What Should We Be Teaching in Intro Psych? What We're Teaching Probably Isn't It

23 Jul 2017 5:00 PM | Anonymous

By Sue Frantz, Professor of Psychology at Highline College

Having spent my career – 26 years and counting – teaching Intro Psych, I have had a lot of time to think about Intro Psych. What is its purpose? Why have I spent so many of my waking hours – and some of my sleeping hours! – teaching this course?

Somewhere over a million students take the course annually. The vast majority of those students are not psychology majors. They are going into the fields of business, politics, engineering, and medicine, to name a few. David Myers asks, “What does an educated person need to know about psychology?” I wonder, “If we were to create an Intro Psych course today, from scratch, what would it look like?”

Of all the courses in the psychology curriculum, Intro Psych is the hardest one to teach. I taught my first Intro course as a graduate student. I felt pretty comfortable with the social psych chapter since that was my area of study. And I felt equally comfortable with the chapter on research methods – correlations and experiments with one independent variable, easy peasy! But after that? After that I relied heavily on the textbook. Sure, I had taken classes devoted to some of those chapters as an undergraduate, like abnormal, development, and learning, but that was years ago. And then there were all of those chapters I, frankly, had no formal education about, like sexuality, personality, motivation, emotion, stress. Like everyone else who is teaching Intro Psych for the first (second, third…, nth) time, I learned from the textbook, right along with my students – or, more accurately, about one chapter ahead of my students. The Intro course is arguably the one course where we, as instructors, are most heavily reliant on our textbooks. I’m not a cognition researcher; I have no idea what the key concepts are in cognition. I’m happy to have someone else figure it out and deliver it to me (and my students!) in a 40-page chapter.

I relied on the textbook to tell me what the general public needs to know about psychology, although I didn’t think of it that way. I just thought, here’s the textbook, students need to learn what’s in the textbook, and I’m here to help them do that – and to assess to what extent they have done that.

Then textbooks started to expand in size, drifting toward the encyclopedic. Intro Psych instructors spent quite a bit of time discussing depth vs. breadth. Those in the depth camp liberally cut content (e.g., motivation, emotion, intelligence, language), opting to spend more time on a select number of concepts. Those in the breadth camp covered a wider swath of content, opting to help students see how many different kinds of questions psychology addresses. While I’ve been a part of many of those discussions, I don’t recall anywhere we addressed the origin of the content itself. We took the textbook as gospel. That’s the pool of content we are to draw from.

As research started to mount showing that our Intro Psych students don’t remember much after the course is over (e.g., Landrum & Gurung, 2013), the discussion shifted. There were those who were ready to toss content out altogether. “Let’s teach skills, such as information literacy and research methods, and not worry about the content.” But there were plenty who weren’t quite ready to let content go. Some think we should take a myth-busting approach to teaching content (e.g., Bernstein, 2016): “Let’s find out what misconceptions students have and address those.” Others think we should be more applied in what we teach: “If it applies to students’ lives – self-reference effect, people! – students will remember content.”

And once again, the content of our textbooks – what we all use as a foundation to build our courses, regardless of our approach or our emphasis – remains undiscussed.

A number of years ago I had a conversation with an Intro Psych textbook author who had just joined an existing set of authors to work on a new edition. When a textbook is new or is going into a new edition, faculty are asked to review a few textbook chapters. I, for example, would most often choose social psych (my area), research methods (I’m always on solid footing there), and sensation/perception/learning/memory (one of those because I find them fun to teach). While I was happy to offer my thoughts, I never quite grasped the impact of my words.

The author gave me an example of the problem she saw throughout the textbook. When the chapter reviews came back for the neuroscience chapter, she said, the biopsych/neuroscience folks advised the authors to remove everything about the action potential. The action potential isn’t important to us, they said. Focus on the synapse and the neurotransmitters; that’s where the drama is. But when the authors looked at the reviews of that exact same content submitted by the cognitive, social, development, etc. folks, they all demanded that the action potential stay. Why? “Because I teach that!” And now it’s just the physics of economics. There were many more reviewers standing on the “keep it!” side of the scale than on the “ditch it!” side of the scale. The action potential stayed. As a biopsych colleague pointed out to me, the action potential does not appear in the Intro Psych textbooks outside of that initial coverage of the neuron.

Our textbooks are crowd-sourced from a crowd that shouldn’t have an opinion.

What other content in your Intro Psych textbook is “legacy” content – content that was put in the textbook at one time and now can’t be removed because a lot of instructors say, even though it’s not in their field of study, “I teach that!”?

With that said, let’s all step away from the textbooks. Let’s take a collective deep breath. And let’s ask each other, “1.) What does an educated person need to know about psychology? 2.) If we were to create an Intro Psych course today, from scratch, what would it look like?”


Bernstein, D. (2016, January 6). Bye-bye Intro. Address presented at National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology in Tradewinds, St. Petersburg Beach.

Landrum, R. E., & Gurung, R. A. R. (2013). The memorability of Introductory Psychology revisited. Teaching of Psychology, 40(3), 222-227. doi:10.1177/0098628313487417

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