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Hypothesis Testing in Psychology Research

Hypothesis testing first starts with theory. Theories are particular assumptions about the way things are. After a theory is formulated, a conceptual hypothesis is created, which is a more specific (than pure theory) prediction about the outcome of something. Next an experimental hypothesis is created. This is where definitions are operationalized so specific matters can be tested. For example, you could operationalize affection as number of hugs and kisses and other related actions. Then you statistically hypothesize in order to measure and test one of two hypotheses: the null, or H0, which represents non-effect (i.e. no difference between samples or populations, or whatever was tested), and an alternate hypothesis, H1.

The alternate hypothesis is that there is a difference, or an effect. It can be that one mean is greater than another, or that they are just not equal. So, the purpose of statistical testing is to test the truth of a theory or part of a theory. In other words, it is a way to look at predictions to see if they are accurate. To do this, researchers test the null hypothesis. We do not test the alternate hypothesis (which is what we think will happen). We do this because we base our testing on falsification logic (i.e., it only takes one example to prove a theory is wrong but conversely you cannot prove that a theory is right without infinite examples, so we look for examples where we are wrong).

The probability associated with a statistical test is assigned to the possibility of the occurrence of Type I error. This is the probability that you will reject the null hypothesis when in fact the null is true and thus should not have been rejected. It is saying there was an effect or a difference when there really was not.

The process of statistical testing can result in probability statements about the theories under consideration but only under certain conditions. Statistical testing and hypothesizing is representative of theory when it is conceptually (verbally and operationally) connected to theory. This means that there has to be a logical and direct association between the statistical probability statements and the theory in order for those statements to represent the overarching theory. This link is forged by the experimental and conceptual hypotheses.

The Psychology of Multiple-Choice Tests

As someone with many years of taking multiple-choice tests as well as a fair amount of experience writing them, I thought it was time to talk about the psychology behind them as well as offer tips to successfully taking them. I’ve personally never enjoyed essay tests (although I know that they separate out those who really know the material from those who do not) – I see their uses and recognize (obscure pun not intended) their strengths but I’m just not a fan in general. Maybe it’s partly because I’m much better at multiple-choice tests and partly because I’m not the fastest writer. I’m usually one of the first done with a multiple-choice test and one of the last with an essay test.

When looking at declarative memory (e.g., memory for facts) there are both recall and recognition components. Recall memory is like taking an essay test – you just have to write whatever you can about a topic. Recognition memory is like taking a multiple-choice test – the answer is in front of you (even if the answer is none of the above). The questions and answers serve as cues that can stimulate your memory. If you have good recall you should have good recognition; if you have poor recall you might still have good recognition (you can also have poor recall and recognition).

Why do some people just not like multiple-choice tests? I’ve heard everything from, “The questions are often tricky” to “I’m just not good at them.” Yes, multiple-choice tests can be tricky but good ones are not necessarily tricky. I say necessarily because what’s tricky to one can be seen as an important distinction by another. Good multiple-choice tests are also organized how class material was organized – that is, topics or chapters all lumped together. I know many people disagree with that point but the test questions and not the test structure should serve to distinguish between people who really understand the material and those who do not. In other words, the structure of the test should serve to facilitate memory by grouping topics and chapters together. Tests should also be given in the context in which material was learned for best results.

When I’ve written tests (as in creating them, not taking them {in case any Canadians read this}) I also tried to make questions test latent knowledge about concepts rather than manifest memory, if I can use structural equations modeling terms. For example, I wrote a question once that sought to pull out knowledge about where modern intelligence tests were developed (i.e., in France). So to test this instead of just asking what country they were developed in, I asked what was a possible name of someone who would have taken one of the early tests (a French name was the correct answer). While doing this has its own problems and limitations, it requires students to think, “OK, they were developed in France so I need a French name” or, “Binet developed the modern IQ test, Binet was French, so I need a French name.” Testing in this manner is an indirect way to get to the core knowledge. That was a fairly straightforward and simple example but testing in that manner (i.e., indirectly) overcomes some of the shortcomings of multiple-choice tests – it requires some reasoning and abstraction. All my test questions were not like that but that is a very effective way to test. I believe it’s also important to teach while testing. Sometimes this entails expanding a question to include a general statement about a topic, then asking something specific. For example, “William James was a 19th century philosopher who is often credited with being the ‘Father of Modern Psychology.’ William James believed all of the following about consciousness EXCEPT:….” Providing an extra sentence not only teaches but also serves as a cue. It should never be a distractor though (unless the question warrants it – for example, on a question about cognitive inhibition or the frontal lobes, then a distractor sentence could be included for astute students to catch the principle of it and be taught, or at least appreciate it). Tests should be constructed to teach. For me, making tests is an art. They should be crafted to help students, facilitate learning, as well as separate the wheat from the chaff. I’m also a firm believer in using humor on tests. The occasional distractor answer should be humorous or blatantly untrue (of course, it’s always funny when someone endorses one of the obviously untrue answers).

