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A makeover for APA’s Guidelines for Undergraduate Psychology

Revisions include five major changes to improve the guidelines and develop high-quality undergraduate programs in psychology.

By Jane S. Halonen, PhD

Amidst pineapple fields and glorious weather, American Psychological Association representatives enthusiastically banded together at their annual convention in Hawaii to approve a new version of APA’s Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major (APA, 2013). Version 2.0 unanimously passed on the consent agenda of the APA Council of Representatives without conversation or objection. Guidelines 2.0 should provide broad-reaching impact on undergraduate curricula across the nation.

What’s the back story?

APA appointed a task force to take on the revision of the first guidelines, created in 2002 and adopted in 2006. The new task force consisted of several members of the group that crafted the original guidelines, including me, returning as chair. New members joined on the basis of proven assessment expertise and/or leadership experience in APA. The Version 2.0 committee included returning members Bill Buskist, Bill Hill, Maureen McCarthy and Jerry Rudmann and new members Dana Dunn, Carolyn Enns, Jim Freeman, Nadine Kaslow, Eric Landrum and Michael Stoloff. Consequently, the committee had representatives from different parts of the country as well as faculty working in different contexts, from community colleges through specialized graduate programs.

The task force reviewed what impact the first set of guidelines had on national curriculum development and also evaluated how satisfied psychology programs were with the original suggestions. Talking with various constituents and making presentations in conference venues, the committee members were pleasantly surprised not only to find robust enthusiasm and appreciation for the first set of guidelines but also to receive a variety of sound suggestions to improve them.

What five major changes have transpired in Guidelines 2.0?

First, and most prominent, the 10 domains or goals of the guidelines have been collapsed to five. The task force received substantial feedback that having 10 goals as proposed in the original guidelines was off-putting for planning and assessment. For Version 2.0, the task force also erased the distinction between goals focused on psychology as a science versus psychology as a liberal arts discipline. Consequently, the new goals are:

  1. Knowledge base in psychology.
  2. Scientific inquiry and critical thinking.
  3. Ethical and social responsibility in a diverse world.
  4. Communication.
  5. Professional development.

The importance of knowing key concepts, theories and principles of psychology, goal 1, has been retained. Goal 2 captures the skills that reinforce psychology as a science and a particular, rigorous way of thinking about behavior, including elements that had previously been addressed in information literacy.  

Goal 3, ethical and social responsibility in a diverse world, involved some of the most ambitious changes as it incorporated the need to work effectively in a world of growing complexity but to enact the values of the discipline (e.g., tolerance of ambiguity, precision) as cardinal features in the process. The task force opted to make diversity prominent in the label of the domain but also to support the importance of achieving diversity expertise by infusing expectations across all five goals. Some critics expressed concern that the prior treatment of diversity had a pejorative tone; in Version 2.0, the task force emphasized positive features associated with the development of skills that improve individual adaptation to diverse social environments.

Communication, goal 4, addresses writing, speaking and interpersonal skills, and retained much of what had been described in the first version.

Goal 5, professional development, got the most substantial makeover. The new goal emphasizes psychology as a workforce degree and concentrates on ways a background in psychology can provide superb preparation for the variety of human resource and research-based jobs for which students with baccalaureate degrees can qualify. Goal 5 also integrates assistance from other offices and organizations on campus (e.g., student affairs, Psi Chi, Psi Beta) in the achievement of professional development through leadership opportunities.

Second, Guidelines 2.0 responded to appropriate criticisms voiced by our colleagues at community colleges that the original version provided little foothold for those working to establish the foundation of the major in two-year programs. Consequently, the task force carefully articulated student learning outcomes as a developmental progression from “foundation” skills, those that we should expect to be achieved at the end of the first four or five courses required in the major, to “baccalaureate” skills, those that should characterize the achievements of students earning a baccalaureate degree.

Third, the task force paid more attention to the caliber of language used in the document. The first version tended to focus on psychological jargon and seemed most suited for insider communication. The task force recognized that Guidelines 2.0 would have greater impact if it were accessible to those not trained in psychology. Recent challenges to the legitimacy of the major (PDF, 696KB) (Halonen, 2011) prompted increased attention to the political impact of the document. We wanted to be able to provide the best defense possible against the false criticism that students can’t get a job with a degree in psychology.

A fourth area of concern emerged in feedback about the challenges associated with assessment planning based on the document. Although the original task force developed, and then a smaller group subsequently revised, an assessment cyberguide as a companion piece for the original guidelines, program representatives believed that the assessment cyberguide was overwhelming. They were looking for simpler answers on how to establish effective and efficient assessment strategies. Although the task force did not go so far as to stipulate the best strategies in their revision, it did provide an up-to-date review of possible instruments that could be used to develop defensible assessment plans and embedded that summary in Guidelines 2.0.

