Introduction to Research Methods in Psychology
Last revised: Fall 2020
Benjamin J. Tamber-Rosenau, Donald J. Foss, Gunes Avci
This laboratory manual is based in part on PSYC 2301: Introduction to Research Methods in Psychology, which was a publication of the University of Houston Department of Psychology with its last major revision in 2012 by Evan Weinberger and Kristen Capuozzo.
The authors thank Krissy Nguyen and Lynh Vu for generously allowing the adaptation and editing of their research proposal papers as sample papers for future students in Introduction to Research Methods in Psychology.
Table of Contents
Section One: Reading and Writing Research Papers 5
Components of a Research Paper and their Relationship to APA Style 6
Summary and Guide to APA Style 9
Guide to Citations and References 24
Guide to Avoiding Academic Dishonesty and Plagiarism 33
Section Two: Article Reviews and In-Class Exercises 38
Sample Study Summaries for Critique: Brief Study Summaries 39
Longer Sample Study Summaries for Critique 41
Additional Assignments and Exercises 49
Section Three: Further Resources for the Research Proposal Assignment 89
Writing a Research Proposal for this Class 90
Steps in Writing a Research Proposal 92
Using Library Resources for your Research Proposal 93
Sections of the Research Proposal 99
Appendix: Sample Research Proposals 105
Introduction to the Lab Manual and Introduction to Methods in Psychology Lab
How do we know about the effects of personality on, say, success in college? Or how do we know about the effects of child rearing practices on the personality of teen-agers? Or what leads people to be depressed, and what are the most effective ways to treat depression? Or…well, you get the idea: how do we know about any interesting question about human (or animal) behavior? The Introduction to Methods in Psychology class is in part designed to explore how we do know, and to give you the tools to further explore it yourself. To say it somewhat differently, the Methods class is designed to clarify some effective ways of asking such questions and some valid ways to go about answering them.
The Lab component of Methods is meant to give you hands-on experience using some important tools that will help you discover and understand what professional psychologists think we already know. Among these tools will be (1) the skillful ability to determine what has been studied in the past and what those studies have shown. Another aim of the Lab component is (2) to provide you with the experience of formulating your own test of an idea about how we humans function—speaking very informally, an idea about what makes us tick. Finally, the Lab component aims (3) to teach you the tools of scientific communication—how to describe your research to other scientists in a way that lets them understand what you did, why it is important, what you learned, and what questions have not been answered by your research.
In order to comfortably read what psychologists, neuroscientists, sociologists, and others have already studied and written, you have to understand the “culture of communication” in the sciences. In practice what this means is that you have to learn about the components of a research report and how they are organized. This culture has developed in order to facilitate written communication: authors do not have to worry anew about how to organize their reports every time they write one, and readers do not have to hunt for information but instead know where and how different kinds of information will be reported. To accomplish this, there is standard tradition that guides the structure and organization of such professional works. For you to successfully discover and make use of what has been done in the past, you have to understand and adopt that standard tradition.
Though they share broad outlines, there are minor differences in the way that various sciences structure their research papers. In psychology and a number of related disciplines, the standard is set by the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (the APA). The Pub Manual, as it is typically called, has been around for decades and is now (as of October, 2019) in its 7th edition. These standards are frequently referred to simply as APA style.
We are going to get familiar with APA style in two ways. First, you have to grasp its organization and component parts in order to comfortably read the existing work—what some people call the technical literature of psychology. Second, the capstone project in this part of the Methods course involves your proposing an investigation (a study, as we often call it) that you will design. In addition, for that project you will write up the study as though you had actually carried it out. You won’t in fact actually conduct the study—among other reasons, we don’t have time for that here—but you will design a study that you could conduct and you will produce a written paper in APA style just as though you had. We’ll return to that assignment later. For now, let’s introduce you to APA style by discussing the overall organization of a research paper written in that style, as well as issues surrounding how you will acknowledge the work of others on which you will base your own research paper.
