National Conference on Undergraduate Education in Psychology: Drawing a blueprint for the future of the discipline

Highlights from the conference of 80 psychologists charged with the task of designing the best possible future for undergraduate education in psychology

By Diane F. Halpern, PhD

It was like being 18 again, only this time we were wiser. Eighty psychologists charged with the task of designing the best possible future for undergraduate education in psychology checked into the beautiful dorms at the University of Puget Sound his summer. For almost a week, we adjusted to life with roommates, ate at the college cafeteria, worked harder than we ever did in college, and, for the most part, loved every minute of it. Our return to dorm life (only older and, we hoped, better) was in response to the decision by APA’s Board of Educational Affairs that it was time to address critical issues in undergraduate education.

They assembled a stellar steering committee and charged them with the task of redesigning undergraduate education in psychology in a sound, scientific way that would bring about positive change. It was clear that the steering committee needed help with this broad and important task, so we decided to tackle the big questions at a working conference with participants selected for their commitment to undergraduate excellence. A call went out for conference participants; the steering committee was humbled by the response. Well over 200 applications were received for the 50 to 60 slots we had available for the conference. The applicants described their visions for the future of undergraduate education in psychology, provided relevant background information, and pledged to work hard to turn their visions into reality. The selection process was almost impossible with such a wealth of talent, but the committee did its best to put together a group that represented the full range of diversity in psychology, including participants from all levels of education, ranging from high school teachers to those who taught only graduate students; we wanted a racially diverse mix of early and late-career psychologists from large and small institutions, including professional schools, different areas of expertise within psychology and people with disabilities and knowledge about disabilities. The conference participants were a pretty amazing group.

The conference was organized around nine broad questions that we needed to answer to create a world-class educational program that provides students with the workplace skills needed in the information age and a solid academic background that prepares them for advanced study in a wide range of fields. Each group crafted a response to their question and listed recommendations for all of the stakeholders in higher education, including students and prospective students and their parents, faculty, administrators, funding agencies, policymakers and accrediting commissions. A full report of our deliberations will be published by APA in 2009. Here are some highlights.

  • Tom McGovern, PhD (Arizona State University West), chaired the working group that laid the foundation for our plans. The group responded to the broad conceptual question of why we need to rethink the way we educate students in psychology. They created the concept of psychologically literate citizens. These are citizens who have a well-defined vocabulary and basic knowledge ofthe critical subject matter of psychology, value the intellectual challenges required to use scientific thinking and the disciplined analysis of information to evaluate alternative courses of action, act ethically, recognize and foster diversity, and are insightful and reflective about their own and others’ behavior and mental processes. The members of the working group recommended that psychological literacy should become the defining quality for the over 90,000 psychology majors who graduate each year from U.S. institutions and for the millions of others around the world.

  • Daniel Bernstein, PhD (University of Kansas),and his working group built on the idea of creating psychologically literate citizens by addressing the questions of quality in instruction. They noted that in the United States, nearly 50 percent of credit hours are taught by contingent faculty, and few institutions are willing to invest resources into developing the teaching skills of “nonpermanent” faculty, even when they teach at the same institution for decades. This group recommended that quality in instruction be gauged by contextualized evidence of student work and reflective practices that show improvement over time. They believe that we need to endorse an evidence-based scientist–educator model for quality teaching that parallels the scientist—practitioner model for clinical and other practice.

  • We need a solid curriculum to guide what is taught and learned. The working group that addressed questions about the curriculum was chaired by Dana Dunn, PhD (Moravian College).The group raised concerns about specialization and fragmentation in psychology and the rise of the consumerist culture in higher education, where the catch phrase seems to be “the customer, I mean student, is always right.” Their recommendations for the curriculum included making the introductory course a prerequisite for all other courses and having students complete coursework in research methods and statistics as soon after the introductory course as feasible. Every major should include courses from the basic four domains (biological bases, developmental, learning and cognition, and sociocultural influences) and incorporate an applied experience.

