Noba Blog

Using Community Psychology to Understand COVID-19

September 9, 2020

By Leonard A. Jason, Olya Glantsman, Jack O’Brien and Kaitlyn Ramian

A sign that says "Covid-19" with a viron in place of the "o"

We are in the middle of a catastrophic pandemic that will change the very fabric of our society. Millions have been infected with COVID-19 around the world and nearly a million have died. The elders in our families, as well as those with pre-existing illnesses, appear to be at particular risk. Others have lost their jobs or have seen their incomes negatively impacted. The COVID-19 epidemic has also exposed economic and racial inequalities. For our students, this is a stressful, frustrating, and often overwhelming time. As educators, we have a special role in guiding students through these tumultuous times. We would like to share a couple of activities that use a community psychology approach to navigating these tumultuous times.

Community Psychology, which seeks to understand behavior in the context of individual, family, peer, and community influences, can offer a way to help students begin to heal, comprehend, and communicate about the state of our current COVID-19 crisis. The birth of Community Psychology in the United States was during a period when the nation was dealing with other crises and faced protests, demonstrations, and intense struggles over topics such as the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. Community Psychology focuses on topics that are as relevant today as they were in the 1960s: respect for diversity and active participation of community members, for example.

Faced with the current circumstances, some students will feel called to take action or might wonder how they can make a difference. There is nothing wrong with encouraging students to try exactly that. In fact, you can use the community approach to engage your students in this timely topic while simultaneously teaching about the science of psychology. For example:

To Mask or Not to Mask

An image of a planet Earth with a mask on
Challenge students to consider how they would go about increasing mask use on campus. This will likely feel more relevant to students who attend schools in which students are in residence. For students who are receiving all of their learning in a distance format, you can substitute “neighborhood” for “campus.” This can be done as an individual paper, a group project, or a series of in-class discussions. You can use these prompts to encourage discussion and planning:

  1.  How would you go about determining how prevalent mask use is on campus (or in your neighborhood)? How would you find out about student attitudes regarding masks? How could you use research, itself, to shape attitudes?
  2.  How might you persuade students (or neighbors) that mask wearing is effective and beneficial? Consider the importance of prevention, evidence, and agency in the process of attitude change.
  3.  Consider campus clubs and organizations (or neighborhood and community organizations). After all, they are integral parts of the community. How might you partner with these to increase widespread community involvement with the initiative? What obstacles might you foresee and how might you address these?
  4.  What about the school leadership (or community policies)? What are the current policies regarding mask use? How are they communicated? How are they enforced? What ideas do you have for how they might be improved?
  5.  Are there groups that might have an easier or harder time with mask use? Might there be biases and/or inequalities even on campus around mask use? What might these be and how might they be addressed?
  6.  Now that you have explored ways to enhance mask wearing, there are other behaviors that you can influence among your peers, and these include parties where social distancing rules are not being enforces as well as other settings where too many people are congregating. Can you now think of ways to help reduce these types of risks that students also encounter in both school as well as their communities?

Potential Key Teaching Points: survey methodology, action research, attitudes, social cognition, persuasion, community psychology

COVID is Social as well as Biological

An image depicting people and all the many connections they have to other people
Much has been written about the ways that the current pandemic has exposed racial and other inequalities. Here, you can engage students in a conversation about racial inequalities and then tie these discussions back to psychological science. Use the following prompts:

  1. It is easy to assume that when people get sick—such as contracting COVID-19—they will seek out treatment at a hospital. What do you believe are some of the reasons that certain groups, such as people of color, might have less access to health care than others?
  2. Design a study that investigates this issue (e.g. the rates at which different people access healthcare and the obstacles to doing so). What might researchers learn from conducting such a study? What does this tell you about how research can be applied?
  3. The global pandemic has resulted in a number of “stay-at-home” or “lockdown” orders. This means that people in different housing situations will be affected differentially by COVID-19. How so?
  4. Design an educational campaign to raise awareness about how housing is connected to COVID-19 inequality. How might you use community engagement to improve the effectiveness of this campaign? How might you use the principles of persuasion to do so?

Potential Key Teaching Points: survey methodology, action research, identity, equality, persuasion, community psychology, public policy.

When Greta Thunberg spoke out about climate change her work inspired student strikes on this topic throughout the world in 2019. Students in your classroom might not be able to duplicate what Thunberg did but this assignment will bring potentially abstract psychological concepts to life and allow them to focus on potential solutions instead of feeling defeated or just complaining about problems. Students can be change agents and the current generation of students is defined, in part, by their engagement with social causes (especially through social media).

In conclusion, if you are looking to explore avenues to speak about current events with real-life application of concepts, you may wish to explore some of the ideas presented above. Additional resources, such as the free online Community Psychology textbook or Noba module are great for exploring Community Psychology. Some of the ideas presented above can enhance classroom environments, increase knowledge retention, and empower students to become agents of change.


Leonard A. Jason is a Professor of Psychology at DePaul University and the Director of the Center for Community Research. His interests are in public policy, community building, recovery homes, addiction, reducing stigma for those with chronic health conditions (i.e., chronic fatigue syndrome and Myalgic Encephalomyelitis), and preventing violence among urban youth.

Olya Glantsman, is a senior professional lecturer at DePaul University and a director of the Undergraduate Concentration in Community Psychology and a co-coordinator of the M.S. in Community Psychology. Her research interests include cultural diversity, improving academic environments for students and faculty, community psychology values, and the teaching of psychology.

Jack F. O’Brien is a graduate student in DePaul University’s Masters of Science in Psychology program and a research assistant with the Oxford House Research Team at DePaul’s Center for Community Research. He graduated from DePaul with a BA in Psychology with a Community concentration in 2018. His research interests include substance abuse recovery with an emphasis on recovery residencies; Community Psychology education; and advocacy for ethical practices in psychology.

Kaitlyn N. Ramian is a graduate student at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Kaitlyn earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Community Psychology from DePaul University, where she also served as a research assistant at the Center for Community Research. Kaitlyn has participated in psychological research since 2015 and has experience working with diverse populations of children and adolescents in clinical and community settings.

Facial Coverings and COVID-19: Reality Meets Theory and Then What?

September 2, 2020

By Lynn White

An image of the Covid-19 virus
I must preface this blog with a confession. I have taken advantage of an unfolding tragedy of epic proportions, namely, the COVID-19 pandemic. However, I did this and I will continue to do so for good reasons. Educators acknowledge their responsibility for engaging students to enhance learning. But how and to what end? A wealth of research has helped us establish best practices for engaging students and defining learning objectives. However, after those objectives are met, what then? We assign a grade and wait for next semester’s students to take their seats? Most (if not all) of our students will become valued contributors to society and some will be the leaders of tomorrow. I think many of us assume or hope that these students will take what we teach them and use this to make informed and civic-minded decisions. But to what extent do we make this expectation explicit for them and facilitate this behavior? Can we do this without preaching from the podium? These were some of the questions I asked myself as COVID case numbers climbed in March, when social distancing and mask wearing mandates and suggestions were largely ignored.

The Task at Hand

A woman wearing a face mask, with only her eyes uncovered

The overwhelming consensus among scientists and medical professionals is that the spread of COVID-19 could be curtailed through the “simple” act of wearing a face covering. Yet, in the United States, we have seen a remarkable resistance to dawning a mask, suggesting this behavior is anything but simple. Understanding why poses a significant challenge and a necessary first step to effect change. A good place to start is the university classroom. Indeed, people in this demographic have come under recent criticism. Remember the distressing scenes of university students partying and “letting loose” on the sandy beaches of Florida during spring break of 2020? Many such instances followed. As a health psychologist and university professor, I wondered if I could use these events to: 1) effectively teach a health behavior theory through a guided activity; 2) use this health behavior theory to increase the students’ self-awareness of their own behaviors and contributory variables; and 3) help students to see how individuals contribute to public health and our shared responsibility for the wellbeing of the people around us. 

