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Student participation in CLPS studies may skew research pool

Study participation aspect of CLPS courses creates homogenous sample, unique research challenges

Hitting baby dolls with rocks might not sound like something worthy of course credit, but for some undergraduate classes it might be.

As students continue pairing down their course lists, many of those who decide to take courses in the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences will be asked to participate in subject pools for research underway in CLPS.

Participating in subject pools is an important part of the pedogogical process, said Dave Sobel, professor of CLPS. Like many CLPS faculty members, Sobel encourages his students to both participate in a study and “then reflect on why researchers are doing that study,” he said.

For Jessi Haddad ’16 MD’20, a psychology concentrator, the additional hours required for the CLPS subject pools were an adjustment but worth it in the end.

“At first I was sort of annoyed by it,” she said.  “It was an extra thing to do, and everyone was already so busy, but I was really happy that I got involved. It allows you to have a different perspective on research than you would without being directly involved with it.”

Students enrolled in CLPS courses comprise a readily accessible subject pool, Haddad said, which may be why researchers pull subjects from the undergraduate population.

“There are a lot of students who have more time than middle-aged adults who are raising kids, for example, and we’re on campus and really close to where a lot of these studies are being conducted,” she said.

Yet despite the convenience, using students as subject pool participants also has drawbacks.

Researchers are “obviously getting a really small, very highly educated, mainly white, very liberal group of students,” said Amanda Ruggieri ’16, a psychology concentrator. “They tend to be self-selecting from psychology and brain sciences, so not only that but they’re more informed about these types of questions. It might be that the results that we’re getting are really specific to these groups of people.”

Students who are enrolled in CLPS courses may also be more sensitive to the fact that they’re being observed, Haddad said, which can affect results.

Haddad cited the Hawthorne effect­ — when a subject’s behavior changes under observation — as another possible factor. “As college students, we’re always being graded and watched and are trying to achieve our best, and so we’re not being as honest with ourselves as we can.”

Professor of CLPS Leslie Welch said researchers know the subject pool can be skewed and “know that that’s sometimes problematic.” With this in mind, researchers sometimes design their studies to compensate for subject pools that consist primarily of college students. By designing experiments geared toward college students or designing studies where the student demographic will not skew results — such as color perception studies — researchers can ameliorate this problem, Welch said. 

An additional complication for undergraduate participation is that scheduling studies is often a constraining factor for students, particularly for those who wait until the end of the semester to complete their participation, Sobel said. Students generally spend between three to five hours outside of class participating in studies.

In 2010, the University switched from a paper sign-up system to the current online system, called SONA. The transition “vastly (streamlined) the sign-up process,” said Welch, who organizes student participation in subject pools. Students can search SONA to find available studies and participant criteria.

Students agreed that SONA is a helpful tool, both for finding studies to participate in and for conducting their own projects.

“It allows more research to happen at Brown,” Ruggieri said. Students “wouldn’t be able to do as many studies as (they) do without that.”

Welch also stressed that while some outside work is required for specific CLPS courses, students are always offered an alternative to participating in research studies — for example writing a paper or attending a seminar. “We need to make sure the pool is actually volunteers, and that is the way to do that.”

For some students, these alternatives are more appealing than becoming part of the undergraduate subject pool.

When Adam Gottesman ’16, a biochemistry and molecular biology concentrator, took CLPS 0700: “Social Psychology,”  he chose to complete a research certification course rather than participate in the subject pool because of “the simple fact that all of these studies are run for college students.” He added that he felt learning how to do research might benefit him more down the road than participating in studies whose results might be limited by the subject pool.


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