Plug-and-Play Modules for Teaching Scientific Reasoning Skills in Intro Psych

Posted January 4, 2018

By Raechel Soicher


“Correlation is not causation.”

You know it. I know it. If we’re lucky, our students can at least parrot the phrase back to us at the end of the term.

But you and I also know the subtleties underlying this statement. We understand reverse causality and the third variable problem. We know that random assignment and a control group are critical elements for making claims of causality. We know how to look at a figure or table and make inferences about the type of research conducted. We can draw tentative conclusions tempered by the limitations inherent in the methodology used.

A parrot quoting the famous phrase, "Correlation is not causation".

And yet, while our students jump at the chance to tell us “correlation is not causation”, do they really know what it means? They typically understand that there are different types of research and we shouldn’t make any bold causal claims from the results of most of them. But they aren’t usually able to identify research methodology from a real-world example. They tend to try to identify independent variables in observational or correlational research. They confuse random sampling and random assignment. And while they’re busy getting confused in the details, they’re also missing out on applying scientific thinking to real-world examples and to topics that are relevant and interesting to them. They’re missing the bigger picture of being a critical consumer of information. They’re unable to tap into skills that will help them to better understand the world around them.

So, if you’re like me, you’ve likely spent an inordinate amount of time tweaking your teaching - choosing a different textbook that describes research methods better, emphasizing learning objectives related to scientific thinking in your syllabus, creating class assignments that help students practice scientific content and thinking. And, if you’re like me, you’ve been frustrated by the seeming lack of results that comes from modifying your teaching over and over again. So the gist of this post is that I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news. The bad news is that we’ve got a long way to go. The good news is that I’m about to introduce some teaching modules that have been shown to improve students’ scientific reasoning skills.

What are these magical modules?

In brief, the “Intro Psych Scientific Reasoning Modules” are a set of 8 independent classroom activities that can be used throughout the course of a regular introductory psychology class.

There are a few really great things about these modules:

  • They are about topics relevant to students. From distracted driving to study habits, from the relationship between sleep and academic success to naturopathic treatments for depression, each of the modules helps students understand that psychological science has interesting, real-world applications.
  • The modules are designed around one or more published scientific studies. We don’t always have to use made-up examples to help students understand research. Which is great because only real research studies come with the requisite messiness that helps students grow more comfortable with ambiguity and the gray areas that accompany most scientific explorations.
  • These modules are truly “plug-and-play” - they come with everything you could need to implement them immediately. This includes an instructor guide (complete with APA Guidelines 2.0 Objectives and a section at the end specific to GTAs and others new to teaching), PowerPoint slides, and student handouts. Just spend half an hour or so reviewing the materials before you want to use them in class and you should be ready to go.
  • The modules address a wide range of scientific reasoning skills including reading graphs and tables, making predictions, identifying variables, designing studies, and drawing conclusions.

A sample bar graph from the learning modules described in this post.
This figure appears in the “Methods” module which asks students to critically evaluate Karpicke and Blunt’s (2011) comparison of two study methods (practice retrieval and elaborative encoding) on test performance.

How do we know they work?

These modules were originally designed as a collaboration between Dr. Kathryn A. Becker-Blease at Oregon State University and Dr. Courtney Stevens and Dr. Melissa R. Witkow at Willamette University. This work was funded by the National Science Foundation DUE # 105060. In two separate, published studies, Dr. Stevens and Dr. Witkow tested the use of the modules in both community college and liberal arts college classrooms (see citations at end). In the first study, students in two sections of Intro Psych at Willamette University received instruction with a single module during their regular term. On their final exam, students answered data-based reasoning questions similar to those now on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). Students in the experimental sections performed better on MCAT questions than students in two control sections not receiving the modules. In a second study, the modules were similarly tested in classrooms at both 4-year and 2-year institutions. Again, students receiving the modules performed better on scientific reasoning outcome measures. Currently, Dr. Becker-Blease and her colleagues at Oregon State University are preparing evaluation data from large sections at a public university for publication. Spoiler alert: the results are favorable.

Anything else we should know?

Overall, researchers have found that implementing these modules in a wide variety of real college classrooms - large or small, 4-year or 2-year, seasoned instructors or graduate teaching assistants - is both feasible and effective for improving students’ scientific reasoning skills. More recently, the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP) funded a project to make these modules accessible to students with visual impairments. As a result of this generous Instructional Resource Award, a set of modules now exists complete with alt-tags, figure descriptions, and digital files for printing tactile graphs - everything a student with visual impairments would need to learn the same skills as our sighted students. Tactile graphs can be easily printed with a SwellForm printer - something most Disability Access offices already own (ask at your institution!). And, if your school doesn’t have this nifty machine, the School of Psychological Science at Oregon State University has some copies of the tactile graphs to be loaned out. Just email me.

How do I get these magical modules?

You can access all of the materials for the modules, including a “How-To” file at Yes, it’s that easy. The accessible materials are still under review, but you can request access by sending me an email ([email protected]). All modules are under a creative commons license which allows you to copy, remix, and distribute for any purpose.

Suggested Reading

Stevens, C. & Witkow, M.R. (2014). Training scientific-thinking skills: Evidence from an MCAT-aligned classroom module. Teaching of Psychology, 41(2), 115-121.

Stevens, C., Witkow, M.R., & Smelt, B. (2016). Strengthening scientific reasoning skills in Introductory Psychology: Evidence from community college and liberal arts classrooms. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 2(4), 245-260.


Raechel N. Soicher, M.A. is currently a PhD student at Oregon State University, focused on translating cognitive laboratory science to psychology classrooms. She has been teaching psychology for almost 10 years, cycling through all roles - adjunct, tenure-track professor, and now GTA. Raechel has a long history of working to improve psychology students’ outcomes and advocating for instructors at community college. As a member of the APA Graduate Student Science Committee, she works to bring attention to the role of pedagogical research in the larger field of psychological science. She can be reached via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @rnsoicher