The Health Belief Model

The Health Belief Model, please review the text in the Teaching and using the health belief model pre-COVID section for a description of what is being depicted
Godfrey Hochbaum, Stephen Kegeles, Howard Leventhal, and Irwin Rosenstock developed the Health Belief Model

(HBM)in the 1950s and 60s. Working for the United States Public Health Service, they set out to explain why so many people in the United States refused to be vaccinated (at no cost) for tuberculosis. The HBM maintains that an individual’s perception of threat predicts whether they will or will not engage in a health behavior to mitigate that threat (see figure below). Several variables feed into the perception of threat and these are grouped into three categories: psychosocial and demographic variables, individual perceptions, and cues to action (Rosenstock,1966). Psychosocial variables include such things as personality, social norms, intelligence, self-efficacy, and past experiences. Demographic variables include age, sex, SES, and religious affiliation, among others. Individual perceptions center around susceptibility, severity, benefits of preventative action, and barriers of preventative action associated with the target behavior. Cues to action refer to internal and external stimuli that trigger or otherwise encourage the health behavior. Though certainly not perfect, research does support the utility of the HBM for predicting whether individuals will engage in preventative health behaviors (see Conner & Norman, 2015). 

Teaching and Using the Health Belief Model Pre-COVID

A person squeezing a dollop of hand lotion on their fingers from a lotion bottle

I teach the HBM and many other similar theories in my health psychology classes. I am likely not the only one to have heard students claim that theories are only just that, and that they have little relevance to the “real” world. For years, I have been using a class activity to try and challenge this belief. I do not think I was very successful. To engage students, the activity was to use the HBM to elucidate the variables that predict the likelihood of participating (or not) in a specific health prevention behavior. I randomly placed students in groups of 4-5 and tasked them with taking one of two positions – either for or against enacting a positive health behavior. They would then use the HBM to support their assigned position. I asked the students to reflect on the three variable categories that feed into the perception of threat and write down specific attitudes, situations, and experiences that would increase threat (and make executing the health behavior more likely) or decrease threat (and make executing the health behavior less likely). Toward the end of the class period, each group shared their answers with the entire class. It was my hope that students would empathize with both positions, but ultimately see that the variables so many of us use to avoid positive health actions are typically excuses and not reasons. But there was a problem. The behaviors I assigned in the past included sunscreen use and wearing a seatbelt. Important health behaviors, right? Well, not so much in the eyes of twenty-something year-olds. Beyond trying to please the somewhat enthusiastic teacher at the front of the room (i.e., me), there was little motivation to dive deep and invest much energy into the activity. They simply did not seem to care. The activity came and went, soon forgotten. 

Teaching and Using the Health Belief Model in the Midst of COVID

Whilst teaching health psychology in June 2020, I had an epiphany. Sunscreen and seatbelt use are not that relevant to people who refrain from spending time outdoors and to people who only use public transportation. COVID, on the other hand, is impacting virtually everyone globally. Not only is COVID and its transmission affecting our behavior, but the reverse is true. To the extent that people refuse to wear masks and/or socially distance, we are facilitating the spread of the virus. Recognizing this, I guessed that I finally had a shared experience and concern that everyone would agree is relevant. I saw an opportunity to use mask wearing to more fully engage students in the HBM activity and improve learning outcomes. I hoped that students would see how this theory could help explain their own and others’ mask-wearing behaviors. Finally, I hoped that this would increase favorable attitudes toward mask wearing and promote an attitude of shared responsibility for public health.

Modifications to Accommodate the Pandemic

Because of personal health concerns, I elected to teach my summer course online. Other than “zooming in” synchronously for 30 minutes twice weekly, students worked independently on the course. Given stress levels were uniformly high, I modified the HBM activity to not require group work. This necessitated other changes to the basic activity. Instead of working through the HBM from a singular position, either for or against mask wearing, each student had to assume both. I had each student create a worksheet (which they later shared with me) listing all their psychosocial and demographic variables, their individual perceptions, and cues to action that they believed would impact their decision to wear OR not wear a mask in public. They then had to assess the likelihood that they would routinely wear a facial covering.

The Results

If this was an experiment and the author submitted it for publication, I would reject it if only for the many uncontrolled confounds within. Nevertheless, I want to share what I found with you because this is the first time I have seen this activity: a) solicit answers which show deep thought and rigorous effort; b) motivate students to see an application beyond themselves; and c) show evidence of civic-mindedness. Aside from record-breaking completion rates for this activity, students’ answers were consistent with my belief that the activity “worked”. Some of their comments included:

I was reminded that I am part of a society that coexists and works together to overcome challenges. This activity convinced me to do my part in society and change my behavior in order to make this society a better place.

Nearly all of these variables make me want to enforce the behavior of wearing a mask in public… When I weigh the negative against the positive variables, I realize that wearing a mask in public is important for society’s health.

I discovered what my individual perceptions about the benefits of wearing a mask are. I realized that as I typed out some of the barriers why I wouldn't (or don't sometimes) wear a mask in public, most of them were excuses rather than valid reasons.

There probably needs to be better communication and more of a consensus between the government and health officials regarding wearing the mask. Policies should be mandated and enforced with repercussions for those who do not wear a mask in public.

This model is a great way to show how certain beliefs and factors can impact what people do. But also shows us what we can do to change those beliefs with cues that can make a difference in how we respond.

Overall, the attitudes of those college students who partied on the Florida beaches must be changed and their perception of their susceptibility, the severity and the threat of this virus must be increased exponentially.

Keep in mind that at no point did I instruct students explicitly or implicitly to reflect on societal implications or public health. The activity seemed to lend itself to these conclusions. Also, not everyone spoke in such civic-minded ways. Nevertheless, the fact that many did is encouraging.

Variations to the Activity

I chose the HBM for this activity, but I suspect that other health models would work well. In the past, I have used the Theory of Planned Behavior and found that the variables students identify are typically the same, regardless of which model they use. When face-to-face classes once again become safe, I plan to repeat the HBM activity but return to the group approach. I suspect that hearing what others think and believe might promote even more civic-minded thinking. Then again, students might feel inhibited to speak freely on such a controversial topic as mask wearing. Of course, other health prevention behaviors with a global impact could be used. For example, students might be asked to reflect on social distancing or vaccinations.

Key Takeaways

A key with a tag that reads "Health"

As educators, whenever possible we need to think beyond what the students will learn and apply only to themselves. We can combine the objectives of helping students learn through application and increasing civic-mindedness. Not all activities lend themselves to this. Finding timely events which impact all students may be an important consideration. 


Conner, M., & Norman, P. (2015). Health belief model. In Predicting and changing health behaviour: Research and Practice with Social Cognition Models (3rd ed., pp. 30–69). Open University Press.

Rosenstock, I. M. (1966). Why people use health services. Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly, 44, 94–127.


Lynn H. White is a Professor of Psychology at Southern Utah University. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Bishops University in Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada, and her Master’s and Ph.D. in Physiological and Comparative Psychology from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. She is a health psychologist whose teaching interests include health psychology, stress and pain, brain and behavior, and statistics. Dr. White is a strong advocate of experiential learning. She has established both department and university-specific undergraduate research programs. Dr. White is the recipient of teaching and mentoring awards at the university and regional levels.

Three secrets to share with your graduate school advisor

July 8, 2020

By Fallon Goodman


Strong advisor-advisee relationships matter

Two people holding hands in a supporting manner
Spoiler alert: You are a human. Humans have emotions and passions and interests and fears and pet peeves and quirks. Successful mentor-mentee relationships will allow space for any and all of these to unfold and unravel as they may. One key to flourishing in grad school is to recognize—and ensure your advisor recognizes—that you are more than your academic interests and productivity.

In doing so, you can cultivate a strong relationship with your advisor that is not dependent on your work or workplace behavior. Before I offer suggestions for how to build this relationship, there are two things you need to know about grad school.

First, graduate school is long and filled with unique stressors. Depending on your field—and if you tack on a few victory lap years—you might be in school the better part of a decade. Most people complete grad school during their twenties and thirties. Life is happening. Quickly. Relationships are forging and severing; children are popping out of the womb; houses are being purchased; Ikea coffee tables are being built. You are changing, your life is unfolding, and all the while you are working hard towards building a career. At best, you are making a barely-livable stipend. At worst, you are paying your way through grad school and accumulating mountains of debt. A strong, supportive relationship with your mentor can help you navigate grad school throughout these transitions and milestones. It will provide you the space you need to attend to your life outside of graduate school.

