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Designing the Psychology Course: Syllabus, Readings, and Assignments

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the importance of careful planning to development of a psychology course, and ideas for implementing good course design. Since the earliest days of American psychology, teachers have recognized the significance of essential features of effective courses: what teachers should know, the scope of the course, intended aims and outcomes, appropriate readings and teaching activities, and the practical aspects of syllabi and course management. Course design should also attend to meaningful beginnings and endings. A focus on each of these key concerns can help psychology teachers to keep their focus on student outcomes and the instructor’s role in facilitating productive learning. Good teaching can change student lives forever; good course design provides the context for such change to occur.

Keywords: course design, student outcomes, syllabi, teaching activities, readings, beginnings, endings

Psychology teachers have long recognized the importance of giving thoughtful consideration to teaching approaches and techniques. As America’s first true psychologist, William James was also an early advocate of the teaching of psychology, as evidenced by publication in 1899 of his Talks to Teachers on Psychology: And to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals. Harry Kirke Wolfe, another member of the founding generation of American psychologists and the second American to complete the PhD with German Wilhelm Wundt, was an accomplished teacher and defender of the importance of teaching, mentoring several students who went on to become presidents of the American Psychological Association (APA; Benjamin, 1991). And Wolfe’s student Hartley Burr Alexander, later a prominent philosopher, also did his part to further the aims of teaching in his 1919 volume Letters to Teachers and Other Papers of the Hour, including a variety of kinds of advice about teaching and curriculum.

James (1899), while recognizing psychology as the science of the mind, nevertheless argued that knowledge of psychology was no guarantee of good teaching—a sentiment echoed by MacLeod (1971) seven decades later. In addition to knowledge of the field, James believed, the teacher must possess additional skills and traits (e.g., ingenuity) and must also have definite plans for what to say and do in the presence of students. More than a half century later, B. F. Skinner (1956) pointed out that “college teaching is the only profession for which there is no professional training” (p. 221), and Skinner’s friend and colleague Fred S. Keller (1966) proposed a plan for an introductory course intended to address concerns about inflexibility and poor retention in many psychology classes. The importance of careful preparation for teaching is perhaps best illustrated by the continued popularity of William McKeachie’s Teaching Tips (e.g., Svinivki & McKeachie, 2011), which has evolved through 14 editions as of this writing.

A beginning teacher might well feel bewildered when faced with the assignment to prepare and present a new course—especially if he or she has (p. 46) not previously taught the course (or perhaps any course), or if a strong mentor is not readily available to help. In this article I will discuss some of the central issues facing the new teacher, including what teachers should know about teaching and learning, determining the purpose and scope of the course, setting objectives, selecting teaching and learning activities, evaluating outcomes, and a few of the practical nuts and bolts of course design. Each of these topics, of course, has been the subject of numerous articles and books. Here I will simply try to distill, for the teacher designing a course, some of the key aspects of these essential themes, with sufficient reference material to provide additional ideas and guidance.

What Teachers Should Know

Davis and Buskist (2006) summarized a number of important forms of knowledge that teachers should possess. These authors grouped the essentials of teaching and learning into three major categories:

  1. 1. Basics—knowing one’s own reasons for teaching, knowing one’s goals for teaching, knowing methods for goal achievement, knowing the subject matter, knowing students, serious preparation, setting academic standards, and understanding that students are likely to rise (or fall) to the level of teacher expectations. Both faculty and students see the significance of such teacher characteristics as knowledge of subject and realistic expectations (Buskist, Sikorski, Buckley, & Saville, 2002).

  2. 2. The teaching context—knowing that critical thinking is more important than knowledge alone; that effective learning is active, occurs in a context (often beyond the classroom), and is relevant to students’ lives; knowing the importance of care for students and passion for the teaching/learning process. The role of context in teaching, for example, is a central theme of the Handbook of college and university teaching: A global perspective (Groccia, Alsudairi, & Buskist, 2012)—an excellent resource for any teacher, including the beginning psychology teacher.

  3. 3. Improving as a teacher—knowing how to create opportunities for learning (for self and students), knowing that teaching involves experimentation and risk, understanding the significance of assessment of teaching effectiveness, and appreciating the role of self-reflection in enhancement of teaching techniques and philosophy. Svinivki and McKeachie (2011) also recognized the role of personal improvement for teachers, and discussed a variety of paths to vitality and growth, among them the use of data from student performance, peer and student feedback, and reading the ideas of accomplished teachers.