Section One: Reading and Writing Research Papers
Components of a Research Paper and their Relationship to APA Style
Summary and Guide to APA Style
Guide to Citations and References
Guide to Avoiding Academic Dishonesty and Plagiarism
Components of a Research Paper and their Relationship to APA Style
Let’s say that you’ve found a research paper on a topic of interest. (In a separate lesson we’ll cover how you can efficiently find such papers.) What will you want to know when you read that paper? Of course, the big picture answer is that you want to know if it answers a question of importance to you. But now, as a student of psychology, you’re learning that one research paper won’t completely settle the matter. Therefore, you’ll have to critically assess that paper along with others.
To do that you’ll have to look closer at that paper, to give it a critical reading. So let’s consider what you’ll want to find out when you take that closer look. For one thing, you’ll want to pay attention to its title and who wrote it, and you’ll probably be curious about what positions the author(s) had when they did the work. It would certainly be nice if you could then read a single paragraph that quickly summarized the whole thing—one that could tell you whether you want to really dig in and read the entire paper. If you do decide to read it, you’ll quickly want to know what the authors (and others) thought about the problem when they started the work—what the existing ideas about it were, whether there were competing ideas, and what predictions the authors had about what would happen in their study. Once you’ve got that, you’ll no doubt wonder how they carried out the study—about the methods they actually used to try to answer the question behind the study. For example, who were the participants? Were they children or adults? Were they representative of the gender and ethnic diversity in the country, or of just a subset of it? Of course, your questions about their methods go beyond knowing about the participants. You’ll also want to understand exactly how the study was organized (its design) and how the participants were treated; plus you’ll want to know if there were multiple groups of participants (the typical situation), and how each group was treated. In addition, you need to know what the researchers measured and exactly how they measured it. Then, naturally, a key thing of interest to you will be the results of the research; that is, how did things come out? So the authors need to tell you that—to describe and analyze the data they gathered. And they’ll probably want to tell you what they think about the outcome. Did it support their ideas? What general lessons can we take from this study? Are there limitations to what we should conclude from it? And finally, you might be curious about whose work influenced these authors. No one works truly independently, so honest scientists need to give credit where credit is due. If the report leaves any of these things out we’ll feel that we didn’t get the whole story—and we should always get the whole story.
The previous long paragraph presents an extensive list of things you want and need to know after reading a research paper. Remember, science is a public activity, so it is essential that all these things are stated in enough detail that, in principle, you could copy (replicate) the study if you had the time and resources to do so.
If we were to make a list of the sub-topics just mentioned, or try to outline them, we would be developing the structure of a standard research paper. In short, we would be (re-) inventing the outline of a standard style, for example, the APA style. One purpose of standardizing this list is to ensure that all these key aspects of the work are reliably communicated to the reader.
What follows, then, is an overview of the “official” APA style, which is currently embodied in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.). This overview is organized by the major components of a research paper. There will be two sub-sections for each component: one on content—that is, what needs to be covered; and one on some key details of the style itself. This overview can be read in two ways—and should be reviewed at least twice during the semester. First, this overview—especially the content sub-sections—should be studied before you begin to read the scientific literature in order to help you get the most from each study you read about. Second, both sub-sections within this overview should be treated as an outline or checklist of requirements as you do your own writing in APA style, which will be a large part of this class later in the semester.
In addition to this overview, we’ll provide pointers to some excellent web sources, and to some very fine hands-on help housed here at UH, that can answer further questions you may have about APA style. You will probably have specific questions that lead you to consult those resources, but this overview is a great place to start!
Finally, you should be aware that some of the articles you read and cite might not completely comply with APA style! This is because most journals—even most Psychology journals!—are not actually published by the APA. Even though these non-APA journals often roughly follow APA Style, they may deviate from APA style in some ways. The following overview notes which elements of APA style the authors of this lab manual believe are most frequently changed in non-APA journals, but your Intro to Methods lab instructor will be the final authority on what you have to do when you write for this class. Unless your instructor tells you otherwise, you are expected to strictly follow APA style for student papers. APA style for student papers is a little less fussy than APA style for professional papers. In the overview found on the following pages, you will find explanations of both, but remember that as a student, you can follow the student paper style in this class.
Summary and Guide to APA style
General writing guide:
Avoid language that may cause irritation, distraction, or interruptions. This includes:
Heavy alliteration (beginning each word with the same sound)
Poetic expressions or idioms (particularly those that may not be clear to people without shared cultural background with the author)
Casual or conversational language (e.g., kids instead of adolescents or children)
Words that carry some type of implied or irrelevant evaluations of the sexes, race/ethnic group, or social status of people.
