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Psychology Course Perspective

by Alan Feldman
High School Teacher of AP Psychology, AP History and Mathematics
Glen Rock High School
Glen Rock, New Jersey

What do a schizophrenic, split-brain patient; preoperational child, psychoanalytic therapist, and a rat in a Skinner Box have in common? These are some of the roles I assume, along with dozens of others, when I am teaching AP Psychology, the course I most love to teach. That is because it gives one the opportunity to discuss in depth topics that are intrinsically fascinating, relevant to students' lives, and have important personal and social consequences.

The solution to many social problems and concerns are behaviorally based including preventing violence, engendering healthy lifestyles, eliminating racism, and reducing child abuse. An AP Psychology course can help students realize the positive outcomes of an authoritative parenting style, the effectiveness and humanity of positive reinforcement to modify behavior, the value of a clinical psychologist as compared to a friend, an understanding and compassion for individuals with psychological disorders, and a greater capacity to resist implicit and explicit group pressure through understanding research on conformity and obedience.

An underlying theme of the course is the importance of understanding empirical methods of collecting and interpreting data, including a basic knowledge of descriptive and inferential statistics. In addition, students must be able to understand and evaluate descriptive, predictive, and experimental research methods. Content presented in the course should be linked to the type of research methodology that supports or produces the information. Students should be aware of the logically permissible appropriate inferences; conclusions, and generalizations that can be made based on the research method used or statistical analysis applied. It is important to encourage students to investigate and understand how the parameters of the research methodology used affect the information that acquired.

Students should be inspired by the instructor to make meaningful interconnections between concepts. They should be asked to relate information to the major psychological themes; including nature/nurture, continuity/discontinuity, change/stability, mind-body interactions, and homeostatic (opposing process) regulation. The major perspectives include Gestalt, psychoanalytic, behavioral, humanistic, biological, social-cultural and evolutionary. Students should be able to relate concepts to these themes and perspectives.

When beginning the course, many students believe in myths about psychological topics, such as an exaggeration of left-right brain dichotomies, the belief that people use only 10 percent of their brains, the idea that theories are unfounded speculations, that hypnosis enhances the accuracy of memory, schizophrenia as being synonymous with dissociative identity disorder and that parapsychology is valid and supported by replicable, empirical evidence. Demonstrating and highlighting the importance and validity of empirically derived data helps students to recognize the value of information based on sound evidential reasoning in order to critically assess and therefore dispel myths in social science and to evaluate reports of extravagant claims by advertisers or the media.

Students should be challenged to think about concepts and ideas with deeper levels of processing. Teachers should create desirable levels of difficulty in questions and assignments so students comprehend and learn the material better. The use of creative, practical and analytic activities is helpful in this regard. It is important to give assessments that include concepts from earlier chapters since the AP Psychology test is cumulative.

Another goal of the course is to encourage critical thinking and concise clear writing. This is accomplished by establishing word limits on essay assignments and by crossing off unnecessary words and vague phrases from students' essays. AP Psychology students are learning the language of a science that is new to them. Their essays should demonstrate knowledge of psychological concepts using appropriate psychological terminology. Students should be given terms to include in their essays and should read and model well-written papers where the terms are applied to relevant situations. The extensive list of terms on the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (Division Two of the American Psychological Association) website is very helpful.

Once, a bright middle-school student asked me if any scientists were alive! That remark has affected the way I teach, especially AP Psychology. AP Psychology has the potential to generate student interest and excitement about scientific research. Often one can discuss a topic and then do an immediate demonstration corresponding to that topic. Some of these demonstrations include determining the approximate speed of neuronal transmission, showing the serial position effect, and experiencing binocular disparity with the Pulfrich illusion. With the introduction of each new concept, I make sure to mention the research of current psychologists and try to help students realize that, like other sciences, psychology is a vibrant, continually expanding body of knowledge in which new discoveries are made on a regular basis. Teaching AP Psychology allows one to share the science of psychology, to enhance students thinking and writing skills, to educate students to be more humane and caring and to have a blast at the same time.

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