A1 Psychology Research Report Writing: Each Section in Detail

First: A few things to be aware of

If you’ve a report writing assignment and you’re unfamiliar with the area, start as soon as possible. When giving grinds, I’ve noticed that a lot of students underestimate the time this can take.

Another thing to note; different lecturers/supervisors can have different preferences. Some might like the use of bullet points for lists, others do not. Some might like adding a table to give a visual representation of participants, others do not. Some might like you being very detailed in the procedure section, others do not e.g. ‘Participants were given biros to fill out forms’ Vs ‘Participants were asked to fill in forms’. Always ask for guidelines and remember to ask again should your lecturer/supervisor change. Otherwise, you could get marked down for doing something a previous lecture told you to do and, trust me, it’s really annoying. The more specific or detailed your questions then the more helpful the answers.

Avoid absolutist terminology. Don’t say this study “proves”. Instead, say things like this study “indicates” or “strongly supports”.

If you don’t understand any terminology used in this post, then please look at my previous blog posts for important definitions (e.g. http://dtpsychology.wordpress.com/2013/02/14/statistics-tips-part-1-basic-definitions-and-the-flying-spaghetti-monster/). With that in mind, let’s get started.

Cover Page

As with the essay writing guidelines I gave you before (http://dtpsychology.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/a1-essay-writing-tips/), always have a nice cover page. Make sure your college logo is at the top, it helps to give your document a more professional look. Ensure that the following are clearly labelled:

  • Student name
  • Student ID number
  • Department
  • Module title
  • Module code
  • Assignment Task(s)/Question(s)
  • Report Title
  • Lecturer(s)
  • Date
  • Word count

Some universities request that you include a signed statement declaring that the essay you have written is of your work and sources of information have been clearly referenced.

Abstract

Start on new page. Usually best to aim for 200 words. Usually you don’t give this section a heading. Very briefly:

  • Describe background
  • Outline aims of research (include hypotheses if appropriate)
  • List methods used
  • State findings and give any general conclusions

It’s sometimes helpful to lookup published research articles and see how their written. This can help you get an idea of how to phrase things and appropriate word choice. Some lecturers may prefer you to:

  • Format the abstract with a slightly smaller font size than the rest of the research report (don’t ask me why)
  • Have no indent at the beginning of a paragraph
  • Justify format the abstract i.e. increase the left and right margins of the page

Acknowledgements

Start on new page. In general, you should thank lecturers/supervisors for advice and opportunity to conduct study. You can thank participants for participating as well as family/friends for their support. Try and keep this section as short as possible. Mix up your terminology a bit e.g. ‘I am grateful towards…’ or ‘Person A must also be thanked for…’

Index/table of contents

Start on new page. Outline report sections (Microsoft Word has a very useful index feature). You might want to have a separate index for:

  • list of figures
  • list of tables
  • list of appendices

Abstract, acknowledgements and index should have page numbers in roman italics (i, ii, iii, iv, v, vi, etc.). In Microsoft Word, go to ‘Insert’- ‘Page numbers’. Page numbers for future sections should start at 1 and carry on as normal. In Microsoft Word, go to ‘Page Layout’ – ‘Breaks’ – ‘Insert New Section’. You may need to double click on page number, highlight number and unclick ‘link to previous sections’ in the ‘Header and Footer’ tab which appears after the first double click.

Title

Start new page. A title is always a nice touch. A good title should be concise and reflective of the reports content.

You now start your introduction/literature review. The usually has no main heading but you may want to provide headings if you break up the literature review into sub-sections (usually appropriate for large scale projects, not done as often for small research projects done by undergraduates). Your first paragraph should very briefly describe the general background/issue your research examines. Give operational (i.e. clear and not likely to be misinterpreted) definitions of key terms where appropriate. Outline projects main goals. Personally, I like using numbered bullet points when outlining aims (if you’ve more than 1). It makes it easier for the reader to understand your research purpose/s. However, some lecturers/supervisors/graders don’t like the use of bullet points so check with your lecturer for advice.

In subsequent paragraphs you summarise and analyse previous research and research findings. In other words, researchers examined A, hypothesised B based on previous research/theory C, using methods D, found out that E, study had strengths F (e.g. large population size, good methodology) and weaknesses G (did not take into account alternative interpretation of statistics, poor methodology, etc.) Repeat with different studies as necessary.