Second, advisor-advisee relationships are complicated. As a graduate student, you are, in part, dependent on your advisor. They guide you, teach you, open doors for you, and, hopefully, advocate for you. Your advisor is also, in many ways, dependent on you. Graduate students are often running studies, spearheading lab projects, and mentoring research assistants. In some ways, your advisor has power and influence on your career (e.g., recommendation letters, departmental evaluations). In other ways, you are operating as same-level colleagues, working together to produce exceptional science. Your advisor might be a respected scholar that you’ve long admired from afar, and now you are transitioning from distant observer to working colleague. Age can compound complexity. Your advisor might be several decades older than you or perhaps younger than you, potentially creating challenges such as managing power imbalances and cultural misunderstandings. Issues will arise, and a strong mentor-mentee relationship offers space for difficult conversations.

So how do you wade through these murky waters to develop a strong and lasting relationship with your mentor? Consider exploring the following three questions.

Three questions to explore with your advisor

1. How do you spend your Saturdays?

A person lounging by the pool in a hat
It sounds pointless, perhaps even invasive. But Saturdays hold the magical place between the slog of the prior week and anticipation of the next. They can illustrate what people value and how they construct their time around those values. Of course, we can observe the same things in people’s lives during the week, but Saturdays are (typically) not bloated with the standing structures of academia: meetings, classes, clients, and so on. Saturdays are blank spaces with possibility and opportunity.

Are you slicing oranges preparing for your child’s soccer game? Are you guzzling down mimosas and fried eggs with friends at brunch? Are you churning the soil of your amateur garden? Are you binge-watching your latest Netflix flick? Are you setting out for a camping weekend at a nearby national park? Are you—gasp!—working on research?

Sharing tidbits about your life outside the workplace will show and remind your advisor that you are a multifaceted, complex human. Your identity is not only a graduate student. You do not only work. You are not a machine. You are beautifully human.

2. What scares you?

A picture of a microphone - ready for public speaking
I study anxiety, so I am mildly to moderately biased, but sharing sources of anxiety can facilitate a productive working relationship.

For example, a common fear that pops up in graduate school is fear of negative evaluation. For better or worse, evaluation runs rampant. You are evaluated before you enter the door (i.e., your application materials). Upon arrival, you will be evaluated by your graduate advisor, department, teachers, supervisors, and frankly, your peers. When you submit a paper for publication, you are evaluated. When you give conference talk, you are evaluated. Comprehensive exams, master’s theses, dissertations… on and on the evaluation goes. If you are struggling with fears of negative evaluation, it might be helpful to discuss with your advisor. For example, do certain situations create more anxiety than others? You can strategize with your advisor to vary up the performance situations you enter, mixing up ones that feel manageable (e.g., giving a departmental talk) with others that are highly anxiety-provoking (e.g., giving a conference talk).

Yes, this requires vulnerability and you want to be intentional about what you share (see Caveats section below). I would argue, however, that in this vulnerability is an opportunity to tackle your anxiety, wield social support, and thrive in your career.

3. What are your levers?

A picture of a gear shift in a car
This question is the hardest of the three to answer. It is about figuring out what motivates and drives you versus what keeps you stuck. Reflect back on why you chose to enter this field. What are you hoping to accomplish in your career? For example, in psychology, some people are motivated to enter patient care to directly improve the quality of individual lives. Others want to advance scientific knowledge; others want to disseminate that knowledge. Maybe you are motivated by all three.

This question is about knowing your why: why are you choosing to spend the majority of your waking hours on one of thousands of possible professions?

When you know what drives you, you are more equipped to tolerate the ambiguity of graduate school. It is often filled with empty space—blocks of unstructured time, blank research slates, unclear guidelines, no productivity ceiling. Inevitably, you will feel like you are not doing enough, or not even sure what “enough” looks like. Within this uncertainty, reflecting back on your sources of motivation can help recalibrate you.

Knowing your why can help navigate advisor-advisee relationships. Your advisor will (hopefully) have opportunities to delegate amongst lab personnel: invited symposia, research papers, consulting gigs, media interviews, etc. If they know what you are passionate about, they are better equipped to find and provide opportunities that align with your passions and career interests. They can also help “unstick” you when are running into deadends; when we are down a rabbit hole and have lost the forest for the trees, a trusted confidant can help us reset.

Caveat caveat caveat

Conversations about these types of topics need not move into territory that feels unprofessional, counterproductive, and/or hostile. Advisors and advisees differ in their preferences for working relationships. A wide continuum of comfort exists, and it will be important to find the zone that works for you, your advisor, and the relationship. Boundaries matter. Clear and consistent expectations matter. I am not advocating for over-sharing or feeling compelled to reveal parts of your identity you wish to keep confidential; some parts of your life do not belong in the workplace. Instead, I am suggesting that facilitating an open dialogue about who you are outside of your academic profile can help build a lasting relationship with your mentor.

I also recognize that, sadly, there are many instances of abuse of power in academia; especially against people of minority status(es). I am fortunate to have had two advisors who treated me as a deserving colleague. We built strong foundations early on, which made it easier to manage major setbacks during my 7-year grad school tenure—losing the person who inspired my career, battling a months-long illness, 6 moves (not recommended), and so on. When these came up, I did not have to explain myself or make excuses for any lack of productivity. I was treated as a human first, researcher second. I know not everyone has this luxury, often for no fault of their own. As in all types of relationships, you need two willing participants with some shared valued system.

Come as you are

I have one sign in my office. It reads: “Come as you are.” Everyone in my lab and classes, regardless of their academic interests or status, is invited to bring their authentic selves. Work and “life” are often artificially divorced from one another; the message of finding a magical “work-life balance” implies that people have to turn off a part of themselves at work. I am committed to viewing each member as a whole person with a life both inside and outside of the lab/classroom. I operate from the assumption that during a person’s life—and likely during their time in my lab or class—there will be significant life stressors. In order to have successful and meaningful careers, these stressors ought not be ignored. My graduate school advisor wrote this in his lab manual: “Our personal growth, joys, and triumphs are celebrated, and our pain, failures, and frustrations are felt and understood.” I share this sentiment.

A picture of a woman smiling with her arms raised, standing in front of a storefront with a banner that reads "Viva la vie"


Fallon Goodman is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida, where she directs the Emotion and Resilience Laboratory. She earned her Ph.D. from George Mason University and completed her predoctoral clinical training at Harvard Medical School. Her research examines connections between anxiety and well-being, including barriers to social connection and strategies for building resilience. Fallon is passionate about increasing public access to science and has written for Harvard Business Review and co-designed two books for National Geographic. She once took a nap on the summit of Mt. Fuji. 

For Educators: Starting up a Low-Budget Psychology Lab

July 1, 2020

By Jovana Vukovic

Ideas for educators on how to start up a lab without any funds and provide research opportunities for undergraduate students

An image depicting gears that are interlocked that contain various items inside them. The items include: a puzzle piece, a magnifying glass, a pie chart, a dartboard with an arrow, a building, a light bulb, a graph, payment cards, calendar, briefcase, people, building blocks, check-off list, and a bar chart.

Providing research opportunities for students at the beginning of their undergraduate studies is valuable in preparing them for their future careers. These opportunities expose the students to the various aspects of conducting psychological research, such as ethical conduct in research, writing IRB forms, conducting literature searches, properly filing consent protocols, collecting and storing data, working with participants in the lab, contributing to data analysis and writeup, and the peer-review process. At the very least, students may gain transferable skills while testing out the grounds and deciding whether they would like to continue to pursue psychology. At best, they will be motivated and prepared to run their own studies in the future.

Should you find yourself in a teaching-focused faculty position, you may be interested in providing these research opportunities for students, however, teaching-focused positions may require of you to teach five or six classes per semester. This would leave very little time for you to focus on conducting and supervising research. Other teaching positions may be temporary or seasonal, and as such, institutional access to research activity may be limited. Indeed, many institutions do not expect temporary professors to conduct research. Alternatively, you may be starting out in your new tenure-track position, but you have no current funding for your lab. In any case, whether you are adjuncting or starting up your lab at an R1 University, your time and budget are likely very limited. This article is for the educators who despite significant energetic and budget constraints, want some ideas about how to get started with research activities for undergraduate students. 

