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Friday, May 15, 2009

Review of Methods in Psychological Research

Review of Methods in Psychological Research
Copyright 2009, Jim Penny
Word count: 1514

A revision of this review will appear in Personnel Psychology in late 2009.

Evans, Annabel N., & Rooney, Bryan F. Methods in Psychological Research. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc., 2008, 387, $64.95, Paperback.


This text was written for use with undergraduate psychology students in a research methods class. Students who have previously taken an introductory course or two in statistics will be happier, and likely more successful, than those who have not.

The authors developed this text from their accumulated lecture notes, responding to their personal discomfort with existing texts, which is a common reason for writing a text. The writing style and tone generally reflect the source from which the authors wrote. The text is written in a conversational tone, using the first person plural and second person singular frequently. The paragraphs are generally short, and I could easily imagine the voices of the authors as I read along.

However, there are some exceptions to the personal style and tone, especially regarding paragraph length, that left me lurching unexpectedly, while reading and otherwise playing the role of a student in the class. In these few instances, additional topic sentences were clearly available to break the long paragraph into several shorter pieces, and I found myself wondering what happened there. Nonetheless, those exceptions should not present any serious obstacles to students; the subject matter itself will take care of that.

The chapters are laid out in a developmental manner. Sections within the chapters are usually short and well indicated with various forms of bolding, shading, and indentation. The learning steps are small and predictable, especially if you’ve taught such a class. The use of color is limited to curious shades of a brown-orange (e.g., taupe, burnt umber, Hermes orange). The rest of the text is black print on white, but not glossy, paper. There is plenty of white space in which to record notes, a point particularly useful in a textbook.

Each chapter begins with a set of learning objectives and ends with a summary that follows the order of the learning objectives but that also includes some expansion and key word bolding that is reflective of the material presented in the chapter. Those who’re familiar with some forms of military training, if not basic educational theory, know this as (1) Tell’em what you’re gonna tell’em, (2) Tell’em, and (3) Tell’em what you told’em. Ausubel (1960) would be proud; the advance organizers are done well.

Embedded in the chapters are conceptual exercises and FYIs used to illustrate, illuminate, and expand the points being made. The conceptual exercises appear designed to promote discussion in the classroom, though in a few instances they call for a simple decision (e.g., appropriate statistical test). Suggested answers to these exercises are given at the chapter ends.

Some students will find these exercises useful. Other students, those probably not particularly ready for such a course, will find these questions maddening in that the answers are rarely pat. Instead, the answers are generally broad, and appropriately so, because the questions are generally broad, with multiple correct answers possible, depending on how one choose to frame the given problem. Regardless, these answers are written in a conversational tone and voice (e.g., beginning with “Hmmm”) that makes it clear that many equally valid solutions can exist.

The FYIs are used to present ancillary information that would likely be given as an aside in a lecture. For example, the FYI on page 30 presents notable exceptions to the supposed “no ads in journals” rule. On page 32, the FYI discusses, briefly, how statistical packages refer to independent variables. Personally, I found the FYIs interesting, as though the authors were whispering in my ear.

Included at the end of each chapter is an FAQ, along with exercises, projects, and references. The FAQs typically pose an overarching question that a student might ask in class, or that a teacher might wish a student would ask in class. For example, at the end of chapter four on page 93, the FAQ section begins with “Why do we need inferential statistics?” Occasionally, a chapter includes an appendix when additional ancillary information is necessary.

Frankly, some of the FAQs would make good questions for a PhD qualifying examination, though I would expect the PhD candidate to answer in more than a single paragraph. (They usually do so even when they shouldn’t.) Although it’s important for the candidate to exhibit master of whatever research area is involved, I have always found it equally important for the candidate to know that clear answers to simple questions are also important. More than once, I’ve watched measurement candidates give substantial pause when asked about the effect of addition and multiplication on the mean, variance, and standard deviation of a distribution. Yes, I’m evil that way.

