Key Research & Study Skills in Psychology


Sieglinde McGee

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    To my parents Donard&Ailis


    When I was an undergraduate I got the impression that students were expected to be divinely inspired about many things: how to perform certain tasks on a computer, how to evaluate academic material, how to write university-standard essays and exam answers, how to write reports and how best to study. I was a mature student and had successfully completed two professional qualifications in the years preceding my entry to university. In the almost complete absence of any guidance on how to do these things at university I kept doing what had worked so well in those other courses. My grades were quite good but I had no idea how to improve on them. I was already spending seven days a week in the library often one of the first to arrive in the morning and one of the last to be thrown out at night, so more work was clearly not the answer. I had been nationally-ranked in one set of professional exams so a lack of intelligence was clearly not the answer either. Requests for advice from lecturers were met with unhelpful replies such as ‘study harder’, ‘read more’ and ‘if you were doing something wrong then you would be failing’. The epiphany occurred when, as a doctoral student, I started teaching. There is a simple strategy that, if followed or adapted to suit the individual, can turn those 2:2s and 2:1s into better 2:1s and firsts. It is not about studying harder but about studying smarter.

    It has been my intention to write this book ever since that day and its aim is to share with you the secret to achieving higher grades in psychology. Once you master the techniques you will find that producing essays and exam answers in the upper 2:1 and the first-class range will become the norm.

    Each chapter states aims and learning outcomes and a note on what is expected of you at university level. There are ‘think about this for a moment’ boxes throughout to get you thinking actively about the material. Chapter 1 provides tips on a variety of computer packages and tools. Chapter 2 highlights the difference between note taking and note making, and looks at studying, learning styles, motivation and literature searches. Chapter 3 shows you how to evaluate academic literature. Chapter 4 takes you through the process of writing university-level essays in psychology and includes two full essays for an exercise that should help bring together everything covered within the chapter (see the annotated versions in Appendix 1). Chapter 5 focuses on good writing, Chapter 6 deals with preparing for and doing MCQ and essay exams, while Chapter 7 talks you through the process of designing and conducting research. Chapter 8 deals with writing reports (see the annotated sample in Appendix 2), while Chapter 9 covers the presentation of your research. There are also tips provided throughout the book for students who are studying via distance education or who may have a disability.


    Thank you to all of the students whom it has been my pleasure to work with over the years and a special thank you to three colleagues and dear friends whose tips, comments and feedback throughout the writing process have been so invaluable: Maria Jordan-O'Reilly Maeve Mangaoang and Maria McEvoy.

  • Appendix 1: The Sample Essays from the Exercise in Chapter 4, with Comments1

    Essay 1: The Value of Qualitative Methods in Psychology

    1 These essays are reproduced and annotated with the permission of the author.

    Overall Comment

    This essay reads like something that was slapped together in a hurry to meet the requirement of having to hand in an assignment. There is no evidence that the writer knows anything about qualitative methodologies as s/he never tells us anything about them, how they are used and how they are analysed. Consequently, the writer has been unable to demonstrate the value of the approach and so has produced a very poor essay. The tone is so dismissive of quantitative methods, even though there is not really any indication given of what these are either, that the essay is almost amusing. Does the writer even know what these are? An undergraduate student is supposed to write academic essays, not something that will get a few laughs. The structure of this essay is weak as the introduction does not really introduce the topic clearly or identify a reasoned position that will be defended, the main body of the essay darts all over the place and fails to develop a single point, and there is no concluding section, just a final statement and quip. This essay would probably earn a mark somewhere between 38% to 55%, depending on the generosity and mood of the marker and the level at which the student was studying at the time (e.g. first year).

    Essay 2: Is Nightwork a Hazard to Health?

    The various bodily functions of both human and animals fluctuate in a 24-hour cycle called the diurnal or circadian rhythm (diurnal = daily; circa dies = approximately 1 day) (Kroemer & Grandjean, 1997, p. 259). Under normal circumstances the body has some idea of the time of day by observing various time-keepers or zeitgebers. These time-keepers are regular features of our daily experience which indicate time, for example, changes from light to dark, or social contacts. If all zeitgebers are removed a person automatically shifts to a day spanning somewhere in the region of 22 to 27 hours (Kroemer & Grandjean, 1997; Hawkins, 1987). While this situation is extremely unlikely to crop up in normal daily live, it is important to note this discrepancy in any case. The first scientific reports concerning biological oscillations appeared in the literature more than 200 years ago but since 1950 there has been an acceleration in research in this field, which has results in the creation of a new sub-discipline, chronobiology (Hawkins, 1987, p. 59). By the late 1970s it became clear, for example, that control of a substantial part of the body's rhythms resides in the suprachiasmatic nuclei of the hypothalamus in the brain (Hawkins, 1987, p. 60).