Words with surplus or unintended meaning (i.e., cop instead of police officer).
Words that are considered to be offensive, either in the broader population or by the specific groups that the words are used to describe.
You should also avoid using a storytelling tone, especially once you are past the first paragraph of the introduction (which can be used to “sell” the reader on the importance of your topic or research question).
Avoid the use of “you” (i.e., the following is unacceptable: “You might expect violent TV to cause violent behavior in children.”).
Avoid the first person (I, we, us) throughout the entire paper. Non-APA journals often disagree on this point, allowing the first person (and a more narrative account of research in general).
Use the minimum number of words necessary to get the main point of your research paper across.
General formatting guide
Research papers should be typed and double-spaced throughout—including the Title page, Abstract, and References.
Your instructor may specify a particular font. If not, you may use any easily readable font. This document is printed in 12-point Cambria. The APA recommended fonts include 11-point Calibri, 11-point Arial, 10-point Lucida Sans Unicode, 12-point Times New Roman, or 11-point Georgia.
If you include any figures in your paper, the text within the figures should use a sans serif font (a font where the ends of the lines making up each letter do not have “feet”) for figure images. Popular sans serif fonts include Arial or Calibri.
Your paper should have 1.0 inch margins on all sides.
The paper should be left-justified, but not right-justified. That is, the right margin should be “ragged,” as in this document.
Page numbers should be on the upper right hand corner of every page, starting on the first (Title) page and running consecutively throughout the entire paper.
In professional papers (but not student papers), each page should have a “running head” at the top left corner. The running head is an abbreviated title and is written in all caps, but you will not need to include one in a student paper.
Make sure to indent the first line of each new paragraph throughout your entire paper, except for the abstract.
Organization and Style
One way to think about writing an APA style research paper—or a paper in many other formats, for that matter—is to think of an hourglass. Just as an hourglass is broad at the top, narrows, and then widens again, your writing should take you from general to specific and then back to general again. Similarly, an APA style paper includes an Introduction section, which begins by defining a big problem or question and gradually narrows to specific hypotheses. After the Introduction comes the Method and Results sections, which are detailed and specific. Finally, the Discussion section relates the specific findings of the study back to the broader literature and the original problem(s) described in the Introduction.
Papers written in APA style contain the following sections. For convenience the sections are numbered here but they are not numbered in the actual paper, though they do occur in this order. Even non-APA style papers will include these sections, though the order or the exact names of the sections could be different.
A Title page.
The title should inform a prospective reader about the research project.
The title should be specific to your project; it should not be “Literature Review,” or “Methods Project,” or anything else that is about the class instead of the topic.
You should avoid titles that are funny or catchy but do not clearly explain what your study is about. You should also avoid vague titles that are too general to be informative (e.g., “A study of how people solve problems”).
The title should be concise, meaning that it should use as few words as possible to clearly communicate its meaning.
Information about the author(s), called the byline, follows the title.
In a professional paper, you would provide your name and institutional affiliation.
In a student paper, you will provide your name, the course number and name, the instructor’s name, and the assignment due date. Your instructor may ask you to include additional information.
A professional paper will include an author note, but student papers will not. The author note identifies each author’s departmental and institutional affiliation, acknowledges financial support (like grants), acknowledges technical help or feedback from people who may not have contributed enough to attain authorship (such as technicians who helped collect data or colleagues who commented on the manuscript), and provides contact information for the corresponding author.
While the APA Publication Manual (7e) does not limit the length of a title, it emphasizes keeping titles as short and concise as possible. For this class, it is recommended that your title fit on 1-2 lines and not exceed 12 words.
The title should use upper- and lower-case letters.
The title should be in bold print and centered on the first page about three or four double-spaced lines down from the top of the page.
Then add an extra blank line of space followed by your byline (see content sub-section, above). Each element of your byline (e.g., your name, the course number/name, etc.) should be presented on a separate double-spaced and centered line. Your byline should not be in bold.