Here are some tips to get your students involved in undergraduate research.

1. Start with one step at a time and be kind to yourself in the process.

Arguably, the safest place to start is with survey research. Surveys could be designed to be simple and low in cost. If you would like to explore your research agenda, you may wish to allow students to come up with their own research ideas. Working with a few students one-on-one during office hours may allow you to flesh out the literature on the topic, formulate hypotheses and design the method. Some institutions do not grant access to larger search engines such as PsychINFO or Web of Science. A good way to come around that is to use open source libraries like Kopernio and Unpaywall ( Alternatively, privately messaging authors via ResarchGate ( is a great way to get access to published studies or even unpublished proofs that you may not have access to otherwise. It is important to remember that the creative process of coming up with research ideas may take more time than anticipated. It is easy to get stressed out and fall trap to a version of the planning fallacy if this process is forced. Should there be an overturn in the student researchers in the meantime, that’s okay.

Here’s a picture of students working on conducting their own study in a very low-budget lab:

Broward College students Kristopher Jean-Jerome and Dabniel Padin are working on the Qualtrics link for their survey about students’ perceptions of safety on campus. The idea came about through conversation in regular lab meetings, and the students conceptualized and designed the study with light supervision. They conducted thorough literature searches, met with librarians, synthesized the literature on the topic, and wrote and submitted an IRB proposal. The student researchers are eagerly awaiting data collection and analysis, with plans to present their findings at a conference. [Image used with the permission of the author].

2. Consider different options for collecting survey data.

Should you want your data to be automatically stored on a spreadsheet, SurveyMonkey and Qualtrics are great options to put the surveys online, and you don’t need a lab space to run these studies. However, if there are no funds for these online survey options, you may go back to the traditional paper-pen surveys and potentially collect data in the classroom after IRB approval. Often, paper and pen data may need to be stored in a locked cabinet in a locked room on campus as per IRB approval. Additionally, all researchers will require PHRPP (!/) certification before the start of data collection. You may have to plan to pay for this out of pocket ($40 per researcher at the moment). If your institution does not have an IRB Board, you may have to consult with the Dean and potentially seek IRB approval from a nearby institution. The first step may be to contact colleagues who have active lab programs and inquire about protocols.

3. SOTL studies may not require lab space.

Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) studies allow professors to focus on testing out teaching interventions. These studies may be kept low budget as you may not need a space for these. For example, you may want to test out whether a group activity increases student engagement and achievement by tracking grades pre- and post-intervention. SOTL journals may be moving toward accepting more objective measures of outcome variables. You may find this link useful in planning for a SOTL study:

4. Join the open science replication movement.

Psychological Science Accelerator – is an organization that was started by one faculty member and has grown to a worldwide network of researchers whose mission is to make science better, more transparent and inclusive. Some of these large-scale replication studies may not require lab space and are already set up for you and your students to join. Membership is free but intellectual contributions within a year are required. Becoming a member of PsyAccelerator may keep you in the loop and provide research opportunities for your lab.

5. Preregistration may be your friend.

Along with the open science movement, preregistration ( of studies is becoming common. A benefit of preregistering your studies is transparency, peer-review before data collection, and opportunities for you and your students to publish your work regardless of whether the data support your theory-driven hypothesis. Although not without its critics, there is a case to be made for improving psychological science via preregistration (see Lakens, 2019).

6. Consider joining a National or International Honors Society for your Institution.

By joining Psy Chi ( or Psy Beta ( you may be able to contribute to large scale data collection for studies in progress. If your institution is a chapter of Psi Chi or Psy Beta, you may want to approach the Primary Advisor to learn more about how your students could get involved in these research activities. Alternatively, you may apply to open a chapter at your institution. Please note that you may have to pay for membership out of pocket.

7. Data analysis software shouldn’t cost a paycheck or three.

a. If you haven’t been able to get SPSS downloaded onto your work computer due to the high licensing costs or institutional software restrictions, do not despair. A great option is the program r, and it is available in many downloadable forms, or even online (see You may learn how to use it by completing an online course (such as or taking a course via Linkedin Learning should your institution subscribe to it. In any case, this could be a fun lab activity for the whole group, and you could learn along with your students. Please keep in mind that you may not be able to use your own computer to analyze data as per IRB approvals. As such, you may need to secure access to a computer at your institution.

b. If you have qualitative data, open source programs similar to nVivo include AQUAD 7 (, GATE (, CAT ( and RQDA ( Some of these have tutorials on how to get started so you’ll need to spend some time figuring out which one best suits your needs. Many of these programs were designed by fellow faculty who donated their time and expertise in support of equity.

Three students sitting facing each other at a desk with laptops in front of them laughing
In conclusion, if you are strapped for time and money, you may wish to explore some of the ideas presented above if you are interested in providing research opportunities for your undergraduate students.


Lakens, D. (2019). The Value of Preregistration for Psychological Science: A Conceptual Analysis. Retrieved from 10.31234/


Jovana Vukovic, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, Florida - one of the nation’s most diverse colleges, and a distinguished institution in terms of granting degrees to minority students. Jovana is passionate about bringing research opportunities to students and helping students achieve their career goals. You can contact Dr. Vukovic here: [email protected]

Formative Feedback on Online Teaching: Tools for Pandemic Pedagogy (i.e., Pandemigogy)

April 29, 2020

By Virginia L. Byrne and Alice E. Donlan

The move to remote, online teaching and learning has been challenging and stressful for all of us. These last few weeks have been a whirlwind of emails, Zoom meetings, and the frantic design of remote courses that provide students with what they need to continue their learning journey for the semester. During this time, there has been a flood of resources on how to start teaching online. While some of these resources have been tremendous (particularly the Chronicle of Higher Education posts by Flowers Darby and Jeremy W. Newton’s earlier Noba post), these pieces reinforce that what we are doing isn’t online teaching or distance education, it’s pandemic teaching (i.e., pandemigogy).

While these resources have helped us get online, not every online teaching tip and trick will fit your discipline, your class, or your students. No article or teaching guide is a panacea for supporting your students as they navigate the daily stress of the pandemic. Which is why we recommend, in the next week or two, to ask your students for feedback.

A young woman sits a computer
In times of uncertainty and learning a new skill (i.e., teaching online), just-in-time feedback is essential (e.g., Hattie & Timperlay, 2007). Formative feedback provides instructors with insights into what is working and what could be improved in the course. Unlike end-of-semester student evaluations, asking students for formative feedback is helpful because instructors can identify and address issues to make the class better now. Many instructors we have spoken to are checking in with their students about what’s working and not working, some are even assigning a “traffic light” or “stoplight” reflection as an exit ticket. A stoplight reflection is when students reflect on one thing that is going well in the course, one aspect that could be improved, and one thing that isn’t going well.

While these open-ended writing reflections are great, instructors often need more specific feedback on how the course is going. That’s why we designed the Mid-Semester Evaluation of College Teaching (MSECT).

A young woman sitting at a computer
We designed, piloted, and validated an evidence-based formative feedback tool that you can use in your remote, online course this semester, and in face-to-face courses in the future. The Mid-Semester Evaluation of College Teaching (MSECT) is a brief, evidence-based formative evaluation tool for faculty to gather anonymous feedback from students across the 4 dimensions of effective teaching established in the Fearless Teaching Framework: inclusive Climate, life-relevant Content, engaging teaching Practices, and fair Assessments.
Four puzzle pieces which read "Climate, Content, Practice and Assessment"
The Fearless Teaching Network. Image used with the permission of the authors.

A psychometric validation of the MSECT instrument for online teaching (i.e., the MSECT-O) will be published in the June 2020 volume of the Online Learning Journal. Using the MSECT-O, faculty can identify what is working and what could be improved before end-of-semester evaluations are sent out. This gives faculty time to improve the student experience and resolve issues right away.

The MSECT-O is a 12-item online survey that gathers mid-semester feedback on the four pieces of teaching effectiveness identified by the Fearless Teaching Framework.


