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Internationalizing Psychology Courses

The aim of this SLO was to encourage students to both consider the real world applications of ideas from the course, and to apply those ideas to develop potential solutions for problems around the world.

By LeeAnn Bartolini, PhD, Afshin Gharib, PhD, and William Phillips, PhD

Previously published as an E-xcellence in Teaching column on the PsychTeacher listserv coordinated by the Society for the Teaching of Psychology and will appear in Meyers, S. A., & Stowell, J. R. (2010). Essays from e-xcellence in teaching (Vol. 9). To be available from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology website.

Many academic departments have engaged in diversity transformation projects over the last decade. These endeavors generally focused on increasing faculty and student awareness of underrepresented groups and multicultural issues within the United States (Goldstein, 1995; 2005). Similarly, textbook authors have been broadening the scope of research included in standard psychology textbooks to include diversity perspectives.

Our university has been involved in an effort to increase diversity-focused student learning outcome (SLO) goals across the curriculum. This diversity transformation process has provided us with an opportunity to look at various cultural groups within the United States and to incorporate crosscultural information into our classes. After concluding this examination, faculty in our department were concerned that students continued to receive a very Amerocentric view of psychology as a discipline. For example, the majority of research incorporated into textbooks and readings is carried out at American institutions. Many of us had taught and conducted research abroad and were interested in how psychology was studied and understood globally (Sexton & Hogan, 1992).

To simplify, we define "international" as research in countries other than the United States, focusing on non- American populations. "Cross-cultural," on the other hand, is a broader term that may include research participants from different cultural groups within the United States or comparing across cultures. We felt an international perspective would be important to incorporate into our classes due to a number of factors, including: globalization, increasing ease of international communication, increasing interest in psychology internationally, the growth of international organizations in psychology, and increasing opportunities for students to work and study internationally. While courses on International Psychology have been developed in the United States, we were interested in how to begin infusing internationalism throughout our curriculum (Stevens & Wedding, 2004). Here we will be summarizing our efforts (cf. Bartolini, Gharib, & Phillips, 2009) and include several examples which others may find useful in the process of internationalizing their own courses.

In particular, this essay addresses the process of developing international SLOs. Faculty selected courses in their area of interest to transform by adding international SLOs and incorporating assessable assignments. We include three examples of SLOs and assignments that will hopefully stimulate faculty thinking at other institutions. Other examples can be found in Bartolini et al. (2009).

Psychology of Learning

Learning is an upper level elective open to students from all majors. The course examines the role of learning and conditioning in behavior and behavioral change. The topic of learning and learning theory is one that is rarely addressed in an international context. In order to internationalize the course, a new assignment was added to raise student awareness of how the principles of learning and conditioning can be applied internationally.

Students in undergraduate courses on learning often have a hard time considering the real world applications of the abstract principles of learning. Around the world, a variety of social and health problems are related to human behavior and may be modified by the sort of concepts that are covered in this course. In order to emphasize this idea, an additional SLO was developed for this course and added to the syllabus: Students shall demonstrate an understanding of how principles of learning can be applied in the international arena to solve real world problems.

The aim of this SLO was to encourage students to both consider the real world applications of ideas from the course, and to apply those ideas to develop potential solutions for problems around the world. This new SLO is assessed through a new paper assignment. Each student in class is assigned a social or health problem that is specific to a particular geographic area or cultural group, and is related in a significant way to cultural and behavioral practices. Examples include the problem of population explosion in rural sub- Saharan Africa. This is caused in part by the traditional rules of inheritance whereby large family farms are passed from one generation to the next without being subdivided, which leads to pressure for large families with enough individuals to run the farm. Other examples include the spread of STDs among sex workers in India and Thailand, the spread of AIDS along trucking routes in Africa, the spread of drug resistant tuberculosis in Russia, and environmental degradation caused by mining and farming in the Amazon and elsewhere. In each of these cases, there are powerful cultural incentives that reinforce the problem behavior as well as punishments for attempting to change behavior. Students research the nature and scope of the problem and the underlying behaviors that perpetuate the problem. Students then propose culturally appropriate behavior modification methods (i.e., appropriate reinforcers or conditioning methods) that may result in a change in behavior and present their findings in a paper.

