nl en

Designing an Empirical Study


Admission requirements

MSc Psychology (research) 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 practising their skills to develop experimental hypotheses on various topics and to identify the most suitable experimental design to test them.


Designing an Empirical Study (2012-2013):

Mode of instruction

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

Assessment method

Students will review a paper of their own choice and suggest improvements regarding design and method.

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 an introduction into the method(s) to be discussed and the second meeting will focus on practising the application of methods.

Module 1: Research ethics and levels of explanation

The aim of this module is to increase the sensitivity of the students with respect to two issues that are often overlooked in empirical research. The first relates to the role of theory in the research process. Even though psychological research is often said to aim for testing hypothe-ses about human mind and behavior, hypotheses are actually often derived after the fact, that is, after the relevant data have been collected. We will discuss the logical and ethical implica-tions of this practice. The second issue relates to the fact that human mind and behavior can be explained at different levels: at a phenomenological, functional, or physiological level. They all provide potentially useful insights into psychological processes but, unfortunately, many researchers confuse these levels and consider some as “causing” others. We will dis-cuss examples for, and the implications of this classical logical error. This module aims to stimulate critical thinking and controversial discussion.

Teacher: Prof. Dr. B. Hommel
Key readings:

  • Kerr, N. L. (1998). HARKing (Hypothesizing After the Results are Known). Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2, 196-217.

  • Weisberg, D.S., Keil, F.C., Goodstein, J., Rawson, E., & Gray, J. (2008). The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20, 470-477.

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 behavioural responses to different types of (social and task) conditions people can be exposed to, as well as procedures and techniques to quantify more qualitative behavioural 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.

Teacher: Dr. Thomas Stahl
Key readings:

  • 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.

  • Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D., & Anderson, C. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psycho-logical Review, 110, 265-284.

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.

Teacher: Prof. Dr. E. Crone
Key readings:

  • Poldrack, R. A. (2006). Can cognitive processes be inferred from neuroimaging data? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10, 61-63.

  • Henson, R. (2006). Forward inference using functional neuroimaging: dissociations versus associations. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10, 64-69.

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 behavioural techniques, a variety of methods that are based on looking behaviour 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.

Teacher: Dr. S. Biro
Key Readings:

  • Hayhoe, M. M. (2004). Advances in relating eye movement and cognition. Infancy, 6, 267-274.

  • 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.

Teacher: Prof. Dr. W. van der Does
Key readings:

  • Boutron, I. et al. (2008). Methods and processes of the CONSORT group: Example of an extension for trials assessing nonpharmacologic treatments. Annals of Internal Medicine, 148, 295-309.

  • Vandenbroucke, J.P. et al. (2007). Strengthening the reporting of observational studies in epidemiology (STROBE): Explanation and elaboration. PLoS Medicine, 4: e297.

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

Contact information

Prof. Dr. Bernhard Hommel
Room 2-B05