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Hands-on Learning in Teaching Psychological Tests

Administering a Test Battery

One obstacle in teaching graduate and undergraduate students about psychological tests is that the technical nature of the material may alienate many students. Hands-on experience in administering, scoring, and interpreting tests can overcome this problem. I've found that working with a test battery can be an especially valuable method of enlivening the student's interest and enhancing their comprehension of how psychological tests work. A test score, such as IQ, is not seen as some mysterious, scientific fact etched in stone, but as the product of a logical, systematic set of measurements that is subject to interpretation and error. The beauty of working with a test battery is that it reinforces the idea that any test score must be validated by other findings. It must be seen IN CONTEXT with other test scores because people are multifaceted and not reducible to any one measurement or scale.

My recommendation is that this exercise be reserved for graduate students and upper level undergraduate psychology majors. It is especially valuable for undergraduates who wish to attend a graduate program related to the mental health field (which is true of many of my students). I emphasize to my undergraduate students that learning how to administer and score a test battery usually is reserved for graduate training. So, I advise them, take this exercise very seriously... And they do. I also emphasize that the purpose of the project is to help them understand psychological tests, but by no means will it result in any competency in testing skills. The purpose of the project is NOT to turn them into qualified testers.

It has been consistently clear from the course evaluations that they truly appreciate the project. For almost everyone, it is the highlight of the course. Several students who were accepted into graduate psychology programs later told me that they were way ahead of the game in their graduate testing courses.

Learning Fundamental Concepts

In the first section of the course we learn about the fundamental ideas in psychometrics - the types of psychological tests, norms, reliability, validity, item analysis, etc. It is crucial for the test battery project that students understand these basic concepts. How do you know what a t-score of 80 on the MMPI means if you don't know what a t-score is? How do you know that "C" on the Rorschach indicates emotion unless you know something about criterion validity?

Learning the Tests in the Battery

In the second section, we learn the history and theory of each of the tests in the battery (WAIS, MMPI, TAT, Rorschach, Bender-Gestalt), as well as how to administer, score, and interpret the tests. I demonstrate in front of the class the techniques for administration, and supply them with handouts of case study data that we score and interpret together. I also supply them with handouts that contain specific instructions on how to administer, score, and interpret the various tests. These instructions are very simplified versions of well-know systems (e.g., Exner for the Rorschach).

In addition to discussing the tests individually, I also teach the students how to interpret the battery as a whole. I emphasize the importance of the synthetic thinking involved in the contextual validation of the hypotheses that emerge from the test battery data. A conclusion is most viable when there are consistent and mutually confirming patterns of evidence within and across the tests. I also emphasize that data from one test can be clarified and enriched by data from the other tests in the battery. The ultimate objective of the project, and of psychological testing, is to construct a holistic understanding of a person.

Role Playing for the Tests

Working with a partner from the class (who is chosen randomly), each student both administers and takes all of the tests. While responding to the battery, the student play-acts a role. The role may reflect a normal personality, or an individual suffering from some personality or cognitive dysfunction. It may be someone the student has known personally, a real or fictional character from literature or film, or a person created entirely from the student's imagination.

In preparation for this role, the student is required to write a paper that summarizes the characteristics and background information of the person he or she will be playing, as well as how that person should respond to the various tests. I provide a handout describing how to write this paper. The paper should predict, in as much detail as possible, the test scores that will be obtained by the enacted person. I provide comments, suggestions, and, of course, a grade for the paper. Throughout the testing, the student is encouraged to refer back to this paper as a guideline for playing the role. The partner may inquire about the background information, but the testee is instructed to play the role throughout the testing rather than directly discuss the characteristics of the person being enacted or how that person will be scoring on the tests.

This method of role plying serves two functions. First, it requires the students to study the tests more intensely in order to prepare for their roles. The role playing also overcomes an ethical problem. A genuine administration of personality and intelligence tests to a fellow classmate would be an intrusive violation of confidentiality. Role playing successfully bypasses this problem. It also turns out to be an educational and fun experience in itself.

Students are remarkably skilled in conveying their characters through the role plays. However, the role playing does create some difficulties. Although they consult the test manuals while taking the tests, students are not always able to respond exactly as they planned. One potential problem is that students may overact their roles, resulting in exaggerated scores (for example, t-scores on the MMPI depression scale that go off the top of the page). On the one hand, this helps the student interpreting the tests since these exaggerated scores obviously are driving home a point. Technically speaking, however, the scores are not interpretable. When discussed with the students, these issues become an important learning experience. I instruct the role-players ahead of time to be careful about exaggerated responding. If your character is depressed, don't indicate depression on EVERY item on the depression scale!

The Instructor's Role

The instructor will need to set aside 10 to 12 hours for the exercise. Working with their partners, most students are able to take and administer the tests in that amount of time, as well as begin work on the scoring and interpretation (some of this can be done at home). The instructor's primary role is to orchestrate and supervise these activities, coordinate the distribution and sharing of the test materials, and help pace the students. I devote the first few minutes of each session to discuss and review any issues that pertain to the whole class. During the exercise, I also encourage students to work in small groups to help each other with administration techniques, scoring, and especially the interpretation of the data.

The Testing Report

Once the testing is completed, the students write a testing report according to the guidelines on a handout I give them. When they finish a rough draft, it's very valuable for them to meet with their partner and discuss how their findings compare to how the role player was attempting to portray the character.


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