Throughout the course, instructors can provide examples of culturally specific reinforcers and punishers and other applications of learning principles as models for the students to follow. As part of fulfilling the international SLO for this class, students report on the cultural factors that make controlling the spread of HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa challenging and suggest reinforcers that may be effective (e.g., culture specific incentives for increasing safe sex practices).

Abnormal Psychology

The topic of psychopathology is one that can be addressed in an international context, and some American textbooks have attempted to incorporate international variances. We developed new international SLOs to increase student familiarity with international issues in abnormal psychology.

Mental illness is viewed in different ways in different countries, and it is valuable for students to get a sense of how a western diagnosis they become familiar with in an Abnormal Psychology course in the United States may be looked at differently in another part of the world. An additional SLO was developed and added to the Abnormal Psychology syllabus: Students will demonstrate an ability to research and comprehend current mental illness treatment from a variety of sources (Internet, Library, Bookstore, PsychInfo) and apply this knowledge to a specific disorder an to understand this disorder and its treatment in the context of another country.

This SLO was assessed in a final research paper assignment in which we asked students the following questions: (1) How is your specific mental illness written about in other countries? Find three articles, from three different international psychology journals, to summarize in your paper; and (2) Focusing on one country, how would your mental illness be diagnosed and treated in that country? What is the prevalence rate of your mental illness in that country?

Cognitive Psychology

Internationalization of a cognitive psychology course can take two routes: Reviewing research conducted in other countries or examining how culture affects various cognitive processes. The following is an example of the latter.

A number of cognitive processes that are covered in a standard course on cognition have been found to be influenced by culture. In order to introduce students to the way culture can impact cognition, a new SLO was developed and added to the syllabus for this course: Students will gain increased understanding for how culture affects cognitive processing, as well as the kind of cognitive research that is taking place in other countries.

To assess this SLO, we ask students to find an article that pertains to cognitive research that is taking place in another country or that focuses on other cultures. Students present this information to the class so that all may be exposed to different examples of internationalization. To aid students in this project, we identify and place several sources on reserve at the library (e.g., Eysenck, 1990). For example, one classroom exercise illustrated Flaherty's (2005) demonstration of differences in articulatory suppression in speakers of different languages. A finding from studies on memory span have revealed that the number of syllables in words to be recalled influences the number of items that can be recalled from short-term memory. Native speakers of languages where the digits are multi-syllabic (e.g., Tagalog, Korean, Hebrew, and Spanish, to name a few) will on average recall fewer items on a digit span task.


We have begun incorporating these international SLOs into our curriculum and student feedback has been positive. One effect has been increased discussion of international issues in the classroom. We will be continuing this process of including international SLOs in other courses. We are also expanding our international efforts by producing a study abroad in psychology link for our departmental website to encourage international experiences for our students.

We began this process of internationalizing our courses by brainstorming as a department and generating ideas for new SLOs and assessments collectively. Along the way, we had to clarify for ourselves what internationalizing a curriculum would mean for our department. Each of us then considered how to incorporate some of the ideas we had generated as a group into our individual classes. Faculty from other departments may benefit from a similar process of brainstorming and discussion, followed by a consideration of how international perspectives could be incorporated into individual courses.Ψ


Bartolini, L., Gharib, A., & Phillips, W. (2009). International course transformation process in psychology. In R. Gurung & L. Prieto (Eds.), Getting culture: Incorporating diversity across the curriculum (pp. 181-189). Stylus: New York.

Eysenck, M. (1990). Cognitive psychology: An international review. Oxford, England: John Wiley & Sons.

Flaherty, M., & Moran, A. (2005). Articulatory suppression in bilingual and second language speakers. International Journal of Cognitive Technology, 10, 38-46.

Goldstein, S. (1995). Cross-cultural psychology as a curriculum transformation resource. Teaching of Psychology, 22, 228-232.

Goldstein, S. (2005). Cross-cultural perspectives in the psychology curriculum: Moving beyond "add culture and stir." In B. Perlman, L. McCann, & W. Buskist (Eds.), Voices of experience: Memorable talks from the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology (pp. 45-57). Washington, DC: American Psychological Society.

Sexton, V. S., & Hogan, J. D. (Eds.). (1992). International psychology: Views from around the world. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Stevens, M. J., & Wedding, D. (2004). International psychology: An overview. In M. J. Stevens & D. Wedding (Eds.), Handbook of international psychology (pp. 1-23). New York: Brunner-Routledge.