This fall I started team-teaching our History and Systems course with another faculty member in my department. This is the senior "capstone" course for our psychology majors. By definition, a capstone course should allow a student to integrate knowledge and skills associated with the sequence of courses in the major, and thus to sum up all the courses taken in the major. It's the last psychology course most majors take, and my colleague and I were struggling to make it more "capstoney" in nature.
This effort led me to reflect on the required curriculum for psychology majors at my university. As I did so, I realized that the courses in the psychology major teach much more than academic content and analytical skills. These courses provide useful information that majors can use to enrich their lives, understand the behaviors of those around them, and make educated and sound decisions. After going through this process, I have become convinced that students are lucky to be psychology majors!
Consider the offerings and requirements of your psychology major. Many students take Lifespan Development, a course that I believe should be required for any parent. In this course you learn about cognitive development of children and adolescents, issues of aging, and practical matters surrounding death. Information in this course will help you relate to the abilities and limitations of your children. It will help you understand your parents at their developmental stages, and will help you anticipate and deal with issues that you will face across your own lifespan. When you leave this class, you will have information to make you a better parent and maybe even a better son or daughter.
As a student of Social Psychology (my personal favorite, being a social psychologist myself), you learn about group dynamics, interpersonal relationships, helping behavior, aggression, prejudice, and so on. By studying social psychology, you become educated about your own behavior in social interaction and, as a result, can use this information to make your social world a better place. When you leave this class, you will have information to help you increase your persuasive abilities, reduce your prejudice, and recognize the factors in attraction.
In Abnormal Psychology and clinically related courses, the myths of mental illness are dispelled. By taking these courses you gain an understanding of the many different factors that lead one to develop a psychological disorder, allowing you to understand more fully (and more compassionately) how someone can become depressed, phobic, etc. These courses can help you to develop healthier responses to challenges you may face personally. When you leave these classes, you will have information on the kinds of attitudes, behaviors, and styles of thinking that are associated with better psychological health.
In the research methods and statistics courses, you are taught the foundation of our field, the scientific method. Through critiquing previous research you develop analytical thinking skills; through writing solid literature reviews you exercise the ability to synthesize information. Through designing and conducting research projects, you demonstrate problem solving and time management skills, and an understanding of the methods of your discipline. You will leave this class with critical thinking skills that can influence how you think about and process information from the media, politicians, and even other researchers for years to come.
One of the most important things you can take from Physiological Psychology is the understanding (and awe) that everything you do is made possible by, and is dependent upon, the functioning of your nervous system, and that it is active all the time. You gain an understanding of the complexity of behavior, particularly with regard to the many parts of the brain and the corresponding neurotransmitters that are involved. Further, you learn how delicate our physiological balance is, and that any modification of one part of this complex system can have extensive and multiple ramifications. For example, the introduction of any drug alters neural transmission in many parts of the nervous system. When you leave this class, you will have information to understand the biological basis of your own behavior.
In Sensation and Perception, you get a realization that visual perception is more than just what the eye's physiological makeup makes us see. We bring to the process our past experiences, biases, and expectations, and we end up "constructing our visual world." This perception is sometimes very different from what the environmental stimulus or the physiology of the eye may dictate. Of course, the same construction applies to all of the senses. When you leave this class, you will be aware of perceptual biases and be able to recognize them in yourself or others.
In the Learning course, you discover that the most adaptive trait that an organism--including humans--
can possess is the ability to change a behavior as a result of a change in the environment. In this course you are exposed to the power of reinforcement and punishment in the prediction and control of behavior. Although we humans do not like to think of the "prediction and control" of our own behavior, learning studies show that our behavior is predictable and controllable to a large degree. When you leave this class, you will have information that can help you in numerous ways, from improving your study habits to helping you train your dog.
For your entire life you have been tested and measured, and those tests don't stop at graduation. As such, Testing and Measurement is a valuable course. The use of high-stakes testing in public schools, issues regarding affirmative action, and the use of tests in graduate admission and financial aid decisions make concepts of reliability, validity, and standard error of measurement even more relevant and important to understand. By taking this course you realize that even the best testing programs only account for a small part of the variance in how well students do in school. When you leave this class, you will have information that allows you to become a critical consumer of the testing that is done on you and to your family members.
A course that has enjoyed recent popularity is the Psychology of Sport and Exercise. In this course students can develop an understanding of the psychological factors that affect participation, involvement, and performance in sport and exercise. While there are no promises that this course will help you maintain your exercise program, when you leave this class you will have been exposed to research that could be useful in becoming a better athlete, coach, or spectator.
Built in to most psychology majors are courses that expose you to the profession of psychology. Practicum experiences provide a broader understanding of the practice of psychology. In most cases you also get a better idea of whether or not you want to devote time and energy to pursuing a graduate degree in one of the mental health professions. Taking advantage of this experience provides a clearer picture of the activities of mental health professionals, as well as the ways in which the various mental health professions overlap. When you leave this course, you have information to make more informed decisions about your potential career.
Finally, back to capstone courses and my History and Systems class. This course provides a context for all the other courses you take in psychology and puts them into historical perspective. In addition, the course can allow you time to reflect on all the diverse knowledge, skills, and practical applications the psychology major offers. However, as with any of the courses mentioned, you have to make this happen. Courses provide opportunities; it's up to you to take advantage of them. If you are in the middle of your psychology major, start to take note of all the things outside of content that each course offers. Strive to get the most out of each course. If you are graduating soon, make time to look back on what you have gained from your courses. Examine how they fit together to make you an educated person, different from who you were before you started your major.
Admittedly, this is by no means an exhaustive (or unbiased) list of what you get from your psychology major.
If you think of other benefits or other courses, I would love to hear your thoughts. But when I think about it, given that human behavior and mental processes (i.e., psychology) are so important in our everyday functioning, I wonder if there is any other major that can measure up to having so many practical and important applications. The next time someone asks you what you are going to do with your psychology degree, tell them, in addition to your career plans, that you are going to use the information to live an enriched life. Aren't we lucky?
Author note. I would like to express my appreciation to my colleagues in the Psychology Department at Loyola University who gave me their thoughts about the courses in their areas of expertise: Dr. Mukul Bhalla (Sensation and Perception), Dr. Mary Brazier (Learning), Dr. John Cornwell (Testing and Measurement), Dr. Joe Etherton (Abnormal Psychology), Dr. Kim Ernst (Sports and Exercise), Dr. Janet Matthews (Practicum), and Dr. Evan Zucker (Physiological Psychology).
Winter 2003 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 4-5), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 2003, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.