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The inherent challenge of teaching Intro Psych

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The perennial question for any introductory course is about what to cover. Is it better to teach more stuff superficially? Or is it better teach less stuff deeply? This is the classic breadth vs. depth dilemma.

I don’t think anyone goes all-in on breadth, teaching Intro Psych by covering one isolated concept after another, jamming in every known psychological concept. If that’s you, may I suggest using the APA Dictionary of Psychology as your open source textbook? Nor do I think that anyone goes all-in on depth, teaching Intro Psych by covering one concept in great detail. That’s what a graduate school dissertation is for. Instead, we’re all somewhere in between these two extremes. How far left from center and how far right from center is the question. This question would be easier to answer if we knew where the center was.

When I teach Intro Psych, what I choose to cover and choose not to cover are driven by two primary factors. The first is the textbook I’m using. The authors—with much input from reviewers and editor(s)—have curated the psychological knowledge that they think is important for an educated citizenry to know. That one’s easy. I have a book that tells me what they thought was important. The second factor is my own opinion of what an educated citizenry needs to know. This one is a little harder, but not much. If knowing a piece of psychological knowledge will increase the chances of saving someone’s life, it’s more likely to make my cut. I spend more time and effort covering sleep and attention than I used to. My coverage of psychological disorders focuses much more on stigma these days than it does on, say, symptoms. (Shout out to Susan Nolan for helping me think about this.) I’ve changed my approach to psychotherapy so that students can explore how to find a psychotherapist and the questions to ask a potential psychotherapist.

When Intro Psych instructors get together, these are the kinds of issues we talk about. How much of your coverage of the personality chapter is historical? Or, more to the point, do you cover Freud? Do you lecture on the sodium-potassium pump? Do you ask students to know what each neurotransmitter does? How much I/O content do you cover? Do you cover motivation and emotion?

But here’s what we don’t talk about.

At the Intro course level—and this is true for any discipline—we deliver the simplified version. We zoom out to the 30,000-foot view where we can’t see the nuance. In Intro to History (of some appropriate time period) we learn that the cause of WWI was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. We learn in Intro to Anatomy that there are two arteries in the human arm, the radial and the ulnar. We learn in Intro to Art that Picasso was a cubist. All of that is true. Sort of. Much had to come before in order for Ferdinand’s assassination to trigger a world war. Some people have three arteries in their arms. And Picasso, in his early years, was not a cubist; that came later.

In Intro Psych we have our own typically-covered content that is true in a sort of kind of way. The brain, for example, is much more complex than could ever be presented in Intro Psych. Yes, the temporal lobes play an important role in hearing—but the temporal lobes do so much more beyond that. Yes, the occipital lobes play an important role in vision—but lots of other places in the brain are important for vision, too. But we keep it simple. Temporal=hearing; occipital=vision. Yes, perceptions of three dimensions comes from binocular vision, but not everyone with two good eyes perceives the world in three dimensions. Decision-making and memory involve much more than what we present in the Intro course. Psychological disorders are much more complex than could be covered in Intro.

If students are lucky enough to take another psychology course (keeping in mind that the vast majority of students in Intro Psych are not psychology majors), the instructor of that next course will say something like, “In Intro Psych, you may have learned X. In this course, you’ll learn that that’s not the whole story. Let me tell you about Y.” And then for the few students who go on to graduate school in psychology, they’ll hear, “As an undergraduate you were probably told X and Y. In graduate school, you’ll learn that’s not the whole story. Let me tell you about Z.” And then when that even smaller number of students goes on to spend decades researching that one area, they’ll begin to fill in the other letters of the alphabet.

And therein lies the challenge in teaching Intro Psych. None of us who teaches the course knows the whole alphabet—or even the portion of the alphabet known to date—for every concept we cover. In fact, we know X for most of what is in our Intro Psych textbooks. We may know Y for some concepts—probably as a result of an upper division course we took and perhaps now teach. And for even fewer concepts—the concepts we researched ourselves in graduate school—we also know Z. And if you have an area you are researching now, I bet you also know A, B, and, depending on whether your current studies are going to yield the data you expect, C.

Intro Psych is the most difficult course in our curriculum to teach. It’s the course that will make you painfully aware of how much you don’t know about psychology, because you know the simplified version of most of the course content. You know X. The longer you teach it, however, the more you learn. In some areas, you start to pick up Y. You get better at answering student questions.

When you first start teaching Intro, your modal answer to student questions is most likely “I don’t know.” After a few years, as you learn more, you start to answer more frequently with “it depends,” and you’ll have one or two things in your back pocket that “it” depends on. But whatever your answer, it will still be the simplified version. Because you’re teaching Intro Psych.

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. 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.