    A typical example of a rhythmic body system is oral temperature. This temperature rises during the day and falls at night. Sleep normally occurs when the temperature is falling and waking occurs when it is rising (Hawkins, 1987, p. 60–61). Various researchers, for example Klein, Wegmann and Hunt (1972), have found that cognitive and psychomotor performance and also reaction times show the same type of peak and dip pattern as that of body temperature. This variation is in addition to any effect from sleep deprivation. Much research has been done on the effect of disturbed sleep. Vigilance and calculation tasks have been shown to be significantly impaired and mood adversely affected, for example, simply by displacing the sleeping period by two to four hours (Taub & Berger, 1973). Despite this it will often be found that the person just transferring to the night shift will launch straight into the job, rather than being given lighter and less responsibility-laden tasks for the first days, until they have had the opportunity to adjust.

    Nightwork is very much a part of modern human living in many parts of the world and it is highly unlikely that the practice will disappear in the foreseeable future. Therefore the task for human factor investigators, employers and psychologists is to be aware of the problems that can be caused by working at night, to find ways to compensate for these problems and difficulties as much as possible and to offer understanding and assistance to any night shift workers who seek help. There is much evidence that points to nightwork being a hazard to health. However, it must be said that the hazardous effects, in terms of long term health of the individual, do not affect all night shift workers. Many of the hazards come from slowed responses, calculation and concentration difficulties and occasional lowering of standards that one experiences while working when the body wants to sleep.

    Adeniran, R., Healy, D., Sharp, H., Williams, J. M. G., et al. (1996). Interpersonal sensitivity predicts depressive symptom response to the circadian rhythm disruption of nightwork. Psychological Medicine, 26(6), 1211–1221.
    Barton, J. (1994). Choosing to work at night: a moderating influence on individual tolerance to shift work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79(3), 449–454.
    Costa, G. (1996). The impact of shift and night work on health. Applied Ergonomics, 27(1), 9–16.
    Hakola, T., Harma, M. I. & Laitinen, J. T. (1992). Relation of age of circadian adjustment to nightwork. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Ergonomics and Health, 18(2), 116–118.
    Hakola, T., Harma, M. I. & Laitinen, J. T. (1996). Circadian adjustment of men and women to nightwork. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Ergonomics and Health, 22(2), 133–138.
    Hawkins, F. H. (1987). Human factors in flight. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
    Klein, K. E., Wegmann, H. M. & Hunt, B. I. (1972). Desynchronisation of body temperature and performance circadian rhythm as a result of outgoing and homegoing transmeridian flights. Aerospace Medicine, 43(2), 119–132.
    Kroemer, K. H. E. & Grandjean, E. (1997). Fitting the task to the human: a textbook of occupational ergonomics (
    5th ed.
    ). London: Taylor & Francis Ltd.
    Kroemer, K. H. E., Kroemer, H. B. & Kroemer-Elbert, K. E. (1994). Ergonomics: how to design for ease and efficiency. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
    Minors, D. S., Healy, D. & Waterhouse, J. M. (1994). The attitudes and general health of student nurses before and immediately after their first eight weeks of nightwork. Ergonomics, 37(8), 1355–1362.
    Mott, P. E., Mann, C., McLoughlin, C. & Warwick, P. (1965). Shiftwork: the social, psychological and physical consequences. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
    Overall Comment

    This is a good essay that shows clear evidence that the writer did her research. Several aspects have been considered and though this has left little room in which to develop each area fully the writer has made a good attempt within the restricted word count. Some more recent studies would have been useful though this essay was written in the late 1990s when access to online databases of journal articles was not as prevalent as it is now, so accessing papers would have been more difficult. There is a clear introduction section that gives some background to the board topic and makes it clear how the paper will proceed. The main body is reasonably well organised and there is a clear concluding section; the final two paragraphs. This essay would most likely have got a 2:1 in the first or second year of an undergraduate degree in psychology, with the specific mark depending on the department's standard or that of the individual marker.

