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

Research Proposals: My Effort to Make Them an Early Curricular Experience

05 Feb 2024 7:47 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Brooke O. Breaux
University of Louisiana at Lafayette

My department’s Psychological Science course has two primary objectives: 1) for students to start building the underlying knowledge that they will need to become a producer of psychology, and 2) for students to become more familiar with psychology as a major and a discipline. Psychological Science—designed for second semester freshman who have taken only an introductory psychology course—was integrated into my department’s 2020-2021 curriculum. Our intention was for Psychological Science to be taught as a traditional in person course, but due to the precautions taken by my university in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic I taught this course first as a synchronous online course and then as a hyflex course with students deciding whether to attend class in person or online and then, finally, as a fully in person course. Setting aside the complexities of teaching the course in formats different than the one we had in mind when developing the course, Psychological Science itself is ambitious. At a minimum, students enrolled in this course are required to complete a pre-course and a post-course assessment, to take exams and/or quizzes, to construct an actionable plan for their professional development and career exploration, to earn a research ethics certification (i.e., Undergraduate Training on Human Subjects Research through the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI), to serve as a participant in actual psychological research, and to write a brief APA Style research proposal. Faculty assigned to teach this course are required to cover topics ranging from psychology as a discipline—including degrees and careers in psychology—to psychology as a science—including research methods, research ethics, and APA Style writing. When teaching this course for the first time, I made the incorrect assumption that if my goal was to have my students write quality research proposals, all I needed to do as an instructor was to provide them with the relevant research design concepts and a clear assignment rubric. What I learned that first semester was that such an approach was insufficient for many of my students and that they needed significantly more scaffolding to produce what I would consider to be a quality product.

I have now taught this course six times and have dramatically changed the way in which I teach research methods. The approach I have developed is highly scaffolded, involving a sequence of three assignments. For each of the assignments, I have constructed explicit instructions, aligned the delivery of course topics with the assignment deadline, and eliminated unnecessary complexity; however, before diving into a more detailed discussion of my efforts to make the writing of an APA Style research proposal a much more integral part of the course, I thought it would be useful to discuss the development of our Psychological Science course, the integral role it plays in my department’s current curriculum, and our efforts to standardize certain elements of the course.

Curricular-Level Enhancements: How Did We Get Here?

            When I was hired as a faculty member, undergraduate psychology majors did not take our Introduction to Psychology course. They took two courses designed for majors: one focused more on the basic science of psychology and the other focused more on the applied aspects of psychology. After several semesters of teaching the basic science half of this introductory course sequence, I advocated for a change in our curriculum. This change was supported by the faculty members teaching these introductory courses for majors, who agreed that our curriculum lacked a true research methods course, that we could do a better job of preparing students for our Psychological Statistics course, and that the order in which we introduced certain topics and assessed certain learning outcomes in our curriculum could be improved. To illustrate this last point, it is helpful to know that students enrolled in our basic science of psychology course for majors were typically freshman who were taking the course during their first semester in college. This is the same semester in which the majority of students take their first general education English writing course, which requires them to write papers in MLA Style. Then, during the same semester, our basic science of psychology course for majors introduced students to the discipline of psychology; taught them about some of the major themes, concepts, and findings related to basic science topics, such as the biological psychology and cognitive psychology; and required them to write an APA Style literature review. It is no wonder, then, that many students found it difficult to be successful in this course. I knew that our department could provide students with a better introductory learning experience and that such a change could also serve to strengthen our curriculum.

We went with a change that would require our majors to take a Psychological Science course but only after taking our Introduction to Psychology course. The decision to have all students take our Introduction to Psychology course was supported by documents such as “Strengthening the Common Core of the Introductory Psychology Course” in which the American Psychological Association (2014) explains that there is no evidence in the literature to suggest that having two introductory psychology courses—one for majors and one for nonmajors—is needed. The decision to create a new course for majors was supported by Stoloff et al. (2010), who suggest that departments that want a more robust Introductory Psychology course for their majors can modify other requirements and sequencing. For example, departments that want to provide more early experiences might be better served by creating another course, such as one that addresses research methods (Stoloff et al., 2010), career preparation (Atchley, Hooker, Kroska, & Gilmour, 2012; Brinthaupt, 2010; Thomas & McDaniel, 2004), preparation for the major (Atchley et al., 2012; Dillinger & Landrum, 2002), or writing in the major (Goddard, 2003)” (American Psychological Association [APA], 2014, p. 20). To this end, we determined that students would benefit from the creation of a required Psychological Science course designed to target these specific objectives.

Psychological Science is a critical course in our curriculum, providing students with a solid foundation in research methods and serving as a prerequisite for our required Psychology Statistics course. Because of its foundational nature in our curriculum and because it would inevitably be taught by a variety of faculty members, we determined that a minimum standardization of the course would be necessary to ensure similar outcomes across all students. Included in our standardization of this course is the requirement for all students to complete a brief APA Style research proposal, consisting of an APA Style title page, introduction with APA Style citations, method section, and APA Style reference entries; however, what we did not specify was a means by which faculty are to achieve this objective. There are two faculty members who regularly teach Psychology Science, but other faculty members are assigned to teach this course as needed. Everyone who teaches Psychological Science is considered a member of our standardization committee. The role of this committee is to address any issues a faculty member has with the standardization and resolve these issues by updating or changing the standardization.

