Speaking of Education

A major advance in promoting quality in psychology education occurred with the APA Council of Representatives approval of the Principles for Quality Undergraduate Education in Psychology. These principles grew out of the 2008 APA National Conference on Undergraduate Education in Psychology, supported by the University of Puget Sound and a grant from the National Science Foundation obtained by APA.1 The goal of this effort was to create a world-class educational system to ensure that students are prepared for the challenges they will encounter as workers, family members and concerned citizens. The principles were designed for stakeholders in higher education, including students, faculty, departments, academic administrators, public policymakers and the general public. The recommendations were made within the framework of five quality principles:

  1. Students are responsible for monitoring and enhancing their own learning.

  2. Faculty strive to become scientist-educators who are knowledgeable about and use the principles of the science of learning.

  3. Psychology departments and programs create a coherent curriculum.

  4. Academic administrators support and encourage quality practices in teaching and learning.

  5. Policymakers and the public need to understand why psychological literacy is necessary for informed citizens and an effective work force.

For decades, psychologists have been concerned about quality in undergraduate education and have advocated for a curriculum that advances the teaching of psychology as a science. The APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major articulate a set of learning goals and outcomes that are achieved through the psychology major. Among other outcomes, the undergraduate psychology major can prepare students to weigh evidence, tolerate ambiguity, act ethically and develop values that reflect the underpinnings of psychology as a science. Psychology’s contribution to the teaching of other STEM disciplines has also been well documented.

Although the undergraduate major in psychology is one of the three most popular majors on our nation’s campuses — with 90,000 baccalaureate degrees awarded annually — many other students minor in psychology and other fields require courses in psychology as part of their major. Undergraduate psychology is as a pipeline to a psychologically literate public as well as to graduate study in psychology. Indeed, the skills in critical thinking, communication, information and technological literacy, and scientific reasoning promoted in psychology are essential to an educated citizenry and useful in many careers other than psychology. So is an understanding of psychology’s topics that are fundamental to everyday life, such as conflict resolution, parenting, learning, decision-making, discrimination, emotions and behavior change in areas as diverse as health habits, safety and environmental protection.

Sadly, the value of undergraduate education in psychology is not always recognized. Witness the recent question posed by the Board of Governors of the Florida State University System: “Are there too many psychology majors?” It is not always recognized that psychology contributes to national goals for higher education as well. Yet our learning goals and outcomes are very consistent with the learning goals and outcomes espoused by the Association of American Colleges and Universities LEAP initiative, which delineates what a college student needs to know in the 21st century society.

APA supports undergraduate education in psychology as contributing to a better-educated citizenry, a more scientifically literate public and a pipeline for graduate study in psychology — which in turn provides the human capital for advancing psychological science and delivering psychological services.

1The BEA Steering Committee was chaired by Dr. Diane Halpern whose leadership was a major force behind this endeavor. Dr. Barry Anton, Dr. Robin Hailstorks and Martha Boenau were also critical to its success.
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