1. My instructor creates an online classroom that is supportive for learning.

2. My instructor makes the class accessible to students with many different needs.

3. My instructor creates an inclusive learning environment where everyone is welcome.


4. The content in this course is relevant to me academically, personally, and/or professionally.

5. The instructor helps make the content of this course interesting.

6. I have the prior knowledge necessary to be successful in this course.


7. During online classes, this course includes in-class activities other than lecture.

8. My instructor helps me understand new content by connecting it to things I already understand.

9. My instructor motivates me to put effort into the course.


10. The assessments (e.g., quizzes, exams, papers) in this course are graded fairly.

11. My instructor provides me with timely feedback on my work.

12. The expectations for the assignments are clear.

We encourage instructors to use the MSECT-O items to gather formative feedback from students. In combination with open-answer items, such as the stoplight activity, instructors can identify areas for improvement and learn more about what students are needing during these stressful times.

After students complete the MSECT-O survey, block some time to read their feedback during a time when you won’t be rushed or stressed. Reading student feedback can be difficult and students might write feedback that is painful to read. Make sure to take care of yourself as you digest this feedback and remember that, to many students, you may be the first instructor to ask them for their thoughts on how the college is handling the pandemic crisis. Parse out what feedback is for you and what feedback is just them needing to vent.

Middle aged woman with a computer and a coffee
When you have synthesized their feedback on the course, send out a message -- or better yet, a video of you! -- to your class. Thank them for their feedback and the time they took to share with you. Let them know that you hear them and their concerns about the university’s responses. Then clarify what aspects of the feedback you will incorporate and which aspects you are unable to incorporate this semester. Being transparent about what you will and will not do confirms that you did, in fact, read their feedback and you are taking it seriously. Finally, celebrate the wins. This semester has been tough for you and your students. Celebrate the things that are going well. Thank you for all that you do for your students.

                   Remember to Celebrate What’s Going Well!


Virginia L. Byrne, Ph.D., researches climate and equity in online and technology-enhanced learning experiences at the University of Maryland, College Park. Virginia's work focuses on the online teaching practices can promote more meaningful online conversations and civic engagement. She earned her Ph.D. in Technology, Learning and Leadership in the College of Education at the University of Maryland. Reach out at or you can follow her on Twitter at @virginialbyrne and Instagram at @dr.virginiabyrne

Alice E. Donlan, Ph.D., is the Director of Research at the University of Maryland’s Teaching and Learning Transformation Center. Alice leads the research, evaluation, and assessment efforts at the TLTC, and collaborates with faculty and programs across campus to understand ways to improve teaching and learning outcomes. She earned her Ph.D. in Human Development with a specialization in Educational Psychology and a certificate in Measurement, Statistics, and Evaluation at the University of Maryland. You can follow her on Twitter at @alicedonlan

Teaching through Crisis: Considerations for the Virtual Classroom During the COVID-19 Calamity

March 17, 2020

By Jeremy W. Newton


Image depicting the COVID-19 Virus
The world is gripped by crisis – and news of the ongoing Corona Virus (COVID-19) situation is changing hour by hour. In between the stories of panic and despair, there are moments of hope, whether it be Italians serenading each other from their apartment balconies to help alleviate the stress of the times, or news of successful virus tracking and management coming from South Korea. Teaching and learning in higher education during this crisis can be an additional success story with appropriate strategy employment. It is both comforting and exciting to see the creation of so many new social media groups of college instructors working together to take on their new teaching situations- hopefully you’ve found a few and are using the advice to enhance your courses as we head into these challenging times.

There are any number of resources now available to support your transition to online teaching. This post is not about that – I encourage you to look elsewhere for the technical support you might need to support your transition. This post is focused on teaching while the world is in crisis and insuring that we put our best foot forward. There is something to be said for promoting normalcy, and even though it is an adverse health risk to share the same classroom as our students – the continuation of teaching our courses allow us all to follow a schedule and pattern that is familiar, and that familiarity may contribute to at least some sense of calm during the collective health crisis of our lifetime. Remember- almost all memorable events for students have been cancelled, whether it be March Madness, spring academic honors celebration, many student academic conferences, concert experiences such as Coachella, and at some universities - entire graduation ceremonies. The virtual classroom may be the only place where normalcy and routine may occur in a college student’s life. With that in mind, please consider the following as you overhaul your class curriculum for the online environment.

Don’t exacerbate your students’ stress. I know that you’ve heard that online courses are stereotyped as being easier than their face to face counterparts. There’s no need to try to make the class more rigorous than what you were originally planning. In normal situations students choose to take online classes. The COVID-19 situation has been thrust upon all of us, including students that have no interest in taking courses online. We have to transition those students into this new environment, even though they never intended to take classes.

Do check in with students- these are unique and trying times. Remind them of their options when it comes to mental health services- Your university should have given you updates on these situations as you headed into closure. If it not immediately clear – search for it in your email. My university has batched support emails at various junctures as this process has unfolded, and so there’s a good chance you’ll find the information you need buried in your inbox. Counseling services may be in a unique situation given the stress levels of your college community, so check in with those services to see if there have been any changes to their availability.

Image of two people video chatting using a computer and web camera

Keep your class changes simple. There will be temptation, of course, to use all of the bells and whistles that technology has to offer. If teaching online has not been a focus of your career, consider how your best teaching strategies, idea creation moments, and classroom information might translate to the online environment. Does it? Great, then do so using your basic understanding of the technological platform available to you. Now is not the time to radically change the presentation of your course materials. A radical shift in teaching strategy would be more than just suddenly overhauling your course mid-stream, it would be doing so in the face of a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, while also having to completely change the learning environment of the student against their will. After all – your class has likely reached a certain level of normalcy and routine at this point, particularly if you follow a typical spring semester schedule– an attempt should be made to preserve that normalcy for the sake of the routine of your students. I’ll note that those of you on the quarter system may be in a different situation altogether – perhaps changes can be more intentional if you are at or near the beginning of your teaching calendar.

Image of empty teal seats on the dais in a classroom

Do take advantage of this once in a lifetime teaching opportunity. Even as we live through the anxiety created by this pandemic, the situation also presents us with unique learning opportunities. You can ask your students to share their stories about living through this crisis, for instance – how might they be strategizing to be less anxious in the face of COVID-19? Are there stories of resilience in the face of certain quarantine? How are individuals impacted by social distancing measures? Perhaps your students are already in the process of collecting data on some aspect of human behavior as part of a class project or senior thesis. Is there another dimension of study created by this unique situation that a student might incorporate into their research? Are there class projects that might be expanded or altered in a way to offer coverage of the pandemic? The information overload that comes with the coronavirus crisis is palpable. Help your students make sense of it. There is much to learn here. Why not seize this opportunity to do so?

Be kind, supportive, and hopeful. Your students have already invested much of their time into this semester, and now they face a crisis situation unparalleled by anything that any of us have seen before. Keep an open mind and heart when students approach you about accommodating unique situations. Certainly, you want to keep your course interesting and challenging – but work to support the resilience in your students, rather than shut them down and out of success in your virtual classroom. Sometimes you can be the example of resilience your students might need to be successful in the classroom and beyond.

Though it may not always seem this way, there is much potential opportunity in the face of adversity. As we work to overcome this crisis, look for ways to enhance your teaching experience while preserving the routine that you have already established with your students. I wish you all the best of luck as you try to create a successful learning situation for your students, even as we don’t yet know how the COVID-19 situation will resolve in the months to come.

An image of a white crocus flower springing forth out of the ground


Jeremy W. Newton, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington, about 56 miles from Kirkland, Washington- arguably the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. He was trained at the University of California, Davis as an experimental psychologist with expertise on stress and memory, and more recently has focused his studies on the scholarship of teaching and learning, with emphasis on success in introductory psychology. You can follow him on twitter at @newtpsyc

Facing a tough crowd: Holding a mini conference to improve research communication skills

January 15, 2020

By Rodney Schmaltz

A closeup image of a microphone
When I tell students in my senior seminar course that they will be presenting demonstrations based on their research to junior high students from an inner-city school, the reactions mirror most of the five stages of grief. First, there is denial, then anger, bargaining (a lot of bargaining) and finally, when I fully explain why they are doing this, acceptance.

The students in this course are all involved in research, either as part of the Honors program or as an independent study project. Over the years I have been teaching this course, I noticed that students are very good at explaining their research project but lack the ability to connect the project to broader themes or explain clearly why the research matters at a societal level. It’s not a lack of understanding per se, but rather an inability to frame information in a way that is accessible to people outside of their field. In a sense, students were not able to give the “elevator pitch” of their research. Those who are well versed in research should be able to present information clearly to peers at a conference and should also have the ability to translate this information such that anyone from grandparents to younger people will understand it.

