Research Methods Class Exercises For Critical Thinking


Enhancing table interpretation skills - good Teaching of Psychology article describing how to improve these skills by having students construct their own tables [added 12/13/13]

Free and easy Internet resources for stats and research design - good article from Jessica Hartnett in a recent Teaching of Psychology issue [added 8/13/13]

"Analyzing data from studies depicted on video" - The link above is to an article describing an interesting take on data analysis in the most recent issue of Teaching of Psychology. Here is supplementary material including a handout that goes with the assignment and descriptions/links to many of the videos. [added 8/13/13]

Lab activities for stats - [added 8/13/13]

"Beyond Milgram: Expanding research ethics education to participant responsibilities" - a set of activities and resources from the Office of Teaching Resources in Psychology [added 3/5/13]

Beyond the Purchase - Here's an intriguing website developed by a few psychologists: "At BeyondThePurchase.Org we have developed studies that allow professors to introduce consumer psychology, the psychology of money, and positive psychology to their students through our interactive and academic website. If you will be lecturing on: (1) the effects of money primes on attitudes and behavior, (2) the psychological benefits of experiential buying, or (3) measuring happiness, personality traits, or values you can introduce these topics by having your students first take some of our studies. After students complete any survey or study, they receive personalized feedback and learn more about the psychological construct measured or manipulated. For example, if you are discussing how the mere exposure to money effects your attitudes and behavior, we have a between-groups study which primes half of the participant's with phrases that make them think about money--then all participants complete the Fair Market Ideology scale. This study is modeled on work done by Eugene M. Caruso, Brittani Baxter, Kathleen D. Vohs, and Adam Waytz (2012). Click on this link to see the Free market Ideology study. On the feedback page we teach students about how thought about money, as suggested by previous research, makes people more likely to support free-market systems and believe they are fair. If you will be lecturing about the psychological benefits of experiential consumption, we have a within-groups study where participants reflect on both a material and experiential purchase (counter-balanced to control for order-effects) and answer questions about how the purchase improved their lives. Click on this link to see the Spending Choices and Happiness study. On the feedback page we teach students that that spending money on experiences makes people happier and contributes more to overall life satisfaction. Finally, if you are discussing topics like survey construction and usability, construct validity, or external validity, you can have students take any survey from our happiness and well-being surveys and have a class discussion. On each of these feedback pages we teach students how to interpret their scores on Subjective Well-being surveys. Barbara Lehman (from Western Washington University) developed a handout that helps professors facilitate a discussion about these topics in the classroom. If you are interested in using BeyondThePurchase.Org in your classroom, please email me at rhowell (at) sfsu (dot) edu and we can discuss how we could make this easy for you and your students. Also, if you are interested, we can develop an individualized link for your students so we can segment the data and provide you with de-identified data set for your student to examine in the class." [added 6/11/12]

Probability handout - Chris Wetzel provides this good formative assessment using a particular probability question. As many of you know, formative assessments are means of checking our students' understanding along the way, as well as an opportunity to give them some more practice with the concept or skill. The large and well-designed set of possible answers in this handout allows the instructor to really probe the students' thinking. Answers provided. [added 12/4/10]

Developing critical thinking skills in Social Psychology - My colleague Heather Coon and I embarked on a project to more systematically develop scientific thinking skills in our students. Click on the link to read about how we used brief research articles to develop a variety of thinking skills. You are welcome to use any of the materials. Feedback is always welcome.[added 9/20/08]

Unique tutorial on polling - "'Good morning. You are listening to WQXL radio. It's election day! This morning, the Journal-Times reported that the latest polls indicate Republican Higgins leading Democrat incumbent Fletcher by a slight margin of 7%, with a margin of error of +/- 5%. If these numbers hold, Higgins will be the first woman this city has ever elected mayor.' In an election season, it's common to hear news reports regarding poll results. What do these figures mean and where do we get them? Follow a year in a fictitious election campaign for an inside look at the mathematics behind the polls and the news you hear every day."[added 4/11/08]