The effort to acquaint college teachers with the demands of the job and what they should know is of course not new or unique to the 21st century. Cole (1940), for example, offered advice to teachers, and Buxton (1946) provided a guide to planning an introductory psychology course. Buxton’s discussion included issues that remain timely for the knowledgeable teacher planning psychology courses today: the nature and objectives of the course, sequencing of topics, management of time, planning lectures and activities, selection of reading materials, and testing, among others.

Purpose and Scope of the Course

The field we know as psychology has changed dramatically in the past generation, as exemplified by such trends as increased specialization and fragmentation, and by significant growth of interest in applied aspects of the field (Dunn, Brewer, et al., 2010). Thus, psychology courses range in scope from the traditional broad survey course (e.g., introductory psychology) to the very specialized (e.g., behavioral endocrinology), and in aim from the very general (meeting a general education curriculum requirement) to the very particular (preparation for graduate education in a psychological specialty). The result for the psychology teacher is the need for careful attention to the intended purpose of the course and the attendant planning for the nature and amount of content that will be appropriate.

A clear plan that includes organization of a syllabus detailing not only the scope of the course, but also such practicalities as topics and assignments supporting the class purposes (Suddreth & Galloway, 2006; Svinivki & McKeachie, 2011) marks a good starting point. The syllabus will include the course description (scope of the work) and expectations, as well as procedures for evaluation (i.e., grading; Madson, Melchert, & Whipp, 2004). The design of the course should be well organized, and the expectations should be challenging (Korn, 2002). Organization should encompass not only content and clarity, but also the sequence of topics within the course (Lenthall & Andrews, 1983).

Although the scope and purpose of any psychology course depend upon the specific content area (p. 47) and the student audience, it is important for the teacher to bear in mind that most introductory psychology students do not become psychology majors, and that a large majority of those who do become majors do not continue to graduate education in psychology (APA, 2012). Further, although some research (e.g., Miller & Gentile, 1998) has shown significant uniformity in the structure and content of introductory psychology courses, other authors (e.g., Dunn, Brewer,et al., 2010; Irion, 1976) have suggested that, although textbooks may be relatively standard, differences in faculty specialties and expertise may contribute to an undesirable level of variability in course content. And, despite the existence of fewer studies examining the content of psychology courses beyond introductory, those that do exist (e.g., Goetz & Chatman, 1985; Kiewra & Gubbels, 1997; Lattal, 1990; Linton, 1992; Marek & Griggs, 2001) show considerable variability in coverage across textbooks and courses.

There is also interest in the field in incorporating such transdisciplinary content as culture (Keith, 2012), including race and ethnicity (Freeman, 2006; Kowalski, 2000); writing (Boice, 1982; Morgan & Morgan, 2006; Nodine, 2002; Snodgrass, 1985); ethics (Fisher & Kuther, 1997; Handelsman, 2005; Matthews, 1991); and critical thinking (Caplan, 2010; Dunn, Gurung, Naufel, & Wilson, 2013; Dunn, Halonen, & Smith, 2008). The message here, of course, is that teachers must give thoughtful consideration to the intended range of coverage and the student learning associated with the selected material, as well as their own particular academic strengths and values, in deciding the aims and scope of the particular course (Svinivki & McKeachie, 2011).

Setting Objectives

One of the indicators of excellence in teaching is use of clear statements of learning outcomes that lend themselves to assessment of student achievement (Bernstein et al., 2010; Hattie, 2011). Psychology teachers should give careful consideration to learning goals and outcomes appropriate to the particular course and the level of skills of students taking the course, as well as to the assignments and activities they will use to enable students to attain the desired outcomes (APA, 2008). It is easy to give these tasks less attention than they deserve, at least in part because the aims of the course may seem intuitively clear to the instructor. However, although we may have taught the same ideas many times, it is critical to remember that this is likely the first time this particular group of students has encountered them. Thus, as Bain (2004) noted, “… the best teachers plan backward; they begin with the results they hope to foster. They ask themselves if they want students to recall, comprehend, apply, analyze, synthesize, or evaluate” (p. 50).