To help my students develop these skills, I invite a class of junior high students to attend a mini conference that is hosted by my class at the end of the term. The students in my course are assigned to create a short five to eight minute demonstration that highlights a key concept from their research. The demonstration does not have to be specifically about the hypothesis they are testing, rather it has to be something that will help a younger student understand the area of research in general. For example, one of the students in my class was studying brain damage and visual-spatial neglect. This is a complicated topic, but she created a demonstration that was highly engaging for the junior high students and provided them some insight into her research. She had the students wear glasses that adjusted their vision similar to a person with spatial neglect, and then asked them to throw balls at a target. If they were able to hit the target a certain number of times, they won candy.

The students in my class have said that this exercise helped them think differently about their research and to be more confident about discussing and presenting their work. I’ve had more than a few students say that conferences don’t seem as intimidating after you have been faced with 60 junior high students.

A zoomed out image of a speaker on stage and the audience
It’s incredibly rewarding to see how engaged the junior high students are, and how the students in my class rise to the occasion and are able to take a complex topic and make it meaningful for a younger audience This has also been a great way to engage the community. I provide the junior high students with transit passes, as well as a pizza lunch. The event is sponsored by a local company that was founded by a former student at our university. I encourage instructors to look at potential corporate collaborations to facilitate events such as this.


Rodney Schmaltz is an Associate Professor of Psychology at MacEwan University. His research focuses on pseudoscientific thinking, with an emphasis on strategies to promote and teach scientific skepticism. To see Dr. Schmaltz’s TEDx talk on empathy and skepticism, see

Equity in the Classroom

January 9, 2020

By Deepti Karkhanis and Rika Meyer

As instructors, we are always looking for ways to achieve equity. In other words, instructors strive to provide equal opportunities for success to their students. This can be achieved through accessible course design, thoughtful and equitable practices, and academic resources. However, sometimes it can be overwhelming to start putting equitable practices into action. Therefore, we decided to put together some clear, tangible tools you could use today to start making changes and promote educational equity in your classroom and at your institution.

Calling on students

In psychology classes, we cover many topics that personally relate to everyone. Instructors typically ask students to apply what they learn in class to their life and pull examples from their lives to help them understand a concept. I think this is a great way to show the utility of what we learn in class. However, we need to be mindful of practicing inclusion in a way that it doesn’t hamper student morale. To implement this, I don’t call on my students by name when I ask questions to the class. I do this because when instructors do this, it usually immediately increases anxiety in the student that is called on. This doesn’t always mean I have the same students speaking up in class. I think you can continuously work on the classroom environment to enable students to feel comfortable speaking up. For the students who never speak up in class, I already have students type/write down their responses that I can immediately see on my iPad in class. Therefore, I can give them a voice by bringing up points not made by the students who already willingly shared in front of the class.

About a year ago, one of my international students came to my office hours and thanked me for that practice. She said that the academic environment she was used to was not one where there is a lot of discussion, so the transition to a classroom where it was split into lecture/activities/discussions each class, she was intimidated with speaking up. However, in small group discussions, she participated in lively discussions and was one of the most engaged students in the classroom. Each student “participates” differently, who are we to say that ‘raising your hand’ means engaged?

An image of colorful paperclips
For instance, one way that equitable class participation can be practiced such that each student is given an opportunity to share their idea and/or ask a question is the “paperclip” method. Provide each student with two or three paperclips at the start of class that they can use as talking chips. Each time a student contributes to the discussion and/or asks a question, they turn in a clip with the goal being that all students use up their clips. This strategy encourages students who tend to monopolize classroom participation to save their clips for their most thoughtful questions and comments. One could also extend this method into participation notecards, which less vocal or shy students can turn in at the end of the class or even pass it down during class so the instructor can read out their thoughts and/or questions.

Re-thinking your late-work policy

An image of an hourglass and a clock
Why do we have late policies? Instructors will usually say, “To teach them the importance of turning things in on time,” or “To teach self-reliance.” We agree that those are important skills to learn. However, many students of color face more challenges and daily hassles compared to a typical student. For example, having to stay home to care for a sick child, working a full-time job while being a full-time student, or having to take two buses to school for 2 hours instead of driving 30 minutes to campus. Non-traditional students also have additional challenges. For example, an older, non-traditional student may be writing a paper for the first time in 30 years. Perhaps they may need more time for an assignment like that. These types of anecdotes made me re-think my late policies. To address this, one can have students come and speak to the instructor if they need an extension before the due date comes. This encourages students to seek the help they need and allows me to get to know them better. One could also consider using a late-work contract for paper submissions wherein a student commits to turning in the work on a later date so that as an instructor you are not stressing about missed grading. Or even perhaps turn the writing assignment into an opportunity to learn writing (see Learning Writing by Rewriting blog post on Noba).

Guest speakers and videos should represent professionals of color.

Several of us resort to a combination of lecture and activity when teaching a course. From both the UDL and equity perspective, it is a good idea to show short videos during class time to help further explain the concept(s) being taught. When choosing videos to show, be mindful to look for speakers that are coming from different backgrounds, nationality, and even accents. It allows for students to be receptive of professionals from other parts of the world. It also helps validate and motivate students of color in our classrooms to see themselves at higher posts in the field. On the same lines, it is a good idea to invite speakers (when possible) to present research or real-life content to the class. Again, looking for speakers in the community, who are inspirational and belong to marginalized sections of the society can help promote educational equity.

Normalizing failure.

A hand holing a piece of paper with the words "I can't" written on it and a pair of scissors in the other hand cutting the piece of paper.
When striving for educational equity, it is necessary to create an environment when it is safe to fail. Life is already very demanding and stressful for our students, and adding to that stress level doesn’t help learning. Taking out time to pause and share people’s failures and what they learned from it, is a good way to normalize and neutralize it. As their instructor, providing personal anecdotes about failing reminds the students that no one is perfect, and that failure can be seen as an opportunity to grow. Is it a good idea to celebrate failure? Yes, absolutely! If a class bombed a group discussion, it is a good idea to focus on the 1-2 positive points made rather than focusing on what students got incorrect. The misconception(s) can be corrected during lecture and/or future assignment.

Open Educational Resources

Mindfully selecting and using textbooks that are OER, and monitoring the costs of the textbooks assigned by our colleagues can help increase access to content among students. There are several repositories where instructors can find the various OER texts in psychology. For e.g., Open Textbook Library

Bringing snacks and water to class, especially during test days

Food insecurity is a growing problem in the college student population. Although many campuses have been working towards reducing this insecurity with food banks and the availability of affordable food, students are still coming to class hungry. Bringing healthy snacks (e.g., fruit, crackers), particularly on test days, not only helps to address this issue in the classroom, but also helps to create an environment where students feel like they are cared for and understood. One can also incorporate class activities that involve healthy. For instance, I demonstrate the ‘schedules of reinforcement’ when teaching the Conditioning and Learning Noba Module by bringing in protein/cereal bars to reinforce class participation behavior.

Equity can be a hard goal to achieve in the classroom without actively critiquing your syllabus, activities, and assignments. Is your syllabus demonstrating inequity to begin with? What are ways you can make your class as a whole equitable? Are we creating a welcoming and inclusive learning environment? These are ongoing challenges we should tackle as instructors. Some instructors may ask: “Am I making my class too easy?”, “Am I teaching them the skills necessary to be successful professionals?” While these are all questions we should be asking, at the same time, we should also be asking, “Are we creating barriers to learning?”, and strive instead to make learning fun and accessible to all.

A poster that reads "Learning is fun when" Providing these responses: "You can choose when you learn", “you love what you do”, “it is fun to fail”, “the environment is inspiring”, “you feel safe”, “you are appreciated for who you are”, “it becomes a healthy addiction”.
Image Credit: Sharkey134~enwiki. Describes the different conditions necessary for learning to be fun. This poster was created by the Fun Academy to illustrate the Fun Learning philosophy.