Recreating Bargh, Chen, and Burrows (1996) in class - Jennifer Tickle presented a very interesting class activity at the 2007 SPSP teaching pre-conference. Remember the Bargh et al. study in which students were primed for old age, and then walked more slowly down the hall? Jennifer describes how you can recreate that study in your class and then discuss relevant social psychological and methodological issues. [added 7/7/07]

Correlation or Causation? - updated - I have added quite a few more links to my collection of popular press articles that often include questionable headlines. I use the links on this page to teach about the language of correlations versus causal relationships, the type of research commonly associated with each, and how to evaluate the quality and quantity of evidence to support such claims. I also have added an assignments section that includes brief tasks that could be used as in-class activities or out-of-class assignments. I would love to hear of any activity/assignment ideas you have or create to accompany this resource. I will add them to the site. Thanks.[added 1/1/07]

Correlations - from Traci Craig's Introduction to Social Psychology course [added 7/5/06]

Hypothesis generation - from Traci Craig's Introduction to Social Psychology course [added 7/5/06]

Critiquing a study - from Traci Craig's Introduction to Social Psychology course [added 7/5/06]

Illusory correlations - Excellent PowerPoint demonstration adapted and developed by Marcel Yoder -- You can send students to this link and they can complete the activity, or you can use this as an in-class activity. As Marcel suggests and research has demonstrated, this illusory correlation between distinctive events can also be connected to stereotyping and prejudice. Scott Plous provides a good description of such a link in his overview of prejudice research at the Understanding Prejudice website. [added 1/8/06]

"Demonstrating the importance of question wording on surveys" - Laura Madson, in an issue of Teaching of Psychology, provides an interesting exercise, with questions, for illustrating how easily survey wording can affect responses. Students are also able to practice data analysis. [added 3/3/05]

Statistics and research methods tutorials - good set of online tutorials on a variety of topics with a little interactivity for students [added 3/3/05]

SurveyWiz - This simple-to-use tool by Michael Birnbaum allows you or your students to create surveys for use on the Web or elsewhere. [added 6/9/04]

Thinking critically about causality and ethics - a few exercises for students to distinguish between correlations and causal relationships, from Julie Wright's Social Psychology course [added 4/06/04]

Evaluating scientific claims - Terry Humphreys presents his students with a nice, brief exercise on identifying common errors in evaluating scientific claims. Could be used as a brief paper assignment or an in-class activity, and, as Terry notes, it could be adapted for any psychology course including social. For the answer key, you can e-mail Terry at [added 7/23/03]

Internal Validity Tutorial- "In Part 1 of this tutorial, you will be introduced to nine sources of threat to internal validity. First, some relevant terms are defined. Then, some background explanation for a hypothetical experiment is presented. Finally, each of the nine threats is described, followed by an example and a contrasting nonexample as applied to the hypothetical experiment. An explanation is included of why the example represents a threat to internal validity and why the nonexample is not a threat. "In Part 2 of this tutorial, you will be asked to classify 36 hypothetical experiments as internally valid or not. If not, you must select the threat to internal validity from one of the nine sources introduced in Part 1." [added 2/4/03]

Several activities - good activities or assignments on confounding variables, operational definitions, correlation coefficients and a few more

Participate in psychology experiments - at this site you can 1) have your students participate in lab experiments from which you can download (in an Excel spreadsheet) the class' data for in-class analysis, 2) have your students participate in ongoing, online studies, and 3) view demonstrations of experiments without participating

Challenging misconceptions - "An in-class demonstration that aids in combating belief in psychics and in a claim made by some philosophers of science"

Critical thinking psychology exercises - excellent set of activities on inference vs. observation, operational definitions, correlations, jumping to conclusions, faulty thinking and thinking creatively - could be used as in-class or out-of-class activities

Research Methods

Teaching about the different research methods - a collection of ideas and resources from the Teaching of Psych Idea Exchange [added 12/08/12]

Which methodology? - interactive exercise asking students to visit Social Psychology Network's link to online studies to determine which methodology is being used and answer other questions - current link to SPN doesn't work; correct link is here (accompanies Social Psychology, Third Edition by Aronson, Wilson, and Akert)

Research design - in groups, students design studies and answer related questions based on given variables

