Have students read and critique a research article

Have students read and critique a research article. If the class (or lab) size is under 35, have students present their critiques orally, following handout 4.1. (Remind students that, if they are having trouble thinking of questions to ask about a research study's methodology,  Appendix C will  help them).

Stress that a key aspect of students' future career may include interpreting data; translating journal articles into a form that their superiors or co-workers can understand; or thinking about ways of applying the latest findings obtained by basic researchers.

Because students lack experience in critiquing articles and because some think that published research can't be criticized ("It's published and someone from Harvard wrote it; nothing could be wrong with it"), we model the desired behavior (presenting and criticizing an article) before giving students a chance.

An easy way to start would be to have students critique the internal, construct, and external validity of  a study referenced in the text, such as

Pennebaker, J. W., Dyer, M. A., Caulkins, R. S., Litowitz, D. L., Ackerman, P. L., Anderson, D. B., & McGraw, K. M. (1979). Don't the girls get

       prettier at closing time: A country and western application to psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 5, 122-125.

To make the assignment more manageable, have students hand in the following handout.

Another gentle way to introduce students to read research is to have them read student research from the Psi Chi Journal of Undergraduate Research (articles are available for free online from here). For specifics about how to have students critique articles from that journal, see the following excellent article:

Sego, S. A., & Stuart, A. E. (2016). Learning to read empirical articles. Teaching of Psychology, 43, 38-42.

Alternatively, you could start students off by critiquing second-hand accounts of research and then move on to reviewing actual journal articles. A good source of how to do this is

Connor-Greene, P. A. (1993). From the laboratory to the headlines:

Teaching critical evaluation of press reports of research.
Teaching of Psychology, 20, 167-169.

When introducing students to reading articles, we often have students read a second-hand description of the research first. Then, they read the actual article. For sources of second-hand descriptions of recent research, you could go to the "APS Members In the News..." section of the APS Observer. Each month, that section cites about 50 research-related news stories. Each citation lists the psychologist's name and affiliation, the name of the publication/broadcast and a brief description of the topic. If you don't subscribe to the APS Observer, you can still whet students' appetites for recent research by having them read a press release about an article from the APS Media Center.
Alternatively, you could go to the "Behavior" section of the magazine "Science News".

One example of the value of criticizing and replicating research is the history of learned helplessness research. Initially, researchers performed direct replications to verify the original findings. Then, researchers performed systematic replications using noise rather than shock to make sure that the rat's freezing wasn't merely an adaptive response to minimize the effects of shock. Later work, focused on searching for physiological mediators and correlates of helplessness, as well as systematic replications that extended the work to humans. Early studies on humans involved having subjects getting their hands shocked. Later, systematic replications looked at inducing and measuring learned helplessness through cognitive tasks (anagrams). Eventually, research looked for cognitive mediators of helplessness (assessing the attributions that helpless subjects make), ways of preventing helplessness, the strategies people who are less vulnerable to helplessness (optimists) use, and the effects of adopting an optimistic strategy. Besides being an interesting program of research, a beautiful wrinkle in this history is that you could introduce Seligman's initial findings as a failure to systematically replicate Brady's executive monkey research which "found" that monkeys who could control whether they got shocked had more ulcers and were more dysfunctional than yoked controls (the yoked controls got the same shocks as the "executive" monkeys, but had no ability to stop the shocks). Emphasize to students that the executive monkey research was flawed because monkeys were not randomly assigned to condition (executive or powerless yoked control).

Supplement your discussion of reading articles by going over Handout4.2, which emphasizes that reading articles requires re-reading and critical thinking. Useful references include:

Fiske, D. W. & Fogg, L. (1990). But the reviewers
are making different criticisms of my paper!

Diversity and uniqueness in reviewer comments.

American Psychologist, 45, 591-598.

Suter, W. N. & Frank, P. (1988). Using scholarly
journals in undergraduate experimental methodology

courses. In Ware, M. E. & Brewer, C. L. (Eds.).

Handbook for teaching statistics and research

methods. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

If you want students to do a literature review, discuss:

Beaman, A. L. (1991). An empirical
comparison of meta-analytic and traditional reviews.

Personalityand Social Psychology Bulletin, 17,


Of particular interest is Table 1, which lists some characteristics of a good literature review.

Susan Cloninger (who, in addition to teaching research methods, is the author of Theories of Personality: Understanding Persons published by Prentice-Hall) has some valuable tips from her experiences in having students read research:

  1. Make sure students realize that they are to use a journal rather than a magazine.
  2. Tell students to make sure that the article contains participants, method, and discussion sections.
  3. Encourage students to select an article that was cited in text or mentioned in lecture so that they have a general sense of what the article was about before they start to read it.
  4. Emphasize that the Abstract summarizes the article. If they can understand the Abstract, they have some understanding of the article.
  5. Consider assigning students a family of articles (e.g., assign each of five students a different article from a journal issue devoted to a special topic or assign them each a different article from the same author on the same topic (e.g., Latane's work on social loafing). Assigning families of articles allows students to work together so that they can overcome their limited background in the content area. In addition, it maximizes the chances that each student's oral report should be understandable and useful to at least some of the other students.
  6. Review the main reasons why statistics are computed and what p values mean. Then, tell students that their main job is to know why the statistic was computed and what the basic outcome of the test was.
  7. Even if the results section doesn't make any sense to them, the main results should be summarized at the beginning of the discussion. Therefore, they may get the gist of the results section by reading the discussion section.

Back to Chapter Main Menu