Psychology course requirement raises student concerns, ethical debate

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Photo Credit: Andrew Choi | Daily Texan Staff

Tucked away in a fourth-floor office, psychology research coordinator Eunjung Lee-Furman holds an aged binder containing documents that detail the history of student subjects in UT psychology research experiments, some of which date back to 1985.

The records all tell the story of the “research requirement,” which has long been a part of the Introduction to Psychology, or PSY 301, curriculum. To fulfill the requirement, students must either serve as subjects in five hours of psychology experiments, which range from simple questionnaires to clinical trials, or complete a research paper.

As long as the requirement has been around, there has been a debate over whether it is fair to ask students to participate in research, said Sam Gosling, psychology professor and PSY 301 instructor.

“It’s something we have always done and other major universities do, but there’s a debate over whether this is a reasonable thing to ask,” Gosling said. “I could see arguments saying … this is exploitative … but most people agree that it is reasonable as long as you provide an alternative.”

Lee-Furman said the alternate research paper keeps the requirement fair since both the paper and the research participation are equal in time and effort.

“Students think the paper will take a lot of time, but it’s a really easy paper to write,” Lee-Furman said.

Elizabeth Contreras, current PSY 301 student and public health sophomore, said she decided to participate in research because the essay did not seem like a fair alternative.

“I did the research participation because a five-page essay is not equal to five hours of my time,” Contreras said. “Nothing about the research I was involved in was unethical, but the way they got me to participate was definitely a gray area.”

The goal of participating in studies is to give students a more hands-on experience in the research process, Lee-Furman said.

Yet, Contreras said she did not feel she gained anything academically from participating in the experiments.

“It wasn’t an exciting experience at all,” Contreras said. “The experiments were very basic and the lab assistants seemed uninterested in being there. I didn’t gain very much from it except for the credit hours.”

Along with educating students, Lee-Furman said the research requirement is meant to provide a way for researchers to get data. It’s especially useful because 1,226 out of 1,382 — or 89 percent — of PSY 301 students participate, Lee-Furman said.

“You have a lot of students doing studies, so if the PSY 301 research requirement went away, people would feel it,” Lee-Furman said. “There would be a big effect, especially for student researchers who are the main users of the PSY 301 subject pool.”

Business freshman Emily Thoma, a current PSY 301 student, said the requirement benefits both researchers and students, and is an overall positive part of the class.

“Researchers are getting test subjects that are willing to participate, and students are learning about what researchers are doing and how they’re doing it,” Thomas said. “It’s cool to see what researchers are looking into.”

Department of Psychology Chair Jacqueline Woolley said research participation goes beyond getting data and allows students to give back to psychology.

“They’re becoming part of the fabric of psychology,” Woolley said.

Woolley said the department takes into account student experience and may reevaluate how the requirement benefits students.

“Every once in a while, people step back and question what students are really getting out of this,” Woolley said. “Maybe we should be creative and think of other requirements to give students that would enable them to experience research.”

The goal has always been to benefit everyone involved and move the discipline of psychology forward, Woolley said.

“As I say at graduation every year, we are all one big family, we are one community of undergraduates, professors and graduates all working together to make a better science,” Woolley said. “Student participation in research is part of that bigger picture of us all contributing to move the field along.”