A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Eight things wrong with Introductory Psychology

While hopping a bit from one blog to another, I ended up on Graham Davey's blog, reading a nice post titled "What ever happened to learning theory." I commented that, learning theory's disapearance from the curriculum in psychology, struck me as one of many problems started by poorly thought out Intro Psych classes, and mentioned my paper "Eight Things Wrong with Introductory Psychology Courses in America: A Warning to My European Colleagues". Graham emailed me in thanks, and asked if I had any more thoughts on Intro Psych and how to fix it. I think I can add a little more, but first I thought I would summarize the article's points here, and for some help from my readers.

As context, before we can analyze the effectiveness of Into Psych, we must have an idea what the class is for. And in determining the courses purpose, we must take into consideration that the course serves as the only controllable exposure most people will have to academic psychology. Unlike other sciences, US institutions do not typically have separate introductory courses 'for majors' vs. 'for non-majors'. We probably should have two separate courses, but in the meantime, so long as the course serves two audiences, I believe it must serves two purposes:

1) For those who will specialize in psychology, this class begins their transition from “interested in psychology” to “capable of thinking about psychology at a professional and scientific level”. To accomplish this, the class should expose them to new ways of thinking, and provide a knowledge base they can use in later classes. 2) For those who will not specialize in psychology, this class serves as the public face of the department and the profession. That is, the class should demonstrate that psychology has a foundation and that its subject matter can be studied systematically.
However, the course, as usually offered, fails in those goals. In fact, if you intentionally design a course to convince people that psychology was not a science, you would end up with something much like the typical Intro Psych class, using a textbook much like the typical Intro textbook. Here are some of the problems as I see them,  along with potential solutions (minus the explanatory text in between). Each "problem" is a way in which a psychology class is not like a science class.

Problems with Class Goals

Problem 1: Making the subject matter (too) accessible. --- Rather than striving to make the subject matter fit easily into the student’s preconceptions, students should be continuously challenged to approach the psychological questions in new and initially unintuitive ways.

Problem 2: Critical thinking --- Rather than trying to set up artificial situations in which students are told to challenge particular views, class should be a context in which students begin to master the knowledge that makes up the field of psychology, which will aid them in challenging things on their own in later classes.

Problem 3: Including cutting edge results --- Rather than trying to emphasize recent findings, class should emphasize established findings – instead of talking about conclusions that are generally accepted today, class should focus on findings that have remained generally accepted for long periods of time and thus serve as the impetus for past, current, and future work.

Problem 4: Including current debates --- Rather than trying to get students to express opinions about current debates in psychology, Introductory Psychology classes should either try to expose students to the complexity of current debates or stay limited to explaining what was realized through past debates that have run their course.

Problem 5: Focusing on "Psychological Science" --- Rather than including rhetoric and posturing in which teachers talk about what psychology “is”, Introductory Psychology courses should put on display the ways in which psychologists approach problems theoretically and empirically, and what results have come of such investigations.

Problems with the Textbooks

Problem 6: No unified field --- Rather trying to stay neutral as to the relationship between different psychological disciplines, textbooks would serve students and professors better if they integrated the areas studied by psychologists in a way that made the field as a whole more than sensical.

Problem 7: Chapters on "Method" --- Rather than have a separate section on research methods, textbooks should discuss the methods that lead to important findings in the context of discussing the findings themselves.

Problem 8: Chapters on "History" --- Rather than have a separate section on the history of psychology, textbooks should focus on past and current discoveries and theoretical innovations and keep explicit discussion of history to a minimum.

These problems are entrenched by the ways in which a large, relatively easy, and directionless textbook aids both the psychology departments (by swelling its numbers) and the textbook publishers (by giving them an easy formula to justify new editions).

Among the conclusions:
If psychologists in Europe are not careful, they will become stuck in the same trap that American psychologists are in. The content of their flagship course is dictated primarily by textbook publishers, and market forces make it difficult to change anything in any substantive way. The structure of the course is ineffective in preparing psychology majors for upper level classes, and does not represent the field well to those just passing through. 
 And, even more ominously:
Because of this power loop, the format of introductory psychology becomes the later reality of the field of psychology. I firmly believe that many of the larger problems of the field are the continuation of the problems mentioned above, which begin in the introductory class.

That is a good summary of the article, with more details about each point in the text itself. I would love to know if any of the points strike you as particularly poignant or particularly mislead. Also, are there other problems you see regarding intro psych that seem worth mentioning? (I would particularly love to hear thoughts from those not already operating within the US, generic-textbook formula, or those who have recently seen a shift one way or the other in their country.)


