Intro Psych: The hardest course we teach

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My first full-time job was at a small college. I was both the psychology and the sociology department—although after a year or two I convinced them to hire a sociologist. In college, I minored in sociology and my graduate degree was in social psychology, but the two disciplines look at the human condition very differently. Anyway, that’s just to explain why the head of the social sciences division (the closest thing we had to a department chair) was from accounting. One day while we chatting, she told me that she believed that anyone can teach an intro course in anything. All they need is a good intro textbook. In my memory, my first thought was, “Please don’t ask me to teach Introduction to Accounting.” My second thought was, “What a weird way to insult my expertise.”  But now, 30 years later, I’m thinking she may have been right. To a point.

Introduction to Psychology is the hardest course in the psychology curriculum we have to teach. That’s only because, as instructors, we don’t know most of the content of the course.

The first time I taught Intro Psych, I was a third-year social psych grad student. I had a solid handle on three chapters: “Welcome to Psychology,” research methods, and social psychology. Now, what about those other 11 chapters? As an undergrad (three to seven years earlier), I had taken biopsych, development, learning, memory and cognition, and abnormal psych. With those five chapters, I had a fighting chance. I was familiar enough with most of the concepts, that I could relearn them without too much trouble. Although, admittedly with some concepts, I only fully grasped them when I had to teach them to my students. And, also admittedly, not always the first, second, or even third time around. (To all of the students I had in my first few years of teaching, I’m sorry!)

If you have been keeping track at home, you know that I felt competent—or reasonably competent—in eight of 14 chapters. That leaves sensation and perception, consciousness, intelligence and language, emotion and motivation, personality, and therapy. Here’s an idea. What if I just don’t cover some of those?

In a survey of 814 Intro Psych instructors (Richmond et al., 2021), the chapters taught by over 90% of the respondents were learning, neuroscience, personality, abnormal, memory, social psych, and development. Six of those seven I felt pretty good about teaching. What about the chapters I was less comfortable with? What percentage of my fellow Intro Psych instructors taught those? Perception: 78.1%; therapy: 77.2%; sensation: 75.6%; consciousness: 71%; intelligence: 64.2%; emotion: 64.1%; motivation: 60.3%; language: 41.4%. I encourage you to look at the survey’s results for each Intro Psych content area. The chapters most of us teach are courses that are typically part of the core for the major. The chapters in the second tier are typically second tier courses for the major. The chapters we’re commonly excluding are typically electives for the major, if they are offered at all. Maybe I wasn’t the only one teaching Intro Psych content that I was most familiar with.

As a newly-minted Intro Psych instructor, I relied heavily on the textbook I adopted to teach me what I needed to know in all of those chapters where I felt, frankly, incompetent. The textbook wasn’t my only source, though. A grad student ahead of me in my program was headed off to a job in industry, so she gave me her hand-written Intro Psych lecture notes to get me started. Someone also gave me this nugget of advice: get a high-level Intro Psych textbook, and use that for your lecture material. During the recording of a Psych Sessions podcast (Landrum & Nolan, Feb 29, 2024), I learned that I wasn’t the only one who got that advice.

In some ways, my first division chair was right. When we teach Intro Psych, we are learning the course content from our textbooks as we go. For high school teachers who teach Intro Psych—especially AP Psych—they may not have a background in psychology at all, so they are absolutely learning as they go. And the AP Psych instructors don’t have the luxury of not teaching chapters they’re not comfortable with. The students need all of the chapters in preparation for the AP exam. Some of the best Intro Psych instructors I know teach AP Psych. In a recent conversation with one of those best AP Psych instructors, she said that she feels like she has just the surface of the field, not the depth. I countered that college instructors have just the surface, too, except for their area of expertise. The more education we get, the narrower our knowledge becomes.

There is one exception to the narrowing of knowledge: research methods. That is one way where my division chair was wrong. Through my BA and graduate training, I became well-versed in the research methods we use in psychology. Research methods underpins everything we do; it is our way of knowing. While an accountant would struggle to wrap their head around how psychological researchers do science, a scientist from a different field might have an easier time. Science is science. Our methods may differ, but the basics—and the values—are the same.

To everyone who is teaching Intro Psych for the first time, if you feel incompetent in most of what you are teaching, it is because you are. But you are not alone in that experience. And it will get better. Every time you teach the course, you will learn more.

 

References

Landrum, E., & Nolan, S. A. (Feb 29, 2024). STP and new challenges, with guest Sue Frantz (Beyond Teaching S6E4) [MP3]. https://psychsessionspodcast.libsyn.com/beyond-teaching-s6e4-stp-and-new-challenges-with-guest-sue-f...

Richmond, A. S., Boysen, G. A., Hudson, D. L., Gurung, R. A. R., Naufel, K. Z., Neufeld, G., Landrum, R. E., Dunn, D. S., & Beers, M. (2021). The Introductory Psychology census: A national study. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 7(3), 163–180. https://doi.org/10.1037/stl0000277

 

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.