Degree In Sight

In today's changing marketplace, psychology students in programs ranging from bench science to professional schools say they want education and training that's not only grounded in theory and science, but that also adjusts to the times.

Indeed, many psychology programs recognize this, says Paul D. Nelson, PhD, deputy executive director of APA's Education Directorate, and are making efforts to give current students information on program graduates' employment that will help students better plan their own futures.

"Programs are supposed to be constantly reflecting feedback on themselves-making sure that students are getting what they need to get jobs," he says. "So most turn to crucial self-studies to make sure they're aligned with the market."

For example, at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, faculty and administrators keep track of alumni, listen to student concerns and consider needed curriculum changes based on their feedback, says the school's vice president for student affairs, Frank Gruba-McCallister, PhD, who manages the school's evaluations process.

He refers to it as a continual effort to "close the loop" between feedback that comes from constituents and changes to the curriculum's content and execution. For example, Amber Fasula, a first-year doctoral student at Adler, says one of the professors at Adler changed from a lecture format to a discussion format because students said they found it more effective.

"Internal assessment is a continual process of necessity because we don't live in a static world," Gruba-McCallister says. "It's not just to meet the needs of students, it's not just to meet the requirements of accreditors, but it's to meet the demands we place on ourselves to be an institution of the highest quality."

Assessment is especially important, adds Adler President Raymond Crossman, PhD, for health fields like psychology where students develop skills that affect many people's lives.

"We need to ensure excellence, both so our students are successful, and so they are equipped to improve their communities," he says.


GATHERING FEEDBACK

Adler collects student data primarily through alumni surveys sent out and processed every five years, Gruba-McCallister says. The surveys ask about the experience of the students while they were at the school, how prepared they felt for the job market, what coursework was most useful, what was less useful, which teaching methods they preferred and how they felt about evaluations including exams, take-home exams and in-class participation.

"The most important thing to us is how well-prepared our students feel now that they're out in the field," he says.

Gruba-McCallister also queries current students about problems and positives through shorter surveys, casual forums and annual committees. Site supervisors, who work with the students as they are developing their clinical skills outside the school, add to the collection of feedback.

The surveys are required for both APA and regional accreditation, but Gruba-McCallister says administrators at Adler really want to know what they need to do better. Students appreciate such efforts because they want to be sure their time and money are well spent and they will be equipped to succeed in the professional arena, says Fasula.


 

MAKING CHANGES

Collecting data, though, isn't the most challenging aspect of accountability, Gruba-McCallister says. It's putting that feedback into effect in a sensible way.

For one, it's dangerous to constantly make changes to an established curriculum because good aspects could then be inadvertently thrown out with the bad, he says. A more sensible strategy, he adds, is to tweak things where there are weaknesses. For example, if surveys show students aren't gaining enough knowledge in a particular area, the faculty could change a particular course to emphasize that topic or assess it more rigorously. That way, students are protected from omissions in the curriculum that might leave them unprepared to compete after graduation. However, Gruba-McCallister adds, more substantive curricular changes are inevitable over the long term to prepare students to enter a changing marketplace.

That's particularly true for doctoral-level students whose roles in mental health treatment are shifting, he says.

"When we look at our doctoral students we see that within three or four years, they're in management positions, and they have to learn skills like administration and business on the fly," he says. "That's something we're working to better incorporate into our curriculum."

Feedback at Adler has led administrators to embark on an overall philosophical shift as well; in coming years, they will emphasize the role of psychologists in social justice issues by teaching advocacy and policy skills.

"This change has come partly out of student surveys and partly out of faculty feedback, but it's also come from our looking at long-term plans and where we want to take the school," Gruba-McCallister says.

And as they interpret feedback and make changes, Adler administrators also tell students and faculty what's going on in the marketplace, what alums are saying and what the school is doing about it. They also provide such information to prospective students.

"There are meetings every term where faculty provide lunch for students and it's basically just an hour or two hours of letting the students know what's being done in terms of institutional research and how curriculums are changing," Fasula says. "It's a good reminder that the faculty here really care about students."