Thinking like a Psychological Scientist

Posted January 3, 2018

By Erin I. Smith

Conversations about science, overheard in the hallway: “It’s just a theory, scientists haven’t proven that [what I believe is wrong]”, followed shortly by, “well, new research proves that [what I believe] is right.”

Sound familiar? As an instructor, I have had multiple experiences of students dismissing a well-accepted scientific theory because of personal beliefs or the over-extension of scientific research that is still ongoing. Perhaps you have had these experiences, too.

An illustration depicting a man with a digital information tidal wave of 1s and 0s about to break over his head.
[Image: Mark Smiciklas,, CC BY-NC 2.0,]
We live at a time in history when people have access to more information than ever before, a time where a simple internet search can yield millions of conflicting results in a fraction of a second. Yet the quantity of information does not address the quality of that information. In an era where science and pseudoscience can be packaged similarly, it’s increasingly important for students to develop the skills required to differentiate these claims.

With these challenges in mind I’ve authored a new module for Noba called Thinking like a Psychological Scientist. The module is designed as an introduction to the qualities of scientific thinking and theories that make science a trustworthy way to answer questions about the world, even if the claims are never proven. The module tackles concepts from the makings of a good scientific theory to null-hypothesis significance testing to the role of the scientist as an active participant in the scientific process. The goal of this module is to help students understand why science is a valuable tool in knowledge—even though its claims are based on probability—and how that knowledge is derived. For example, I spend some time in the module discussing how a researcher can interpret research results. When the data support their hypothesis, has the hypothesis been proven? When the data do not support their hypothesis—or are even in the opposite direction of the hypothesis!—does that mean that the hypothesis has been disproven? No! After any of these circumstances, there are a number of important questions that researchers, and their peer-reviewers, will ask. I spend some time on these different outcomes to help students understand research in context.

Although the module is primarily conceptual (rather than a practical how-to of research), I believe it can complement a variety of classroom goals. For example, it can be used at an introductory level to lay the foundations to the methods of scientific thinking. It could also be used at a more advanced level, as instructors guide their students in identifying and applying these concepts to real research. Throughout the Instructor Manual and PowerPoint presentation that accompany the module, I have highlighted various optional activities that can be removed for a basic introduction or used to enhance more advanced students understanding of these concepts. You’ll also be happy to know that for this module instructors have access to test questions, an adaptive student quiz, and a reading anticipation guide

It is my goal that this module will not just be another piece of information; I hope that you will find the module useful in your instruction and in the formation of your students as developing scientific thinkers. I invite you to check out Thinking like a Psychological Scientist, give your feedback on it, and consider recommending it to your colleagues whose students may also benefit from its use.


Erin I. Smith is Associate Professor of Psychology at California Baptist University. She earned her PhD in Developmental Psychology at the University of California, Riverside. She was recently a visiting scholar in science and religion with SCIO (Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford) and currently serves as the director for the Center for the Study of Human Behavior at CBU. Her research focuses on the psychological processes that influence how individuals engage in the science-religion dialogue, especially as related to science rejection, and the empirical measurement of the effectiveness of church ministries for children.