Submitted by Manisha Sawhney and Natalie Ciarocco Editors, E-xcellence in Teaching Essays
Stacie M. Spencer
Justina M. Oliveira
Southern New Hampshire University
Mollie A. Ruben
University of Maine
Southern New Hampshire University
Lori A. Nugent
P erceptions of the value of psychology as a discipline have an impact on majors and non-majors that carry into students’ personal and professional lives. Despite the popularity of the major (124,497 bachelor’s degrees were awarded in 2017; APA, 2018a), the incredibly large number of students taking introduction to psychology (1.2 to 1.6 million undergraduates each year; Gurung et al., 2016), and the seemingly endless list of possible applications of psychological concepts and skills to real-world situations, many people (majors and non-majors) continue to believe psychology is the study and treatment of mental illness. With this belief, the valuation of psychology is determined by the degree to which the discipline successfully addresses mental health concerns, and the valuation of the psychology major is determined by the degree to which the job obtained after graduation falls under the umbrella of mental health professions (the highest valuation going to jobs with “psych” in the title).
What can psychology instructors do to change this misperception of the discipline and improve the valuation of the major? The APA Committee for Associate and Baccalaureate Education (CABE) formed two working groups that are approaching the issue from different angles. The Introduction to Psychology Initiative is developing recommendations for learning goals, outcomes, course designs, and methods of assessment that, among other things, are intended to improve the public face of psychology (APA, 2019). The Skillful Psychology Student working group established an evidence-based list of seventeen employer-valued skills that fall into five skill domains (cognitive, communication, personal, social, and technology; APA, 2018b) and are currently developing resources for students, teachers, and advisors to explicitly connect coursework and experiential learning opportunities to direct-entry jobs.
Interdisciplinary Education (IDE)
We suggest one powerful way to improve perceptions of the value of psychology knowledge and skills among students, in and outside of the major, and faculty across disciplines is through interdisciplinary education (IDE). Our definition of IDE borrows from the Centre for the Advancement of Interprofessional Education definition of interprofessional education (IPE) established in 2002 (CAIPE, 2019) to provide a pedagogical model designed to prepare health professionals for the demands of modern healthcare. We define IDE as occurring when instructors from two or more disciplines design and facilitate learning experiences and/or students from two or more majors collaborate to solve a problem or answer a question. IDE experiences that include psychology as one of the represented disciplines provide the opportunity for majors and non-majors to learn and apply psychological concepts and to experience, first-hand, the value of psychological concepts and skills in real-world settings. Majors and non-majors can spread knowledge and skills developed through IDE and positive attitudes regarding the value of psychology when they go out into the workforce.
The goal of IPE is to prepare students to provide interprofessional collaborative care that results in improved quality of patient care, patient safety, and patient satisfaction. The four competencies developed through IPE include the abilities to (1) apply the values and ethics for interprofessional practice, (2) recognize and integrate the roles of one’s own profession and the roles of others’ professions to address patient and population needs, (3) communicate with others (patients, families, other health professionals) in a way that supports a team approach, and (4) apply concepts of team dynamics to perform effectively as a team (Interprofessional Education Collaborative, 2011).
As with IPE, the goal of IDE is to prepare students for the reality of future collaborative teams which are comprised of individuals with different education backgrounds (majors, degrees) and experiences (coursework, field work). This preparation should result in improved quality of decisions, products, and/or client satisfaction due to the development of competencies like those established for IPE. Expanding beyond healthcare applications, the four competencies developed through IDE include the abilities to (1) apply the values and ethics for interprofessional practice, (2) recognize and integrate the knowledge of psychology and the knowledge of others’ disciplines/professions to address problems, projects, and/or client needs, (3) communicate with others (clients, colleagues) in ways that support a team approach, and (4) apply concepts of team dynamics to perform effectively in a team.
Research shows that IDE supports the development of the abilities to think critically, recognize bias, tolerate ambiguity, and acknowledge and appreciate ethical concerns (Goldsmith, Hamilton, Hornsby, & Wells, 2018). More generally, through IDE, students can develop skills within all five of the skill domains identified by the Skillful Psychology Student working group. These include critical cognitive skills (critical thinking, judgment and decision making), personal skills (adaptability, integrity, self-regulation), and social skills (collaboration, inclusivity). Depending on the nature of assignments, students can also develop communication skills (oral and written) and technological skills (flexibility/adaptability to new systems, familiarity with software).
What does IDE look like in the classroom?
