ethics and values: Students should be aware of the Ethical Principles of Psychologists (APA, 2002). These principles emphasize the need for psychologists to appreciate the contexts and respect the environments in which they work, as well as such areas as care for animals, ethics in training and research.
These goals capture the essence of an undergraduate program in psychology--the balancing of knowledge of content with the development of critical thinking and communication skills in the major. These skills, or "intellectual habits fostered through and inseparable from successful completion of a course of study" (AAC, 1990, p. 3), are essential to individuals who, in the words of the National Institute of Education, will be required to think critically and to synthesize large quantities of new information, and to develop attitudes and skills that promote lifelong learning (NIE, 1984).
In the Handbook for Enhancing Undergraduate Education in Psychology, Virginia Mathie and her colleagues described the importance of using active learning methods in psychology classes, to include strategies that foster critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and which prompt students to apply, to analyze and to synthesize (Mathie et al., 1993). Though a number of different strategies may be employed, the benefits to students (and to faculty) are made clear in Mathie's chapter--it is difficult not to be excited by the prospects.
One of the ways active learning is used in psychology courses, as Mathie pointed out, is in the use of student research--an important tradition in psychology. Student research, she noted, helps students become independent learners as they formulate their own questions and seek the answers. At Saint Anselm College, student-generated research projects evolve over a sequence of courses with the senior thesis an essential part of a curriculum. The thesis emphasizes knowledge of content and critical thinking plus communication skills. Let's explore the "nuts and bolts" of the senior thesis research requirement as it currently exists in our department.
Students in our department are introduced to content, research methods, and statistical reasoning during two semesters of General Psychology. Next is Behavioral Statistics, followed by two semesters of Experimental Psychology. The Experimental I course gives the student an overview and working knowledge of research methods used in psychology. More specifically, Experimental Psychology I provides the basic skills necessary to successfully design, execute, analyze, and write experimental and quasi-experimental research. Before the end of the semester, each student is required to submit a proposal of a feasible experimental, quasi-experimental, or nonexperimental design which the student intends to use as his or her senior thesis. The proposal includes a literature review, hypothesis, proposed methodology and data analysis plan, as well as anticipated results, discussion, and summary.
The second course in the experimental sequence, taken in the fall semester of the senior year, reviews the basic methods of psychological research, as well as acquaints the students with more sophisticated data analysis techniques and ethical issues. Students present their thesis proposals and pilot studies in class for discussion by their peers. During the early stages of choosing methods and collecting data, instructors are available for individual consultation with each student. On designated dates throughout the semester, students submit detailed major components of the senior thesis (i.e., thesis proposal, literature review and hypotheses, method and data analysis plan, results and discussion) to the instructor for nonevaluative feedback. The completed thesis, typed according to the APA format, is submitted to the instructor by the Thanksgiving break, allowing the instructor to return by the end of the semester, the thesis with a grade and comments. A copy of the thesis is kept in the department, where it can be read by other students or faculty interested in the topic (and used as inspiration by the psychology majors who will be similarly challenged a year or more in the future).
The third and final course in the experimental sequence is the Senior Seminar, taken during the spring semester of the senior year. During the semester, students present and defend their theses before their peers, and organize and lead a round-table discussion session based on the broader aspects of their thesis topic. Finally, each student prepares a standard APA poster based on his or her thesis. Posters are exhibited collectively, and the poster session is open to the college community. A number of posters each semester are submitted to state and regional psychological association meetings for presentation to the larger scientific community.
An evaluation of the senior theses occurs in several ways. First, the student receives grades in Experimental I which in part, reflect the quality of the research proposal written during this course. The feedback received by the student on that proposal allows him or her to strengthen the proposal before the research begins. In Experimental II, the student receives feedback from the professor and from peers at a number of points during the semester. Though a grade is not associated with this feedback, it is a way for the student to evaluate the process in which he/she is engaged, and to get a sense of where weaknesses in the literature review, design, or analysis may be. The final product, the finished thesis, is graded on a number of elements, including some of the following, inspired by Issac and Michael's (1981) form for the evaluation of an article (grading criteria will vary somewhat from one professor to another):
Is the problem clearly stated? Are the hypotheses clear and logical? Do the hypotheses connect logically with the literature review? Is the literature review adequate?
Is the research design described fully and clearly? Is the design adequate for the solution of the problem? Is the design free of specific weaknesses?
Are data gathering methods or procedures appropriate and clearly presented? Are the validity and reliability of the evidence gathered established?
Are methods used in analyzing the data applied correctly? Are the results (including tables and graphs) presented clearly?
Are conclusions substantiated by the evidence? Are interpretations of the findings appropriate? Are connections made to past research done in the area?
In addition to a grade based on these, and other elements, the instructor writes a summary explaining the grade to the student. In addition to writing extensive comments throughout the paper, the instructor gives an overall impression of the quality of the research and its presentation.
Development of critical thinking and communication skills in the major, therefore, is based on student-generated research projects that evolve over a sequence of courses. This emphasis on engaging students in active learning is consistent with the guidance of the National Institutes of Education, described in the AAC Report on Liberal Learning in the Arts and Sciences Major (1990), suggesting deeper student involvement in their education, raising students' expectation level, and providing frequent assessment and feedback.
American Psychological Association (2002). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Washington, D.C.: Author. Retrieved December 15, 2004, from http://www.apa.org/ethics/
Association of American Colleges (1990). Liberal learning and the arts and sciences major. Washington, D.C.: Author.
