Taking an “Explanation Break”: Helping Students Critique Experimental Methods and Evaluate Evidence

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Mariel Goddu, Psychology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2019

PSYCH 140 (Developmental Psychology) attracts a variety of students. Some students have psychology research experience and interests. However, many are interested in applied fields like education, social work, and social policy, and these students may be less inclined to delve into the logic of scientific discovery. In the first few weeks of teaching discussion sections, I discovered that many students had difficulty remembering the experimental methods behind the findings discussed in lecture. While they could cite specific facts—“Piaget thought that object permanence develops at eight months, but Baillargeon found that three-month-olds have object permanence”—they were far less likely to remember how the findings were derived, which, of course, is fundamental for critically evaluating scientific evidence. What could I do to improve students’ understanding of experimental methods in Developmental Psychology?

I realized that I could both scaffold students’ understanding of experimental methods and appeal to their diverse applied interests by staging “explanation breaks.” At several points during each discussion section, I had students pair up to practice discussing scientific findings with “non-experts” in real-life scenarios. Students switched off playing “Explainer” and “Skeptic.” Skeptics played the role of a friend, family member, or policymaker who was unclear about a particular developmental concept, and Explainers were responsible for intervening on the Skeptic’s ignorance.

Skeptics were encouraged to challenge the Explainer by citing conventional wisdom or common misconceptions. For example, after a lecture on gender development, I had students discuss the question, “What might you say to a friend to convince them to choose a gender-neutral toy over a doll for their four-year-old niece’s birthday?” This particular question required the Explainers to draw on a variety of evidence about the process by which children acquire an awareness of gender identity, while the Skeptics challenged them (“But, girls naturally prefer social activities!”). After each three-minute explanation break, I led a brief class discussion in which Skeptics shared the objections they had raised and Explainers were encouraged to share the evidence they cited in light of the Skeptics’ objections.

It was clear that students enjoyed this activity; the full-class discussions that followed the pairwise explanation breaks were typically quite animated. In the beginning of the semester, the Explainers dominated the conversation, reporting what they had taught the Skeptics. However, I knew that the intervention was effective as the semester progressed and the students began taking the Skeptic role more seriously, often raising original critiques of the experimental evidence discussed in class. This led to discussions about experimental methods and sampling, such as “W.E.I.R.D.” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, & Democratic) biases in psychological research samples. Over time, I noticed that even outside of the explanation breaks students were asking more questions about research methods, often raising alternative hypotheses and explanations for experimental findings. The explanation break intervention simultaneously encouraged students to engage with the material in a way that could be exported outside of the classroom and enabled them to think deeply about the experimental methods behind the evidence.