  • The fourth working group, chaired by Linh Littleford, PhD (Ball State University), addressed the questions of increasing student diversity and how diversity should or should not affect undergraduate education in psychology. They endorsed a model of inclusive excellence that is based on access and equity, student learning and development, diversity in the formal and informal curriculum ,and a welcoming campus climate. Psychology courses need to reflect the centrality of diversity issues to psychological science.

  • The question of when and where students learn about psychology was addressed by the working group chaired by Ann Ewing, PhD (Mesa Community College). They recognized the many formal settings where psychology education takes place, including a wide array of academic institutions and professional development venues, and informal settings, including popular media, websites, podcasts, networking sites, family discussions and religious communities. About 46 percent of all college undergraduates are enrolled in community colleges, including about half of all racial and ethnic minority students. Discussions about undergraduate education in psychology must recognize the large numbers of students enrolled in psychology courses in high school as well. Introductory psychology is one of the most frequently selected courses in the undergraduate curriculum, second only to English composition in percentage of credits earned by bachelor’s degree recipients. Because the introductory course is the only formal exposure to psychology that most educated citizens will have, it is critical that this course reflect the nature of psychology as a scientific discipline.

  • What are the best ways of teaching psychology as a science? Stephen Chew, PhD (Samford University), chaired the working group that convened to answer this question about pedagogy. After listing over 100 methods for teaching, they concluded that teaching is contextual and there is no single best method. The best method for any situation depends on the outcomes that are desired, the characteristics of the students and the instructor, and the curriculum. The scientist–educator will be knowledgeable about the range of teaching methods that are available and will be able to select appropriately among them to achieve desired goals within a specific context.

  • Keith Millis, PhD (Northern Illinois University), chaired the working group that considered the wide array of learning technologies and how to use them best to promote learning. The group created a model in which technology is a cornerstone for effective learning that also depends on student characteristics and the pedagogy the instructor is using. Thus, like modes of learning, the ideal technology depends on multiple factors in the learning context. In recognition of the rapidly escalating number of online courses, they recommended support for instructors who are teaching in these and other new technology-mediated formats.

  • There have been exciting gains over the last decade in our knowledge about how people learn. Frank Worrell, PhD (University of California, Berkeley), chaired the working group that addressed questions about applying what we know about the science of learning to the science of psychology. They designed a model of effective teaching and learning in which (a) scholarly teaching translates promising principles into practice and the scholarship of teaching and (b) extends research on effective learning into college classrooms. They recommended that each college and university develop a reward structure that recognizes the critical importance of high-quality scholarship on teaching and learning, with an emphasis on translational research.

  • R. Eric Landrum, PhD (Boise State University), chaired the working group that addressed the question, “What are the desired outcomes of an undergraduate education in psychology?” They focused on both workplace skills and those needed for advanced study in many disciplines. Students need to understand that if they do not acquire necessary skills during their undergraduate education, future employers may require additional education and training. Faculty members need to understand that if students fail to achieve the competencies that employers value, then we fail to prepare our students for postbaccalaureate success, and others are obligated to fill the gap. They recommended that psychology educators work to develop a system for the assessment of specific student outcomes that is more broadly defined than tests of knowledge. Students need to be able to demonstrate to others (as do psychology educators) not only their acquired knowledge, but also well-developed skills and abilities attained (some employers and states now do this with Career Readiness Certificates).

The summaries and selected recommendations provided are a small sample of the wide-ranging discussions and calls for action that came from the incredible participants at the conference. To get the full story, look for Undergraduate Education in Psychology: A Blueprint for the Future of the Discipline to be published by APA. It makes a great gift for skeptical administrators, new faculty and policymakers who need to be better informed, forward-thinking funding agencies, and anyone who believes that we can redesign undergraduate education in ways that can have positive and long-lasting effects on the millions of students worldwide who enroll in undergraduate psychology courses.