Social Psychology Network

Maintained by Scott Plous, Wesleyan University

2006 Action Teaching Award Winner

SPN Action Teaching Award    The entry below won the 2006 Social Psychology Network Action Teaching Award. Instructors are welcome to use or adapt this material for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given to the award recipient.

For additional details, please see the SPN Action Teaching Award home page.

Winning Entry
Title: Research for Community Action
Submitted by: Lori Rosenthal (Emerson College)
Category: Student assignment, field experience
For students/learners in: Graduate school, college, high school
Objective(s): To teach students about research methodology through research projects that make an important difference to the local community


This field experience is designed to teach research methods by involving students as principal investigators in service learning research projects. Students learn to generate hypotheses, choose appropriate methods, analyze data, and communicate results in APA style. By seeing firsthand how their research helps an organization, students come to appreciate the value of training in research methods.

To illustrate, I will describe four assignments related to my Consumer Psychology class, but the technique can be adapted easily to fit a variety of psychology classes, including courses in community psychology, organizational psychology, social psychology, and research methods. For simplicity, I recommend working with a single organization each academic term. The action teaching examples below include two previous assignments (#1 and #2) and two assignments that I intend to use in the future #3 and #4).

Project #1: Healthy Choices

In this project, I challenged students to design an effective social marketing campaign to encourage campus dining hall visitors to make healthier food choices. Specifically, students:

  • Conducted a literature review and summarized research on factors related to food and exercise choices

  • Conducted a content analysis of health-related mass media messages directed at college-aged consumers

  • Developed and administered a questionnaire to determine which factors were most relevant to dining hall visitors

  • Analyzed the data and selected promotional messages advocating healthy eating and exercise

  • Carried out an experiment to test the effectiveness of their promotional messages (dependent variables included attitude toward the message, intention to follow the recommendation, and recognition of message details)

  • Analyzed the experimental data, considered the implications of their results, evaluated the validity of their methods, and presented their conclusions in an APA-style paper

Project #2: Library Liaisons

A local public library was interested in developing new programs to draw visitors from under-represented members of the community. The library director was specifically interested in discovering why non-library users do not use the library and what kinds of programs might inspire more use. In this project, students:

  • Conducted a literature review and comparative analysis to determine the demographic profile of typical library users and to learn what programs other libraries offer

  • Met with the library director to generate hypotheses and research questions

  • Developed a questionnaire, devised strategies for participant recruitment, and collected data

  • Analyzed data, considered the implications of their results, and evaluated the validity of their research methods

  • Made recommendations to the library director on the basis of their analysis and summarized their conclusions in a report written in APA style

Project #3: Teen Magazine

A community group is concerned about the media images that teenage girls are exposed to, and it has developed and marketed a new magazine to local area girls. The goal of the magazine is to provide healthy, realistic images of young women and to serve as an alternate media option to national women's magazines targeting teenagers. When this project is assigned, students will conduct:

  • A comparative content analysis of the agency magazine and other magazines targeting the same readership

  • A survey to examine readers' attitudes, interests, lifestyle habits, and reactions to the magazine

  • A survey of local area teens to measure awareness and diffusion rates

  • Experimental research to assess the magazine content's impact on self-esteem and/or body image

Project #4: Donor Outreach

A local nonprofit group recently engaged in a successful fundraising campaign for a new building development project. It now wants to determine which aspects of the campaign were most effective, learn how to best approach current and potential donors, and discover ways to identify promising new donors. For this project, students will:

  • Conduct literature reviews on patterns of donations, demographic and psychographic profiles of donors, and success rates for different donation solicitation strategies

  • Use focus groups or questionnaires to generate and test hypotheses about existing donors

  • Develop and test experimental hypotheses comparing different promotional materials and marketing strategies

Assessment of Outcomes

Students evaluated the first two projects, "Healthy Choices" and "Library Liaisons," at the end of the semester during which the project was conducted. Ratings were made on 5-point scales, and both projects were rated highly (see table). In general, students found the projects interesting, recommended using them in the future, felt that the projects helped them understand research methods, and saw value in learning about research.

Student Ratings (on a 5-point scale)Healthy ChoicesLibrary Liaisons
Interesting project4.84.3
Would recommend in future4.84.5
It helped me better understand research methods4.34.1
Learning about research is important and valuable4.24.7

Student performance on certain exam items was also compared between classes that used an action teaching project and those that did not. In this assessment, one essay question asked students to describe an appropriate test for a particular research question, and another asked students to evaluate the validity of a described study. Multiple choice questions covered topics such as the difference between semantic differential and Likert items, the benefits of open vs. closed questions, and the purpose of a content analysis.

A total score from 0 to 14 was computed for each student, and an analysis of variance indicated that students scored slightly higher after the Healthy Choices project (mean = 12.44) than the Library Liaisons project (mean = 11.76), but this difference was not significant (p < . 10). Contrast analyses showed, however, that students in both of these groups significantly outperformed students in a class that did not involve service learning (mean = 9.80, p <. 05 in both contrasts). Thus, action teaching appears to be an effective and engaging way for students to learn about research methods.

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