My test-making philosophy (and psychology) is based on differentiating the poor from the mediocre students and the mediocre from the good and the good from the great. This is a philosophy that students do not particularly like because it means that I try to write difficult tests. Difficult is not tricky or nit-picky (although it is good to have a couple nit-picky questions), difficult is well-written, requiring reasoning and deeper thinking. When writing tests I try to avoid both ceiling and floor effects. Getting all the questions correct is possible but rare (i.e., no more than 1-3 students in a class of 50 should get 100%). I try to write my tests to have an average score in the mid 70s. Having an average in the mid 70s basically guarantees that there are no floor or ceiling effects and that the test is not too difficult that it is frustrating to too many people. I’m also a big believer in mercy so I like to curve grades (I only curve up, not down). I also usually provide students an opportunity to go back over their tests, correct what they missed and resubmit the tests so they can earn back 25% of the points that they missed. This helps students on the lower end more than on the higher end, but the ones on the high end don’t need higher grades.Do It Yourself Frontal Lobotomy

So now to test-taking strategies. Here are my Top 11 Multiple-Choice Test-Taking Strategies:

  1. Work through the test as quickly as possible answering the questions that you can answer right away. It’s okay to think about one for a little bit but if you can’t get it within a little bit, move on. On longer tests, there are often questions or answers that will help you answer some of the questions you didn’t know.
  2. It’s also okay to work from the end to the beginning or to skip around. Don’t skip around too much though, especially in tests structured by topic or chapter.
  3. Always go with your first impression about an answer unless you are sure that you need to change your answer or if your first impression was just a guess. There is conflicting evidence as to whether or not first impressions are more accurate but in my experience they are.
  4. Look for patterns in answers. For example: A) James, Freud, and Watson; B) Thorndike, Skinner, and Watson; C) Thorndike, Piaget, and Ebbinghaus; D) Skinner, Thorndike, and Beck. In this case the answer is B) (assuming the question is something like which group of psychologists are all behaviorists?). Notice that Watson is repeated twice, Thorndike is repeated 3 times, and Skinner is repeated twice. If you knew nothing about the question you could use logic to figure it out. This does not always work but it often does.
  5. Related the point 4, always try to rule out any answers that you know are not true. Then if you have to guess, you have better odds. This works one tests that penalize you for wrong answers (like many standardized tests do). If a multiple-choice test is designed to subtract .25 points if you miss a question, if you can rule out one answer then you should go ahead and guess (assuming there are only 4 answers) because then you will have a 33% chance of getting it right versus the possibility of losing .25 points.
  6. The most common answers on tests are either “B” or “C”. So if you have no idea about the answer, guess one of those.
  7. If there is an all or none of the above, take a close look at those. If there are not a lot of “all of the aboves” on the test, it’s likely that that is the answer.
  8. Do not pay attention to the number of letters that you’ve answered: “I’ve had 5 Ds in a row; that can’t be right.” If you’re doing this you’re likely over-analyzing the test. Sometimes you are right but it’s not worth the effort to focus on (unless you really know most of the test material {and how the teacher or professor makes her tests}).
  9. Don’t panic! Don’t be afraid to stop for a few seconds or a minute and clear your mind. It’s worth the effort if you are feeling anxious or too nervous or overwhelmed. Too much anxiety can ruin even a well-prepared test-taker.
  10. Think positively. Tell yourself that you can do well. Tell yourself that you are a good multiple-choice test-taker.
  11. Above all – PREPARE. Studying for multiple choice tests is different than studying for essay examinations. Read over all the salient material then read over it again (I find it helpful personally to read it multiple times quickly). Multiple-choice tests are usually about breadth and not depth.

Image by gillespinault.