The purpose of the Abstract is to provide the reader with a brief overview of the study. Most savvy investigators write the Abstract after completing the rest of the paper (in other words, after they have all the details in place that will be summarized in the abstract). Because space is so limited, it is critical to be clear and concise. Do not include any extraneous details or even extra words. A good test for this is to try reading a sentence leaving out a word or phrase; if the meaning does not change when the word is left out, you should probably leave it out. However, you should include:
Information about the topic of the paper
A statement of the research question
Why the topic/research question is important
Information about the participants
The research hypothesis(es)
The methods used (in extremely brief form)
What you found (the results)
A statement about the conclusions and/or the implications (for example, the practical significance) of the results.
After the Abstract itself, professional papers include keywords. These give the reader a highly compact idea of the main topics of the paper.
The Abstract starts on the second page. In other words, you will begin a new page (after the title page), just for the abstract.
Just like all pages of a paper, the Abstract page should include the header. For a student paper, the header consists only of the page number at the upper right. (A professional paper would also include the running head.)
The word “Abstract” is centered above the text and in bold print (and not in quotation marks or italics).
Do not indent the first sentence of the Abstract itself.
It is written in one paragraph. (Some non-APA style journals, especially those written for a medical or practitioner audience, will break the Abstract into paragraphs/sections corresponding to the Introduction, Method, Results, and Discussion.)
The Abstract should be no more than 250 words. (Abstract length varies among non-APA journals, ranging from 100 to 500 word limits.)
After the Abstract itself, professional papers will list keywords. To do this, indent and type “Keywords:” (italicized, but without quotation marks), and then list your keywords (typically, 3-5) separated by commas.
The goals of the Introduction are to introduce the reader to the problem being investigated and to review key background research and theory. You should “set the table” for your current study by:
Stating the problem or question being investigated
Explaining why this problem or question is important.
Then, describe influential past research on the variables of interest. State (when relevant):
The basic approach and method of past studies
Conflicting or uncertain prior results, or inconsistencies between prior studies
Limitations of previous studies
Gaps in our (collective) knowledge.
The overall idea of the preceding review is to motivate why one would do the work that you’ve done in this research. After you review the prior research, go on to perform integration of the reviewed information with the new ideas that you bring to the table:
Describe the goals of the present study, and how they flow from or seek to refine or question previous work.
State the variables of interest and how you are operationalizing them.
Describe in detail the predictions that your theory or perspective makes about the results of the current study.
List the formal hypotheses that you have about the expected outcomes.
The Introduction section begins on a new page after the abstract (typically, page 3).
Begin with the title of the paper at the top of this page, centered, and in bold print. This title should be the only heading at the start of the Introduction; do not head this section “Introduction” or “Literature Review.”
After that, the Introduction is written in normal paragraph form, with every paragraph indented. This includes the very first paragraph after the title.
Write each section clearly:
Each paragraph moving your argument forward.
Every time you refer to someone else’s work, include a formal citation of the work (and a corresponding reference in the References section; see below).
Each paragraph should end by setting up a smooth and clear transition to the next one.
The Method section describes in detail how the study was conducted. In this section, you must provide enough detail that another researcher could replicate your study. It has a number of sub-sections:
If using non-humans, this sub-section is labeled Subjects, instead.
Tell how many were in each condition of the study.
Explain from what population(s) they were recruited and how.
State the demographic composition of the sample as appropriate (e.g., the sex, ethnicity, education level, etc.).
If applicable, explain your inclusion and/or exclusion criteria. Inclusion criteria are characteristics that the potential participants must have if they are to be included in the study. Exclusion criteria are the characteristics that disqualify prospective participants from inclusion in the study.
At minimum, sex and age of the participants should be described.
Explain if/how the participants were compensated for participation in the research.
Note that your participants all gave informed consent to participate in the research (or explain assent or exemption from informed consent) under a protocol approved by the IRB.
Describe the overall design of the study, including any detail that would be needed if someone wants to repeat your work.
State clearly the independent and dependent variables and how they were operationalized in this work.
Specify the type of design—for instance, experimental, quasi-experimental, or correlational; cross-sectional or longitudinal; within-participants, between-participants, or mixed.
For a design in which the appropriate analysis is not self-evident, explain how the data you collect will be analyzed. In other words, what conditions will you compare? Or, what variables will be used as predictors vs. what materials will serve as outcome (criterion) measures?
Explain the experimental conditions of the study (for experimental or quasi-experimental studies) and how they were organized.
