Unit II. Research Methods
Theme: Understanding the Scientific Basis of Sociology
DescriptionA class exercise to help students understand hypothesis testing.
Learning GoalsTo illustrate the empirical testing of hypotheses.Back to top
Things NeededBlackboard and chalk. One 50-75 minute class period.Back to top
ActionsI tell the class that I need to collect some data in order to illustrate the process of hypothesis testing in sociology. I tell them that I need volunteers from the class, and I ask them to raise their hands. I try to get close to half the class to volunteer. Then I tell them to put their hands down, but to remember who has volunteered.Back to top
I tell them that the hypothesis that I am testing is whether people who sit in the front of a class tend to volunteer more than those who sit in the back. I decide how to define "front" and "back," and I collect the data by asking how many people in the front did volunteer?, How many in the front did not volunteer? How many in back did volunteer?, and How many in back did not volunteer? I write these in sentences on the board (e.g. 22 people in front did volunteer).
I remind them that I am determining whether seating position is predictive of volunteering. I put an empty table on the board, and I ask the class to suggest where the data belong in the table. We percentage the table down the columns to determine the proportion of people in front who volunteer compared with the proportion in back (requesting the calculations from a student who has a calculator along).
I ask them whether the results support my hypothesis that people who sit in front tend to volunteer more than those who sit in the back, and I ask whether this result is likely to be found in other classes within this university and elsewhere.
More InformationI emphasize that these particular results compose one piece of evidence supporting (or failing to support) the hypothesis, and that the building of scientific generalizations requires the compiling of much more evidence. I discuss generalization to populations, and the fact that one needs to study "representative" samples. I tell them that that systematic studies ofBack to top
seating and volunteering do indicate that people who sit in the front tend to
volunteer more than those who sit in the back (Becker, F.D., R. Sommer, J. Bee, and B. Oxley. 1973. "College Classroom Ecology." Sociometry. 514-525), and I ask them to suggest reasons why this may be the case. This is used to introduce the next class discussion of "explanation."
A frequent by-product of this technique is showing that a sociologist can predict things that the students have not anticipated. My experience has been that a strong majority of the classes (perhaps 75%), support the hypothesis. When the data do not support the hypothesis, the demonstration does not illustrate the knowledge of the sociologist, but rather encourages students to feel that they too can explore data without knowing the results. In general, the technique provides a useful illustration of the process.
Students often try to personalize their explanations and find exceptions; for example, there may be some shy student who insists that he/she sits in front because he/she cannot hear. It must be made clear that sociologists recognize that there is individual variation in motivation and behavior, but there are social tendencies that arise from factors that have similar effects on many people (e.g. eye contact and resulting social pressure is often concentrated on the students directly in front of the instructor.)
Creator/SourceScott L. Feld, Department of Sociology, State University of New York at Stony Brook, NY 11794. From Kain, Edward L., and Robin Neas. 1993. Innovative Techniques for Teaching Sociological Concepts. Washington, DC: American Sociological Association, pp. 47-48.