Difficult Decisions: A Qualitative Exploration of the Statistical Decision Making Process from the Perspectives of Psychology Students and Academics.
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Quantitative research methods are essential to the development of professional competence in psychology. They are also an area of weakness for many students. In particular, students are known to struggle with the skill of selecting quantitative analytical strategies appropriate for common research questions, hypotheses and data types. To begin understanding this apparent deficit, we presented nine psychology undergraduates (who had all completed at least one quantitative methods course) with brief research vignettes, and asked them to explicate the process they would follow to identify an appropriate statistical technique for each. Thematic analysis revealed that all participants found this task challenging, and even those who had completed several research methods courses struggled to articulate how they would approach the vignettes on more than a very superficial and intuitive level. While some students recognized that there is a systematic decision making process that can be followed, none could describe it clearly or completely. We then presented the same vignettes to 10 psychology academics with particular expertise in conducting research and/or research methods instruction. Predictably, these "experts" were able to describe a far more systematic, comprehensive, flexible, and nuanced approach to statistical decision making, which begins early in the research process, and pays consideration to multiple contextual factors. They were sensitive to the challenges that students experience when making statistical decisions, which they attributed partially to how research methods and statistics are commonly taught. This sensitivity was reflected in their pedagogic practices. When asked to consider the format and features of an aid that could facilitate the statistical decision making process, both groups expressed a preference for an accessible, comprehensive and reputable resource that follows a basic decision tree logic. For the academics in particular, this aid should function as a teaching tool, which engages the user with each choice-point in the decision making process, rather than simply providing an "answer." Based on these findings, we offer suggestions for tools and strategies that could be deployed in the research methods classroom to facilitate and strengthen students' statistical decision making abilities.
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