Action Research to Improve the Quality of Life on Campus

Lawrence T. White (Beloit College)


Please note: Instructors are welcome to use or adapt these teaching ideas for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given.


To help students: (1) understand how social psychological principles can be used to address a social problem; (2) learn how to design, implement, and evaluate a behavior change project; (3) develop their writing and oral presentation skills; and (4) make a genuine contribution to the quality of life at their college or university


The main idea behind this action teaching assignment is that students design, implement, and assess a behavior change project to improve the quality of life on campus. In the first phase, the class identifies feasible behavioral interventions that apply social psychological principles. Students then work in teams to develop their project, presenting a preliminary version to the class for feedback and drafting an action research proposal that (1) describes the intervention, (2) explains why it should work, and (3) discusses how the outcome will be assessed. Once these proposals are approved, the teams implement their intervention, evaluate its effectiveness, and present the results at a research poster session that is widely publicized and open to the public. After the poster session, each student caps off the experience by writing an APA-style research report that describes the project and its results.

Background and Overview

A curricular theme at my institution is "liberal arts in practice" (LAP). LAP is defined in slightly different ways by different individuals, but all definitions share an emphasis on experiential learning, integrating knowledge and experience, and contributing to the public good.

In the spirit of LAP — and Kurt Lewin's call for action research — I have devised a semester-long assignment in which students design and implement a behavior change project that aims to improve the quality of life on campus. Students evaluate the effectiveness of their intervention and report their findings in a poster session and an APA-style research report.

Examples of goals for action research projects include increased use of condoms by students, decreased water usage in residence halls, fewer arguments in intramural athletic contests, and fewer instances of excessive drinking.

Description of the Assignment

The assignment is part of an upper-level Advanced Social Psychology seminar that enrolls 12-15 juniors and seniors majoring in psychology. Detailed instructions are provided in the course syllabus and subsequent handouts.

During the first two weeks of the semester, the class as a whole brainstorms ideas for on-campus behavior change projects. These conversations tend to focus on pertinent social psychological principles and the utility and feasibility of potential interventions. Students read examples of action research (e.g., Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990), and the instructor presents short lectures on quasi-experimental designs and nonreactive measures.

Students work together in teams of two or three to develop a feasible project. In Week 3, the teams each give a 7-8 minute presentation about what they plan to do, why they think it will work, and how they will assess its effectiveness. The instructor and other students provide each team with helpful suggestions and constructive criticism.

Team members collaborate to write a single 2-3 page action research proposal. Each proposal must include four sections: (1) a description of the intervention; (2) an explanation, in social psychological terms, of why the intervention should work; (3) a description of how the team will evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention; and (4) a list of references. The proposal is due in Week 4.

Each team then works independently on its project for the next eight weeks, implementing a behavior change intervention and measuring its effectiveness. When necessary, teams gain permission from campus administrators.

After the program has been implemented and evaluated, each team creates and presents a research poster at a "Social Psychology in Action" poster session that is open to the public and publicized in advance. Students and the instructor evaluate the posters according to criteria listed in a scoring sheet that is distributed in advance.

At the end of the semester (Week 14), each student writes an APA-style research report that describes the project and its results. The instructor assesses the report according to a rubric from Gottfried, Johnson, and Vosmik (2009) that appears in the assignment instructions.

Sample Student Action Projects

Here are three abstracts that illustrate the sort of projects developed by students (gently edited for brevity and style). These abstracts provide a general picture of what can be accomplished in a 15-week semester.

Effect of Visual Prompts on Food Waste in a Campus Dining Hall

(J. Eversage & B. Kosmicki)

Around the world, there is growing concern for the amount of food wasted on a daily basis, particularly in buffet-style dining facilities on university campuses. Our project used an interrupted time-series design to examine the effectiveness of posters designed to reduce food waste. We measured the amount of food waste during a 12-day baseline and a 12-day treatment phase. In the treatment phase, we installed posters in the dining hall that promoted less wasteful, more conscientiousness dining. The success of the posters was determined by comparing the average weight of food waste before and after the intervention. We obtained a 6.8% reduction in food waste after installing the posters.

