I’m a firm believer that when it comes to teaching research methods you can never have too many examples of lesson plans that either simulate the process of “doing research” or, as in the case of Bernard C. Beins (Counting Fidgets: Teaching the Complexity of Naturalistic Observation), turn it into a simple, but effective, lesson activity that:

• is easy to set-up and run
• requires very few resources
• involves very little pre-preparation
• is unobtrusive and relatively short
• produces a large amount of data for discussion, analysis and evaluation.

While the lesson plan is explicitly aimed at psychology students it’s equally useful for sociologists, because the overall objective is simply to provide a context – the classroom activity – that can be used to analyse and evaluate naturalistic observation in terms of its strengths and weaknesses.

And if you want to introduce your students to these ideas you could always throw a short video into the pre-discussion mix: Naturalistic Observation is available On-Demand to buy or rent as well as being available on our Non-Experimental Research Methods DVD that also includes Self-Report Methods, Correlations and Case Studies.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving?

The activity is based around the teacher selecting 2 (or more if you have a very large class) students to act as class observers. Although the observers are led to believe they are acting as the teacher’s research assistants the activity is actually all about them, their behaviour and the reliability of their observations.

This gives you the opportunity, if you want to take it, to construct a follow-up lesson on ethics and ethical issues in social and psychological research,  based on the experiences of the 2 confederates.

Depending on the extent to which you brief the observers about their role, for example, the experiment can be used to directly address the ethical issue of informed consent (an idea that can be further muddied by the fact that although the observers may have consented to taking part in the experiment, how valid is that consent given that the teacher effectively deceived them into giving it by not revealing what the experiment was really about?).

In addition, the activity highlights the issue of deception – were the observers deceived into participating in the activity? – and, if so, were there any consequences of this deception?

Depending on which particular list of ethical issues you want to use, the activity provides further opportunities to discuss other ethical issues (such as potential harm or debriefing) that may have been absent in the activity but which nevertheless can be discussed in the context of the research.

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