    Appendix 2: A Sample Report, with Comments1

    Title: Gender Differences in Cartoon Appreciation: Beavis & Butthead Rarely Score with the Gals


    3.1Brief Statement of Findings5
    3.2Overall Results5
    3.3Beavis & Butthead6
    3.3.1Quantitative Analysis6
    3.3.2Why They Didn't Like Beavis & Butthead6
    3.4The other Cartoons7
    3.4.1Those with no Significant Gender Difference7
    3.4.2Those with Significant Gender Difference8
    Appendix 1 –The Questionnaire11
    Appendix 2 –Reasons Given for not Liking Beavis & Butthead12

    Cartoons are such a popular form of entertainment for both adults and children alike that there are, in addition to several hours a day on regular television channels (for example, SkyOne), channels dedicated solely to the screening of this animated form of programming (for example, Cartoon Network). Early morning and afternoon slots aimed at younger viewers broadcast a variety of cartoons daily ranging from those featuring action heroes (for example, Johnny Bravo) to ones which centre around animals (for example Tom and Jerry). In recent years there have been created cartoons aimed solely at the adult market and these, for example Beavis & Butthead and South Park, are screened after 10pm at night.


    There were 52 participants (m=24; f=28) with a mean age for males of 25.8 years (range 18–55 years) and of 22.4 years (range 18–53 years) for females. All had completed a minumum of one year of third level education and were selected on this basis (taken as an indication of above average intelligence). They included undergraduates, graduates, postgraduates, and two people who had a PhD.

    The questionnaire was in two parts. The first required the participant to indicate whether familiar or not with each cartoon, to signify whether or not the cartoon was liked, and if not liked, why. Asking participants for their favourite characters was merely to disguise the real question, and this was not used in any analysis. The second part required the participant to rate each cartoon on a five-point scale ranging from Like Strongly to Dislike Strongly. They filled out the questionnaire either on a one-to-one basis on in a classroom setting and there was no reward provided for participation.

    Individual, gender and cartoon means were obtained and a series of t-tests calculated, by hand. Negative comments provided by subjects were also examined.

    Each questionnaire was scored as following:

    • 5 points for Like Strongly, 4 points for Like Somewhat, 3 points for Neither Like Nor Dislike, 2 points for Dislike Somewhat, and 1 point for Dislike Strongly.
    • Subjects only received scores on those cartoons with which they were familiar.
    • A total mean score was calculated for every subject.
    • A total mean score by gender was calculated for each cartoon.
    Brief Statement of Findings

    Overall Results

    Figure 1 Cartoon appreciation mean scores comparing males (dark line) with females (lighter line)

    The mean score over all cartoons was X=3.48 with an overall male mean of X=3.72 (s=.07) and overall female mean of X=3.25 (s=.07).

    Beavis & Butthead

    Table 1 Percentages of each gender who liked and disliked Beavis & Butthead
    1. Like strongly41.670.00
    2. Like somewhat8.3314.29
    3. Dislike somewhat12.5017.86
    4. Dislike strongly29.1757.14
    1 & 2 combined (like)50.0014.29
    3 & 4 combined (dislike)41.6775.00

    The split of male opinion of Beavis & Butthead was fairly even with exactly half liking the cartoon and 41.67 per cent disliking the show. This contrasted with the female of whom just 14.29 per cent responded favourably. Of these, none ticked the Like Strongly category whereas 41.67 per cent of males did tick this category. Indeed one male placed three ticks in the box. In all, 75 per cent of the females indicated their dislike for the cartoon with 57.14 of these ticking Dislike Strongly. One female placed three ticks in this box. The male mean score for Beavis & Butthead was X=3.09 and the female mean score was X=1.72 (t=3.02, df=45, p<.01).

    Why They Didn't like Beavis & Butthead

    A total of 20 females and 10 males gave comments as to why they disliked Beavis & Butthead. The overall trend of the female reponses was that the cartoon is stupid, vulgar, boring, annoying, irritating, unfunny and one which is designed for teenage boys. Those who elaborated on why they found the cartoon irritating focused on the constant chuckling of the two boys – throughout the entire cartoon Beavis chuckles heh-heh in a high-pitched voice while Butthead chuckles huh-huh in a deeper voice. The overall female negative opinion of the cartoon can best be summed up by the comment of one 44-year-old who said “appeals to puerile adolescent male behaviour which it glamorises”.

