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“Utilizing Experimental Software to Enhance Undergraduate Research Experiences” By: Megan K. Littrell-Baez, Ph.D. Psychology Department

Undergraduate students are always looking for more ways to engage in “high-impact” learning experiences. I recently developed a course titled “PSYCH 450: Guided Research in Learning and Memory” intended to serve this purpose. The course afforded undergraduate psychology students a new opportunity to experience the research process in a group setting. This experience is complementary to the currently available PSYCH 490 course in which students work directly with a faculty member on a research project. The specific learning objectives for the course, offered during Spring 2012, were as follows:

 

1) To gain in-depth knowledge on a topic within Cognitive Psychology with a special emphasis on the Psychology of Learning and Memory.

2) To develop professional skills necessary for research in psychology through participating in hands-on training in the creation of experimental materials, engaging in discussions of current research, conducting an experiment, and presenting the research in a formal poster.

3) To engage in an in-depth research experience guided by a faculty member.

What an exciting endeavor for the students! Psych 450 students began their research experience by forming two “research teams” that they worked with for the entire semester. As a team they engaged in small-group discussions, developed research materials, and conducted an experiment. As a class, we read and discussed several research articles focused on topics within the psychology of learning and memory. Through this process, the students began to gain a clear understanding of why and how their team’s study could potentially explain a specific cognitive phenomenon.

 

Prior to teaching the course, I applied for a Teaching Enhancement Grant (TEG) so that I could purchase a specialized research software package for the students to use in class. This software package, E-Prime 2.0, is often used by social scientists to create experiments that involve the presentation of visual and auditory stimuli. The software package also includes components that may be used for data collection and analysis. I held training sessions in class during which the students learned how to use E-Prime to create experimental programs, collect data, and organize and interpret the data. Furthermore, each team had the opportunity to use this software to run participants in an actual research study.

 

At the end of the semester, each research team worked with me to analyze the data they had collected. Each team organized their project in a poster that was presented at the annual Students Engaged in Artistic and Academic Research (SEARCH) symposium.  After SEARCH, the students completed a final writing assignment, reflecting on their experiences in PSYCH 450. Their responses suggested that the course provided them with a rewarding experience. Below are some sample quotes from the students:

 

“This class was interesting in compared to other classes because it allowed us to ‘Learn by doing’, in that instead of learning through the traditional lecture format where information is largely second or third hand, we got to actually see what we were talking about in action and gain skills in the process.”

“By allowing students to gain first-hand, experience with research processes provides a unique set of tools for psychology students.”

“The most interesting and exciting part of this course was the collaboration.  I really enjoyed working with my group and meeting new people.  At the same time, it was really exciting to get the results, even if they were not what we wanted to see.  I liked making the poster and presenting at SEARCH, and I really hope I will be able to do that again in the future.”

“I feel extremely grateful that I was able to be a part of this class for its ‘pilot’ run. I enjoyed doing hands-on work in the realm of learning and memory, which I have always found to be fascinating…It has been an excellent catalyst as an introduction to the world of research without feeling overwhelmed or overly pressured.”

Overall, I am confident that this was a great experience for the students, and they will benefit not only from their experience collaborating on and conducting a research study, but also from gaining training for a software package that they might not have had access to otherwise. I would like to thank FaCET for the TEG and the opportunity to engage students in an exciting learning and research opportunity!

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