You might discuss psychometric approaches if you research involves designing or using a new measurement scale. Psychometrics refers to the design, implementation and interpretation of quantitative tests used to measure psychological variables. This will likely impress your lecturers who don’t usually expect this (especially from undergraduates).

Last paragraph. I sometimes like to use the last paragraph to describe hypotheses based on previous research findings. Alternatively, you could mention hypotheses just after you describe general research background in first paragraph. A hypothesis is a proposed explanation/understanding of something. Hypotheses should be based on previous research e.g. previous research has shown that chocolate can enhance happiness. Chocolate contains the hormone ‘serotonin’. Based on this evidence, the present study hypothesises that serotonin levels are positively correlated with happiness. Be careful not to mix up hypothesis, hypothesises and hypotheses (educated guess, guessing, guesses) (singular, active, plural).

Method (centred heading)

Start on new page. Method is broken up into four subsections:

  • Design
  • Participant
  • Materials and Equipment
  • Results

If you’ve done more than one experiment or used multiple methods you might want to break up your research into multiple studies. In this case, you number each study and give it a title (e.g. Method for Study One) and re-use the ‘Design’, ‘Participant’, ‘Materials and Equipment’ and ‘Results’ headings as appropriate. Where relevant, instead of writing out the participants or materials and equipment section, you can sometimes say something like “Participants used in study 2 were the same as those described in study 1”.

Design (heading at left side of page)

This section outlines the research design your study uses, variables the research examines, controls used and general ethical considerations. See my previous blog post on how to choose the appropriate research design(s). You need to list and define the both the independent and the dependent variables. You then explain what extraneous variables you’ve controlled for and briefly explain how you’ve controlled for them. You then outline ethical considerations e.g.

Example

This was a both a quantitative study which used a repeated measures research design. The study had ___ independent variable(s) and __ dependant variable (s). The independent variable was A. A refers to _________. The dependent variable was B. B refers to____________. Participants were recruited on a volunteer basis and participants could withdraw their data or leave the study at any stage. Participants were fully informed as to the purpose of this study and their confidentiality was maintained. This study examined attitudes towards drug use in young adults (target participant population). As such, participants were asked if they had ever taken drugs which may have influence their perceptions.

Participants (heading at left side of page)

This section describes participant demographics which can include: age, ethnicity, geographical location, education, work status, etc. State what sampling method you used and where participants were from (see this blog post for a discussion on sampling methods: http://dtpsychology.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/sampling-methods-and-zombies/). Some lecturers prefer you use entire words rather than numerical figures e.g. ‘A hundred and twenty participants (n=120) were recruited…’ VS ‘100 participants (n=100) were recruited…’ Some lecturers like it when you add a table summarising information. Some don’t. Always, ALWAYS check with your lecturers to see what their preferences are.

Example

100 (n=100) were recruited through opportunity sampling. Participants were recruited from Northern Ireland. Participants comprised of students and their ages ranged from 18 years of age to 70 years of age. 45 participants were female and 55 participants were male. 51 participants were undergraduate students. 27 participants were postgraduate students. 22 participants were neither undergraduate nor postgraduate students (other). This data is summarised in table 1.

Table 1: Participants

Participants

(n=100)

Status Number of Participants (%)
Gender Male Female Total
Undergraduate 37 14 51
Postgraduate 12 15 27
Other 6 16 22
Total 55 45 100

Materials and Equipment (heading at left side of page)

Start new page. Sometimes called ‘Materials’, ‘Apparatus and Equipment’ etc. Check with lecturer for their preference. In this section you outline what materials you used to conduct the study as well as their general purpose. Where relevant (e.g. for questionnaires), you should refer to the appropriate appendix. Personally, as well as the individual appendix I like to refer to the exact page number that appendix is on but that’s usually not necessary). Strictly speaking, the scientific method should require you to mention everything you use down to the colour and brand of the biros that you gave participants. Many lecturers don’t find this necessary.

