|Compiled by:||Jurek Kirakowski
|Version and date:||Version 1.0, October, 2006|
|Questions and comments to:||Jurek Kirakowski: email@example.com|
This set of questions and answers came from an idea to put together all the questions we kept on hearing from students in the first year practicals at Applied Psychology in UCC - and to supply some answers! Of course this does not mean we don't like people asking questions (that is: we do like people asking questions) and no doubt many students will have their own slant on the questions summarised here. But at least it tells us the teachers and demonstrators which are the best answers and it might give our students a pause for thought. If you find this list useful for other courses and at other universities, please refer to it with our compliments, but do attribute authorship to us. Give the URI rather than copying: this list may change as the years roll by. We welcome correspondence on this topic.
You have to say, within 200 words, what branch of psychology the work fits into, what hypotheses did you test, who were your subjects, what did they do, your result, and your conclusion. That’s about 30 words for each of those. Each is equally important and don’t forget also that any outstanding feature of your work should also appear in the abstract.
The test – is it a good abstract? – can be done by reading only your abstract, and asking yourself, have I put in enough to let someone who will only read this abstract understand what is so special about my work.
Don’t put in references or statistics unless they are very important.
...which should lead naturally to a statement of objectives or hypotheses.
From this you should be able to see that review articles and summary chapters in books are usually already one step away from being primary sources – unless they themselves are written by extremely eminent practitioners or writers with a deep insight into the area they are summarising they tend to sound a bit grey and boring.
Perhaps lowest on the scale of transmission are sections in introductory textbooks, magazine articles, and gossip pieces on the internet. In these, the original ideas of the creators have become so transformed, simplified and edited that they are in danger of becoming a tasteless mishmash.
To this end, the use of ‘I’ and ‘we’ is avoided. If something is agelessly true, then the personal has no place in it. Write in the third person, describing and detailing what you have done objectively, in a detached way.
Professional style does not make grandiose claims or try to persuade the reader by adding words. The reader should be able to deduce for themselves from your description that the work was ‘precise’, ‘meticulous’ and that the results are ‘interesting’ and the conclusions ‘breath-taking.’ In fact, in order to show the robustness of your claims, you should attempt to under-state them – not in the sense of making light of them or trivialising them, but by stating the facts and implications soberly and without exaggeration.
Professional style does not lie, mislead, or exaggerate. Everybody else should be able to trust what you have written (interpretation is another thing!)
Professional style may be terse but it should never be dry. It delivers its kicks by giving the reader the ‘pure drop.’
The short answer is, put in as much or as little that will allow the reader to follow this ‘golden thread’ through your report. All questions of detail, raw data, computations (if they are necessary) go into the appendices. In the body of the report show enough of these so-called exhibits to give the reader a flavour of what you have done or discovered.
Take particular care that you do show enough information in the body of the report to shed light on your hypothesis/es. The reader must be able to follow your reasoning as they read the report; they will only look into the appendices if they have doubts on some points, or want to explore something in detail, possibly following a side-line of their own.
In psychology (and most science, actually) these Independent Variables are talked about in a sort of abstract way – ‘humour’, ‘memory’, ‘intelligence.’ But you can’t do science with these abstract things. You have to make them concrete. So measuring ‘humour’ can be defined concretely for example as counting the number of times a Subject laughs while reading the stimulus materials. ‘Memory’ can be measured as the number of stimulus digits the Subject correctly reports in their right place. A measurement of ‘intelligence’ may be defined as the score on a particular test. Thus these abstract qualities become defined as observable things the Subject does and the Experimenter observes. Transforming from abstract to concrete is called ‘operationalisation.’
Formally speaking, Operationalisation is the process of describing our Independent Variables in terms of the operations one has to do to measure them.
Dependent Variables are behaviours of the Subjects which are said by scientific logic to depend on the Independent Variables. They are sometimes also known as ‘outcome variables.’
