Society for the Teaching of Psychology
Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Fantasy Researcher League: Engaging Students in Psychological Research

14 Nov 2017 1:04 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Fantasy Researcher League: Engaging Students in Psychological Research
Daniel R. VanHorn, North Central College

In this essay, I describe a Fantasy Researcher League course design that I presented to a group of colleagues at the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology (NITOP) in 2013. This innovative course was designed to get students excited about psychological research. I am grateful for the encouragement and feedback that I received from those who attended the institute. I have divided this essay into four sections. First, I describe the motivation behind the development of the course. Second, I describe the course itself. Third, I present survey data collected from students that have taken the course. Finally, I discuss how this course might be used in the future.


Motivation

While students may not complete textbook reading assignments regularly (Burchfield & Sappington, 2000; Clump, Bauer, & Bradley, 2004), they do often find value in the primary textbook assigned for a course (Carpenter, Bullock, & Potter, 2006). For example, a textbook is often a very useful quick reference guide. Textbooks are also helpful because they simplify and clarify psychological research. The problem with textbooks is that, in truth, psychological research is not simple and clear, but rather it is complex and messy. Textbooks also often present information as if it is finalized instead of an ongoing process and dialogue among experts in the field. Finally, many textbooks are not structured in a way that enables critical evaluation of the research they present. Reading and discussing primary sources (e.g., articles with original research that are published in peer-reviewed journals) provides an alternative to textbooks, and I believe students significantly benefit from working with primary sources in psychology. When students work with primary sources they begin to appreciate the intricate work behind what textbooks present as statements of obvious fact. They start to see that psychological research is constantly evolving and that there is still much to be learned. Working with the psychological literature also helps students develop critical thinking skills (Anisfeld, 1987; Chamberlain & Burrough, 1985). They learn to critically examine evidence and use that evidence to evaluate theories and/or claims. A significant challenge that many psychology teachers, including myself, face is getting students to engage in psychological research. Reading and thinking about psychological research is difficult, so we have to find creative ways to motivate our students to work with primary sources in psychology. One approach is to take the things that excite our students outside the classroom and implement them inside the classroom. Keeping this approach in mind, I looked to fantasy sports for help in getting my students engaged with the psychological literature.

Fantasy sports are extremely popular. The Fantasy Sports Trade Association (2013) estimates the 2013 American market for fantasy sports is over 35 million players. Fantasy sports that are available to players include baseball, basketball, football, hockey, soccer, golf, and auto racing. In fantasy sports, approximately 8-14 participants get together and form a league in the sport of their choice. For example, a small group of friends might form a fantasy professional American football league. Each participant in the league selects current professional American football players that make up their fantasy team. The players on a participant’s team score points based on how they perform in real-life games (e.g., how many yards they gain and how many touchdowns they score) and the participants’ teams compete against each other.


The Course

I feel that fantasy sports provides a model that can be utilized in classrooms for engaging students. I took the fantasy sports model and modified it to engage students in psychological research by creating a course that took the form of a game. The official title of the course was Immersion in the Psychological Literature, but the course became known to students and faculty alike as Fantasy Researcher League. The official learning objectives of the course included the following: effectively search for published research and track research lines/programs, describe the research programs of several prominent psychologists, explain the current theory and findings of a few threads of research in the field, and identify how psychological theory and research evolve over the course of a research program. In addition to the official learning objectives described above, I wanted to show students that psychological research is dynamic. It is evolutionary. What students read in their textbooks is old news. I wanted my students to be on the cutting edge of psychological research and get a sense of what is feels like to discover something new. I hoped to get my students excited about research in psychology. I also wanted them to discuss psychology outside of a traditional classroom setting in a place where they would exchange ideas and not worry about whether they were getting a C+ or a B- in the course. Finally, I wanted them to discover their passion by having the freedom to explore their own academic interests.

The course consisted of a small group of students that met with faculty approximately every three weeks throughout the academic school year. At the beginning of the course, the faculty members teaching the course put together a list of several prominent psychology researchers from a variety of research areas. Students were given the opportunity to add other researchers to this list. All the researchers on the list had to be currently active in the discipline. Each student drafted a team of five researchers from the finalized list. Each researcher could only be selected once. These teams made up our fantasy researcher league. Each student then selected one published article by each of their five researchers and tracked the number of times each article was cited during the course of the game. Students had the option to replace their articles at the beginning of each term. Students also kept track of all of their researchers’ scholarly activities and accomplishments (e.g., books, articles, and presentations) during the academic year. Students documented their researchers’ productivity by designing and maintaining a team webpage.  A student earned points for their team by correctly documenting their team’s scholarly activities and citations. The league scoring system is described in Table 1.