The chapter exercises are exactly what you’d expect, that being the questions the student should be able to answer after covering the chapter. For example, the first question at the end of chapter 7 on page 156 is “What are the main reasons for doing experiments.” The second question at the end of chapter 12 on page 269 is “How are ethical concerns more salient in evaluation research?” There is very little that is surprising here.

I found it intriguing that the questions were usually open-ended, precluding the student from turning to a given page and copying the answer. If you’re prone to taking up homework and grading it, bear in mind that you’re going to have some substantial reading to do, and it is not likely to be interesting reading. I would probably post answers to the questions publically to avoid the ongoing weekly assessments, which are probably better left to the periodic examinations.

However, these students are undergraduates, and they often require frequent and focused feedback, if not physical threats by burly individuals. In my own classroom, I employed a “stand and deliver” technique, but without the standing, that not only motivated the students to be prepared but also gave them experience explaining a point and commenting on the points made by others. No, they did not like it, but it usually worked to their advantage, and their displeasure with being held publically accountable arose in the course evaluations, which the dean and I always considered and sometimes ignored.

The chapter projects can be pithy, and although I like them, their use as assignments is something I would consider judiciously because of (1) the time involved for students to complete such assignments, and (2) my time to assess the students’ work. For example, the chapter projects at the end of chapter 3 on page 75 involve the review of “ethics gone wrong.” A notable example is Milgram (1974), which has kept more than one reviewer occupied for a very long time.

Finally, if were I teaching this class, would I use this text? I don’t know the answer to that question because the decision would have to be predicated on the program in which I was teaching and the texts being used in preceding and following courses. However, I see nothing fundamentally wrong with this text. It covers all the requisite topics, it does so at a reasonable depth and breadth, and it is readily apparent that the authors have thought long and hard about teaching this material.

The text is obviously designed to be as engaging as possible to undergraduates as encountered today. For example, the first chapter on page 3 uses a hypothetical, but perfectly appropriate, example of dialogue regarding belief that is not supported by evidence. The dialogue begins with “Same sex couples do not make good parents.” Readers, that topic appeared on today’s (11 December 2008) CNN Headline News. The authors have gone out of their way to provide exemplars that are relevant to today’s undergraduates.

Of course, I do have some complaints. (I’m a psychometrician; what else might you expect?) For example, in chapter 5 on page 101, Likert scales (Likert, 1932), as though the plural were appropriate, are presented as a general polytomous form of measurement where the scale range is apparently unbounded. As a point in fact, Likert’s original work used a 5-point scale, which later became known as the Likert scale. All the other scales that we use so often are Likert-style, or Likert-type, scales.

However, this point and all the others I flagged as I made my way through the text are relatively minor in the grand scheme of undergraduate education in general and undergraduate psychology education in specific. The text is perfectly reasonable for it’s intended purpose. If the book fits your need and style, it’ll serve you quite well, at least until you can slow down and write your own.


Ausubel, D. P. (1960). The use of advance organizers in the learning and retention of meaningful verbal material. Journal of Educational Psychology, 51, 267-272.

Likert, Rensis. (1932). A Technique for the Measurement of Attitudes, Archives of Psychology, 140, 1–55.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York: Harper and Row.


The Crow said...

The mark of a good writer, I think, is one who can keep a reader's interest from start to finish.

The mark of a very good writer, such as you, is one who can write on a subject of interest to a select few in such a manner that I can follow it to the end - and find the arcane fascinating.

You are a natural storyteller, Jim, which makes you so good at this art called writing.


Jim Penny said...

Well, Crow, what a delightful to start a sleepy morning after a long road trip!

Personnel Psychology places few restrictions on our reviews, and we can write as we pretty much choose. They seem to like the more rascallier reviews, though they certainly receive and print their share of the staid and proper, also known as dull.

They also do not take copyright on the original draft, which lets me put them here.

You should see the 822 page and 3.44 pound delight that's up next.