Course-Level Enhancements: What Am I Doing?

Teaching psychological research methods to undergraduates who have only had an introductory psychology course is challenging, and requiring undergraduate students to complete research proposals within such a course can be overwhelming for everyone involved, especially when the class is not small (i.e., around 45 students), does not include a laboratory component, and takes place during a 15-week semester. In the context of research methods courses, project-based learning experiences, such as writing a research proposal, are generally encouraged; however, because the assignments described in the literature tend to focus on more advanced students (e.g., Chamberlain, 1986), I used trial-and-error to develop an approach that enables students to more effectively and efficiently produce quality research proposals. Interestingly, my intuitions ended up aligning with strategies that have been advocated by other instructors, such as reducing unnecessary complexity, especially as it relates to research design (e.g., Yoder, 1979), and offering students the opportunity to practice producing quality writing (e.g., Ishak & Salter, 2017).

My initial approach to teaching this course was to provide lectures on the relevant topics in the order that they appear in the textbook, expecting students to incorporate this information into their research proposal document. My students found this part of the process exceedingly difficult and this strategy resulted in research proposal that did not meet my expectations; therefore, I created a three-stage (i.e., Introduction Section, Method Section, and Appendices), step-by-step process for developing a research proposal. The instructions for each section are contained within step-by-step documents that are made available to students on our learning management system. To reduce unnecessary complexity I reordered the course topics so that the concepts read about in the textbook and discussed in class would be directly relevant to the part of the research proposal that students are currently working on, and students are explicitly told which step in the step-by-step documents the textbook readings and lecture materials are relevant to. I also created a grading form that aligns with the step-by-step document, which enables me to provide timely feedback at each stage.

Anyone interested in how I have aligned lecture topics, APA course objectives, and development of an introduction section, method section, and appendices can access this information in the form of a poster I presented at the APS-STP 2023 Teaching Institute (Breaux, 2023;  Actual resources that I used during the Spring 2023 semester, such as the step-by-step guidelines (e.g., “Introduction Section Instructions”) and grading forms (e.g., “Introduction Section Rubric”), can be found in the main folder I created for the APS-STP 2023 Teaching Institute (Breaux, 2023; Readers are invited to use or modify the resources provided for educational purposes only.

I have also made the literature review portion of the introduction more manageable by requiring students to cite only four empirical research articles. This approach allows students to focus on basic skills, such as integrating information from different sources and using APA Style citations appropriately. It also helps students avoid both accidental plagiarism (often due to insufficient paraphrasing skills) and intentional plagiarism (often due to issues with time management). Another change that I made was to have the whole class focus on the same topic. I always try to select a topic that psychology undergraduates could relate to on a personal level, such as the extent to which college students believe psychological myths (e.g., Hughes et al., 2015) and the extent to which college students engage in self-care (e.g., Zahniser et al., 2017). I have found that topics related to the teaching of psychology and social psychology tend to be more accessible to students at this stage in their academic careers and that topics related to biological psychology and cognitive psychology are the most difficult. Pre-selecting a topic for the semester affords two primary benefits: Students can start reading the empirical literature sooner, and I can address issues specific to the topic during class time. My current approach to teaching Psychological Science shares similarities with Passion Driven Statistics (, which is a project-based approach to teaching statistics that focuses on providing students with only as much information as they need to successfully complete the current tasks they have been assigned.


These improvements have made teaching psychological research methods to undergraduates who have only had an introductory psychology course feel much more manageable. Even though my evidence is primarily anecdotal, students seem less intimidated by the research proposal process because they are more aware of my expectations and the ways in which I want them to utilize the course materials when working on their research proposal. I hope that my experience can inspire other faculty members not only to continue improving their own courses to meet the needs of students but also to advocate for broader curriculum changes in their own departments, and I hope that what I have learned along the way can be used by others to improve how we teach psychological research methods to undergraduates.


American Psychological Association. (2014). Strengthening the common core of the introductory psychology course. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, Board of Educational Affairs. Retrieved from

Breaux, B. O. (2023, May 23-24). Benefiting from explicit instruction, content alignment, and strategic simplification [Poster presentation]. APS-STP 2023 Teaching Institute, Washington, D.C., United States.

Chamberlain, K. (1986). Teaching the practical research course. Teaching of Psychology, 13(4), 204-207. 

Hughes, S., Lyddy, F., Kaplan, R., Nichols, A. L., Miller, H., Saad, C. G., Dukes, K., & Lynch, A.-J. (2015). Highly prevalent but not always persistent: Undergraduate and graduate student’s misconceptions about psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 42(1), 34–42.

Ishak, S., & Salter, N. P. (2017). Undergraduate psychological writing: A best practices guide and national survey. Teaching of Psychology, 44(1), 5–17.

Stoloff, M., McCarthy, M., Keller, L., Varfolomeeva, V., Lynch, J., Makara, K., Simmons, S., & Smiley, W. (2010). The undergraduate psychology major: An examination of structure and sequence. Teaching of Psychology, 37(1), 4–15.

Yoder, J. (1979). Teaching students to do research. Teaching of Psychology, 6(2), 85-88.

Zahniser, E., Rupert, P. A., & Dorociak, K. E. (2017). Self-care in clinical psychology graduate training. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 11(4), 283–289.

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