Writing for Behavioral and Organizational Sciences
by John M. LaVelle, M.S.A.P., Doctoral Student-Evaluation and Applied Research Methods, CGU
No matter your area of study, you will be required to do a hefty amount of writing during your tenure in SBOS. Regardless of the type of assignment, the most successful students follow a predictable cycle: write, ask for feedback, receive feedback, integrate feedback, and rewrite.
Writing assignments in SBOS generally come in five different flavors: statistical reports, integrative papers, project proposals, theses, and IRB applications. All SBOS students will be required to produce the first three; only doctoral students are required to produce a thesis. All doctoral students are required to write IRB applications for their thesis, whereas master’s students may need to write one because of their work/research context.
Statistical reports are part and parcel to the required statistics sequence. In these assignments, you are required to critically analyze a dataset. You will be asked to test the data for the assumptions for normality, clearly state the key questions under examination, and ascertain an appropriate statistical analysis. For these assignments, it’s not enough that you know which analysis strategy to use; you must be able to clearly and succinctly state the rationale behind your choices. After running the analysis using SPSS, you will need to interpret the results. Using the key questions as a framework, what can you state about the phenomenon under study? Verbose papers will not receive higher grades; precision is valued in these types of writing assignments.
Integrative papers are largely theoretical in nature. There is generally a lot of flexibility in terms of topics, as long as they relate to the course content. As always, verify the topic with your professor before investing too much time into the research and writing. After receiving approval and conducting a search of the relevant literature, you will need to integrate the information into a coherent piece that demonstrates conceptual mastery of the topic. To do this, you’ll have to blend literature that both supports and refutes your topic. These papers generally have a very brief introduction followed by a discussion on the ways the topic has been operationalized (defined and measured) in the literature. What are the commonalities and dissimilarities? This is followed by a discussion of the relevant concepts that comprise the main topic, as well as an examination of where the concepts have empirical support. Questions to keep in mind are “What are the direction and strength of the relationships?”, “What population/sample was used in this study?,” and “Is there contrary evidence?”
Project proposals vary in their nature and purpose. Doctoral students are required to create a proposal for their thesis, whereas master’s students are required to develop an evaluation proposal. Both projects follow similar conceptual templates, but the actual format may change from professor to professor. The key is to demonstrate mastery of the subject so that your advisor has assurance that you’ll be successful if you follow through with the project as proposed. An appropriate metaphor is a funnel: you need to guide your reader through the information to arrive at a logical set of questions that may be answered through quantitative or qualitative data. First, make a broad statement about the importance of the topic of study. Why is it important to study drug behavior in adolescents? Why is it important to look at the effectiveness of a college-to-graduate school transition intervention? You will then need to describe an appropriate framework for examining the construct, focusing specifically on the construct’s sub-components. What element(s) will your project examine? What does the published literature say about these elements? This should lead you to a series (generally 2-5) of key questions that may be empirically tested. You’ll then have to suggest a research or evaluation design that is appropriate to answering the key questions. Why this design? Succinctly explain how this particular design will help negate the threats to internal validity. Propose a way of collecting the data that will answer the key questions and you should be set!
A fourth common writing assignment is to complete the thesis itself. After you’ve had your proposal approved and signed-off, and you’ve collected and analyzed the data, it’s time to write up the project. This follows a very similar format as your thesis proposal, except it will be broken into the standard APA sections. Much of this will flow directly from your proposal; and it’s just up to you to present your data and interpret it in light of your theoretical framework. In what ways do your data support the framework? How do they differ? What are the theoretical implications of your data? What are the practical implications? If building the argument for the thesis is like using a funnel, then the discussion should be like a safety cone, expanding the argument back to the level from which it was conceived. For example, if it was important enough to examine the mechanics of false-memory in adolescent males because of its cost to the judicial system, then you need to resituate the study in terms of cost to the judicial system.
Institutional Review Board (IRB)
Preparing a project for review by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) can be an anxiety-provoking experience. After all, rejection means delays. However, it is important to keep in mind that the IRB only cares about how you will be interacting with the participants in your study. They will not be impressed with your careful analysis of your theoretical construct, and it’s best to keep your proposal concise and to the point. Exactly how will you deliver the survey? What steps will you take to ensure confidentiality of the data? This application is fairly straightforward, though it can get tricky when using multiple measures. One strategy is to discuss your measures in a specific order, and to organize all subsequent sections of the IRB application based on that same order. If, for example, you’re asking participants to fill out one electronic survey, one paper survey, and participate in one interview, then discuss the electronic survey first, then the paper one, finally the interview protocol. Keep the same order for all the sections!