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Evaluating an Empirical Study


Entry requirements

Open to MSc Psychology (research) students


The aim of this course is to teach students to critically evaluate and improve published empirical psychological research. Students will be presented with research designs using a variety of different methods, to broaden their views about the possibilities to address different types of research questions. The course meetings and assignments are intended to train students to jointly and independently review empirical studies, suggest improvements and to apply open science practices and multiple methods within a single study design.

Course objectives

The course aims to:

  • Provide an overview of the different types of experimental methods used in psychological research, including their strengths and weaknesses;

  • Train students’ ability to provide a critical and constructive review of a published empirical study;

  • Teach students to provide recommendations for improving a published research design, including the use of open science practices and multi-methods approaches.


For the timetable of this course please refer to MyTimetable


NOTE As of the academic year 2021-2022, you must register for all courses in uSis.
You do this twice a year: once for the courses you want to take in semester 1 and once for the courses you want to take in semester 2.
Registration for courses in the first semester is possible from early August. Registration for courses in the first semester is possible from December. The exact date on which the registration starts will be published on the website of the Student Service Center (SSC)

By registering for a course you are also automatically registered for the Brightspace module. Anyone who is not registered for a course therefore does not have access to the Brightspace module and cannot participate in the first sit of the exam of that course.
Also read the complete registration procedure

Mode of instruction

This course consists of:

  • 4 2-hour lectures (every week)

  • 4 3-hour presentation meetings (every week)

Attendance is mandatory.

Assessment method

EES Presentation Assignment: Students will give a presentation on a paper during a discussion meeting with an expert from the field.

EES Discusssion Question Assignment: Students are required to post a question on Brightspace regarding a paper on the reading list every week.

EES Writing Assignment: Students will write a critical review of a paper from a selected list and suggest improvements regarding design and method.

The Institute of Psychology follows the policy of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences to systematically check student papers for plagiarism with the help of software. Disciplinary measures will be taken when fraud is detected. Students are expected to be familiar with and understand the implications of this fraud policy.

Reading list

Note: the reading list will be updated. The most recent version of the literature list will be announced on Brightspace prior to the start of the module.

The literature consists of 2 target papers per module and 2 empirical research papers per module. The target papers describe the relevant background literature and provide an introduction to that week’s topic. The research papers will be used during the workgroup meetings. Each of the four modules consists of two meetings:

  • The first meeting will be an online lecture, providing an introduction into the topic(s). Each lecture will be made available online, and on the day of the lecture at 2PM there is an online Q&A session.

  • The second meeting will be interactive and students are required to present an empirical research paper (for assignment description, see below).

Note: prior to each interactive workgroup on Friday, all students are required to submit a critical remark, commentary or question regarding one of the research articles for that week on Brightspace!

Module 1: Introduction
The first week will provide a general introduction to the topic and the aim of this course. We will discuss the pros and cons of different research methods, the distinction between implicit and explicit measures in psychology, and we will shortly anticipate the use of open science practices and the relevance of replication studies.

Teacher: dr. Michiel van Elk

Key readings (Lecture 1):

  • Gawronski, B., & De Houwer, J. (2014). Implicit measures in social and personality psychology.

  • Van Elk, M., Matzke, D., Gronau, Q., Guang, M., Vandekerckhove, J., & Wagenmakers, E. J. (2015). Meta-analyses are no substitute for registered replications: A skeptical perspective on religious priming. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 1365

  • Vul, E., Harris, C., Winkielman, P., & Pashler, H. (2009). Puzzlingly high correlations in fMRI studies of emotion, personality, and social cognition. Perspectives on psychological science, 4(3), 274-290.

Papers for student presentations (Workgroup 1):

  • Maij, D. L., van Harreveld, F., Gervais, W., Schrag, Y., Mohr, C., & van Elk, M. (2017). Mentalizing skills do not differentiate believers from non-believers, but credibility enhancing displays do. PloS one, 12(8), e0182764.

  • van Elk, M., Arciniegas Gomez, M. A., van der Zwaag, W., van Schie, H. T., & Sauter, D. (2019). The neural correlates of the awe experience: Reduced default mode network activity during feelings of awe. Human brain mapping, 40(12), 3561-3574.

Module 2: Evaluating Brain Science
Functional neuroimaging can be a useful tool for testing psychological theories. This module will cover the methodological aspects of designing and analyzing an experimental task for the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The module will focus on the following questions: 1) Which theories can be tested with fMRI? 2) What are the experimental requirements for testing these theories? 3) How can we evaluate fMRI research? These questions will be illustrated with data examples from various research areas.

