what’s the point of intro psych?

Sanjay Srivastava comments on an article in Inside Higher Ed about the limitations of traditional introductory science courses, which (according to the IHE article) focus too much on rote memorization of facts and too little on the big questions central to scientific understanding. The IHE article is somewhat predictable in its suggestion that students should be engaged with key scientific concepts at an earlier stage:

One approach to breaking out of this pattern, [Shirley Tilghman] said, is to create seminars in which first-year students dive right into science — without spending years memorizing facts. She described a seminar — “The Role of Asymmetry in Development” — that she led for Princeton freshmen in her pre-presidential days.

Beyond the idea of seminars, Tilghman also outlined a more transformative approach to teaching introductory science material. David Botstein, a professor at the university, has developed the Integrated Science Curriculum, a two-year course that exposes students to the ideas they need to take advanced courses in several science disciplines. Botstein created the course with other faculty members and they found that they value many of the same scientific ideas, so an integrated approach could work.

Sanjay points out an interesting issue in translating this type of approach to psychology:

Would this work in psychology? I honestly don’t know. One of the big challenges in learning psychology — which generally isn’t an issue for biology or physics or chemistry — is the curse of prior knowledge. Students come to the class with an entire lifetime’s worth of naive theories about human behavior. Intro students wouldn’t invent hypotheses out of nowhere — they’d almost certainly recapitulate cultural wisdom, introspective projections, stereotypes, etc. Maybe that would be a problem. Or maybe it would be a tremendous benefit — what better way to start off learning psychology than to have some of your preconceptions shattered by data that you’ve collected yourself?

Prior knowledge certainly does seem to play a huge role in the study of psychology; there are some worldviews that are flatly incompatible with certain areas of psychological inquiry. So when some students encounter certain ideas in psychology classes–even introductory ones–they’re forced to either change their views about the way the world works, or (perhaps more commonly?) to discount those areas of psychology and/or the discipline as a whole.

One example of this is the aversion many people have to a reductionist, materialist worldview. If you really can’t abide by the idea that all of human experience ultimately derives from the machinations of dumb cells, with no ghost to be found anywhere in the machine, you’re probably not going to want to study the neural bases of romantic love. Similarly, if you can’t swallow the notion that our personalities appear to be shaped largely by our genes and random environmental influences–and show virtually no discernible influence of parental environment–you’re unlikely to want to be a behavioral geneticist when you grow up. More so than most other fields, psychology is full of ideas that turn our intuitions on our head. For many Intro Psych students who go on to study the mind professionally, that’s one of the things that makes the field so fascinating. But other students are probably turned off for the very same reason.

Taking a step back though, I think before you can evaluate how introductory classes ought to be taught, it’s important to ask what goal introductory courses are ultimately supposed to serve. Implicit in the views discussed in the IHE article is the idea that introductory science classes should basically serve as a jumping-off point for young scientists. The idea is that if you’re immersed in deep scientific ideas in your first year of university rather than your third or fourth, you’ll be that much better prepared for a career in science by the time you graduate. That’s certainly a valid view, but it’s far from the only one. Another perfectly legitimate view is that the primary purpose of an introductory science class isn’t really to serve the eventual practitioners of that science, who, after all, form a very small fraction of students in the class. Rather, it’s to provide a very large number of students with varying degrees of interest in science with a very cursory survey of the field. After all, the vast majority of students who sit through Intro Psych classes would never go onto careers in psychology no matter how the course was taught. You could mount a reasonable argument that exposing most students to “the ideas they need to take advanced courses in several science disciplines” would be a kind of academic malpractice,  because most students who take intro science classes (or at least, intro psychology) probably have no  real interest in taking advanced courses in the topic, and simply want to fill a distribution requirement or get a cursory overview of what the field is about.

The question of who intro classes should be designed for isn’t the only one that needs to be answered. Even if you feel quite certain that introductory science classes should always be taught with an eye to producing scientists, and you don’t care at all for the more populist idea of catering to the non-major masses, you still have to make other hard choices. For example, you need to decide whether you value breadth over depth, or information retention over enthusiasm for the course material. Say you’re determined to teach Intro Psych in such a way as to maximize the production of good psychologists. Do you pick just a few core topics that you think students will find most interesting, or most conducive to understanding key research concepts, and abandon those topics that turn people off? Such an approach might well encourage more students to take further psychology classes; but it does so at the risk of providing an unrepresentative view of the field, and failing to expose some students to ideas they might have benefited more from. Many Intro Psych students seem to really resent the lone week or two of the course when the lecturer covers neurons, action potentials and very basic neuroanatomy. For reasons that are quite inscrutable to me, many people just don’t like brainzzz. But I don’t think that common sentiment is sufficient grounds for cutting biology out of intro psychology entirely; you simply wouldn’t be getting an accurate picture of our current understanding of the mind without knowing at least something about the way the brain operates.

Of course, the trouble is that the way that people like me feel about the brain-related parts of intro psych is exactly the way other people feel about the social parts of intro psych, or the developmental parts, or the clown parts, and so on. Cut social psych out of intro psych so that you can focus on deep methodological issues in studying the brain, and you may well create students more likely to go on to a career in cognitive neuroscience. But you’re probably reducing the number of students who’ll end up going into social psychology. More generally, you’re turning Intro Psychology into Intro to Cognitive Neuroscience, which sort of defeats the point of it being an introductory course in the first place; after all, they’re called survey courses for a reason!

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to make these choices; we’d just make sure that all of our intro courses were always engaging and educational and promoted a deeper understanding of how to do science. But in the real world, it’s rarely possible to pull that off, and we’re typically forced to make trade-offs. You could probably promote student interest in psychology pretty easily by showing videos of agnosic patients all day long, but you’d be sacrificing breadth and depth of understanding. Conversely, you could maximize the amount of knowledge students retain from a class by hitting them over the head with information and testing them in every class, but then you shouldn’t be surprised if some students find the course unpleasant and lose interest in the subject matter. The balance between the depth, breadth, and entertainment value of introductory science classes is a delicate one, but it’s one that’s essential to consider before we can fairly evaluate different proposals as to how such classes ought to be structured.

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