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How important is our terminology?

sue_frantz
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My Intro Psych students, on the whole, are able to design a pretty good study when given a hypothesis. They describe using a control group and one or more experimental groups. They describe holding everything constant except for the independent variable. They describe the use of one or more dependent variables. Where they most often falter is in applying the labels. For our non-psychology majors, how important is it that students be able to say what the independent variable is? Even for our psychology majors, the world won’t end if after Intro Psych they can’t yet apply the correct label to the independent variable. It not like we keep our psych majors from taking Research Methods if they missed the research methods questions on their first Intro Psych exam. By the end of Research Methods, they should have the differences between independent variable and dependent variable down solid, but it might even be possible to pass Methods without having a solid grasp of which is which. I bet a psych major could even earn a BA degree in psych without doing better than chance on identifying the independent variable and dependent variable.

I’m nearing the end of revising an Intro Psych textbook. For the last 12 chapters, my brilliant wife has been my in-house editor. We’ve been together almost 25 years. She’s heard a lot of psychology during that time. Reading this textbook, she’s learned even more (as have I in writing it). Periodically, she will say, “Oh! That’s that thing where <description of concept>.” Last week, she perfectly described the tragedy of the commons applying it to something she had just read in a non-psychology source, but she couldn’t come up with the name “tragedy of the commons.” I confess that it took my brain a minute to dig through my mental files to come up with the term.

For Intro Psych, I think of my neighbors as my audience. Many of my neighbors have bachelor’s degrees in something other than psychology. Looking at how many college students take Intro Psych, it’s likely that most of my neighbors took the course. As we all know, our writing and speaking has to be geared to our audience to be most effective. When I think about my Intro Psych audience, I think about my neighbors—people who will go into careers like healthcare, business, engineering, and social work. What do they need to know about psychology?

This brings me to my terminology crisis. Which is more important? That my Intro Psych students/neighbors can design a decent experiment? Or that they can accurately label the independent variable and dependent variable? Is it more important they can identify a novel example of the tragedy of the commons? Or that they can accurately label the example as the tragedy of the commons?

When I gave multiple choice tests, most of the questions were about accurately labeling. I didn’t do that because I gave deep thought to what my multiple choice questions should be testing. I did it because that’s how I was tested, that’s how my colleagues tested, and those were the bulk of the questions in the test bank. If everyone is testing for knowledge of terminology, then I must test for knowledge of terminology, too. (Is it more important that I recognize this as an example of going along with the group or that I can accurately label it “conformity”?)

Here’s an example of testing for concept knowledge, rather than terminology knowledge.

In a city, the roads are a shared resource. As individuals, we have a choice to drive (or take some other individualized transportation, such as a cab/Uber/Lyft) to work (adding to air pollution) or to take public transportation (not adding to air pollution). What does psychology predict that people are most likely to do?

  1. Drive (or take some other individualized transportation) without consideration for what is good for all of us. “If I drive, I won’t be adding much air pollution.”)
  2. Take public transportation because it is for the good of all of us. (“If I take the bus, I won’t be adding more air pollution.”)

For those who can’t quite give up terminology altogether, tack this question on at the end.

For ¼ point extra credit, what is the name of the concept that describes this? _________

Here’s another example.

A researcher hypothesizes that students who take tests in hot rooms will score more poorly on the test. Which research design would be best for testing this hypothesis?

  1. Give students a test in a hot room and see how they score.
  2. Ask students if they would prefer to take a test in a hot room or a comfortable room. Put those who prefer a hot room in a hot room and those who prefer a comfortable room in a comfortable room. Give all students the same test and see how they score.
  3. Ask students if they would prefer to take a test in a hot room or a comfortable room. Put those who prefer a hot room in a hot room and those who prefer a comfortable room in a comfortable room. Give the hot room students a difficult test and the comfortable room students an easy test. See how they score.
  4. Randomly divide students into two groups. Put one group in a hot room and another group in a comfortable room. Give all students the same test and see how they score.
  5. Randomly divide students into two groups. Put one group in a hot room and another group in a comfortable room. Give the hot room students a difficult test and the comfortable room students an easy test. See how they score.

For ¼ point extra credit, identify the independent variable in this example. ___________

For ¼ point extra credit, identify the dependent variable in this example. ___________

Currently, my Intro Psych students take open-note, open-book, take-at-home essay tests of a sort. In looking through my questions, for about half of them, I have an expectation that my students will be able to wrestle with the terminology and accurately apply it. My students aren’t expected to memorize the terms, but I do expect them to go from definition to application. Is it because it’s really necessary? Or is it out of my own convenience? For example, in one question in the learning chapter, I give students four examples, and ask students to identify the schedule of reinforcement. It’s much easier for me to score whether “fixed ratio” is correct, than it is to score “reinforcement after a set number of responses.” Although, in the end, what I really want is for a student to remember years later is something like, “I want to exercise more. I’m going to put a quarter in the jar for every 2,500 steps. I can only use jar money at the coffee shop.” If they don’t remember that this is a fixed ratio reinforcement schedule, I’m okay with that. If I’m okay with that for years later, it seems like I should be okay with it while they’re in the course.

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award . She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed.