A Research Methods “hook”: passive smoking and memory loss

New research (September 2012)

“The memory of a non-smoker could be damaged if they live with a cigarette user, new research has found.”

This quote is the first line in a piece entitled “Second-hand smoke is bad for your memory” posted on the BPS website (27/09/2012). The claim that passive smoking might lead to memory impairments seems a rather bold, if not at first a somewhat unexpected, statement.

The BPS summary of the research includes an expert comment from Chartered Psychologist Dr. Lance Workman who, with reference to a known association between smoking and memory impairments, likens passive smoking to being a light smoker in order to explain why he is not particularly surprised by the findings. He does point out, however, that it is not clear how exactly smoking has this detrimental effect on memory.

As soon as I read this piece I immediately had a list of questions in my head that I wanted answers to before I would take this research seriously. For this reason I think this research has scope to stimulate an interesting discussion in the classroom allowing students to hang their Research Methods knowledge on this topical “hook”. Here are a few ideas for using this piece as a learning resource.

Research Methods: AS Psychology (Unit 1, Research Methods, AQA A)

Display the first line of the BPS piece (and the first line of this post) and ask students to make a list of questions they would want to be answered about the research before taking it seriously. For example, students might consider how memory was operationalised, what sorts of memory tests were used (e.g. verbal, visual, short term, long term, immediate recall), the nature of the sample, whether this research was published in a reputable source, how long the participants were exposed to second hand smoke for etc. You could ask students to design an investigation to test this.

Provide a bit more detail about the study in order to answer some of the student’s questions and encourage them to be critical. Ask students what else they might need to know if they were to replicate the study.

Research Methods and the Scientific Method: A2 Psychology (Unit 4, AQA A)

This research would make an appropriate context to devise your own Unit 4 style research methods question, particularly as some quantitative data is reported in the summary.

Implications: Effective AO2 for A2 students

Discussing the implications of research is an effective way to analyse research findings and conclusions. Students can, however, find this idea hard to grasp. I like to encourage students to think of the implications of research in terms of “If” “Then” statements (if X is true then Y is also likely to be true). This can help students develop their analysis and keep their commentary relevant.

In the case of this research into passive smoking and memory an implication might be:

If being around a smoker can damage your memory, then it probably isn’t a very good idea to sit next to a smoker in class if you want to do well in your A Levels.

Ask students to discuss this (slightly tongue in cheek) implication in light of the research.

AS Psychology: Memory – Stretch and Challenge

Whilst thinking about implications students could relate this to their AS studies by considering what this finding might tell us about memory that we didn’t already know. This might be a useful stretching task for “gifted and talented” students at the end of the topic as it would encourage them to think beyond the Cognitive Approach to understanding memory.

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