Teaching in the Core Curriculum:
Re-thinking our Approach to Introductory Psychology Courses
Amie R. McKibban
University of Southern Indiana
“I am losing hope, Amie. Our students are being raised in a political system that is guided by economic theory. How can I teach students the value of higher education when they come to college asking ‘what job is this going to get me and how much money am I going to make?’” This was the start of a very long conversation I recently had with a former colleague. Indeed, his concerns are well founded, as higher education has been in the center of a heated debate for the last several years. Political critics and academic administrators alike have given much attention to the idea that we need more college graduates with specialized skill sets as a way to increase graduates’ employability. Harvard English professor James Engell (n.d.) laments, “an emphasis on majors believed to land a good job… appeal to ‘utility,’ to a supposedly clear-sighted appraisal of what the ‘real’ world demands of college graduates” (para.2). As Engell further discusses, this central parable in higher education is in conflict with the reality that few entry level jobs require four years of specialized knowledge.
In a recent survey, the American Management Association (2012) found that over half of executives felt their employees scored average, at best, in four areas: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Most of the executives surveyed agreed, that they need “highly skilled employees to keep up with the fast pace of change” in business (para. 3). Yes, college graduates do need a specialized skill set, but one that focuses on critical thinking and creativity, rather than content-specific knowledge. As Engell (n.d.) points out, even professional schools (e.g., law and medicine) want students who have been exposed to a broad range of knowledge; students who can critically think and “look at life as a whole” (para.3). In other words, we need to begin reemphasizing the value of a liberal arts education and the utility of the core curriculum. As many of us in higher education know, the goal of a liberal arts education is not specialized knowledge or training. Rather, a liberal arts education aims to prepare students to function as productive citizens in a diverse and complex world (Task Force on General Education, 2007). Core curricula at many institutions embrace the same philosophy. This is often asserted in declarations similar to my own institution’s, stating that the core curriculum embraces non-specialized and non-vocational learning, with an emphasis on critical thinking (the ability to analyze and evaluate information) and information processing (the ability to locate, gather, and process information).
With this in mind, I argue that what the “real” world actually demands of our students is at the very heart of the core curriculum: a curriculum that prepares students for citizenry and productivity, regardless of major. Further, I propose that teaching Introductory Psychology from a core curriculum perspective is a step toward addressing the disconnect Engell so eloquently discusses. Although numerous instructors may currently approach the teaching of Introductory Psychology as a core curriculum class, there are just as many who take a content-based approach. That is, structuring the class with the goal of preparing students to succeed in subsequent psychology courses should they declare a major in psychology. For those of you who fall into this latter category, I encourage you to reconsider the guiding philosophy of the course. In the remainder of this essay, I offer steps (points of consideration) in restructuring the course, and reflect on my own personal experience teaching the class for 13 years, providing insights and examples to help guide you through these considerations. I strongly believe in academic freedom, and therefore these should be taken as general guidelines. You know your students, community, and state requirements best, hence; the content of your actual class should be tailored accordingly.
Step 1: Develop a course that reaches the majority.
Although many of us would prefer to receive “graduate-school-bound” students in our classrooms, the reality of teaching is that many students who cross our paths will discontinue their formal educational pursuits after obtaining a bachelor’s degree. Others discontinue before completion of their degree. The majority of students will need to be prepared, as well as possible, for the realities of the working world. A core curriculum approach best meets this reality; I structure my Introductory Psychology course accordingly. Much of my course’s focus is on application of the material to the real world (i.e., making the connections between theory and example) rather than memorization of content. I achieve this largely by telling stories, giving personal anecdotes, discussing clips from popular television shows, and analyzing articles in local and national newspapers.
My approach is based on fulfilling two tenets of the core curriculum: critical thinking and information processing. Using content from the text to critically evaluate a news article, for example, reinforces the importance of a broad knowledge base for the students. It also models creativity,; one of the four skills sets discussed by the American Management Association (2012). By making the course material relevant to their lives, students are better equipped (and more motivated) to actively engage with the content. As one student recently wrote in my evaluations, “Many of the personal anecdotes and stories that were used to help teach the concepts will be with me for a long time.” The point is this: what you do with the content is much more memorable and meaningful than the content itself. This notion brings me to the second step in re-thinking Introductory Psychology as a core curriculum class.
Step 2: Choose content for your course based on usability.