  1. I can agree with much, but not all of this. I think your points about the textbooks are spot-on. I teach about 2-3 sections of intro a year, and I've changed my primary text 3 times in 4 years out of frustration. I'm not convinced students get much of anything out of those methods and history chapters, aside from perhaps memorizing a few names (their retention of which has a half-life of about 2 weeks), and thoroughly-opaque terms like "independent variable" (of which they can't recognize an example anyway until you discuss particular IVs later in the context of studies of particular phenomena).

    But I would object strenuously that an emphasis on Psychological Science is just "posturing," and that physics and chemistry are realistic models for how scientific reasoning should be approached in intro to psych. Intro to Psychology students come in with extreme false perspective baggage ("i'm going to learn how to analyze and help people!"), held with a degree of intuitive overconfidence ("what you're saying about behavior isn't true because I know this one guy who....") that doesn't really have a parallel in other natural and physical sciences. Everyone who takes a physical science class knows going in they are taking a science class, and instructors can get right into teaching scientific reasoning. In intro psych I feel like I have to first break a fundamentally anti-rigor and anti-quantitative frame, held by a large proportion (possibly a majority) of students before I can get them to meet me even half-way on the content. Moreover, I don't know a single person who emphasizes Psychological Science, who simply "rants" about the superiority of the scientific method without also putting empirical decision-making on display in some manner, as you say.

    I have a similar reaction to your point on critical thinking. Your critique seems to boil down to an objection to specific kinds of critical thinking exercises that require grounding in the material before applying analysis...in the paper you say, "most professors require students to engage in “critical thinking” exercises in which they are told told to decide whether one point of view or another is correct, though the students clearly lack any of the information necessary to carry out a formal evaluation of the opposing views." I don't think that's a fair characterization of how critical thinking is used, and I'm curious as to how you determined this is what "most professors" do. It seems to me what most professors mean by critical thinking is finding alternate explanations for data and thinking how to test them, and exploring the logic of arguments that map between specific hypotheses and data. This is not the same as having students "defend" ideas or decide which position is right. And I don't see any inherent reason why extensive background mastery is needed...on the contrary, the status of alternate explanations and the fit between theory and data in a particular area of psychology is often precisely what psychological mastery is mastery of.

  2. Joel,
    "I would object strenuously that an emphasis on Psychological Science is just "posturing," and that physics and chemistry are realistic models for how scientific reasoning should be approached in intro to psych."

    Well... I'm fine at this point just considering this all an untested hypothesis. I'm not sure anyone (including me) has a really good idea what psychology would look like if we adopted one of the other models, and thus it is hard to imagine if it would work better. My intuition is that it would work better in several ways.

    I really do not remember any of my into-science classes teaching "scientific reasoning." Of course, it could be an error in source memory ;- ) I think I just learned principles and facts, watched demonstrations, and did labs. No one wasted time explaining the logic of hypothesis testing, sampling methods, dependent and independent variables, or any of that -- not at the intro level. And my BS required the two semester intro-sequence for physics majors, the two semester sequence for chemistry majors, and the four semester intro-sequence for biology majors.


    "in the paper you say, 'most professors require students to engage in “critical thinking” exercises in which....' I don't think that's a fair characterization of how critical thinking is used, and I'm curious as to how you determined this is what "most professors" do."

    Yeah... you totally got me on this one. I have no assessment at all of what 'most professors do,' only a handful of personal experiences. I have seen it done many times, and I have been involved in many conversations at conferences where people declared such activities virtuous. When writing the paper, I remember moving this section back and forth between being a problem with the textbooks or a problem with the class. The textbooks definitely do this, but I have no data as to how many instructors emphasize those parts of the book, or how many do similar activities on their own. Also, I should mention that in the last few years the textbooks seem to be both toning down their emphasis on critical thinking (near the a high point when I wrote this), and they have been getting better at designing 'critical thinking' activities that do not aggravate me. (And as a final note, I'm currently considering adopting this in my intro class... tentatively.)


    Come on though... if you could fix one thing about intro psych (preferably something I didn't mention), what would it be?


    P.S. Not that I didn't intrinsically value our lunch-time conversations in grad school... but... I should mention that my favorite thing about publication was its retroactively making so many hours of my life officially productive.

  3. "I really do not remember any of my into-science classes teaching "scientific reasoning."

