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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2010
Skills for the Undergraduate Psychology Majors: Because You Need It, Do We Measure It?
R. Eric Landrum, PhD, Boise State University (ID)

Educators have long been interested in knowing what their students know, and what they can do. In the United States, collegiate level grading began in 1783 at Yale University using the terms (from best to worst) optime, second optime, inferiores, and pejores. Based on this 4-point grading scale, grade point averages could now be calculated (Milton, Pollio, & Eison, 1986). Educators have been quantifying learning outcomes ever since. In my opinion, the bulk of our collective efforts has been to measure what our students know. My intention here is to make the point to students, and those who advise them, that psychology educators also need to acquire information from our students about what our students can do. Of course knowledge is important, but skill development is also important. The theme of skill development has been frequently mentioned in previous issues of Eye on Psi Chi (e.g., Appleby, 2000; Beins, 2003). When McGovern, Furumoto, Halpern, Kimble, and McKeachie (1991) wrote about the common goals that undergraduate education in psychology should aspire to, notice the emphasis on skills: knowledge base, thinking skills, language skills, information gathering and synthesis skills, research methods and statistics skills, interpersonal skills, history of psychology, and ethics and values (for more on the assessment of skills, see Graham (1998) and Halpern (1988)). You can see that the above-listed skills are the direct precursors to the current APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major (American Psychological Association, 2007). Each of the 10 undergraduate Guidelines is presented in the left column of Table 1.

Although psychology educators have been talking about skills for some time, more recent efforts have been more detail oriented about the assessment of skills and abilities. For example, Kruger and Zechmeister (2001) developed a skills-experience inventory that students might use to gauge their own progress. Fried and Johanson (2003) asked psychology alumni to self-assess their own level of skill development, and link these skill levels to specific courses in their undergraduate curriculum. Gaither and Butler (2005) asked general psychology students what skills they expected psychology majors to gain, and the results matched well with the Guidelines (APA, 2007).

But what about the actual measurement (i.e., assessment) of student skills? One could make the argument that that is what grades do; however, individual grades tend to represent the cumulative knowledge and skills obtained in a particular course, and a student’s GPA represents this same accumulation over multiple courses. Grades are not very indicative of specific skills and abilities, including those listed in the left side of the table. Scoring well on content-based tests is not the same as having the ability to apply skills in real-world situations. Say for example that you received an "A” in your English Composition course. This grade is not necessarily an indicator of your skill in writing in APA format, nor even more broadly the communication skills desired in Goal #7 (see Table 1). Luckily, some psychology educators have begun work on the development of assessment plans and rubrics for understanding psychology major skills, such as scientific inquiry (Halonen, et al., 2003) and critical thinking (Lawson, 1999). By carefully defining the skill and developing a grading rubric for that skill, this should facilitate the development of assessment techniques that will allow psychology educators to actually measure a student’s skill in a particular area.

On the whole, developing assessments with the goal of measuring the level of skill attainment is extremely challenging. In Table 1, I have attempted to summarize the current "state of affairs” with regard to actual measures of the 10 Guidelines. Please note that there is some subjectivity in the creation of such a resource, and some may question the inclusion of a particular instrument, while others may lament my exclusion of some fine instruments. However it is viewed, I believe Table 1 is instructive and tells an important story about where our strengths and weaknesses lie in psychology education. In my estimation, we currently have multiple measures available to us to measure goals such as knowledge base in psychology (#1), critical thinking (#3), information and technological literacy (#6), communication skills (#7), sociocultural and international awareness (#8), and personal development (#9). But students, think about this – how many of these assessments listed in the right side of Table 1 have you actually completed? Although psychology educators have some confidence that we help students develop these skills, the question becomes this—how do we know the level of competency with which our students leave the undergraduate psychology major? My best guess is that rarely do we have evidence that students have achieved the skills we hope we are imparting. Furthermore, look at the gaps in the table! To my knowledge, there are not psychometrically sound, national assessments available to help us measure a student’s skills in the areas of research methods in psychology (#2), application of psychology (#4), values in psychology (#5), or career planning and development (#10).