Statistical Activities

Research readings and statistical exercises - This new resource from the Office of Teaching Resources in Psychology includes five collections of materials organized around five topics (including a social psych one). Each collection is introduced with a reading describing a research question, and then also includes Excel and SPSS data files as well as questions and answers for the research design. [added 6/10/12]

Teaching statistics and research methods - a nice collection of hands-on activities and demonstrations developed by Karen Holmes, Antonio Jemes, and Renita Stukes[3/29/09]

Data sets - The Center for the Teaching of Statistics makes 25 data sets available. [added 4/4/08]

"Web Interface for Statistics Education" (WISE) - links to tutorials, interactive exercises/demos, glossaries and more

Visualizing statistical concepts - a visual guide to learning probablility and statistics - created by Daniel Kunin

Causal and Statistical Reasoning - The folks at Carnegie-Mellon University have created an excellent instructional site on causal reasoning. (Note: I had difficulty making it work in Netscape Navigator, but I got most of it to work in Internet Explorer.) Click on "Guest Access" to enter and use the site. It includes extensive instructional modules with interactive demonstrations and exercises. You will need to check your "System Requirements" at the site to make sure you have the necessary downloads to make the modules and "Applets and Shockwave" lab to work. No extra software is needed to use the large number of case studies included which illustrate the media confusing causal relationships with correlations and other such phenomena. Very well done. [added 8/30/02]

Higher-order critical thinking skills are necessary for students preparing for and/or enrolled in professional programs, especially the ability to evaluate and synthesize information, which are vital for problem-solving. Essentially, critical thinking is learning to think independently and to develop one’s own opinions supported by existing evidence. In learning scenarios that promote and foster problem-solving and critical thinking skills, it is much more difficult for the student to simply adhere to the role of the passive student; rather, this type of learning prompts the student to assume the role of a self-reliant thinker and researcher.

However, attaining critical thinking skills does not come without its challenges as students must be able to manage a vast array of resources within a series of complex network systems. This is especially true when students are asked to write a research paper, which is one of the most common methods for teaching critical thinking skills. Inherent within writing a research paper are various levels of reasoning with each level becoming progressively more abstract, complex, and effortful. This, according to Bloom’s taxonomy, promotes higher-order thinking skill and more critical thought in the form of synthesis-level thinking and builds upon the prior skill levels in a hierarchical fashion (1). However, when confronted with this seemingly daunting task, many college students shy away; presumably, because they lack these skills and therefore need to be taught how to learn and apply them (2, 4).

Upon closer scrutiny, deficiencies in critical thinking skills among students may rest with the educational system itself, which often stresses memorization of voluminous amounts of material essentially unrelated to any type of application at all (2). The question then arises as to the extent which critical thinking is initiated during a student’s education in any given institution in higher education. As such, any focus on learning without critical thought becomes less meaningful, thereby disengaging students from any formal training and experience specifically as it relates to critically reviewing and evaluating research (3).

Arguably, an important component of critical thinking skills is the ability to critically examine and understand published research in one’s professional area of interest (7). Requiring students to critique published research is one way of addressing the goal of teaching students to critically evaluate research while gaining experience doing it (3). At its very essence, scientific research is a problem-based learning activity that sharpens critical thinking skills.

An even greater challenge, and one that provides a framework for differentiating between different levels of learning and thought by incorporating reasoning and critical thinking skills to a greater degree, is to actually engage students in the scientific method. Here, students actively participate in the formulation of a research question, data collection, and statistical analysis as a means of creating a learning environment that encourages or even forces them to engage in critical thinking and higher level reasoning. This process is arguably complete only when students are encouraged to complete the manuscript submission process in order to publish their research. Additionally, the manuscript submission process teaches students to be consumers of information while constantly examining, questioning, and evaluating the credibility of sources as they make sense of their own work (6).