Example

Ballpoint biros (blue) were distributed to participants. Information sheets were distributed to participants. These informed participants as to the general nature of the study (see appendix A, p. 19). A consent form was given to each participant. This form requested that participants give their written consent before taking any further part in the study (see appendix B, p. 20). A demographic questionnaire was given to each participant so as to measure age, gender and participant status (see appendix C, p. 21). Three versions of a sample text (each with a readability, likability and reliability Likert scale) were distributed to participants. Version one identified the writer as an undergraduate student (see appendix D, p. 22). Version two identified the writer as a postgraduate student (see appendix E, p. 23). Version three did not identify the status of the writer (see appendix F, p. 24). A debriefing form was given to each participant. This form outlined the specific purpose of the study (see appendix G, p. 25).

Procedure (heading is usually on the left)

Explain how you carried out the study. You never explain the function of materials in this section. That’s what the previous section is for. This allows you to avoid wordiness, be concise and to the point.

Example

Participants were given a biro and an information sheet they were asked to read and sign. Participants were then given a consent form that they were asked to read and sign. Participants were then given a demographic questionnaire they were asked to fill out. Participants were then given one randomly selected version of the sample text. Participants were asked to read the sample text and to indicate their opinion of the text by using the three Likert scales provided directly below the sample text. Participants were then given a debriefing form to read and sign. Results were then collected for analysis and participants were thanked for their contribution.

Results (heading to the left)

The content of this section depends on what statistic tests you use. See my previous blog posts on ‘parametric and non-parametric tests’ (http://dtpsychology.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/statistic-tips-part-5-parametric-vs-non-parametric-tests/) and ‘choosing the correct statistics test’ (http://dtpsychology.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/statistics-tips-part-6-choosing-the-right-test/). A really good book which guides you on how to report data from statistics tests is: Pallant, J. (2007) “SPSS Survival Manual: A Step by Step Guide to Data Analysis using SPSS for Windows“, 3rd ed., New York: Open University Press. If psychology had a bible, this would be it.

It isn’t absolutely necessary to include every table that every statistic test you use produces; just the relevant ones which would help experts see where you got the data from. Some tables produced by some tests in statistic software packages won’t fit within the margins of Microsoft Word Document. I like to recreate the table from scratch using Word’s table features. It can be a tedious repetitive pain but it fits, looks way neater and your lecturer might gasp and swoon with euphoria.

Discussion (heading is usually on the left)

You’re nearly finished J

Interpret data from results section and use specific examples. What did your study find? What did it not find?

Did your study support any hypotheses you mentioned? Answer this question in the context of previous research findings that you mentioned in your literature review.

Did your study have weakness? If it could have been improved suggest how. Make suggestions for future research.

References

As with your citations in the previous sections of the document, use A.P.A. format.

The last three sections are ‘Appendices’, ‘List of Tables’ and ‘List of Figures’.

In general, reference only things you have actually cited. An exception to this might be books, articles or amazing blog posts on something like report writing itself or statistics. As always, check with lecturer.

Some Final Remarks

For a detailed research example, go to: https://sites.google.com/site/tierneycv/research-sample

You’ll notice it differs slightly from the guidelines here. That’s because it was tailored to suit a specific group of lecturers. Use it as a rough reference to guide you if you get stuck. In the example, you’ll notice I numbered each section which is a nice touch. Every little thing adds when you’re trying to get the A1. Your college should give you access to other research reports as well through databases such as ‘Psycharticles’. You may notice that different researchers have their own preferences. In particular, look out for research reports that your lecturer/supervisor has been involved in. It’ll help give you an idea of their personal preferences.

Another thing to be aware of is “that” verses “which”. Use “that” when you’re defining something. Use “which” when you’re also making a comment about something. For example:

The pet that I adopted is a puppy. My new pet, which is a puppy, is so cute.

Personally, I think either one has semantic validity (I’ve also got a background in linguistic theories) but a professional/academic norm has already been established and it’s always best to keep your lecturers/supervisors happy. I also recommend getting a classmate or friend to proofread your work. It’s often a good idea to get someone who isn’t familiar with the subject matter to read your work. If they can understand everything then that’s usually a good sign. If not, ask them where they’re getting confused and try to rewrite those sections. Good luck.

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About DTdriven

The name’s Dave Tierney and I’ve a firm background in Psychology, English Literature, Technical Communication and E-Learning. I love to read and write and I’m always interested in trying new things. If I’m not having fun with Photoshop, my spare time usually involves things like Parkour, Krav Maga or swimming.
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