The idea of clearly stating expected learning outcomes is not new. For example, Mager (1962) saw objectives simply as statements of what a student should be able to do following learning, and Popham (1969) noted that objectives describe the change we intend to produce in the learner. Various authors have created and revised taxonomies of learning objectives, often with a focus on the use of action-oriented verbs to suggest the specific skills students should be able to exhibit following instruction (e.g., Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001; Bloom & Krathwohl, 1956; Krathwohl, Bloom, & Masia, 1964). More recently, Nevid and McClelland (2013) have shown examples of action verbs (e.g., recall, identify, tell, list, define, paraphrase) and how they might be linked to typical outcomes in a psychology course. According to Nevid and McClelland, objectives can be linked to traditional taxonomies in a framework requiring students to identify, define or describe, evaluate or explain, and apply relevant concepts.

Having created an instructional objective, the teacher must then identify the skills required to meet the objective—a process that Gagné (1985) called task analysis. A number of authors (e.g., Boysen, 2012; Martinez-Pons, 2001) have provided guidelines for establishing and using learning objectives in teaching. Development of clear, meaningful learning objectives is essential in an effective course, as is the admonition that “the objective of a course is not just to cover a certain set of topics, but rather to facilitate student learning and thinking” (Svinivki & McKeachie, 2011, p. 12). Further, the teaching-learning enterprise is likely to be stressful for both student and teacher when they lack a clear understanding of what is to be learned (Halpern & Stephenson, 2011). After all, as Laurence Peter (of Peter Principle fame) noted, “If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else” (Peter & Hull, 2009, p. 145).

Teaching and Learning Activities

A substantial body of literature has shown the value of active and interactive approaches to teaching (Cherney, 2011; Helman & Horswill, 2002; Kulik, Kulik, & Cohen, 1979; Miller & Butler, 2011; Yoder & Hochevar, 2005). This literature (p. 48) has included advice for use of classroom discussion (Zinn & Saville, 2006), research-based classroom activities (Holmes & Dodd, 2012), service learning (Kranzler, Parks, & Gillham, 2011), and writing to learn (Stewart, Myers, & Culley, 2010), among others.

Psychology teachers have been especially productive in development and use of classroom activities and demonstrations (Benjamin, 2008; Benjamin & Lowman, 1981; Benjamin, Nodine, Ernst, & Blair-Broeker, 1999; Makosky, Whittemore, & Rogers, 1987; Makosky, Sileo, Whittemore, Landry, & Skutley, 1990; Ware & Johnson, 2000a, 2000b, 2000c). In fact, Benjamin (2002) estimated that psychology teachers have published more than 1,000 teaching activities. Good classroom demonstrations can bring a course to life for students who might otherwise be disengaged, but their use must be accompanied by thoughtful planning and preparation. Bernstein (1994) identified four strengths of good classroom demonstrations: (1) They capture and hold student attention; (2) If they involve the whole class, demonstrations can make psychological phenomena especially memorable; (3) Strong demonstrations bring material to life in a way that motivates students to learn more; and (4) Good demonstrations provide enjoyable course highlights for student and teacher alike. However, it is essential that classroom demonstrations be well integrated with lectures or other classroom activities and that they be clearly linked to the psychological principles or phenomena they are intended to illustrate (Bernstein, 2006).

Does effective integration of teaching activities and demonstrations eliminate the need for lectures or other traditional teaching modes? I think not. As Benjamin (2002) observed, although the lecture, along with Velveeta cheese, is widely maligned, it remains, as does Velveeta, the choice of the majority. The keys to effective use of the lecture, Benjamin asserted, include being yourself, showing passion for the subject, having clear aims for the lecture, and interspersing brief lectures with demonstrations, activities, in-class writing assignments, and discussion. Face-to-face interactions remain important to humans in their effort to learn (Eble, 1988), just as Velveeta, perhaps, has its place in the varied menu comprising a healthy diet.

