Introducing Introductory Psychology Students to Quantitative Analysis

Neil Lutsky, Carleton College
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This material was originally developed as part of the Carleton College Teaching Activity Collection
through its collaboration with the SERC Pedagogic Service.


In this assignment, students investigate a question about personality they have posed by analyzing variables contained in a data set made available to them. That data set includes personality trait assessment results, gender and other background variables, and ratings from measures of happiness and well-being. The data set contains ratings contributed by the students themselves as well as by students in this course in previous years. Students read a related summary of a meta-analysis of personality and happiness and are asked to submit a brief paper identifying their question, relating that question to course materials, and reporting the results of their investigation.

Learning Goals

  • How psychologists answer questions empirically.
  • How to construct a question suitable for quantitative evaluation.
  • How to complete and interpret basic statistical procedures.
  • How to relate an empirical inquiry to related findings in the scientific literature.
  • What a meta-analysis is.
  • How to write a simple research paper that involves the presentation of numbers and the interpretation of results.

Context for Use

This assignment is given the first week of an introductory psychology course, although it doesn't need to be used then. I do this to introduce students to the scientific nature of contemporary psychology and to get them thinking actively about psychological issues and the empirical evaluation of those issues. I should note that the particular data set used, to which the students have contributed, addresses the topic of personality psychology. I begin the introductory course discussing personality psychology, something I believe to be unusual. This particular assignment could be used whenever personality psychology is reviewed in an introductory course, or this type of assignment could be considered as an example that an instructor could consult when he or she constucts a data set assignment for another aspect of psychology.

Description and Teaching Materials

This project involves beginning students of psychology in a simple data analysis project relating to personality psychology. Students first complete basic scales assessing personality traits (the Five Factor Traits) and standard psychological measures of happiness and well-being (Ryff & Keyes's scales). I then compile these data in a data set that I make available to students. The assignment, included below, provides a variable listing, and asks students to frame a single question that can be asked of the data available, to complete a data analysis addressing that question, and to complete a short report summarizing the issues, methods, results, and implications of the completed investigation. Assignment Handout (Acrobat (PDF) 13kB May11 08) Student Report Grading Rubric (Microsoft Word 23kB May11 08) Course Evaluation Questionnaire (Microsoft Word 31kB May11 08)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students are encouraged but not required to complete the scales yielding the data to be analyzed.

An instructor could construct a simple data set of this kind using whatever basic measures in psychology he or she chooses. I centered this project on personality and happiness because (a) I begin the course by covering contemporary personality research, (b) students find the particular topic engaging, and (c) the topic permits the use of a supporting and accessible article on meta-analysis, something I want students to learn about at the outset of the course.


I do employ an assessment rubric for grading these papers. I hand this rubric to students prior to their preparation of their papers, and I discuss the rubric with students, indicating the issues raised by particular criteria in the rubric (e.g., why students need to be cautious about making causal claims about correlational results). Thus, the rubric becomes a teaching tool.

My assessment of whether the project meets my learning goals is grounded in my reading of the papers as well as in questions asked in section III, Question 7 of the course evaluation questionnaire (attached). This asks students to specify two things they learned from this module.

References and Resources

An earlier discussion and formal assessment of data set projects in the classroom was reported in the following article:

N. Lutsky (1986). Undergraduate research experience through the analysis of data sets in psychology courses. Teaching of Psychology, 13, 119-122.
A brief description and formal assessment of the project described above was included in the following chapter:

N. Lutsky (2002). Come, putative ends of psychology's digital future. In The Teaching of Psychology: Essays in Honor of Wilbert J. McKeachie and Charles L. Brewer, pp. 335-348.