When APA brought 80 psychologists together for its landmark National Conference on Undergraduate Education in Psychology at the University of Puget Sound in 2008, the event was by invitation only. Now APA is broadening the dialogue about how to design the best possible undergraduate psychology education.

In May, APA partnered with Ball State University to sponsor an e-conference called “Curriculum, Assessment and Diversity: Exploring Themes of Undergraduate Education in Psychology.” The live broadcast reached psychology educators from high schools, community colleges, colleges and graduate programs at 109 sites across the United States and as far away as Colombia, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines.

“Our goal at the Puget Sound conference was to eventually affect a million students,” says Robin Hailstorks, PhD, associate executive director and director of precollege and undergraduate programs for APA’s Education Directorate. “Two years beyond that conference, here’s another opportunity to connect with educators once again and disseminate some of the conference themes more broadly.”

Expanding the dissemination even further, the e-conference will be available online for the next year. “Even if people didn’t watch it live, they can watch the webstream online,” says e-conference co-moderator Mary E. Kite, PhD, a professor of psychological science at Ball State, which contributed the technical support for the e-conference. Linh Littleford, PhD, and Kristin Ritchey, PhD, also of Ball State, served as co-moderators.

Critical themes

“Since the Puget Sound conference, participants have been working really hard to have other means of continuing the dialogue, getting more people involved and reaching out to other stakeholders,” says Martha Boenau, associate director of precollege and undergraduate programs at APA.

The e-conference zeroed in on the major themes that came out of the conference and the resulting book, “Undergraduate Education in Psychology: A Blueprint for the Future of the Discipline” (APA, 2009).

Charles Brewer, PhD, a psychology professor at Furman University, kicked off the e-conference with a look at developments in psychology curricula over the last six decades.

Brewer began his historical overview with the first national conference on undergraduate psychology education, held at Cornell University in 1951. Viewing psychology as a scientific discipline within the liberal arts tradition, participants recommended a model curriculum emphasizing experimental methodology, substantive course content and a capstone course.

“Sixty years later, certain recommendations from that conference continue to influence undergraduate psychology education,” said Brewer, having reviewed the conferences, documents and APA policies that arose in the years since then. In fact, he said, the ideas expressed at that initial conference are once again at the vanguard.

The proliferation of narrowly defined course offerings, changing enrollment patterns and other factors threaten the undergraduate curriculum’s coherence. In response to those changes, the Puget Sound conference participants developed a model similar to the Cornell model: a core curriculum that emphasizes scientific methodology, ensures breadth and depth in content areas and ends with a capstone experience.

Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD, an associate psychology professor at Harvard Medical School, continued with a look at diversity. For all students, she said, the goal is to foster a respect for differences. “But in the field of psychology, it’s bigger than that,” she said. “It’s understanding that diversity contributes to the generalizability and applicability of psychology.”

About 60 percent of universities now offer separate classes focused specifically on diversity issues, said Daniel. That’s not enough. “Diversity isn’t an add-on,” she emphasized. Instead, it should be integrated into every class.

Daniel also shared several suggestions for addressing diversity in the classroom. She emphasized the need for engagement in order to educate. She also advised teachers to focus on understanding both past and present contexts since many students haven’t learned the history that includes the heterogeneity that exists in the United States. Model how to disagree while still communicating. And if the students in a class are so homogeneous there’s only one person who’s visibly different, avoid asking that person to talk about his or her group. “Sometimes the teacher is uncomfortable and wants an out,” said Daniel. But the result can be embarrassment for the singled-out student, who may be reluctant to return to class or may feel that he or she is being targeted.

The e-conference ended with a session on using technology for teaching and learning — an especially effective way to reach today’s students.

Keith Millis, PhD, a psychology professor at Northern Illinois University, began by describing an interactive tutoring program he and his colleagues have built. Called Operation ARIES!, the program brings the addictive fun of video games — what Millis called “computer cocaine” — to an intelligent tutoring system on the potentially dry topic of research methods.

In the game, students become special agents of the Federal Bureau of Science. Their charge? Save the world by identifying space aliens that are spreading bad science. Used as a supplement to classroom work, the game is a fun and effective way to learn, Millis has found.

Wei-Chen Hung, PhD, an associate professor of educational technology, research and assessment at Northern Illinois, wrapped up the conference with a look at Web 2.0 tools.

The shift from Web 1.0 — where users simply consume information — to Web 2.0 — where users themselves create and distribute information — is also transforming teaching, said Hung.

Social networking tools, such as Twitter and del.icio.us, can help students and professors share resources and build learning communities, for example. Wikis and blogs can help students collaborate online. And such tools as Google Docs, EditGrid and Moodle allow professors to use free, online equivalents of such products as Microsoft Office, Excel and Blackboard.

Watch the e-conference online. The user name is apalive2010; the password is A2m1y.

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.