Who Gets Help: A Field Experiment?

Shelia M. Kennison, Oklahoma State University
Author Profile
This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


In this laboratory exercise, students carry out a field experiment in order to test the hypothesis that able bodied individuals receive less help than those perceived to have an injury. The laboratory instructor leads a lesson on experiments, independent variables, dependent variables, reasoning about causation, and extraneous variables. The students are then asked to develop operational definitions of "being able bodied" and "having a perceived injury." The laboratory instructor introduces inexpensive eye patches for students. The laboratory discusses how a person can immediately change his or her perception as an able bodied person by putting on or taking off an eye patch. Students then leave the lab in pairs with a box of pencils or stack of papers or stack of books. They stage opportunities to help by dropping the items near where people might help. One person in the pair drops with an eye patch and without an eye patch and the other counts the help given. Then the students switch roles. The observations are carried out long enough to get 5 helping events for each person in each condition (i.e., with eye patch and without eye patch). At the next laboratory session, they analyze the data using the Chi-Square Test of Independence and learn how to report the statistic and summary data table in APA style.

For the following laboratory meeting, students prepare a research report using APA style. In doing so, they prepare a brief literature review, method section, results section, brief general discussion, reference list, and at least one table or figure.

Learning Goals

Students should learn how to conduct a field experiment, how to manipulate a variable, how to create operational definitions of variables, how to make and to record observations in the field, how to conduct a chi-square test of independence, and how to prepare a research report in APA style.

Context for Use

The exercise can be very easily adapted to a variety of teaching situations. The naturalistic observation is a versatile methodology that can be used for any discipline. The hypothesis that is tested can be easily changed.

Description and Teaching Materials

Inexpensive eye-patches are needed so that each person can be viewed either appearing able bodied or not able bodied. I have also used cervical collars, slings, and crutches; however, these items are much more expensive than eye patches. Students will also need a notebook and pencil/pen. The instructor will also need a table of significance for chi-square values. These are now available on the Internet.

Teaching Notes and Tips

In terms of safety, students should be directed to carry out the field experiment in the day time and in locations that have moderate foot traffic. Students should avoid locations where they will be identified by friends/family. The observer must stand some distance away to carry out the observation unobstrusively. The putting on a taking off of the eye patch must be done discretely. If the activity is carried out in an area with concern of crime, students can be instructed to keep to areas with close access to call boxes to campus security, etc.


Instructors may use the research report as one measure of learning. It is also feasible to use a pre-test/post-test assessment of learning. The pre-test and post-test would assess knowledge of naturalistic observations, creating operational definitions, carrying out chi-square test of independence, and preparing an APA style research report.