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Designing an Empirical Study


Admission requirements

Research master students


The aim of this course is to teach students in the research master programme – regardless of their area of specialisation – about a variety of approaches and methods that can be used in psychological research. This is intended to broaden students’ views regarding the possibilities to operationalise different kinds of research questions.
The course meetings and assignments are intended to make students more aware of the added value of creatively combining different research traditions, and to enhance their ability to consider, combine, and apply multiple methodologies in a single research design.

Course objectives

Students will

  • be taught about different ways to design an empirical study, and learn how to select a design that suits a specific research question.

  • gain an overview of the different types of methods to operationalise constructs that are used in psychological research.

  • learn to reflect upon the strengths and weaknesses of different measures in order to assess their suitability to address a particular research question.

  • be practicing their skills to develop experimental hypotheses on various topics and to identify the most suitable experimental design to test them.


Designing an Empirical Study (2010-2011):

Mode of instruction

5 modules (each module composed by 2 classes weekly of 2 hours each)

Assessment method

Students will be examined in each of the modules 2-5, as described above. The format of the examination is adapted to the respective module and will thus differ slightly from module to module.

From January 1, 2006 the Faculty of Social Sciences has instituted the Ephorus system to be used by instructors for the systematic detection of plagiarism in students’ written work. Please see the information concerning fraud .


Literature will be made available on Blackboard

Reading list

The literature will consist of 2-3 articles per module-one article to illustrate the method and one or two to describe it in more detail.


Each of the five modules consists of two meetings in the same week. The first meeting will be based on an introduction into the method(s) to be discussed and the second meeting will focus on practicing the application of methods and discussing the plans for student papers.

Module 1: Introduction and heuristics

Carrying out empirical research presupposes a research question, but where do such questions come from? The first module will focus on this problem and discuss various ways to find and strategies to generate research questions.
It does not include an assigment.

  • Teacher: Prof. Dr. B. Hommel

  • Literature:

    • Hershey, D.A., Jacobs-Lawson, J.M., & Wilson, T.T. (2006). Research as a script. In T.L. Leong & J.T. Austin (eds), The psychology research handbook: A guide for graduate students and research assistants. Sage.
    • Leong, F.T.L., & Muccio, D.J. (2006). Finding a research topic. In T.L. Leong & J.T. Austin (eds), The psychology research handbook: A guide for graduate students and research assistants. Sage.

Module 2: Observation and simulation

The aim of this module is to learn about different observational techniques that can be used to assess responses to specific (experimentally created) conditions. These include a broad range of tools and measures, that help assess cognitive, affective and behavioral responses to different types of (social and task) conditions people can be exposed to, as well as procedures and techniques to quantify more qualitative behavioral observations (such as video-coding). We will also address the question of how theoretically meaningful aspects of richer social situations can be simulated or re-created in the lab (experimental simulations and games), to examine their effects under highly controlled circumstances.
In this module, the focus of the assignment and evaluation of the work submitted will be on the development of dependent measures in experimental and field studies. This includes a description of activities associated with the conceptualization, pre-testing, reliability, and validation of self-reported states and intentions and the triangulation with such self-reports with observational measures.

  • Teacher: Dr. Thomas Stahl

  • Literature:

    • Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D., & Anderson, C. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110, 265-284.
    • Aronson, E., Ellsworth, P.C., Carlsmith, J.M, & Gonzales, M.H. (1990). Methods of research in social psychology (2nd. Ed.). Chapter 8: The dependent variable (pp. 240-291). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Module 3: Exploring the brain

Functional neuroimaging can be a useful tool to test psychological theories. This class will cover the methodological aspects of designing an experimental task for the use of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). The class will focus on the following questions: 1) Which theories can be tested with fMRI and which cannot? 2) What are the experimental requirements for testing these theories? 3) What do we learn from fMRI results? These questions will be illustrated with real data examples from various research areas.
There will be a take-home assignment. Students will receive an empirical paper in class in which fMRI methods are used. They will need to 1) answer critical questions about the design of the study based on what is covered in class, and 2) make suggestions for design changes to improve the experimental design. The take-home assignment will have a highly structured format,and will need to be returned one week after class.

  • Teacher: Prof. Dr. E. Crone

  • Literature (METHOD 2):

    • Henson, R (2006). Forward inference using functional neuroimaging: dissociations versus associations. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10, 64-69.
    • Poldrack, RA (2007). Region of Interest analysis for fMRI. Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2, 67-70.
    • Singer, T., & Steinbeis, N. (2009). Differential roles of fairness-and compassion-based motivations for cooperation, defection, and punishment. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1167, 41-50.

Module 4: Investigating infants

We will take a close look at different methods that were developed and extensively used in the last 20 years in infancy research. These include various behavioral techniques, a variety of methods that are based on looking behavior and state of the art techniques such as EEG and NIRS. We discuss some representative study examples that used these techniques. We will focus on the methodological and theoretical issues that have to be considered when one chooses a particular technique and designs an experiment to test a research question.
There will be a take-home assignment. Students will be given two research hypotheses (related to the issue paper) and will be asked to develop a solution of how to test one of the hypotheses using the research techniques that have been discussed during the meetings.

  • Teacher: Dr. S. Biro

  • Literature:

    • Baldwin, D.A. & Baird, J.B. (2001). Discerning intentions in dynamic human action. Trends in Cognitieve Sciences, 5, 171-178.
    • Lamb, M.E., & Bornstein, M.H. (2004). Development in infancy: Methods of research in infancy (Chapter 3, p. 53-83). Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Module 5: Evaluating Interventions

In this module we will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of different designs to evaluate interventions, ranging from case reports to randomized controlled trials. The examples will be drawn from the clinical and medical areas, but the principles are applicable to other interventions as well. The standards of conducting and reporting intervention research will also be addressed.
The assignment will be a take-home assignment. Students will receive two empirical papers in class; one paper that presents findings on the effectiveness of a relatively new intervention, and one on an intervention that had been tried and tested more often. Students will need to answer critical questions about the design of these studies, based on the material that is covered in class. Secondly, students will be asked to make suggestions for an appropriate next step in this line of research. The take-home assignment will have a structured format, and will need to be returned one week after class.

  • Teacher: Prof. Dr. W. van der Does

  • Literature:

    • Vandenbroucke, J.P. (2008). Observational Research, randomised trials, and two views of medical science. PLoS Medicine 5: e67
    • Kazdin, A.E. (2003). Control and comparison groups. In: Kazdin, A.E.: Research Designs in Clinical Psychology (Chapter 7, pp. 184-212).


Introduction and enrolment for courses of the first semester will take place in August 2010. Introduction and enrolment for courses of the second semester will take place in January 2011. More information will be available at the website of the Institute of Psychology.

NB: Exam registration will take place via uSis, and will be open between a month and a week before the (re)exam. Students who haven’t registered, cannot participate in the exam.

Contact information

Prof. Dr. Bernhard Hommel
Room 2-B05