Jeromy Anglim's Blog: Psychology and Statistics

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Article Deconstruction: How to Write a Method Section in Psychology

The following post applies an approach that I call article deconstruction to extract principles for writing a Method section in a psychological empirical report. The post aims to both extract useful principles for writing a Method section and to demonstrate how article deconstruction can be applied to writing challenges in scientific psychology. It builds on my other post discussing general principles and resources for writing a method.

Needs Analysis: I was most interested in extracting some principles regarding the writing of method sections in studies on skill acquisition. While many of the principles of methods sections generalise across psychology, some are specific to particular domains.

Article Selection: I selected articles that were: relatively recent (APA style changes), in APA journals (APA style is common in psychology), and from different authors (in order to get a sense of different approaches).

Content: The ideas presented below reflect principles on writing a Method distilled from specified journal articles. The principles are implicit in the writing. The approach of article deconstruction is to do a close reading of the text with the aim of distilling such principles.

Ackerman and Cianciolo (2000)
Reference: Page 262 and 263 of Phillip L. Ackerman and Anna T. Cianciolo (2000, Cognitive, Perceptual-Speed, and Psychomotor Determinants of Individual Differences During Skill Acquisition)

Participants: When a number is the first word in a sentence, it is written in words. Details about age can be presented with M subscript age to represent the age (note: control + equals is the Word shortcut).

Sequencing: Elements of an apparatus section can be sequenced in different ways. One, order of events in the experiment can guide sequence. Two, predictors often come before criterion tasks.

Grouping: If a study has many apparatuses, they typically need to be grouped. Apparatuses can be grouped based on purpose. For example, one set may measure prior ability and another may measure task performance. Mode of administration is another grouping principle (e.g., paper and pencil tests can be discussed in one paragraph, and computerised testing in another).

Ability tests: In some cases it may be sufficient to describe ability tests in terms of: name of the test, what it measures, and a reference to the test manual. Established and well-validated tests that have been used regularly in the past are less likely to require justification. If tests have options in the mode of administration, the chosen options need to be specified (e.g., reaction time tests have options based on the number of trials, randomisation of stimulus onset delay, etc.).

Computers: When describing computers, it is important to include the make, operating system, input device, and screen type.

Criterion Task:  An annotated screen shot of a computer task may assist in communicating the characteristics of the task. Decisions about tasks generally need to be justified. One sequence of paragraphs that can be used to describe a criterion task is as follows: (1) introduction, justification, and contextualisation; (2) rules of the task; (3) user actions at the conceptual level (e.g., move plane) and at the motor input level (e.g., press down, left, etc.); (4) comments on strategies, difficulty, learnability, consistency, etc.; (5) method for deriving measurements from the task, focusing particularly on the main dependent variable.

Procedure: There are various strategies to describe sequence 1) One template is as follows: X happened, followed by Y, and then Z; 2) Another option is to enumerate the events (e.g., 1, 2, 3, ...). Words can be used to describe the different temporal components of the experiment: e.g., Trials within blocks within sessions. Procedures set out the: duration of sessions and sections; duration of breaks between sessions; where a section involves repeating elements (e.g., trials or blocks of trials) the number of repeats is specified.

Rogers, Hertzog, and Fisk (2000)
Reference: Pages 364 to 368 of Wendy A. Rogers, Christopher Hertzog, and Arthur D. Fisk (2000, An Individual Differences Analysis of Ability and Strategy Influences)

Participants: Include method of recruitment

Ability Tests: The term proctor can be used to describe a person running an experiment.
Description of a large numbers of ability tests can be facilitated by the use of a table with three columns: Test Name, Reference (e.g., the test manual), and Description. The description generally includes what the participants did, what the test was designed to measure, and how the score was calculated.

Main Criterion Task: 
Some elements of a description of a criterion task include:
Introduction: How was the task developed? Has it been used before (if so, cite)?

Task Description: This is often facilitated by a figure. It also includes: Elements of the display and the input systems; the features of the task requirements.

The nature of a trial: What does a trial involve? Are there different types of trials, what are they? If all trials differ, how do they differ?

Arrangement of trials into blocks and sessions: How were trials sequenced within blocks and sessions? This includes the number of trials per block per session and the way trial types varied. For example, was there randomisation or any related procedures.

Instructions: When are instructions given? What was the content of the instructions (either in general or if it is important, verbatim)?

Feedback: Was feedback given? What feedback was given? How was it given? When was it given?

Procedure: The sequence of elements in an experiment can be set out in a table showing the sequence of elements, and optionally the sessions in which they occur and the duration (in time or trials) of the elements. If the nature of the procedure is closely intertwined with the description of the task, it may be appropriate to merge these sections together.

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