TMAC sat down with Mary Bravo (Associate Professor, Psychology) this week to discuss the pleasures of teaching critical thinking in courses like Experimental Psychology. One of several required courses in the major, Experimental Psych offers students opportunities to reason about data and design. In particular, Bravo encourages her students to be appropriately skeptical about reports of scientific studies by considering factors in empirical research such as insufficient sample size and built-in bias. She does so through the use of simple, sometimes counter-intuitive, exercises and experiments which can be extended to research conducted by others and by students themselves.
One such exercise—to illustrate the dangers of sampling error—is the use of strings of different lengths to represent a tendency to weigh factors representing longer periods of duration (e.g., months on welfare dependency) more heavily than their actual distribution. It can be difficult, Bravo notes, to learn not to trust one’s gut, hence the importance of methodological rigor in experimental design. Bravo gives her students multiple opportunities to allow difficult concepts to sink in and to recognize frequently recurring patterns across seemingly different contexts.
Bravo observes that we believe ourselves to be far more rational than we really are and cites the work of Nobel Laureate (Economics, 2002) Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow as particularly helpful for understanding the many kinds of error in our thought processes. Bravo concludes that we help students in all disciplines when we encourage them to be reflective practitioners aware of the potential for misreading situations.