Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

A Modular Approach to Teaching Professional Development

17 Aug 2016 2:03 PM | Anonymous

A Modular Approach to Teaching Professional Development


Natalie J. Ciarocco
Monmouth University

     As professors of psychology, we want our students to understand the science of human behavior, cognition, and emotion so they can use that knowledge to help others or simply to lead better lives. We hope they learn to communicate, think critically, and become productive citizens of the world. Yet on a more practical level, we know that life after graduation includes gainful employment. As the psychology major is not job training for a particular position, mentoring students about professional matters can be challenging. Whether we think career preparedness is our responsibility or not, the public expects college to prepare students for a career (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2003) and college students themselves believe college is the pathway for better jobs and career training (Hurtado & Pryor, 2006). Given the rising costs of college attendance and student debt, you cannot blame students, or their parents, for wanting such preparation.

     My department noticed this concern in our annual senior survey. Students were happy with most aspects of our department, but our lack of professional development opportunities was a recurring weakness. To be honest, we had placed most of the burden of professional development on our internship requirement. This was a one-and-done experience for our students. Occasionally the student group associated with the department would have a program on some aspect of professional development. We also assumed that students would come to us individually for advice as their academic advisors, but we did not specifically offer this advice and only a few came on their own. In my experience, students seem to succumb to the ostrich effect when preparing for life after graduation and then are often surprised when the future comes and they are not prepared. Professional development was certainly not scaffolded across the curriculum nor was it an intended focus of our program. Our students were learning a variety of skills in the major, but we had left it up to them to connect the dots as far as how those skills could apply to the workforce. The empirical evidence said it wasn’t working. Clearly our students had a need that we weren’t meeting. As a department, we decided we had an obligation to help students make the transition from student to young professional in a more formalized way.

     Even when professional development is a main emphasis of an undergraduate psychology program, it’s hard to know how to approach it. Undergraduate psychology programs have the dual task of preparing a minority of students for graduate school, while preparing the remaining majority for the job market (Kohout & Wicherski, 2010). Even more challenging is preparing our students for the variety of potential career paths they may follow (Landrum, Davis, & Landrum, 2010). One beneficial strategy is implementing a course on career development (Thomas & McDaniel, 2004). However, when last studied, only about 34% of psychology programs offered an introduction to the major or a career course (Landrum, Shoemaker, & Davis, 2003). The creation and sustainability of a full course on career development may be too taxing for many departments, limiting its offering. A course is also hard to synchronize with student needs, given that students are ready for different types of professional development at different points of their academic career. Another strategy is to organize programming about professional development topics that students can attend. Outreach is hard to monitor with this strategy and it doesn’t help students that don’t attend out of anxious denial about their futures.

     A different strategy is to implement professional development modules. These freestanding units can be embedded strategically within an established curriculum ensuring that you reach all majors. You can expose students to multiple modules across the curriculum, which allows you to scaffold the information. Additionally, you can customize each module to address professional development topics that are developmentally appropriate, meeting students at their professional levels. The module format is also highly flexible to accommodate various course schedules and teaching styles. This method allows departments to approach career-related issues without having to develop and staff a full course on the topic. Collectively, the modules may include information on being a psychology major, potential career options, graduate school preparation, and career preparation.

     To best use the module approach, I recommend implementing at least three distinct modules throughout the curriculum, ideally at the 200, 300, and 400 levels. Departments should include the modules in classes required for psychology majors. If you have a large number of transfer students, then you should attempt to place the modules in classes that are less likely to transfer into your major. If there are specific courses only majors can take, then these are particularly good courses for the modules, although non-majors might also find much of the professional development information useful.

     The modules themselves can be customized to the particulars of your program, as well as to professional development topics that your department finds important. Each module should cover between four and five professional development topics. For each, the module should provide detailed information on the topic, as well as an activity to help students engage in, and personalize the material. There are a variety of ways that faculty can use the modules within their classes. They can simply assign students to read the module on their own. They can spend a class period lecturing on the topics in the module and assign the module itself as supplementary reading, or they can decide to break up the module—discussing the different topics in the modules at various times throughout the semester. No matter the amount of class time devoted to the modules, I urge faculty to assign the module activities as a graded assignment. The students need the time to process and apply the information from the modules. As they are often a little anxious and avoidant about their future, they need some incentive to complete the activities associated with the module and really think about and apply this information.

     The 200 level module should focus on what it means to be a psychology major, and may need the most customization for your particular program. I encourage you to introduce the major and, in particular, the curriculum to students at this level. Help justify the curriculum for students, so they understand the skills and knowledge the major will help them to learn. For example, if you have a writing intensive course, this is a good place to stress to student the marketable skill of written communication. The first module should also touch on the major career paths that students with undergraduate degrees may pursue (e.g., human resources, social services, mental health, etc.). It is important to emphasize how to make curricular choices that will best prepare them for their future career goals. To do this, discuss elective options both inside and outside the major that might help students with particular careers. For example, for mental health counseling, you might recommend classes on personality, assessment, therapy, crisis intervention, drug use and abuse, and others. Misconceptions about psychology is another great topic for the first module. You might also want to address how to find and best use applied experiences throughout the major, and ways students can get involved in the department (e.g., research assistantships, student organizations, honor societies). It’s important to link these experiences back to how they will help build skills and give experiences that will benefit the students after graduation. I also think the first module should introduce students to the GRE (both the general and the psychology subject tests), as this may shape the courses they take throughout their undergraduate career.

