Third International Conference on the Teaching of Psychology
Jeffrey D. Holmes,
Ithaca College,
Ithaca, New York, USA

Presentation (ppt)


Many psychology instructors come from training programs that emphasize empiricism. In contrast, many psychology students wish to pursue applied fields, and have little interest in understanding the science of psychology. Students often believe that systematic observation is unnecessary for understanding human behavior, or is at least inferior to anecdotal evidence and personal experience, and frequently even the most compelling examples illustrating the importance of research are ultimately ineffective in changing students’ opinions. Given these patterns, it seemed likely that students and instructors would have opposing perspectives concerning the nature of psychology. The objective of this study was to compare students’ and instructors’ perceptions of the field, with particular focus on perceptions concerning scientific inquiry.

The scientist-practitioner model assumes that students can become informed consumers of research even without becoming producers of research. Zachar and Leong (1992) concluded that training students to be scientist-practitioners is unrealistic because interests are heavily influenced by personality, and scientific thinking is inconsistent with many students’ personalities. I suspected that the typical undergraduate psychology student has greater interest in practitioner activities than scientific ones, likely making it difficult for instructors to motivate these students to appreciate research when it holds little perceived value. Indeed it is unclear to what degree many beginning college students studying psychology are aware that they are electing to study a science at all.

Undergraduate students (N = 282) and college and high-school psychology instructors (N = 160) completed the Scientist-Practitioner, Psychology as Science, and Need for Cognition scales, together with a test of scientific literacy. The results revealed important differences between students and instructors. A startling proportion of psychology students (approximately one third) consistently expressed direct disagreement with the idea that psychology is a science or that scientific inquiry is important for understanding human behavior (very few instructors endorsed this opinion). Further, students reported far greater practitioner interest than instructors, and students’ interest in such activities far surpassed their own interest in scientist activities. In contrast, instructors reported significantly greater scientific interests and need for cognition, greater scientific literacy, and a greater tendency to view psychology as a scientific discipline.

The findings illustrate a disconnect between students and instructors in their fundamental views about how best to understand human behavior. Many students arrive in our classrooms skeptical of the relevance of science and sometimes hostile toward scientific inquiry. Ironically, many who choose to study psychology do so because they do not recognize it as a science and because they are actively avoiding scientific disciplines. The solution to this problem is elusive. The tendency toward undue confidence in one’s own intuition is likely to lead students to resist information that threatens that confidence. It is therefore important to recognize the vast difference between teaching research methods and teaching why these methods are critical. Students may learn the steps of a scientific investigation without any parallel increase in scientific appreciation. The scientific method of inquiry is the thread that ties (or should tie) all areas of psychology together.

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