Often times we feel pressure to cover as much material as possible. This makes sense if you are preparing students for the AP test in psychology or if the only students required to take Introductory Psychology at your institution are psychology majors. For many of us, however, this course is part of a larger curriculum, and many students (especially freshman and sophomores) will filter through our classrooms. As such, I argue that it is not the quantity of information we cover that is important, but the quality. Cut content for the sake of experience. Although this may cause some of you to cringe, I offer this: there are many terms, definitions, and facts that we forget along the way (really, how many of you can remember everything from your intro to political science course?), however, we remember the process. That is, our students may not remember the difference between a conditioned and unconditioned stimulus, but if we make the content experiential they will remember the process of classical conditioning.
Given that many Introductory Psychology students will not become psychology majors, you should choose content by asking yourself “if this were the only course my students took, what would I want them to understand?” That is, what material (theories and concepts) will help students become more productive citizens? What do you feel is most important for them to understand and use in their everyday lives? In other words, what processes are important? For example, I always cover judgmental heuristics when discussing cognitive psychology, using current events in politics and recent findings in medicine. Indeed, understanding how humans make decisions is important in being able to make sound decisions and discover creative solutions. It is also an important process in becoming a knowledgeable consumer of information and services. What processes you feel are important to achieving the goals of the core curriculum are up to you. Choose them, and spend time on them in class. The students will remember these things. As a former student recently told me, “Every time I watch the news or read an article on Facebook, I can’t help but think of you and everything we learned in class. I find myself exclaiming ‘Darn it, McKibban!’ all of the time.”
Step 3: Seek continual feedback from your students.
Structuring your course in a way that promotes skill development, rather than content specific knowledge (application rather than memorization) requires continual feedback from your students. Waiting for the results of your teacher evaluations is not sufficient. I have found that having someone outside of my department come in for 20 minutes and run a focus group (while I am not there) results in the best feedback. With whatever approach works for you, ask your students, in an anonymous format, what they find effective about your teaching style, what content they have found most applicable and why, what is working for them and what is not. Tailor the questions to the individual class and discuss the results the next class period. This is something that can be done one to two times during the semester. Students will have suggestions, as well as good insights. The one “golden rule” of implementing this feedback is that you do make changes, when reasonable.
This idea of a continual feedback loop is not only mutually beneficial, but speaks to the goals of the core curriculum. It gives your students decision making power over their education and provides them with experience in collaborating with an expert in the field when making those decisions. If we are to prepare students for the demands of the world, effectively communicating with others is a skill they must develop, especially when those “others” are people in higher positions. Again, this process is important in developing a course that promotes critical thinking and assists in the development of communication, collaboration, and creativity. Not to mention, you will learn just as much from this process as your students.
The steps I have offered are meant to give you a framework in reconsidering the guiding philosophy of Introductory Psychology course development. Given the nature and breadth of the course, we have the unique opportunity to prepare our students for citizenry and productivity; for the challenge of seeing the world as a whole; and for a lifetime of critical thinking and reflection. I encourage you to ask, given your academic environment and situation, if your students would benefit from a focus on quality over quantity. I challenge all of us to find the best way possible to meet the needs of our introductory students, knowing that many of them may not finish college, or will complete a degree outside of the field of psychology. I ask you to tell your students that “whether or not you stay in college and no matter what major you ultimately choose, I promise that you will use the information learned in this class,” and then live up to that promise. After all, psychology in and of itself embraces the philosophy of a liberal arts education and the goals of a core curriculum, and what better class to demonstrate this with than Introductory Psychology? What better way can we tell students “this is the value of higher education?” I think that those of us who teach this class can relate to Engell’s (n.d.) statement that “the aims [of a liberal arts focus] are at once personal and social, private and public, economic, ethical, and intellectual” (para. 9).
American Management Association (2012). Executive summary: AMA 2012 critical skills survey. Retrieved from http://www.amanet.org/uploaded/2012-Critical-Skills-Survey.pdf
Engell, J. (n.d.). Professor of English James Engell offers his reflection on the value of a liberal arts education. Retrieved from http://www.admissions.college.harvard.edu/about/ learning/liberal_arts.html
Task Force on General Education, (2007). The value of a liberal arts education. Retrieved from http://www.admissions.college.harvard.edu/about/learning/liberal_arts.html
Amie R. McKibban, professor of psychology at the University of Southern Indiana, completed her PhD in community psychology in 2009. She has presented numerous papers and published in diverse areas, ranging from attitudes toward individuals in the LGBT community, sexual health and communication, happiness, community redevelopment, academic dishonesty, and perfectionism. Using a well-known program in a way that mobilizes allies and allows for solutions at each level, she founded and directs a community and campus wide Safe Zone program. In the first few years of her tenure at the University of Southern Indiana, she has received the Willie Effie Thomas award and Phenomenal Women of USI award for her work in social justice, as well as the H. Lee Cooper Core Curriculum award for her excellence in the teaching of psychology.