Effect of Perceptual Salience on the Use of Cigarette Receptacles

(M. Dubin, C. McShane, & R. Weinmann)

Students often overlook the presence of cigarette receptacles located directly outside the campus pub and flick their cigarette butts on the ground. In our project, we sought to reduce litter using techniques like those in a review of the impact of social influence on normative behavior (Cialdini, Kallgren, & Reno, 1990). This review revealed that perceptual salience (e.g., one piece of litter in an otherwise clean environment) can reinforce injunctive norms ("oughts") and produce substantial behavior change. We painted a cigarette receptacle fluorescent yellow and added an attention-getting instruction: Insert Butt Here. We compared the number of butts in the receptacle before and after our intervention. Unfortunately, the distinctive receptacle and humorous instruction did not lead to an increase in receptacle use. Limitations include the influence of uncontrollable factors such as the weather.

Effect of a Monetary Incentive on Attendance at Student Government Meetings

(B. Cruzan & E. Kozera)

Beloit Student Congress (BSC) is a student-run government organization that regulates funding and events. Registered clubs come to meetings to share their opinions and requests. BSC meetings can be long and boring, which causes low attendance. We offered an incentive -- a chance to win $50 -- to clubs that attend the meetings, with each meeting attended increasing the chances of winning a lottery drawing for the monetary prize. We compared weekly attendance records before and after the incentive program was announced. Attendance increased slightly, but not enough to be statistically significant. A larger number of observations would have produced a greater chance of observing a significant effect.

Tips for Implementation

This assignment is most appropriate for upper-level students who have already completed courses in statistics and research methods and learned to write in APA style. Here are a few other tips for implementation:

  1. Encourage students to work in pairs. Research partners can help each other with data collection and commiserate when problems arise. The number of projects is cut in half, which eases the workload of the instructor.
  2. Provide students with necessary resources. My department gives each team $50 for project expenses and $20 to cover the cost of printing a wide-format poster.
  3. Tell students to keep it simple. Students sometimes design interventions that are overly ambitious. I encourage students to design a simple project with clear goals that can be completed within the time available. In the spirit of simplicity -- and to avoid potential ethical concerns -- I do not allow students to implement a project that involves a special population (e.g., toddlers at a daycare center).
  4. Advise students to use certain methodologies (e.g., interrupted time series design; nonreactive measures) and avoid others (e.g., self-report measures). When students use the suggested methods, they avoid many problems inherent in lab experiments and surveys (e.g., recruitment of participants, demand characteristics, cultural response biases).
  5. Require students to present their findings in a public venue. Action research cannot produce social change if policymakers are unaware of the intervention and its effectiveness.

Evaluation of the Assignment

I have not directly evaluated the effectiveness of the assignment, but one item on my institution's course evaluation form is "The course includes useful assignments" (on a 7-point scale ranging from "not at all" to "very much so"). Because the action research project is the only assignment in the course, this item provides one measure of student reactions. In Fall 2011, students rated the usefulness of assignments very positively (M = 6.77, SD = 0.44). Another item on the form is "The course challenged me to do creative work." Students also agreed strongly with this statement (M = 6.54, SD = 0.66).

Many aspects of the assignment accord with advice on how to administer student research projects: (a) design a simple project with clear goals, (b) work alongside students, and (c) establish a student research "community" (Coker & Davies, 2006). Moreover, specific features of the assignment — such as direct faculty-student mentoring and the use of observational methods and nonreactive measures — are consistent with recommendations for ethical and culturally sensitive research projects undertaken by students (Streitwieser & Sobania, 2008).


Cialdini, R., Reno, R., & Kallgren, C. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(6), 1015-1026.

Coker, J. S., & Davies, E. (2006). Ten time-saving tips for undergraduate research mentors. Journal of Natural Resources & Life Sciences Education, 35, 110-112.

Gottfried, G. M., Johnson, K. E., & Vosmik, J. R. (2009). Assessing student learning: A collection of evaluation tools. Office of Teaching Resources in Psychology, Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

Streitwieser, B., & Sobania, N. (2008). Overseeing study abroad research: Challenges, responsibilities, and the institutional review board. Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, 16, 1-16.