Deepti Karkhanis is an Associate Professor and Department Chair of Psychology at Bellevue College, WA. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Psychology from Delhi University in India, and her Doctoral degree in Applied Developmental Psychology from George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. She is a developmentalist whose teaching interests include Lifespan psychology, General psychology, Cross-cultural psychology and Positive psychology. Dr. Karkhanis explores a variety of pedagogical topics such as collaborative testing, student-teacher rapport, positive psychology in classroom curriculum, and teacher training on social justice and educational equity.

Rika Meyer is an Assistant Professor in the Child and Adolescent Development Department at California State University, Northridge. She received her BA in Psychology from UCLA and her MA and Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She currently teaches Developmental Impacts of Abuse and Neglect and Helping Children Cope with Medical Environments. Her research interests include chronic pain and stress in children, adolescents, and their families, and ways to promote academic success from childhood to emerging adulthood.

How to Read Scientific Papers

November 13, 2019

By Noah Jacobson and Robert Biswas-Diener

Scrabble tiles spelling "Research" on a pile of other Scrabble tiles
Although you undoubtedly learned the basics of the scientific method in primary school, you probably don’t have tons of experience reading scientific articles published in professional journals. These articles can be intimidating, tedious, and downright confusing. It can be easy to get lost amidst fancy figures, daunting statistics, and technical vocabulary. The key to navigating the tough terrain of scientific articles is to understand their various parts and to approach reading them in a systematic way.

Fortunately, the blueprint of a psychological research article is relatively universal. With the exception of a few specific types of articles, such as literature reviews and meta analyses, psychology articles consist of five basic sections: an abstract, introduction, methods, results, and conclusion/discussion. Below, I will explain each of these parts. Learning this universal structure lends itself well to clearing up confusion and understanding these technical articles.

Parts of an article


The abstract of an article isa simple summary of the entire article. It is usually a single paragraph long and appears right at the beginning, just after the list of article authors. Abstracts generally describe the topic in which the researchers are interested, such as prejudice or the way children learn to read. In just a few sentences, the abstract provides an overview of the study (or studies) that the researchers conducted and a summary of their main findings. Abstracts are helpful in that they contain a snapshot of everything you need to know about the study in order to determine whether you want to read the study in greater depth. This can save valuable time if you are evaluating a number of articles for their potential inclusion in a term paper.

Let’s say, for example, that you want to write a paper on the links between health and happiness. You search several databases for key terms and find dozens of articles on the topic. You cannot, of course, read all of these papers. There simply isn’t time. Instead, you can review abstracts to get a better sense of those that might be the most relevant for your paper. You might be able to exclude, for example, research on children because that is too niche for your paper. You might focus, instead, on those papers that deal specifically with the immune system or those that talk specifically about positive emotions. Abstracts help you preview and organize your approach to curating and synthesizing research.


Psychological research papers begin with an introduction. You can think of the introduction as the “why” portion of the paper. That is, the introduction places the current research in the context of past research. This is called a “literature review” and researchers often spend a couple pages describing the findings of previous research and supplying references for these earlier studies. This helps researchers make a case for why their current research is relevant and important. They might argue that their research helps fill in a gap in our existing knowledge, or adds new evidence to support a theory, or helps clear up a confusion created by contradictory results from earlier studies.

Let’s take a look at a specific example. In a 2001 article, researchers Robert Biswas-Diener and Ed Diener investigated the happiness of people living in poverty. That’s pretty straightforward. Even so, they wanted to provide readers with background to better understand the issues related to their study. The introduction to their article includes economic, historical, and social information about Kolkata, India, where they conducted their research. It also contains a brief review of the research literature showing that income is related to happiness and they provide some potential explanations for this relationship. Finally, they make an explicit case for their study by saying that their research extends earlier studies by using a unique sample: people living in dire poverty (Biswas-Diener & Diener, 2001).

The introduction is a great way to learn about the major findings in a field in the span of just a few short pages. It can also be a helpful resource for identifying other articles that might be relevant to your project.


An image of five test tubes with substances of varying colors bubbling inside them
The introduction section gives way to the Methods section. This is where articles start to get technical. As the name implies, this is the portion of the article that describes how the researchers conducted their study. Typically, the methods section is—itself—divided into a number of sub-sections, each dealing with a different aspect of the study. Most methods sections describe the:
  • Sample. This is a description of the people who participated in the research. Older articles refer to these people as “subjects” and newer ones refer to them as “respondents” or “participants.” The methods sections usually gives a brief description, such as identifying if they are students, or retirees, or people who share a clinical diagnosis. The researchers usually report on the relevant demographic variables related to the sample such as age, gender, educational level, or national or cultural background. There is usually a table of numbers that acts as a visual description of these background variables.
  • Measures. Here, you can find a description of the various measures that the researchers used. These can include standard tasks (such as the Stroop Task or the “Uses for a brick” task), questionnaires (such as the “Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale”), or biological measures (such as saliva cortisol samples or genetic markers), or behavioral observations (such as seeing how close strangers versus friends sit to one another). Typically, researchers provide a brief description of their measures, with references to the ways that these measures have been used or validated in the past.
  • Procedure. Not all studies include a description of procedures. Experimental studies—those conducted under controlled conditions—often do. This is especially the case if the researchers are using deception or creating an artificial situation. For example, social psychologist Dov Cohen once had a colleague “accidentally” bump research participants as they passed each other in the hall to see how they might react (Cohen, Nisbett, Bowdle, & Schwarz, 1996).

Interestingly, you do not necessarily have to read an entire research article in the order it is written and this is especially true of the methods section. It may be that you simply want to get a broad understanding of the research and reading the introduction and the results is sufficient for your purposes. It may be that you circle back and read the methods section once you have determined that the article is relevant to your interests. If you ultimately include an article for discussion in your term paper, you should definitely read the methods section.


Graph depicting the results of Cohen and colleagues (1996) Culture of Honor Study. To learn more about it, please read the original study cited in the References or visit the Research Methods in Social Psychology module on the Noba website.
Image Credit: Noba Project
The results section follows the methods section. The results section is usually one of the most technically complex and mathematically oriented sections of any research article. The results section can be intimidating because it includes Greek symbols, long equations, and numbers galore. For example, you might come across a head-scratching phrase such as “F (2, 77) = 8.39, p < .001.” Don’t be frightened! Psychological researchers use a variety of statistical analyses to determine if research findings are “significant” (a term that means the results were not due purely to chance).

Understanding the results section can be made easier by remembers key sources of information to keep an eye out for: figures and tables. These clear graphics present the numbers in an easy-to-digest and more visually-friendly format. Figures display a relationship between things using an illustration. For example, a figure might show the number of suicides for each age group across multiple years. This is an easy way to see how the suicide rate has changed over time and to identify specific parts of the population (age groups) that have changed the most. Figures can include charts such as bar charts, graphs such as line graphs, and plots such as scatterplots. Tables, by contrast, provide lists of numerical findings in columns or rows. Common types of tables include demographic variables (such as average levels of age or income), the average results of key variables (such as the average self-esteem scores of participants who completed the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale), or correlation matrixes (in which the strength of a relationship between a variable and all other variables is reported).


An image outline of a human head with gears inside it and a question mark beside it
The final section in a paper is called the discussion (and sometimes the conclusion). It is here that the researchers discuss their overall findings. There are elements of the discussion section that commonly appear across all types of papers, although they are not explicitly labeled. Keep an eye out for:
  • Summary. Here, the researchers repeat their main findings and discuss them in the context of their original hypothesis or their relationship to earlier research.
  • Explanation. Here, researchers occasionally provide some theory to explain their results. Sometimes these are hypothetical and sometimes they emerge from data gathered in the study itself. Researchers also sometimes admit that their study results were contradictory or unexpected. In these cases, they try to advance some explanation of why this might be the case.
  • Limitations and further study. Almost all research articles, conclude with the twin pillars of limitations and suggestions for further study. In the limitations portion, researchers identify the strengths of their study but also acknowledge that there are weaknesses as well. They might point to the sample, for instance, as a way of suggesting that their findings are preliminary and will not necessarily generalize to all people. A discussion of the limitations of a study should not be interpreted as invalidating the study. Instead, it is an acknowledgment that science works like a patchwork quilt, with each study providing a simple piece of the overall fabric of knowledge. Researchers typically conclude with a few specific suggestions for further research. If you are interested in a career in research, these statements can be a gold mine of open areas to explore!