    Actually, that's the point -- physical and natural science courses typically DO have, among their goals, that of improving scientific reasoning. They just don't have to "emphasize" scientific reasoning outside of having students do interesting things in labs (which most certainly involving quantitative reasoning and hypothesis testing and evaluating evidence...the course sequences I took for my bio minor in undergrad, which was highly similar to your BS sequence, it sounds, certainly did), because, going in to the class, students have a reasonably-consistent understanding that the course takes a scientific perspective. It is this shared understanding of perspective that Intro Psych students don't seem to have (at least to the same degree), and in many cases, the understanding they do have is flatly wrong -- and i'm not talking about simply believing wrong facts (nothing unique about psychology there)...I'm talking about not having even the barest inkling that psychologists take scientific approach to understanding human behavior at all.

    One of the problems with "critical thinking" is that, rather than having a fixed meaning, is usually used as a catch-all term for "anything we do other than memorizing facts". So when people say they emphasize critical thinking, that might mean anything. I personally find most "critical thinking" activities recommended in textbooks to be useless or impractical anyway. Interesting that you mention the 50 myths book -- I've been using Lillienfeld's intro text for the last few semesters.

    Fix one thing? Not sure, but I think a typical intro course tries to cover too damn much for a semester, and as a consequence what does get covered is so superficial it's not clear whether students learn much that's useful. I've sometimes wondered if we should have a 2-semester intro sequence, with the first semester for both majors and non-majors, and the second semester geared just toward majors. You could do a smaller number of foundational topics first, and then in the second semester, you can revisit to give majors some (needed) repetition, and broaden/complexify to set them up better for upper-division courses. Maybe even have a laboratory section for the second semester.

    Another thing I do agree with you on: Intro courses are too accessible. Intro Psych is one of the most popular courses in the catalog virtually everywhere....if Intro Psych has problems, accessibility is not among them. Nothing wrong with accessibility per se, but when it comes at a cost to rigor, that's a problem. The actual subject matter in our field is inherently challenging and provocative -- if the intro course does not make students a little uncomfortable with their preconceptions, then the course does not represent the nature of the field.

  4. I said: "Intro courses are too accessible....if Intro Psych has problems, accessibility is not among them."

    Actually, that doesn't make any sense, does it. What I mean to say is, we don't need to prioritize "accessibility" to drum up interest in the course or the major.

  5. As I'm reading and mulling (and btw, this is a great topic, Eric), I'm aware of a conundrum as an instructor of Intro Psych.

    The course is defined by the textbooks. If an instructor wishes to challenge the status quo, he/she needs a textbook that supports that challenge. Otherwise, you're asking students to invest time and money in a book with which you do not agree. Is that fair to students when college courses and textbooks are so expensive (I'm also the father of a current Frosh and a recent BS graduate)?

    Of course, an instructor could eschew a textbook entirely. I tried that one quarter and found it less than desirable. The students in that class took the class less seriously because they weren't assigned a book (and a few students complained that they liked having a book they could use as a support for lecture, class discussion and class activities).

    I've thought about scouring my personal library and just compiling a collection of articles and book chapters that I like and asking students to buy that binding. But then, there never seems to be enough hours in the day to actually compile those articles....

    -Jim Jackson

  6. Eric: ""I really do not remember any of my intro-science classes teaching 'scientific reasoning.'"

    I don't think they did, because, as you stated, we as students knew going in that we were studying 'science.' Intro Psych students, both of yesteryear and today, do not come in with that impression, if my years of students are any indication. I spend two weeks' worth of classes discussing and demonstrating how Psychology is a science. To that end, most of my students say things to me like, "Wow, I never thought of Psychology as a science. I thought we were going to be learning about psychologists ask people how they feel."


  7. Eric, could you consider this Problem #9--The relationship between brain and behavior?

    I mention that because I have found lately that students believe the "final" answer for any psychological question rests in knowing what part of the brain "controls" the behavior under discussion.

    I like to challenge them to think about which way the causal arrow points. Does the brain 'cause' the behavior or did the behavior 'cause' the resultant piece of brain physiology?

    In an interesting bit of irony: Students often believe the brain is the "final frontier" for psychology, yet they quickly b*tch and moan if asked to learn about the brain and its physiology. Go figure.

    -Jim J.

  8. psychology class should be taken in a way that develop critical thinking knowledge of student because critical thinking is very important for a psychologist specially forensic psychologist because they need to deal with criminal every day.