For the first time, APA's Council of Representatives has adopted a policy that specifies the basic knowledge, skills and values that psychology departments should impart to undergraduate psychology students by the time they earn a bachelor's degree.
The "Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major," approved by council during APA's 2006 Annual Convention, give psychology departments a list of 10 goals and learning outcomes for students.
And, to help departments evaluate how well their programs are helping students meet the goals, a Web-based assessment tool called the Assessment CyberGuide is available.
"The goals give you a framework to evaluate the quality of your curriculum," explains Jane Halonen, PhD, chair of the Board of Educational Affairs Task Force on Psychology Major Competencies, which developed the policy. "Departments now have a benchmark against which to begin that conversation."
The goals are designed to provide a solid foundation for the tens of thousands of students entering the job market with a bachelor's degree, and those continuing all the way to a doctorate, Halonen says.
"The majority of students who are majors do not go on to graduate school, so we really need to be paying attention to what the job market is like," she says.
As Halonen describes it, a student educated in all 10 goals will be someone who's an adaptable learner capable of working in a team and delivering a product on deadline. That student will also be adept at analyzing a problem from multiple points of view, sorting out different claims, writing coherently and arguing a point persuasively.
To develop the guidelines, the task force drew together scholars experienced in psychology curriculum development and representing a range of departments from four-year schools to community colleges. They identified curriculum goals achievable in four years of coursework, Halonen says.
The goals are divided into two broad areas: 1.) the knowledge, skills and values consistent with the science and application of psychology, and 2.) the knowledge, skills and values consistent with liberal arts education that are further developed in psychology. The first set of goals mainly concerns what students should know and be able to do related to the scientific aspects of psychology; the second set focuses on what they should know how to do in related skills in the liberal arts, such as information literacy and communication skills, Halonen says.
Task force member Bill Buskist, PhD, a psychology professor at Auburn University, describes the goals as an "ideal" for all psychology departments to shoot for in undergraduate instruction.
"This offers departments a chance to step back and look at how all the pieces of their curriculum fit together. It's not expected that every psychology department will meet all 10 goals, but it does give all departments a chance to take aim at a useful bull's-eye," Buskist says.
The first set of goals related to the science and application of psychology include:
A basic understanding of psychology's major concepts, theoretical perspectives, empirical findings and historical trends.
A working knowledge of the principles of research design and an ability to apply them.
The ability to think critically, creatively and, when possible, to use the scientific approach to solve problems related to behavior and mental processes.
An understanding of the ways psychology is applied in the realms of work, personal life, education and other real-world situations.
An appreciation of such values as the obligation to act ethically and an ability to tolerate ambiguity when dealing with complex questions.
The second set of goals related to a liberal arts education within psychology include:
Information and technological literacy, including how to use technology to present graphic information, manage e-mail and store information.
Effective communication in writing and oral presentations.
Ability to recognize, understand and respect the complexity of diversity.
Good "self-regulation," with the ability to set goals and meet obligations.
Understanding of the career choices open to psychology students and of how to plan individual career goals.
To help departments determine if they are meeting the goals and measure the quality of instruction, the task force developed the Assessment CyberGuide, Halonen says.
First made available in 2003, the CyberGuide is centered on four areas, including understanding assessment; designing viable assessment plans; sustaining an assessment culture; and applying assessment strategies in psychology. By working through those four areas, a psychology department should be able to transition from an approach where assessment only occurs as part of a cyclical accreditation process to one of continuous improvement, she says.