The page numbering of the Bibliography and Appendices follows on from the report.
In the body of the report refer simply to “Appendix 1.” It should be clear from the context of what you write what the reader should expect to find in the appendix you refer to.
If you are including an appendix you do not refer to in the work, ask yourself, do you need it (you may have to write in a specific reference somewhere to justify its existence or just ditch the appendix!)
Nothing to say about a table or figure? Then either make sure you do, or leave it out!
You may add in extra analysis of data; other published research that sheds light on your findings; criticisms of your method (but don’t forget also to defend your choice of methods by comparing them to the adequacy of other researcher’s methods and their results!)
A good discussion starts with a consideration of the findings such as they are, and leads the reader to an opening out of the problem domain, showing what has been achieved and what should be tackled next.
If you are referring to something you have only read about, like Freud (1910) then do Freud (1910) in the body of the text, but in the references you write “Freud, S., (1910) (title and publisher etc.) Cited in: Wig, W., and Wonk, W., (1975) What Freud did wrong. Basock Books, Requiem, Mass.”
Go on… read Freud! It’s called education. Plus then you can cite him directly.
Each Appendix should start on a new page with the title at the top of the starting page.
An experimental ‘condition’ may be one or more trials. It is defined as a ‘unique combination of independent variables.’ Things are usually so arranged that there is a small number of summary statistics which each subject gives as the result of participating in each experimental condition. For instance, a condition may have ten trials, each of which gives one data item. The condition data for one Subject may be their average over all ten trials.
Undergraduates are such special people that it is difficult to think of an example of a characteristic which is distributed truly randomly in a sample of them, that is, in the same way that it is distributed in the rest of sufferin' humanity. Memory, attention, personality, intelligence… all these are characteristics which we may expect to find differently distributed. Even height and weight may be differently distributed in a sample of undergraduates!
An ‘ad hoc’ sample is a sample of individuals which we have just found and put together, not making too many claims for their representativeness of the general population to which we aspire to generalise. The term ‘ad hoc’ has a slightly pejorative ring, which reminds us continually as scientists where we should be setting our sights.
The term ‘statistically significant’ is a technical term which implies that some data has been analysed using difference testing methodology, and that it has had its probability of happening by chance evaluated, and that the probability is 5% at the very most that a finding like that can occur by chance.
Do not mistake statistical significance for significance. And do not say something is statistically significant when you have not carried out the difference testing on it.
A statistically significant finding may, in the great scheme of things, be extremely insignificant; and conversely it may well be significant that you have handed up eight reports this year, none of which is statistically significant.
In statistics, this word has a special technical meaning, as does the word ‘population.’
A normally-distributed population (or, loosely, a ‘normal population’) is a set of numbers, perhaps extremely large if not infinitely so, from which one can compute two parameters (the mean, and the standard deviation) and from which two parameters, and those only, the entire shape of that population distribution can be predicted (using an ingenious formula called the ‘normal distribution equation.’)
It must be added hastily that this is an ideal: no empirically derived collection of numbers has ever been known to fall into precisely a normal distribution pattern (although some come extremely close!)
Samples are accidents that have happened. Although with large enough samples we might hope that their distribution approaches that of the population distribution, it is extremely fortuitous if it should do so. Normally distributed populations can yield the most abnormally-distributed samples. And yet in science, samples are simply signposts to populations.
Good communication is a continuous process of refinement where you clarify for yourself what that precious golden thread is, and where you try to present it to others in its arresting purity. Because you are communicating in the medium of writing, the best way to develop this golden thread is by writing, reviewing, and refining. It's never too early to start writing. The secret is, knowing when to stop.
All professional communication is difficult. Writing papers for journals and presenting papers at conferences is difficult. Writing an FAQ is difficult. There are many books which give you good advice and show you the technicalities of writing. But in the end, it is between you and your reader.
Refine that golden thread.
JK, October, 2006