A final area of improvement in the structure of Guidelines 2.0 is the inclusion of personal attributes that characterize student development in each of the domains. The profile of characteristics highlights the kind of language that emerges when faculty are called on to write letters of recommendation. In this regard, all faculty are engaging in nebulous areas of assessment when they must capture student achievement in letters of reference or recommendation. We included characteristics that might spur a potential letter writer to think through the behaviors that prompt the writer to refer to a student as “resilient,” “efficient” or “adaptable” in relation to each domain. At the very least, the personal attributes of the psychology major can prod a letter writer to supply richer examples that might produce better distinction among applicants.

What should psychology programs do now?

Faculty charged with undergraduate program responsibilities should review the new outcomes in relation to their existing curriculum and assessment plans. Although the task force adheres to the position that the new guidelines is not prescriptive, we do think that the simplified framework provides a good vehicle for revisiting plans to determine what should be added to the plan and potentially what could be deleted as well. Once department members concur about the outcomes that serve their missions, they should adopt and publish a formal version of those outcomes. Conducting a course audit to see how existing courses fulfill the plan would be the next step. Ideally, departments will want to create a sequential and developmentally coherent experience for students that can verify the development of psychology-specific skills. 

A single conversation about the program’s goals is simply not sufficient in an assessment intensive environment. We recommend that program faculty focus on evaluating their strengths and weaknesses at least once per semester. Faculty need to set realistic goals for improvement and make sure they have facilitated the collection of data that will help them determine how well they are succeeding.

Once the plan is acceptable, it is time to share the department’s conclusions by including program objectives and SLOs (student learning outcomes) in the college catalog, on checklists for advising, on bulletin boards and in course syllabi. To those ends, APA is preparing summaries of the goals for posting in psychology departments.

The task force also believes we have much work to do to help not just students, but the public as well, to understand the viability of the psychology degree as a workforce foundation. We want to discourage the practice of referring a student elsewhere for advising if the student’s interest isn’t a perfect match to the faculty member. We encourage anyone with responsibilities for career advising to become familiar with what is possible with a psychology degree. To those ends, the task force included a comprehensive appendix outlining many possibilities.

We also recommend that departments develop a public display of success stories of their alumni, not just to inform students, but to strengthen contacts with alumni. Whenever departments achieve milestones, they should sponsor public celebrations to make their accomplishments visible, not just to impress the dean or others charged with resource allocation, but to help department members bond through their achievement.

What happens next?

As departments begin to review the new guidelines to inform the nature of their practice, the APA Board of Educational Affairs is exploring one more area of effort that grew out of feedback on the original guidelines. During our survey efforts, many program administrators bemoaned the fact that APA has not endorsed an accreditation procedure specific to undergraduate psychology. They recognize that other disciplines (e.g., chemistry, nursing, engineering) can often use their favorable accreditation status as a way to bargain for additional resources. Further, high-quality programs appreciate the kind of recognition that a formal review process would confer.

Accordingly, at its November 2013 meeting, the APA Board of Educational Affairs discussed the advantages, disadvantages and logistics of establishing a process by which departments could apply for an APA endorsement of their undergraduate psychology curriculum. The board was supportive of the establishment of a task force to consider this idea. At its March 2014 meeting, the board will be asked to approve a formal charge and make appointments to such a task force. The appointed task force will make some recommendations about the feasibility of some kind of curriculum endorsement.

Is this it? 

Happily, no. APA includes formal mechanisms for reviewing policy once a decade. Consequently, Version 2.0 is “it” for the next 10 years. Eventually, Version 3.0 will emerge to reflect program and cultural changes that naturally evolve in the discipline. It couldn't be a more exciting time to watch those changes unfold.


American Psychological Association. (2013). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major: Version 2.0.

Halonen, J. S. (2011). Are there too many psychology majors? (PDF, 696KB) Invitation issued by the Board of Governors of the State University System of Florida.

About the author

Psychologist Jane S. Halonen Jane S. Halonen is professor of psychology at the University of West Florida where she recently completed a decade of service as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Her research agenda has focused on critical thinking, assessment, and faculty and program development. Her most recent emphases have been on helping good departments become great ones. She co-authored “Your Guide to College Success” which is in its seventh edition published by Cengage. She has been involved over the course of her career with helping APA develop guidelines or standards of academic performance from high school through graduate levels of education, including chairing the Task Force on Psychology Major Competencies. She was named the 2013 winner of the APA Distinguished Contributions of Applications of Psychology to Education and Training award. In 2000, she won APF’s Distinguished Teaching Award, and APA named her an “Eminent Woman in Psychology” in 2003. She served as the chief reader for the Psychology Advanced Placement Reading from 2004-09.