     At the 300 level, the module should focus more on life after graduation. You can again discuss misconceptions in this module, but this time related to careers in psychology and graduate school in general. In this module, the career information can be more specific providing a comprehensive list of potential careers for undergraduates in psychology. At minimum, the module should provide the average income, education, and daily duties for each position. A helpful place to find this information is O*NET, a website hosted by the United States Department of Labor ( You can also ask students to explore their own career aspirations by having them discern between jobs, careers, and callings; and self-reflect on their preferred path. As students are getting closer to potential internships at this level, I also advise including information about creating resumes in this module. As students’ experience is limited at this point, encourage them to create a heavily skill-based resume. Students are poor at recognizing their own skills (Martini, Judges, & Belicki, 2015), so it’s important to facilitate this process. They need to think about specific class assignments and experiences both on and off campus that helped cultivate their skills. At the very least, have students identify specific times they have practiced communication (written, verbal, and interpersonal), collaboration, and critical thinking. This module is also a great one to introduce information about graduate school. This discussion should begin with why anyone should attend graduate school, and then move on to baseline acceptance criteria and specifics of graduate school applications. Students should learn more about the best people to ask for letters of recommendation, and how to go about asking for them appropriately. Personal statements should be included in this module as well as more about how to practice and register for the GRE.

     The general idea behind the 400-level module is to set students up for success in the professional world. The goal is for students to be able to reflect on and articulate their skills and experiences, as well as become a professional. At this level, most students have had an experiential learning experience. However, they are not always sure what that experience can bring to their professional careers. This module is a great place to remind them about the value of these experiences and help them reflect on the benefits of this experience and how it can apply to their professional futures. If your students complete a capstone or thesis experience, have them practice talking about that experience. I like to have my students prepare both a 5-minute and 3-minute version of the experience (i.e., an elevator pitch) that includes both a description of the experience and the skills it facilitated. An essential aspect to include in this module is information about interviewing. You can help students learn appropriate interview etiquette, as well as help them prepare for both graduate school and job interviews by providing a list of potential questions. Another important topic to discuss in this module is how students should determine and manage their online reputations. Have students list any social media sites for which they have ever registered, and then go through each profile systematically to determine their digital footprint in the world. They may find they still have an active Flickr account from 7th grade. I also have students Google image search themselves to see what pops up. They are often very surprised at what they find and learn quickly what a future advisor or employer might see.

     What I am encouraging can be a lot of work to put together for your department, initially. With all that effort you may be wondering if self-contained units of professional development weaved into your current curriculum can work. After all, I am not suggesting a major overhaul of your current curriculum or the development of an entire course. You may wonder if the impact of this minimal change might also be minimal. I wondered too. My colleagues and I studied the implementation of this approach empirically in our own department. Our study revealed that students’ exposure to the modules was beneficial (Ciarocco, Dinella, Hatchard, & Valosin, in press). They self-reported more knowledge about professional development topics and objectively did learn from the modules. The results suggest that a modular approach to professional development can be an effective alternative strategy for undergraduate psychology programs interested in helping student prepare for life after graduation.

     Earning a college degree is about developing a foundation for students’ personal and professional lives. As professors in undergraduate psychology, we provide students with knowledge in our discipline. We help them learn how better to communicate and think critically, however we also need to help them transition into the professional world. By implementing professional development modules strategically across your curriculum, you can help students without a major overhaul to your current program.



Chronicle of Higher Education (2003, May 2). The Chronicle survey of public opinion on higher education. Chronicle of Higher Education, p. A11.

Ciarocco, N. J., Dinella, L. M., Hatchard, C. Y., Valosin, J. (in press). Integrating professional development across the curriculum: An effectiveness study. Teaching of Psychology.

Hurtado, S., & Pryor, J. H. (2006, January). The American freshman: National norms for Fall 2005. Presented at the Higher Education Research Institute, Los Angeles, CA.

Kohout, J., & Wicherski, M. (2010). 2009-10: Applications, acceptances, enrollments, and degrees awarded to master's- and doctoral-level students in U.S. and Canadian graduate departments of psychology. Retrieved from http://

Landrum, R. E., & Davis, S. F. & Landrum, T. (2010). The psychology major: Career strategies for success (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Landrum, R., Shoemaker, C. S., & Davis, S. F. (2003). Important topics in an introduction to the psychology major course. Teaching of Psychology, 30, 48-51.

Martini, T. S., Judges, R. & Belicki, K. (2015). Psychology majors’ understanding of skills-based learning outcomes. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1, 113-124. doi: 10.1037/stl0000019

Thomas, J. H., & McDaniel, C. R. (2004). Effectiveness of a required course in career planning for psychology majors. Teaching of Psychology, 31, 22-27. doi:10.1207/s15328023top3101_6




Natalie J. Ciarocco is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Monmouth University. She earned her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from Case Western Reserve University. Her main research focus is on the limited capacity of self-control in interpersonal relationships. She is also a scholar of teaching and learning. Natalie recently co-authored a textbook, Discovering the Scientist Within: Research Methods in Psychology and is the recipient of grants from both the Association for Psychological Science (APS) and the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP) for pedagogical development. Her work is published in Teaching of Psychology and she has a book chapter on how to make psychology more self-relevant to students. Natalie is the co-creator and editor of an online collection of peer-reviewed resources for the teaching of research and statistics (, as well as the co-founder and organizer of the Atlantic Coast Teaching of Psychology conference.




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