Teacher: Dr. A.C.K. van Duijvenvoorde

Key readings (Lecture 2):

  • Poldrack, R. A. (2012). The future of fMRI in cognitive neuroscience. Neuroimage, 62, 1216-1220.

  • Poldrack, R. A., & Farah, M. J. (2015). Progress and challenges in probing the human brain. Nature, 526(7573), 371-379.

Papers for student presentations (Workgroup 2):

  • van Duijvenvoorde, A. C., de Macks, Z. A. O., Overgaauw, S., Moor, B. G., Dahl, R. E., & Crone, E. A. (2014). A cross-sectional and longitudinal analysis of reward-related brain activation: effects of age, pubertal stage, and reward sensitivity. Brain and cognition, 89, 3-14.

  • van Duijvenvoorde, A. C., Westhoff, B., de Vos, F., Wierenga, L. M., & Crone, E. A. (2019). A three‐wave longitudinal study of subcortical–cortical resting‐state connectivity in adolescence: Testing age‐and puberty‐related changes. Human brain mapping, 40(13), 3769-3783.

Module 3: 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. Examples will be drawn from the clinical and medical research areas, but the principles are applicable to other interventions as well. The standards for conducting and reporting intervention research will also be addressed.

Teacher: Dr. V. Ly

Key readings and preparation (Lecture 3):

  • Vandenbroucke, J.P. (2008). Observational research, randomized trials, and two views of medical science. PLoS Medicine, 5: e67.

  • http://www.consort-statement.org/ (have a look at the CONSORT checklist; do you think this checklist is useful for preparing and evaluating a study report? Which aspects are also applicable to nonclinical (intervention) studies?)

  • https://www.clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/manage-recs/background (read more about the purpose of trial registration on this website. Have a look at the Dutch trial register and search for/check out some trials. Is it a useful register? https://www.trialregister.nl/)

Papers for student presentations (Workgroup 3):

  • Browning, M., Grol, M., Ly, V., Goodwin, G. M., Holmes, E. A., & Harmer, C. (2011). Using an experimental medicine model to explore combination effects of pharmacological and cognitive interventions for depression and anxiety. Neuropsychopharmacology, 36, 2689-2696.

  • Bosch, A., Bierens, M., De Wit, A., Ly, V., Van der Velde, J., De Boer, H., Van Beek, G., Appelman, D., Visser, S., Bos, L., Van der Meer, J., Kamphuis, N., Draaisma, J., Donders, R., Van de Loo-Neus, G., Hoekstra, P., Bottelier, M., Arias-Vasquez, A., Klip, H., Buitelaar, J., Van den Berg, S., & Rommelse, N. (2020). A randomized controlled trial comparing the short and long term effects of an elimination diet and a healthy diet in children with ADHD. BMC Psychiatry, 20, 262.

(in addition, presenters are recommended to read: Pelsser, L. M. et al. (2001). Effects of a restricted elimination diet on the behaviour of children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (INCA study): a randomized controlled trial. Lancet, 377, 494-503.)

Module 4: Evaluating Experiments
In this module, we will focus on understanding rich social situations using standardized and controlled studies. We will address the question of how theoretically meaningful aspects of social situations can be simulated or re-created in the lab (experimental simulations and games), to observe their effects under highly controlled circumstances. We will use specific research examples to practice evaluating and designing empirical studies. Moreover, we will discuss differences between fundamental (process-focused) and applied (problem-focused) research to learn how standardized and controlled studies relate to reality.

Teacher: Dr. M.K. Noordewier

Key readings (Lecture 4):

  • Wilson, T. D., & Aronson, E., & Carlsmith, K. (2010). The art of laboratory experimentation. In S. Fiske, D. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (5th ed., vol. 1, pp. 49-79). New York: Wiley.

  • Reis, H.T., & Gosling, S.D. (2010). Social psychological methods outside the laboratory. In S. Fiske, D. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey, (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (5th ed., vol. 1, pp. 82-114). New York: Wiley.

Papers for student presentations (Workgroup 4):

  • Noordewier M.K. & Van Dijk E. (2017), Curiosity and time: From not knowing to almost knowing, Cognition and Emotion 31, 411-421.

  • Doolaard, F. T., Lelieveld, G. J., Noordewier, M. K., Van Beest, I., & Van Dijk, E. (2020). Get out or stay out: How the social exclusion process affects actors, but not targets. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 88, e103946.

Contact information

Dr. Michiel van Elk m.van.elk@fsw.leidenuniv.nl