President's Column

How long does it take before half the psychological knowledge you hold in your area of specialization becomes obsolete? Estimates range from five to six years, according to participants at APA’s 2010 Education Leadership Conference. What’s more, scientific knowledge about best care takes an average of 17 years to be applied broadly and systematically in actual clinical practice, according to the Institute of Medicine. I wish all of you could have been at the conference to be infused with motivation and insight about the importance of lifelong learning, but for those of you who couldn’t, here are some highlights.

Presenters emphasized that it is our ethical responsibility to maintain competence in all our work as researchers, educators and/or practitioners through lifelong learning. To that end, the conference featured science that showcased the best ways to learn, detailed better continuing-education (CE) options and underscored the reality that we spend more time in lifelong learning than in preparation for our careers.

The particular activities that comprise lifelong learning range widely, partly based on specialization. Researchers who need to stay abreast of new methodologies as well as findings may do so by reviewing journal manuscripts, attending APA’s Advanced Training Institutes and going to various conferences. Educators may benefit from those activities and also from tapping centers for teaching and learning available on campuses. Practitioners can also review the literature, as well as attend CE programs and workshops.

CE programs work, but the research base on their effectiveness is not yet strong enough in psychology, according to ELC presenters. That’s because most evaluation is based on participant satisfaction, and psychologists tend to resist being evaluated on whether they have learned something, they said.

Alternative models of CE include tailoring education to learners’ needs, and presenters suggested using case-based learning, high or low-fidelity simulations, enhanced participant interaction, and “point-of-service” learning, all of which are designed to promote optimal learning. Learners have little tolerance for overly complex or boring materials, reported researchers, yet true learning requires effort and “hurts the brain.” To facilitate effective learning, presenters suggested spacing instruction over time, interweaving problem-solving exercises, combining graphics and verbal descriptions, integrating abstract concepts and concrete examples, and asking deep questions (e.g., “why?”, “how?” or “how come?”, rather than simple descriptive questions (e.g., “who?”, “what?”, “when?” or “where?”).

Of course, a commitment to lifelong learning needs to take into account the changing world in which we live. Multicultural experts have pointed to changing demographics in the United States, and suggest that psychology must make substantive revisions in its curriculum, training, research and practice to address issues of race and ethnicity, culture, gender and sexual orientation.

Indeed, according to data compiled in 2008 by the APA Center for Workforce Studies, 86 percent of APA members and 92 percent of early career professionals who practice serve racial/ethnic minorities. To maintain minimal competency in working with these diverse populations, we must understand the cultural context of these populations, be aware of potential bias in our practices and be familiar with culturally adapted treatments.

APA is working to promote a variety of ways to help psychologists to continue to acquire knowledge in a more current, broad and systematic manner. One major project is the development of clinical treatment guidelines, which are designed to expand the translation of psychological science into evidence-based practice. This will involve a review of the research evidence in support of a well-defined area of psychological treatment and provide ongoing guidance to the practitioner in translating the evidence into practice. As this initiative evolves, APA will form guideline writing groups — under the guidance of the Advisory Steering Committee — and guidelines will be promulgated, subject to the review and approval of appropriate boards and committees within APA’s governance. New evolving strategies for our APA conventions will also allow for the dissemination and application of new knowledge.

We all must maintain the ability to learn how to learn, be able to adapt to change and access new knowledge to improve our competencies and performance. The goal is to constantly recharge our batteries to motivate self-renewal. Keeping abreast of new knowledge, skills and relevant attitudes is an important strategy for us all.