Evaluating Outcomes

Evaluation of student learning outcomes should occur within a context that takes account not only of the instructor’s aims for the particular course, but also considers the desired outcomes of the department, the institution, and the broader society. Such attention to the various levels of assessment is particularly important in an era when numerous public agencies have demanded more accountability from institutions of higher education (Landrum et al., 2010). Psychology teachers, then, should acquaint themselves with the student outcomes expected by their departmental program, and the contributions their particular courses might make to achievement of those outcomes. Halonen et al. (2003) provided a rubric-based exemplar illustrating how student learning outcomes can relate to broader goals in the context of domains of scientific inquiry in psychology.

Having decided how the particular course fits in the broader programmatic context, the teacher is ready to make decisions about assessment of course-specific student outcomes. Svinivki and McKeachie (2011, pp. 72–73) summarized nine fundamental points concerning evaluation of student learning:

  1. 1. Learning depends as much on tests and assessment as on teaching.

  2. 2. Tests should not be just a way to assign grades; they should also facilitate learning for both teacher and student.

  3. 3. Some assessments should not be graded, with the intent of simply providing feedback to students and to the teacher.

  4. 4. Check assessments against stated goals; are tests measuring the intended course outcomes?

  5. 5. Evaluation of some goals, especially if they involve such outcomes as attitudes or values, may require evidence beyond traditional tests.

  6. 6. Assessment does not always equal testing. Activities and measures embedded in classroom and out-of-class assignments are often useful tools for assessing student learning.

  7. 7. Practice in self-assessment (e.g., evaluating each other’s written work) can help students become better lifelong learners.

  8. 8. Use varied and multiple assessments (not just one or two major tests) to determine grades and to see student skills from various perspectives.

  9. 9. Effective assessment is not just a summary of grades at the end of the course. Assessment can be an important learning process if it increases student awareness of goals and reduces misunderstanding along the way.

Like Svinivki and McKeachie (2011), Giordano (2006) and Anderson (2012) emphasized the (p. 49) importance of systematic assessment that measures what is most important about student learning (not just what is easy to measure) and that employs multiple modes of measurement at different times and across various types of student outcomes (e.g., cognitive, affective, motor).

Students can demonstrate understanding in a variety of ways (Miller & Lance, 2006; Svinivki & McKeachie, 2011), and although grading and program assessment represent different uses of data, the two processes are closely related (Giordano, 2006), especially if both types of measures are tied to intended course outcomes. An additional advantage accruing from a close connection between outcome achievement and student evaluation is reduction in the likelihood of student misconceptions that grades are simply the product of effort or of payment of tuition bills (Anderson, 2012). Finally, procedures for attaining and evaluating student outcomes must be fair in terms of valid, timely assessment (Anderson, 2012); clarity of expectations and equal opportunities for all students to attain them (Giordano, 2006); and our ethical responsibilities to students and to the teaching profession (Svinivki & McKeachie, 2011).

Some Practical Matters

The ideas I have discussed here are not, of necessity, course specific. However, there are some specific guidelines that apply to all psychology courses and that are indispensable to the teacher designing a course. Perhaps the most obvious, and also one of the most important, of these guidelines would be to give substantial time and thought to preparation of the course syllabus. A well-crafted syllabus provides a clear road map for both student and teacher, including such critical information as course purpose and content; class structure and schedule; expectations for outcomes, coursework, and grading; and such important logistical details as instructor contact information, classroom policies, and required textbooks (Suddreth & Galloway, 2006). Exemplary syllabi for a variety of types of psychology courses may be found online at Project Syllabus of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology:

Teachers also face the challenge of selecting appropriate reading material, especially textbooks. For some courses, this task can be daunting; for example, according to Psychology Wiki, there are more than 40 readily available introductory psychology textbooks ( Many of these books have accompanying supplementary teaching and learning materials for instructors and students, and, although many of the books share similarities of structure and broad coverage of topics, a study of 41 textbooks found that they also may vary significantly along other dimensions, such as the core concepts they include (Griggs & Marek, 2001; see also Weiten & Houska, this volume). Marek and Griggs (2001) found similar variability in 17 cognitive psychology textbooks, as did Jackson, Lugo, and Griggs (2001) for 26 research methods books; and Christopher, Griggs, and Hagans (2000) for 17 abnormal psychology and 14 social psychology texts.