Thus, we see the International Journal of Exercise Science (IJES), with its aim on engaging undergraduate and graduate students in scholarly activity, as a quite suitable vehicle for promoting critical thinking skills in exercise science students interested in entering professional programs such as physical therapy. For example, a very meaningful way to engage students is to enlist their support in a research effort of interest to them and for them to assist in the publication process. Given changes seen among Kinesiology majors on the undergraduate level in recent years, the IJES, with its emphasis on student involvement in the research process, is a great venue for disseminating research findings emphasizing this type of undergraduate student involvement (5). The research findings typically published in this journal are highly relevant to physical therapy given the central role of exercise within this healthcare profession.

We encourage all authors who work with undergraduate students interested in physical therapy to publish in this journal. Doing so will help to “raise the level” of critical thinking skills for all students involved. Among other things, doing so would also provide another valuable measure for evaluating applicants to physical therapy programs. We believe that student experiences of this nature are helpful when making admissions decisions for physical therapy programs, in part because evidence of prior research experiences provide some indication of a given student’s ability to handle the level of critical thinking necessary for success within a physical therapy education program.

In other words, while measures such as undergraduate GPA and exam scores on standardized aptitude tests are helpful in the selection process, they are certainly finite and incomplete measures for predicting which students are most capable of handling the rigors of these graduate professional programs. We believe that undergraduate research experiences provide an emphasis on higher-order critical thinking skills that are often hard to replicate in other parts of the typical undergraduate educational experience, and these experiences typically translate broadly into academic success when these students matriculate into graduate professional programs such as physical therapy.

When viewed from another vantage point, the IJES may also serve as a vehicle for further refining critical thinking skills once students are enrolled in graduate professional programs. In this same vein, we also encourage researchers working with students enrolled in Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) programs to publish in the IJES. Physical therapy curricula typically employ a research course sequence as part of the overall curriculum, as a means of fostering critical thinking skills for all students involved, and many projects completed in this manner are particularly suitable for publication in this journal. Many of the manuscripts published to date in the IJES are similarly highly generalizable to therapeutic exercise scenarios regularly encountered in physical therapy practice, providing a valuable resource for students and practicing clinicians alike.

The free, full-text format of the IJES further increases the attractiveness of this journal, as anecdotal evidence suggests that both students and practicing clinicians are mostly likely to use the resources they can access most easily. Thus, DPT faculty can confidently point to manuscripts in this journal as 1) resources for promoting evidence-based clinical practice as well as 2) an attainable target for publishing their own work. Realizing any of these aims on a consistent basis can contribute to stronger critical thinking skills and perhaps higher clinical outcomes for all involved.

In summary, higher-order critical thinking skills are increasingly necessary for success in professional health care careers. Changes in the contemporary healthcare system in the United States arguably make these critical thinking skills more important than they’ve ever been, as clinicians are required on a daily basis to evaluate multiple bits of information about patients with multiple-systemic health concerns and make appropriate treatment decisions based on this information.

We believe the IJES, with its emphasis on engaging undergraduate and graduate students in research and scholarly activity, is a valuable resource for promoting the higher-order critical thinking skills necessary for preparing exercise science students with an interest in professional healthcare careers such as physical therapy. This viewpoint is based not only upon our experience working with students who enter DPT programs possessing strong higher-order critical thinking skills honed through undergraduate research activities, but also partly upon the many research projects students complete in DPT programs that are highly suitable for dissemination in this journal. The IJES has much potential for strengthening the existing bonds between exercise science and physical therapy that benefit all involved.


1. Bloom BS. Taxonomy of educational objectives: the classification of educational goals. New York: D. McKay; 1956.

2. de Sanchez MA. Using critical-thinking principles as a guide to college-level instruction. Teach Psychol. 1995;22:72–74.

3. Dingfelder SF. With red pen in hand. gradPSYCH. 2005;3:28–29.

4. Lawson TJ. Assessing psychological critical thinking as a learning outcome for psychology majors. Teach Psychol. 1999;26:207–209.

5. Newell KM. Kinesiology: Challenges of Multiple Agendas. Quest. 2007;59:5–24.

6. Yanchar SC, Slife BD. Teaching critical thinking by examining assumptions. Teach Psychol. 2004;31:85–90.

7. Zablotsky D. Why do I have to learn this if I’m not going to graduate school? Teaching research methods in a social psychology of aging course. Educ Gerontol. 2001;27:609–622.

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