What’s the moral to this story? If psychology educators want to be serious about imparting students with knowledge, skills, and abilities, we need to do a better job measuring students’ skill levels. Not only do we need measures in some of the areas of the Guidelines (APA, 2007), but ideally we would have multiple measures available with established reliability and validity. Students, these goals are important to you, too. Employers often lament that new graduates are not prepared for the professional world (for an excellent resource on transitions from college to career, see Hettich & Helkowski, 2005). About 1/3 of employers surveyed recently by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (2008) indicated that recent college graduates lacked the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in entry-level positions (see, employers emphasize knowledge and skills). When employers were asked specifically what recent college graduates lacked, the following percentages of employers reported these problems: global knowledge (46%), self-direction (42%), writing skills (37%), critical thinking skills (31%), adaptability (30%), and self-knowledge (26%). The good news is that the APA Guidelines overlap nicely with what employers want; the bad news is that employers appear dissatisfied with the preparation with recent graduates— some students are dissatisfied too (see the quarterlife crisis; Robbins & Wilner, 2001). For students, assessment in these areas is critical, so that you can enter the world of work confident that you have the knowledge and skills to succeed. But if we don’t measure that knowledge and skill, how will you know?

Th is is a "call-to-arms” to both faculty and students who care about undergraduate psychology education. Students (and this may seem a bit counter-intuitive to you), call for more assessment and more systematic measurement of what you know AND what you can do. Your faculty members can use this information to improve instruction and improve opportunities provided to students. Faculty, meet the challenge. Enormous resources are invested in undergraduate psychology education. I do not believe it is too much to ask to document the knowledge and skills that we say we value. Greater use of existing assessments should occur, as well as the development of new measures, especially in those areas where none currently exist. Development of new measures should include multi-institutional collaborations and adhere to the best practices to assure reliability and validity—in fact, current Psi Chi mechanisms (research awards and research grants) could go a long way in aiding the development of assessment practices that capture skills. If we want to continue to meet the needs of our students and society as a whole, we must move forward to develop and use measures of student skills.

American Psychological Association. (2007). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved December 3, 2009, from

Appleby, D. (2000, Spring). Job skills valued by employers who interview psychology majors. Eye on Psi Chi, 4(3), 17.

Association of American Colleges and Universities. (2008). How should college assess and improve student learning? Employers’ views on the accountability challenge: A survey of employers conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Washington, DC: Author. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 499718)

Beins, B. (2003, Spring). What should psychology majors know and what should they be able to do? Eye on Psi Chi, 7(3), 38-39.

Fried, C. B., & Johanson, J. C. (2003). Curriculum review using a knowledge, skills, and abilities-based assessment of alumni. Teaching of Psychology, 30, 316-318.

Gaither, G., & Butler, D. (2005). Skill development in the psychology major: What do undergraduate students expect? College Student Journal, 39, 540-552.

Graham, S. E. (1998). Developing student outcomes for the psychology major: An assessment-as-learning framework. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 7, 165-170.

Halonen, J. S., Bosack, T., Clay, S., McCarthy, M., Dunn, D. S., Hill, G. W., IV, McEntarffer, R., Mehrotra, C., Nesmith, R., Weaver, K. A., & Whitlock, K. (2003). A rubric for learning, teaching, and assessing scientific inquiry in psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 30, 196-208.

Halpern, D. F. (1988). Assessing student outcomes for psychology majors. Teaching of Psychology, 15, 181-186.

Hettich, P. I., & Helkowski, C. (2005). Connect college to career: A student’s guide to work and life transitions. Belmont, CA: Thomson/ Wadsworth.

Kruger, D. J., & Zechmeister, E. B. (2001). A skills-experience inventory for the undergraduate psychology major. Teaching of Psychology, 28, 249-253.

Lawson, T. J. (1999). Assessing psychological critical thinking as a learning outcome for psychology majors. Teaching of Psychology, 26, 207-209.

Milton, O., Pollio, H. R., & Eison, J. A. (1986). Making sense of college grades. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

McGovern, T. V., Furumoto, L., Halpern, D. F., Kimble, G. A., & McKeachie, W. J. (1991). Liberal education, study in depth, and the arts and sciences major—psychology. American Psychologist, 46, 598-605.

Robbins, A., & Wilner, A. (2001). Quarterlife crisis. New York, NY: Penguin Press.

R. Eric Landrum, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Boise State University (ID). He received his PhD in cognitive psychology (with an emphasis in quantitative methodology) from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale in 1989. He currently serves as the Psi Chi Vice-President of the Rocky Mountain region (2009-11), and is a fellow of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (APA Division 2), currently serving as secretary (2009-11).

Copyright 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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