Be clear about which variables were studied between-participants versus within-participants.
State what happened in your study/to a participant in your study, generally in chronological order.
Walk the reader through the procedures you used to collect the data.
State how the participants were selected.
If relevant, describe how participants were assigned to groups.
What, in appropriate detail, did the participants do at each point during the study?
What was the typical amount of time the participants were in the study?
If there was more than one session, how long did each session last and how much time intervened between the sessions?
This section is only complete when someone else could use it to replicate your procedures.
Describe any standard tests/instruments/measures/materials you may have used, with appropriate citations.
If you use standardized surveys or questionnaires, provide information about reliability and validity.
Describe in greater detail any special materials that you put together for the study (though complete copies of these materials should be deferred to an appendix unless they are extremely short).
Describe any special apparatus used in the study or any special measures you may have employed.
Just as you did for the procedure, you should use the standard that the reader needs to know enough about what happened such that they could do it, too, based only on the information in your paper.
The Method section continues immediately after the end of the Introduction; that is, it does not start a new page (unless it just works out that way).
The word “Method” is centered on the page, in bold print, and capitalized (and without the quotation marks used here).
Each of the sub-sections begins with the appropriate heading (e.g., Participants).
The sub-section headings are each flush left on the page and in bold print.
Each sub-section immediately follows the end of the previous one (that is, they do not start on a fresh page unless it happens to work out that way).
Results (note: you likely will not be asked to write a Results section without actually having results).
Summarizes the data collected and the analyses you conducted on those data.
Describe the analysis(es) you carried out, with descriptive (e.g., means, standard deviations, correlations) and inferential tests (e.g., t-tests, ANOVAs, etc.) as appropriate.
Provide the results of those analyses—report the data and the statistics.
You may include tables or figures (e.g., graphs) to provide clear and readily understood summaries of the results.
This is not the place to interpret or evaluate the results. (Non-APA journals might allow for basic interpretation within the results section in order to remind readers of the key question addressed by each analysis, and how well the results of the analysis answered the question.)
The Results section does not begin on a new page; it immediately follows the Method section (unless it just works out that way).
The word “Results” is in bold print (without the quotation marks used here) and centered.
In past versions of APA style, if you used tables or figures they were not inserted within the Results section. Instead, they were included as separate pages at the end of the paper. However, in the APA Publication Manual (7e), the options have expanded: you may either include tables and figures at the end of the paper, or you may insert them in line with your text. If inserted in line, each table or figure is inserted after the end of the paragraph containing the first time it is called out (directly mentioned) in the text.
In the Results section you will refer to tables by sequential numbering (e.g., Table 1 for the first table, Table 2, etc.) and similarly for any figures (a graph is a figure)—Figure 1, Figure 2, etc. For example: “As shown in Table 1, the 3rd grade students in the SuperSpecial Condition had consistently higher scores than those in the BlahBlah Condition, but this was not the case for the 4th graders.”
This is where you interpret the results, discuss their implications, relate them to previous studies/theory, and explain limitations of your study.
Open the Discussion by briefly summarizing your key result(s) and stating whether your hypothesis(es) was or was not supported.
Compare these results with others in the published literature:
Are they consistent or inconsistent?
Discuss possible reasons for any differences between your predictions and the results you obtained.
Discuss possible reasons for any differences between your predictions and the other published results.
State implications for the theories on your topic and/or for practical applications.
Suggest limitations of your study—in other words, critique what you have done. That may help you suggest avenues for follow up work, which can be included in the Discussion as suggestions for future work.
Throughout the Discussion, do not simply reformulate and repeat points already made elsewhere in your paper; each new statement should contribute to your conclusions.
Conclude by summing up the one or two most important contributions of your study to the overall body of knowledge and scholarship on your topic.
The Discussion section directly follows the Results section, with the word “Discussion” centered and in bold print (and without the quotation marks used here).
The Discussion section does not begin on a new page; it immediately follows the Results section (unless it just works out that way).
Discuss findings in the order that the hypotheses pertaining to them were presented in the Introduction
You may include sub-headings for Limitations and Conclusions; regardless of whether you include these as distinct sub-headings, you will generally discuss these only after reporting support/rejection of your hypotheses and the relationship of your findings to the previous literature.
The purpose of the References section is to give credit to the work o