    The 10 males who commented negatively did so in a largely similar vein to the females though none commented to the effect that it was designed for teenage boys. The constant chuckling was mentioned by several while the vulgarity of the cartoon was also noted. It was also described as being unfunny and annoying. One described the cartoon as being “gross” while another responded by using one of the many catch-phrases from the show “it sucks, huh-huh”. One additional male who liked the cartoon also had a comment to add: “toilet humour – universal!”

    The other Cartoons

    Table 2 t-tests and probability figures for the non-significant cartoons
    Those with Significant Gender Differences

    In addition to the target cartoon Beavis & Butthead, two other cartoons showed a significant gender difference, Roadrunner (t=3.55, df=50, p<.001) and The Simpsons (t=2.73, df=47, p<.01).

    For Roadrunner, 14 males ticked Like Strongly, 7 Like Somewhat, and only 3 did not like the cartoon. All males were familiar with the cartoon. All 28 females were familiar with the cartoon but only 17 liked it (8 Strongly), 3 were ambivalent and 8 did not like it (3 Strongly). This produced an 18.4 per cent difference in the gender means.

    For The Simpsons, 22 males and 27 females were familiar with the cartoon. Of the males 18 ticked Like Strongly 2 ticked Like Somewhat, 2 were ambivalent and none disliked the cartoon. Of the females 13 ticked Like Strongly, 6 Like Somewhat, 1 was ambivalent and 7 disliked the cartoon (4 Strongly). This produced a 20.1 per cent difference in the gender means.


    The finding that males have a significantly more favourable view of the cartoon Beavis & Butthead than females, was as expected though the significant differences found for Roadrunner and The Simpsons were a surprise. Expectations with regard to Beavis & Butthead were founded both on personal observations, casual conversation, and on the afore mentioned studies by Derks and Arora (1993) and Hemmasi et al. (1994). The humour in the cartoon comes almost entirely from sexist behaviour and language and from toilet-humour, and these earlier studies have shown that females appreciate this type of humour less often than males.

    As to the factors leading to the significant gender difference found for both Roadrunner and The Simpsons one can only speculate. “Boring” and “repetitive” were two adjectives that females applied to Beavis & Butthead and these can certainly be applied to Roadrunner also. The plot of every episode is the same; the coyote tries in vain to catch the roadrunner, instead getting himself blown-up by his own explosives, run over by large vehicles, or flattened by a series of large slabs of rock.

    The Simpsons is a television sitcom centred on an ordinary family living in an ordinary town somewhere in America. The father, the hopelessly lazy and incompetent Homer Simpson, is the safety officer at the local nuclear power plant, run by Montgomery Burns and his gay assistant Waelyn Smithers. Homer's ten-year-old son Bart is a town bad boy, in a harmless sort of way. Eight-year-old Lisa is top of her class and driven to succeed academically, while her infant sister Maggie has yet to speak and does little other than fall over and suck on her soother. Wife Marge Simpson holds the family together. The cartoon also focuses on the lives of a number of the locals. With regular sitcoms so popular amongst women, it is hard to understand why The Simpsons should find so little favour.

    Derks, P. & Arora, S. (1993). Sex and salience in the appreciation of cartoon humor. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 6(1), 57–69.
    Hemmasi, M., Graf, L. A. & Russ, G. S. (1994). Gender-related jokes in the workplace: sexual humor or sexual harassment? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 24(12), 1114–1128.
    Overall Comments

    This is a fairly good report and the original did have the appendices attached correctly. It also had a funny full-colour front cover. Of course every major section started on a new page in the printed report! There are only two references and that would not be acceptable in an undergraduate report submitted today. However, at the time this report was written the internet was a new phenomenon for the general public and the only computerised access to journal articles that the author had was a DOS-type database of abstracts; these were the only two relevant studies that could be accessed at that time and under those circumstances. A similar report, written now, would have to include a much longer list of citations. The introduction and discussion sections are also very short but there would have been a strict word count imposed on the assignment. The procedure section is not presented in the correct format and the results section's parts are in the wrong order. Different departments have different approaches to grading lab reports with some awarding a mark based on overall impression and some awarding marks for every little thing, such as ‘stated the IV and DV, 2 marks’. This report would earn a mark of 60–75%, depending on the grading system being implemented and the year in which the student was based.


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