Issac, S. & Michael, W. B. (1981). Handbook in research and evaluation. San Diego, CA.: Edits.
Mathie, V.A., Beins, B., Benjamin, L.T., Ewing, M.M., Hall, C.C.I., Henderson, B., McAdam, D.W., & Smith, R.A. (1993). Promoting active learning in psychology courses. In T.V. McGovern (Ed.). Handbook for enhancing undergraduate education in psychology. (pp. 183-214). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
McGovern, T.V. (Ed.), (1993). Handbook for enhancing undergraduate education in psychology. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
McGovern, T.V., Furumoto, L., Halpern, D.F., Kimble, G.A., & McKeachie, W. J. (1991). Liberal education, study in depth, and the arts and sciences major--Psychology. American Psychologist, 46, 598-605.
National Institute of Education. (1984). Involvement in learning: Realizing the potential of American higher education. Washington, D.C.: U. S. Department of Education.
Weiten, W., Davis, S. F., Jergerski, J. A., Kasschau, R. A., Mandel, K. B, & Wade, C. (1993). From isolation to community: Increasing communication and collegiality among psychology teachers. In T.V. McGovern, (Ed.). Handbook for enhancing undergraduate education in psychology. (pp.123-150) Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Suggestions for Facilitating Student Research
Keep course sections small. The senior research thesis is labor intensive for both student and faculty member. If feedback is to be given to the student throughout the research process (and we believe this a critical component of the learning that occurs in this process), faculty members must have manageable class sizes.
Set deadlines. Giving students specific deadlines for the completion of each section of the thesis (literature review, methods, results, discussion) breaks the entire task into subtasks which students perceive as manageable, and discourages procrastination.
Encourage doable projects. Students often start out with grand ideas and complex questions, and the faculty advisor can help shape and guide those questions into ones which can be answered in a semester-long research project.
Involve other faculty members. Ask faculty not teaching the senior research course to act as consultants for students doing research in their areas of specialization. As Weiten et al. (1993) pointed out, increased communication and collegiality among psychology teachers has educational benefits for students, including opportunities to participate in research, to attend professional meetings, and present papers and projects.
Use class time for discussion and critique of student research-in-progress. An extremely important part of the learning that occurs during the senior thesis is the active engagement of the students in each others' research. The ability to point out strengths and weaknesses, to offer suggestions, or to add something learned from one's own reading to a classmate is an essential component of the active learning process.
Encourage discussion of ethical issues. As students do research, they come face-to-face with many of the ethical issues with which psychologists are faced, including the use of an undergraduate human subjects pool, the treatment and care of animals, the use of deception, and the need for confidentiality. Discussion of these issues in class lends emphasis to the seriousness of these issues, and it allows students to share their personal perspectives and experiences.
Give feedback. As "researchers in training", it is essential that students receive feedback during the process, so that they can continually refine and improve their design.
Use a sequence of courses. The thesis is time-consuming, which is probably why it is often considered not viable to require of all majors, but used in an honors program or as a group project. However, a sequence of two experimental courses, and perhaps a senior capstone course, across which the preliminary development, and final presentation can be extended, allows the time for a rich and full learning experience for the student. A faculty member should serve as coordinator of the sequence, to support the consistency of the program within the department. Support is also necessary from the college administration, who, by assisting faculty attending regional and national conferences, can aid in the continuing development and enhancement of the programs within the department.
Provide quality and consistency in computer data analysis training. It is essential that students have the background knowledge and tools necessary to analyze their data during the research process. The statistical packages used by the department, and available in the college's computer center, should be familiar to all students. Faculty members who teach Experimental Psychol-ogy should keep in close touch with teachers of Statistics.
Suggestions for Evaluation of Process and Outcome
Keep students' work on file. By viewing the students' development over time and over a sequence of courses, faculty can evaluate the usefulness of this, or any element of the program, in enhancing critical thinking, reasoning, and communication skills of their students.
Use peer evaluations. During the Experimental sequence, students have a number of opportunities to give feedback to their fellow students. For example, students in Statistics and other courses are asked to choose and critique one or more of the senior research projects at the senior poster session. Faculty can listen to what students say about the research being done by other students.
Use course evaluations. The three-course sequence described above provides the opportunity for students to tell us what they think at several points during the senior research process. Using an individually designed or departmental evaluation form at the end of each of the three courses gives us insight into students' own perceptions of their learning over time.
Use alumni surveys. If our goal in promoting active learning is to equip students with skills that will relate that learning to their lives and to the issues of importance they will face beyond the classroom walls (AAC, 1990), then we must assess as effectively as possible our students' views once they have moved beyond the classroom. For example, our students complete an "exit survey" before they graduate and an alumni survey several years later. In both, they are asked to rate the value (for them) of the various teaching styles they encountered while in college. Consistently, the senior research thesis is ranked as one of the most valuable tools for learning. A number of important issues can be addressed in such a survey, which can help evaluate the success of the student research thesis in the student's development:
The value of the research experience in helping develop writing and thinking skills important in the work in which the person currently engages;
The effect on self-esteem of having completed a piece of original research;
The place of the thesis in a portfolio presented as part of a graduate school application; and
The personal value of the research itself: its value to the individual's life because of the questions it answered, insight it provided, or practical information now being applied to some aspect of daily living.