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Experimental Research in Psychology: Methods, Studies & Definition

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  • 0:00 Psychology
  • 0:50 The Scientific Method
  • 4:50 Experimental Procedure
  • 7:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

The field of psychology explores every aspect of what makes us human from our physiology to our emotions tracked across the stages of our lives. In this lesson you will learn about the basic elements of a powerful method of exploration, the experiment.

Psychology

Shannon has a question. She wants to know whether people who are given a list of words will learn them better in a quiet room or in a room with ambient noise, like soft conversations or music. She thinks that they might learn better with ambient noise because they will actively work to try to focus on the words, but how can she prove that?

Psychology is the scientific study of people's thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. Shannon's question about learning is part of psychology. Because psychology is a science, many of its big questions (like 'How do humans learn?') are tested through experiments, or carefully designed procedures to answer a question or test a hypothesis. Let's look closer at experimental research in psychology, including how experiments are performed and what psychologists like Shannon can learn from them.

The Scientific Method

Shannon wants to test her theory that people will learn a list of words better if there's a little ambient noise in the background, instead of a totally quiet room. How could she do this? In psychology, as in other branches of science, experiments are conducted using the scientific method, or the process of answering questions in a systematic way. There are six steps in the scientific method. They are:

1. Ask a question. This is the first step in any type of inquiry. After all, you have to have a question in order to find the answer! In Shannon's case, the question she wants to answer is: 'What type of environment is most conducive to learning?'

2. Do background research. Next, scientists like Shannon want to figure out what research has already been done on the topic and see what they can learn. For example, Shannon read a study that showed that people notice details better when they are actively focusing. Another study that Shannon saw showed that some people work harder to focus when they are in a noisy atmosphere, like a coffee shop, than when they are in a quiet place, like a library. While neither of those studies answer Shannon's question directly, she's starting to get a clearer picture of what might influence learning.

3. Construct a hypothesis. After doing background research, Shannon will want to form a hypothesis, or a reasonable prediction based on available information. For example, based on the studies that Shannon read, she believes that people will learn more words in a room with ambient noise as opposed to a completely silent room. This can be her hypothesis.

4. Test hypothesis with an experiment. Once a hypothesis is formed, it's time to get into the heart of the scientific method: the experiment. We'll go in detail on experimental procedure in a moment, but for now, it's important to know that Shannon will want to test her hypothesis by collecting data. For example, she might give two different groups of people the same word list but put one group in a quiet room and one in a room with ambient noise. She could then test them and see how many words they memorized.

It's often necessary to repeat steps three and four several times. The results of the experiment can lead to the researcher refining or changing his or her hypothesis and doing another experiment.

5. Analyze data and draw conclusions. After an experiment, Shannon needs to analyze the data she collected and draw conclusions about it. For example, after testing her participants to see how well they memorized the words, she will want to compare the average of the two groups and run statistical tests to see if there's a statistically significant difference between the averages.

Let's say that her statistical tests show that the group of people in the ambient noise room has a higher average than the group of people in the silent room. Then Shannon might draw the conclusion that people learn better in a room with ambient noise than in a quiet room.

6. Communicate the results. The last step in the scientific method is to communicate the results of the experiment. This usually involves writing an article about the experiment, including detailed descriptions of how the experiment was done, the statistical analysis and results, and the conclusions.

Of course, the end of the scientific method is usually just the beginning of a new cycle. For example, now that Shannon has her results and conclusions, and she's written an article describing what she's found, she might want to ask a new question. For example, she might start to wonder if the level of ambient noise (loud versus soft) affects how well people learn. This is a question that would start a whole new cycle of the scientific method and lead to a new line of inquiry for her.

Experimental Procedure

As we've seen, there are many things that Shannon must do in order to answer her question of how people learn best. The heart of the scientific method is the experiment, so let's look closer at the important procedures in conducting an experiment.

The first thing that Shannon will want to do is to identify the variables, or elements in the experiment that could change. For example, the environment is one variable because it can be silent or include ambient noise. That is, there is more than one option for the environment, so it's a variable.

Each experiment has two types of variables. The independent variable is a variable that the researcher changes. Shannon chooses whether the room is silent or includes ambient noise, so that is the independent variable.

In contrast, the dependent variable is the variable that changes based on other variables. In Shannon's experiment, the dependent variable is how many words are memorized. It changes depending on whether the person is in a silent room or an ambient room. Because the dependent variable changes based on other variables, it is dependent on them, hence its name.

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