In Conclusion

Like any difficult skill, reading psychological science - or any science for that matter - gets easier the more you practice. Learning what is most valuable and what can be passed over saves both time and effort without sacrificing clarity. Once you get the gist of a paper continue on and review the paper in greater depth. Remember, just as an explorer relies on a GPS to find his or her way, you too can rely on the landmarks of any scientific article to keep you on target.


Biswas-Diener, R., & Diener, E. (2001). Making the best of a bad situation: Satisfaction in the slums of Calcutta. Social Indicators Research, 55(3), 329-352.

Cohen, D., Nisbett, R. E., Bowdle, B. F., & Schwarz, N. (1996). Insult, aggression, and the southern culture of honor: An" experimental ethnography." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(5), 945-960.


Noah Jacobson

Noah Jacobson is a psychology and neuroscience major at Grinnell College. He currently works as a research assistant and Peer Educator for Grinnell College’s Department of Wellness and Prevention. He enjoys running, cooking, and spending time in nature.

Robert Biswas-Diener

Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is the senior editor of the Noba Project and author of more than 50 publications on happiness and other positive topics. His latest book is The Upside of Your Dark Side.

Metacognition and the Value of Making Connections

November 6, 2019

By Dia Chatterjee

On making connections:

Students often learn difficult concepts as discrete pieces. These discrete pieces of newly acquired knowledge are important building blocks of learning – so it is a time-honored tradition among students to memorize definitions, focus on breaking down complex systems of ideas into individual components. Unfortunately, for a lot of students, the learning often stops at this point. While this form of learning that rests on reducing the larger whole into its component parts is an important first step in acquiring new knowledge and skills, halting the learning process at this stage is obviously counterproductive to deeper learning. That said, then there are students who are more concerned about understanding why ‘thing A’ relates to ‘thing B’. They often engage in eager attempts to learn the big picture ideas. This form of learning is critical for deeper understanding of concepts, but cannot really occur if the more discrete pieces are glossed over.

A nexus depicting various points of connection that are denoted by a different color to show association
Why should it be ‘either-or’ – on the power of “And”:

The question I had been struggling with was how do we move the needle on helping students maximize on both these tendencies? How do we get them to focus both on the discrete pieces and building integrated network of ideas? How might we show them how the different definitions, topics, and processes described over an entire term connect together? Is there value in highlighting such connections for students? And if so, what form should this take?

For the past two academic terms, I have let my students go on a journey of self-discovery. My instinct told me that students would learn better if they engaged in some meta-cognitive thinking about these ideas independently. I decided to put this intuition to a test by implementing weekly study guides where I asked students to connect the definitions learned each week to materials learned in weeks past, and to their own life experiences outside of the class. This blog is a summary report of what I have seen bloom in my classrooms so far.

Chaotic first few weeks:

I realized that asking students to be intentional about making connections across their learning may have been an easy task in my mind, but to them, my ask did not translate well. During the first few weeks, they kept coming back to me with questions about not really understanding what they should write in their study guides. I would repeat the intentionally vague prompt, asking them to make of it what they could to begin with, reminding them that they would not lose points for exploring their own relationship with the materials taught in classes:

Define two-three concepts that spoke to you from that week’s lectures in your own words. That is, what ideas stimulated your intellectual curiosity? You can attempt to see how various concepts fit into your life/work? What makes them meaningful to you? I believe that which we are curious about, and that which we can apply to our own lives, we learn and retain better.

I had to keep nudging them to keep their eyes open to the fact that “Psychology is all around” them, and that if they really paid attention to the class materials, they will start picking up on the connections that the study guides ask them to make. Even with this framing, and even after explaining the assignment again and again, there were those who took a while to really “get it”.

An image of a brain with multi-color connections inside
Explorations in meta-cognitive thinking:

Then came the weeks where between their writing and my feedback, they start engaging in meta-cognitive practices and approach the “Aha” experience of what we mean by making connections. Different students start adopting different styles of writing about the topics under discussion. I have seen the “objective reviewers” who tell me about the state of the world around them while carefully avoiding sharing how the class materials may impact them, or how they may walk away from concepts enriched. I have seen the “immersed writers” who find it incredibly hard not to connect ideas to their own daily lives and who get steeped in the topics in ways that neither them nor I thought possible. Then there are those who I call the “non-believers” – these are students who are not at all impressed by the format of the study guide, will not buy into its intended purpose no matter how much feedback I give them, and will continue regurgitating their definitions like this were a long-form flash card for each unit. In my own explorations with pedagogy, I have made room for all three of these prototypical responses as I do like to pay heed to individual learning styles.

Journaling and journeying to the “self”:

By the end of the term, students realize how the study of psychology permeates their lives. The study guides I receive after the midterms are rich narratives of their own struggles with the material, and many times, struggles with life itself. In these study guides, outside of just reinforcing the concepts learned in class, what they find are outlets for reflection and journaling. I find that the richer the connections to their own lives and the lives they observe, the more meaningful the class materials get for them. In following such writing strategies, they learn that the materials presented are larger than just discrete definitions to be memorized for a test, instead they have practical significance to the lives they lead. I find them bringing up ideas they learned early in the term and connecting these to the materials they have learned later in the term. They share their unique learning journeys by way of organizing the learning experiences in their own unique ways. For example, to some, the units on brain and nervous system may not have made much of an impact early on in the academic term, but these become pivotal when discussing co-morbidity of disorders.

By-products of taking the by-lanes:

There are some benefits of this approach that are interesting by-products. For example, I had not intentionally created this exercise to enable the shy, quiet, ESL, and/or more introverted students find a voice in the classroom. And yet, what I find is that students who never raise a hand in class when I open the classroom for discussions, submit study guides that are a rich and nuanced connections of ideas. They cite the class discussions in their study guides, and use this as an opportunity to “contribute” to class. As a diversity researcher, it is not lost on me that this form of a pedagogical tool helps me draw out voices that are otherwise lost in the haze of extroverted students or students for whom English is their first language. I describe the highlights of some of the study guides in my opening class each week, making sure that these diverse voices are given the space and time to make an impact on other students.

Image of stick figures depicting people standing in a circle using different color pencils
Another pleasantly surprising by-product of this strategy is that weekly study guides build in a low-stakes writing component. This assignment was not designed to be writing intensive, and the study guides are not graded down for poor writing. However, I share feedback when needed and provide information on APA guidelines. I find that over time, students are able to submit higher quality of writing overall. The non-threatening nature of this assignment helps them open up and realize that writing is just like acquiring any other skill set: creating plenty of opportunities for spaced practice and having a willing mind to learn and absorb are the two first steps to effective skill acquisition.

The feedback from the students is another testament to how well this concept works as an educational tool as they report using this method as a study approach for their other classes as well. Early in the academic term, students express dismay at having to write each week – some agonize over how they cannot understand what to do with this assignment, while others think it just a waste of their time as all they were doing was regurgitating their notes anyway. Then once the assignment starts making sense, they undergo a transformation: they express dismay when a holiday hits or during exam weeks, when they realize that they don’t have to write a study guide for that week. Many insist on turning in their study guides even when none are assigned, and when I ask them why they may want to do more, I get answers that range from: “I retain more this way,” to “I find it more fun to learn about ideas when I can see the connections,” to “I don’t just want to memorize concepts, I want to understand them”. A consistent theme that emerges here is that the value of making connections is not lost on them, and in fact, once properly oriented to appreciate the value of meta-cognitive thinking, they cannot help but engage with learning in this form as it leaves them feeling more enriched.

Image of thought bubbles in different colors

Dia Chatterjee is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Salem State University. She completed her PhD in Organizational Psychology at Michigan State University. Dia’s scholarly interests include identity management and diversity, careers, and creativity. In addition, she has worked with several organizations on issues such as organizational strategy, performance management, organizational change, and assessments. As an Organizational Psychologist, Dia takes a scientist-practitioner approach to both her research and pedagogy. In her classrooms, she focuses on building conditions whereby her students can engage in active learning on (a) how evidence-based practice can benefit from scholarly research in psychology, and (b) how rigorous scholarly research can stem from various organizational problems.