Griggs (1999), in an analysis of 37 introductory textbooks also found that the books differed fairly widely in difficulty, and suggested that difficulty may be an important aspect of text selection. Christopher (2006) provided advice for new and experienced psychology teachers as they select books and ancillary materials, noting that the process of identifying books with appropriate content and level of difficulty can indeed be challenging. William James needed 12 years to complete his Principles of Psychology (Benjamin, 2007), and in the preface to his Talks to Teachers (1899), he discussed some of the characteristics he believed the teachers needed in a textbook—perhaps it is true that some things never change.

Psychology teachers may also, in addition to, or in lieu of textbooks, wish to engage students in reading original sources, and many do (Oldenburg, 2005). The literature includes ideas for teaching students to locate sources (Christopher & Walter, 2006; Silvia, Delaney, & Marcovitch, 2009), suggestions for the use of primary sources (Price, 1990; Stoddart & McKinley, 2005) and classical articles (Griggs & Jackson, 2007) in the teaching of introductory psychology, as well as cautionary advice about the dangers to teachers of failing to consult primary sources (e.g., Prytula & Davis, 1977).

A final practical matter concerns the ways we begin and end our psychology courses (e.g., Dunn, Beins, McCarthy, & Hill, 2010). The first day of class is an occasion to set the stage and get acquainted (Svinivki & McKeachie, 2011); the teacher (or student) who sees the first day as unimportant may be establishing an unfortunate pattern that may persist throughout the term, whereas the teacher who uses the first day to engage students has the opportunity to begin to develop skills that will prove useful to success in the course: skills such as writing, problem solving, critical thinking, talking, or collaborating (p. 50) (Anderson, Mcguire, & Cory, 2011). Handelsman (2011) provided an annotated bibliography of resources detailing a variety of first-day activities for psychology teachers.

First-day activities are of course helpful in engaging students with the course. However, although less frequently discussed, last-day activities may be useful in determining whether the course will be memorable, whether students will remain engaged with the discipline, and the teacher’s legacy (Keith, 2011). In discussing endings, Lutsky (2010) said that they “… have the power to transform how we remember and evaluate parts of our lives and how we tell the stories of our lives” (p. 337). Among the last-day activities psychology teachers have used are parting letters, e-mails, and suggested future readings (Keith, 2011). A meaningful last day can create not only a sense of satisfactory culmination (for both student and teacher), but a feeling of accomplishment that allows participants to feel prepared for a new beginning (Lutsky, 2010).

Concluding Thoughts

When William James (1899) and Hartley Burr Alexander (1919) addressed their thoughts to teachers, they could not have envisioned the educational world of today. Technological innovation, distance learning, and textbooks replete with colorful high-tech aids were not yet a glimmer in the eye of the most forward-thinking teacher. Yet, today when I look at the contents of James’s (1892/1961) Psychology: The Briefer Course, many of the topics would be familiar to contemporary psychology teachers. And Harry Kirke Wolfe (1895), founder of the first psychology laboratory dedicated to undergraduate teaching and one of the greatest teachers of psychology, strongly believed in the importance of laboratory activities and demonstrations. Although designing a course today may be different in many ways from the way it was a century ago, the basics have remained more or less the same. Thus, we must use care to ensure that a focus on technological innovation does not obscure the aims of our courses, just as James (1899) spoke of “weeding out” analytical technicality, and Alexander (1919) lamented that “The machinery of instruction has become so intricate that more attention is drawn to its operation than to its product” (p. 45).

A well-designed course allows the teacher to serve not simply as a source of information, but rather as a facilitator of student learning (Svinivki & McKeachie, 2011). Teachers and students, Alexander (1919) believed, are natural friends and allies, and teachers should take joy in their relationships with students and in seeing their students’ development. As Alexander said, in quoting his own old friend and teacher Harry Kirke Wolfe, “I like to watch their eyes change” (p. 159). So yes, we must have clear goals, good readings, interesting classroom activities, and accountability; but we should also heed Charles L. Brewer’s (2002) claim that teaching is not a profession but a calling. If we design good courses and integrate them with the personal behaviors and characteristics that made Wolfe an inspiring teacher—“organization, explanatory skills, humor, … optimism, and humility” (Benjamin, 1991, p. 135)—we and our students can have the promise of the ultimate aim that John Dewey (1938/1998) envisioned: “The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning” (p. 49). A teacher, after all, is forever (Benjamin, 1987).


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