Table 1

Fantasy Researcher League Scoring System

Scholarly Activity

Points

Book single author

8

Book co-author

4

Book editor

3

Book chapter author

3

Article first author

4

Article other than first author

2

Citation

1

Presentation

3

Grant/Award

3

During class meetings, students discussed the recent research activity of their teams. Students were also asked to connect their researchers’ current work to their researchers’ past work. At the end of each class, team scores were updated and high scoring teams were recognized.


Survey Data

Five students that participated in the course during the fall of 2011 and eight students that participated during the winter of 2012 completed a voluntary survey where they indicated how much they agreed or disagreed with specific statements related to the learning objectives for the course. Ratings ranged from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Student responses to the closed-ended survey questions are shown in Table 2, and they suggest that we met our learning objectives. The vast majority of students agreed that they developed basic research skills, understood and could discuss cutting edge research, learned about today’s prominent psychological researchers, and learned how research programs evolve over time.


Table 2

Student Survey Responses on Course Learning Objectives

As a result of participating in this course,
Recoded 7pt. scale to 3pt. scale

Agree

(5-7)

Neutral

(4)

Disagree

(1-3)

I can better search PsycInfo to locate research-related material and people.

11

1

1

I can more effectively search for psychological research and researchers in electronic sources.

12

1

0

I am more familiar with the intellectual history and background of some psychology researchers.

11

2

0

I am more familiar with some of the most current research in psychology.

13

0

0

I feel more competent at presenting and discussing a researcher’s current research.

13

0

0

I have a better understanding of how a researcher’s program of research or interests evolves over time.

11

2

0

I can describe the research program of several prominent psychology researchers.

9

4

0

I have a better sense of which areas of psychology interest me and which do not.

13

0

0

I can better create and edit webpages.

13

0

0

Students were then asked to describe what they learned in the class beyond the topics already covered in the closed-ended survey questions. Responses to these questions suggest that students enjoyed the social nature of the game, learned more about psychological research, and began to discover what areas of psychology interest them most. Examples of student responses to this open-ended question are included below.

·        “I was able to find researchers that I would be interested in following later.”

·         “I learned what areas in psychology interest me, which has helped me make decisions for my future.”

·        “How to effectively create a webpage.”

·        “What modern research is like.”

·        “Better research skills.”

·        “How to find articles that cite another article.”

·        “Winning!”


The Future

Student surveys suggest that the fantasy researcher league model engages students in psychological research and provides an exciting alternative to traditional courses and/or assignments. The fantasy researcher league model gets students to read and discuss primary sources. This is crucial because working with primary sources is one way for students to develop critical thinking skills (Anisfeld, 1987; Chamberlain & Burrough, 1985). The fantasy researcher league model also helps create a learning community where students play a central role in learning and discovery. It is the students that select the researchers and research topics that are presented and discussed in class. In the fantasy researcher league model, teachers provide the initial structure of the course but then focus on supporting and empowering student learning and discovery. In the future, I envision a fantasy researcher league online gaming experience that can be used in a variety of disciplines and can bring together team managers from a college or across the world. In the meantime, I believe that the fantasy researcher league course described here could be incorporated into many courses as a long-term research project. In my course, students worked individually, but I believe the project would also work well if completed in small groups. 

 

References

Anisfeld, M. (1987). A course to develop competence in critical reading of empirical research in psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 14(4), 224-227. doi:10.1207/s15328023top1404_8


Burchfield, C. M., & Sappington, J. (2000). Compliance with required reading assignments. Teaching of Psychology, 27(1), 58-60.

Carpenter, P., Bullock, A., & Potter, J. (2006). Textbooks in teaching and learning: The views of students and their teachers. Brookes eJournal of Learning and Teaching, 2(1), Retrieved from http://bejlt.brookes.ac.uk/

Chamberlain, K., & Burrough, S. (1985). Techniques for teaching critical reading. Teaching of Psychology, 12(4), 213-215. doi:10.1207/s15328023top1204_8

Clump, M. A., Bauer, H., & Bradley, C. (2004). The extent to which psychology students read textbooks: A multiple class analysis of reading across the psychology curriculum. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 31(3), 227-232.

Fantasy Sports Trade Association. (2013). Home page. Retrieved from http://www.fsta.org/

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Daniel R. VanHorn earned his B.S. in psychology from Wittenberg University in 2003. He earned his M.S. (2005) and Ph.D. (2009) in cognitive psychology from Purdue University. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Psychology at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. He regularly teaches introductory psychology, cognitive psychology, statistics, and research methods. He also has an active research program in cognitive psychology where he trains aspiring psychologists.
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