Feature

In summing up the goal of APA's National Conference on Undergraduate Education in Psychology, conference chair and former APA President Diane Halpern, PhD, wasn't thinking small.

"Our slogan is, 'Let's affect one million,'' Halpern told a gathering of about 80 psychology educators at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., June 22-27.

That number represents a conservative estimate of the college students who take a psychology course each year.

The conference participants gathered to start developing a blueprint for the future of undergraduate education for every student, from those who take just one introductory psychology course to those who pursue a bachelor's or advanced degree in psychology.

Preliminary recommendations being considered include:

  • Adopting curriculum guidelines for a well-designed psychology program, with specific recommendations on courses covering psychology's basic concepts, statistics and methodology.

  • Embracing a scientist-educator model so that nascent teachers, especially graduate psychology students, are trained in effective teaching and continue to develop their skills throughout their careers by keeping current on teaching research.

  • Putting psychological research on how people learn into practice through improved teaching methods.

Conference attendee and APA President-elect James Bray, PhD, said that college students' exposure to psychology often affects their views of the discipline for the rest of their lives-whether good or bad.

With an unprecedented number of students enrolled in psychology courses each year, designing the best possible psychology curriculum is more important today than ever before. In fact, the number of students graduating with psychology degrees has grown to more than 88,000 annually, a 50 percent increase since 1991, the last time psychology educators met to take a comprehensive look at the changing needs of psychology education at the St. Mary's conference.

And since 1992, the number of students taking the Advanced Placement psychology test in high school has grown from 3,900 to more than 132,000 this year.

Today's college students are also significantly different, said St. Mary's conference chair Tom McGovern, PhD, of Arizona State University West. The racial and ethnic diversity of the student population has increased and in the coming years, more of these students will be the first members of their families to attend college. In addition, many students take courses online and even traditional face-to-face classes are becoming hybrid courses relying more heavily on high-tech teaching methods. But while today's students are "digital natives" who know how to navigate the Internet, McGovern worries that the "cut-and-paste" approach some take to assembling information undercuts their full understanding of it.

"How do you deal with information literacy to not just navigate, but evaluate information?" he asked.

Charles Brewer, PhD, another veteran of the 1991 conference, said that the discipline of psychology has become overspecialized and fragmented, with too many psychology majors not getting a thorough grounding in cognition and learning and the use of statistics and research methodology.

At this year's conference, Brewer's working group took up the question of what is being taught and learned in psychology courses, and focused on what it saw as a need for a core curriculum for psychology majors.

"We recommend that we get more prescriptive in the major," he said.

Conference participants also discussed the big trends affecting the future of undergraduate education in psychology-and some ideas for meeting those challenges. The themes that emerged included:

Professionalizing teaching

Faculty should continue to develop their skills throughout their careers, and psychologists need to employ their expertise in cognition and social interaction to design programs that foster teachers' professional growth and improve student learning, said Cecilia Shore, PhD, of Miami University.

Achieving the promise of educational technology

So far, educational technology has expanded classroom walls by making courses available online. But technology should be adapted to meeting the needs of individual learners through such programs as electronic tutors, allowing individual students to work through a lesson at their own pace, with assistance pegged to their level of mastery of the topic, said Keith Millis, PhD, of Northern Illinois University.

Meeting the needs of online students

Given that today's students operate in a "highly portable, wireless society," psychology needs to continue moving its instructional efforts into virtual space, said Maureen McCarthy, PhD, of Kennesaw State University.

"We need to there, and we need to be offering really quality online courses," McCarthy said.

A blueprint for change

The 80 conference participants divided into nine working groups, each of which had five days to answer a question about the future of psychology education. A steering committee chaired by Halpern selected the participants from more than 300 applicants. While still subject to review, some of the draft proposals developed by the working groups during the conference and in follow-up work included:

Emphasizing the importance of "psychological literacy"

Students who learn the foundations of psychology can use their knowledge of the field to become better citizens and build better communities. For example, if a local government wants to locate a group home for developmentally disabled people in an affluent suburban community and hears "not-in-my-backyard" responses from neighbors, a psychologically literate citizen could build empathy by pointing out evidence of how group homes had been successfully integrated into other communities.

Improving the quality of psychology teaching

Teachers at all levels should have continuous opportunities for training in effective teaching, and should evaluate how they are doing through assessments of student learning. They should also receive feedback from peers and supervisors.

Creating a model curriculum for introductory psychology courses and the psychology major

With the increasing fragmentation and specialization of psychology, introductory courses have the challenge of focusing on psychology's main tenets. By recommending a core curriculum, all psychology students, especially those majoring in the discipline, will learn a specified body of knowledge.

Reaching out to all undergraduate psychology students

Given the nation's increasing diversity, psychology departments must recruit students from underrepresented groups and hire diverse faculty. They should also encourage formal and informal intergroup interactions and ensure that a program's courses reflect the need to study and understand the needs of diverse populations of people.

Emphasizing the discipline's empirical foundation

The group is interested in encouraging educators to refer to the field as psychological science and highlight psychology's contributions to other fields such as health, education and business. At the same time, educators can counter misinformation about psychology that people encounter via the media.

Assessing teaching methods

Conference attendees developed a model that instructors can use to select the teaching method that best matches the desired student learning outcome for a topic.

Promoting learning through new technologies

Psychology teachers and instructional technologists need to work together to ensure that the educational technology used in the classroom promotes learning by considering the individual learning needs and challenges of today's students.

Using research to inform effective teaching and learning

More efforts are needed to translate findings about how people learn into everyday practice.

Defining the goals of undergraduate education

Psychology students have diverse goals, including developing professional skills, preparing for graduate school, improving their own lives and contributing to society at large.