Skill Building, One Assignment at a Time

10 Aug 2017 12:00 PM | Anonymous

By David B. Strohmetz, Ph.D. & Gary W. Lewandowski, Jr., Ph.D., Monmouth University

“What can I do with a psychology degree?” “Even though I love psychology, should I major in something more practical?” “Will I be able to get a job?” Your students will inevitably ask you these questions. How will you respond?

We often tell students that psychology prepares them for a wide range of career paths, but we can be vague as to what those paths may be. One solution is to give students career exploration resources (e.g., Appleby, 2016). But we argue that the better way to address students’ questions about their future is to emphasize that psychology helps them acquire skills that employers value. These include: communication skills; critical thinking and research skills; collaboration skills; self-management skills; professional skills; technological skills; and ethical skills (Appleby, 2014). The importance of skill development in the major is integral to the APA 2.0 Guidelines (APA, 2013), but have you asked yourself how you are intentionally helping your students build and strengthen these skills? With a few simple tweaks and/or modifications of existing assignments, you can help nurture the skills associated with postbaccalaureate success.

Take, for example, communication – a critical skill for everyone. Do you focus primarily on having students write APA style papers? While this is clearly useful for communicating within the discipline, APA style papers have limitations outside of academia or when explaining psychological science to the general public. With this in mind, you could have an assignment where students write an op-ed piece or blog post sharing findings from a research article with a lay audience. Better yet, have them do this assignment several times where you increasingly restrict their word count (maybe reducing it from 1000 words to only 500 words). Besides enhancing their reading skills, students will strengthen their ability to write succinctly and clearly, an important (and rare) skill that will benefit them in any career.

We should remember that writing is not the only way to communicate. Many students are petrified by the prospect of giving a presentation, yet public speaking is something that they will most certainly have to do at some point in their career. What is the best way to overcome this fear? Practice! You can accomplish this by having your students give multiple low-stakes presentations in your class. Remember that the goal is to have them learn how to give effective presentations. Don’t just say – “give a presentation” and sit back hope for the best. Take the time to discuss what makes an effective presentation. You could have students develop a top ten list of signs of a bad presentation and use this as a springboard for discussing how to give a quality presentation, including the effective use of PowerPoint. You may even pick up some pointers on how to improve your own presentation skills!

It is hard to imagine any career that does not involve working collaboratively with others. Even professors do group work – we call them “committees!” While we do assign group work to our students, it is worth examining whether these assignments really help students learn how to collaborate effectively with others. We seem to take a “sink or swim” approach where we put students into groups and hope that collaborative learning takes place. Clearly, this is not an ideal way to promote skill development. The problem is that we don’t always take the time to teach students how to collaborate effectively nor do we always structure the assignment itself to promote such learning. Whenever you assign group work, take time to discuss strategies for dealing with group conflicts and working effectively together. You might also assign individuals to specific roles or responsibilities to fulfill within the group, reminiscent of Aronson’s Jigsaw Classroom technique (Aronson & Patnoe, 2011). There should be a level of accountability where other group members evaluate each student’s contributions, similar to what happens in the workplace with respect to performance evaluations. Having several small group projects where these roles or responsibilities rotate among group members will allow each student the opportunity to reinforce these skills. For example, rotate the role of project manager so that one student has the responsibility for overseeing all the other group members. Not only does this promote accountability, but also give students valuable leadership experience.

One set of skills we often don’t think about cultivating in the classroom involves self-management, or the ability to manage time or stress. By completing small and large-scale assignments throughout the semester, students learn to balance multiple projects, similar to what they will be doing in the workplace. Again, don’t simply assign students this workload without also helping them to develop the skills necessary for success. Discuss strategies for how to manage the workload while maintaining a balance between their school and personal lives (a common challenge in academia!) Have students in groups discuss possible strategies and share them with the rest of the class, reinforcing their collaborative and presentation skills. Explain the value of breaking a large project into smaller tasks to make the project less overwhelming.

As you intentionally incorporate skill development into your classes, remember that it is important that students recognize what you are doing and why. When on job or graduate school interviews, students should be able to describe learning experiences that illustrate the types of skills they developed as a psychology major. One strategy is to discuss the skills students will be developing both on the first day of class and when discussing individual course assignments. Periodically remind students the connections between what they are learning in their psychology classes and the skills that employers value in recent college graduates.

APA 2.0 Guidelines are valuable for reminding us the types of skills that students can and should develop through the psychology major. It is up to us to intentionally help students develop those skills so that they no longer ask, “what can I do with a psychology degree?” but rather exclaim, “I have a psychology degree, let me tell you what I can do!”


American Psychological Association (2013). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major: Version 2.0. Retrieved from

Appleby, D. C. (2014). A skills-based academic advising strategy for job-seeking psychology majors. In R. L. Miller & J. G. Irons (Eds.), Academic advising: A handbook for advisors and students Vol. 1: Models, Students, Topics, and Issues. Society for the Teaching of Psychology Retrieved from

Appleby, D. C. (2016). An online career-exploration resource for psychology majors. Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Retrieved from

Aronson, E., & Patnoe, S. (2011). Cooperation in the classroom: The jigsaw method (3rd ed.). London, UK: Pinter & Martin.

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