Teaching Resources

Teaching Students in Introductory Psychology Courses to Critically Evaluate Scientific Claims

Resource Overview

Graduate Student blog post about her experience conducting a SoTL project

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Eric Fournier

Eric Fournier

Director of Educational Development



Kendra Smith
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Psychological & Brain SciencesPicture of Kendra Smith smiling

We are constantly bombarded with conflicting headlines about scientific studies. One week you learn that chocolate helps you live longer, and the next week you hear that it’s bad for you. Personally, I’m rooting for the former.

When I was thinking about goals for the Introduction to Psychology course that I taught in the summer of 2018, I asked myself what students should ideally take away from the course. One of my main goals was to make sure students left the course understanding how to evaluate claims that they might encounter in daily life about psychology. Do those causal headlines they’re reading come from correlational studies? Or is the causal claim warranted?

In order to improve students’ ability to evaluate scientific claims, I developed a series of assignments that involved reading and evaluating empirical articles and related popular press articles. Students read the articles and compared descriptions of the methods and the conclusions drawn by each source. They answered comprehension and critical thinking questions about the empirical and popular press articles.  In class, I led discussions that encouraged students to critically evaluate study designs and conclusions, how claims differed, and if the conclusions were fair.

At the end of the course, students completed a post-test that evaluated their ability to identify research designs, causal and correlational claims, variables, confounds, and advantages and disadvantages of study designs. I compared their performance at the end of the course to their performance on the pre-test they took at the beginning of the course and against a control group. Students improved overall on the tests, and the greatest increases were in their ability to identify advantages and disadvantages of study designs. Further, they indicated they felt more confident in their ability to read and evaluate scientific articles at the end of the course.

Implementing this project was a valuable experience for me. One aspect of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) discipline that I appreciate is that you can study teaching effectiveness and learning outcomes by collecting data just as you would in any other area of research. I find teaching rewarding, and it is even more gratifying to collect evidence that shows that new ideas I incorporate into a course help students learn better. I aspire to use evidence-based practices in my teaching, and SoTL enables me to investigate the effectiveness of my own teaching.

I learned that SoTL research can be challenging; there are many factors in a classroom that cannot be controlled, which can make results hard to interpret. I also learned, however, that SoTL is valuable because it can be incorporated into almost any classroom to evaluate the success of a range of teaching strategies. We collect data that we can share and use to inform our teaching, which ultimately improves student learning.

After completing my project, I attended the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL) Forum to present my research. It was encouraging to connect with others dedicated to improving teaching and learning and hear about other SoTL research endeavors. I would encourage other students who are interested in evidence-based teaching to work with The Center for Teaching and Learning to develop a SoTL project.  Working on this project with the center has been a highlight of my time in graduate school, and I plan to include what I’ve learned from SoTL in future courses.

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