There are many possible IDE models with varying degrees of complexity. The simplest model involves one instructor who teaches a course that includes students from a variety of majors. In this model, students work in teams with representatives from different majors to examine a problem. Individual team members are tasked with identifying knowledge and skills from their respective majors that can be used to address the problem and then teams come together to generate solutions using the collective knowledge and skills. For example, students might tap into their respective disciplines (e.g., psychology, sociology, anthropology, business) to gather information and consider skills associated with conflict between groups and then to develop recommendations for addressing inter-group conflict.
A second model includes instructors and students from two courses that interact at several points throughout the semester. For example, the instructors and students for a personality theories course and students from a cultural anthropology course might discuss personality in the respective courses and then come together to compare and contrast the different perspectives. Students might be matched with partners from the other course and work with those partners at each touch point. Each individual student would complete tasks in preparation for these merged-class meetings. Tasks might begin with identifying the methods used by the discipline represented (i.e., psychology or anthropology), then next prepare to discuss the definitions of personality used by the discipline represented, and then prepare to discuss the ways in which the respective disciplines apply knowledge of personality to real-world questions.
A third model includes students across multiple courses working on one community-based project. For example, a campus-wide first-year experience, introduction to the major, or capstone project might involve food insecurity in the community. After serving organizations that address food insecurity, students might examine food insecurity through the lens of their major and then work with individuals from other majors to develop an intervention that incorporates the knowledge and skills associated with each represented discipline.
A fourth model is to develop a single course with a problem-focused theme that includes guests who represent different disciplines. For example, as students learn principles of behavior change, they might hear from guests who use these principles to improve medication adherence, worker productivity, student learning, community partnerships, charitable donations, and pet behavior.
The fifth model is to develop a single course with faculty who represent two or more disciplines and students who represent two or more disciplines. The faculty co-teach the course and design assignments and activities that include knowledge and skills from the instructors’ disciplines. Our current IDE experiences represent this model.
Our IDE Examples
Observing and Analyzing Teams, is a cross-listed psychology and business course co-taught by a psychology professor and an organizational leadership professor that is open to students from a variety of majors. In this course students apply observational learning strategies to live interacting teams (a sport team, a professional theatre group, and a business team) to identify effective and ineffective team characteristics and connect their observations to what they learn about Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, field notes in ethnography, and research about best practices for managing teams. Thus, instead of participating in a team, students explore teamwork from the perspective of an observer and a scholar.
MRI Patient Experience is a course specifically designed for psychology and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) students. In this course, students learn about the prevalence of patient negative emotion in MRI and how negative emotion can impact image quality and result in cancelled or rescheduled scans. Psychology majors provide the knowledge they have about emotion and the skills they have for reading research articles. MRI students provide information about the environmental factors and procedures that contribute to patient distress. Students distinguish among types of negative emotion, identify nonverbal behaviors that reflect negative emotion, describe the roles and responsibilities of health psychologists and MRI technologists, critically evaluate MRI distress intervention studies, implement emotion regulation interventions in a simulated MRI setting, and provide and respond to constructive feedback.
IDE presents several unique challenges worth noting. The logistics surrounding high quality and cohesive IDE involving more than one faculty member requires extensive collaboration time to create content with other educators or community partners. It can become obvious to students if the content is disjointed as opposed to when there is one instructor with smoother transitions and integration of content. Joint assignment grading across instructors can be valuable in order to ensure that students perceive the course to be coherent and connected. This requires consistent coordination for timely grading. One more challenge is students’ perceptions of role ambiguity. Specifically, students may try to figure out who they think is ‘in charge’ or who they believe they should go to for assignment and grading questions. Establishing rapport across collaborators can be as important as establishing rapport with students in IDE contexts, in part for these reasons.
There can also be logistical and administrative challenges, such as how an IDE course counts toward teaching load. In other words, will the college or university pay two instructors full pay to teach one course together? Alternatively, are there any special grants or funding for this to occur in situations where the course is deemed extremely valuable in a co-teaching or IDE design? This varies across institutions. Lastly, when working with multiple educators or partners, it can often be a challenge to coordinate class meeting times that fit the instructors’ and students’ schedules.
Our experiences are that the rewards of IDE far exceed the challenges. Student engagement in these courses is high. Students value thinking about direct applications of psychology content, discussing different perspectives of the same issue, gaining knowledge from other disciplines, and developing self-efficacy for the application of knowledge and skills they can apply to their future careers. Students tell us these learning opportunities allow them to reflect, to develop better attention to detail, and to appreciate the value of diversity. Our IDE courses provide a unique shared learning experience for instructors and students, and we have found that offering a more holistic perspective of course content justifies working through the challenges involved.
American Psychological Association. (2018a). Degrees in psychology [Interactive data tool]. https://www.apa.org/workforce/data-tools/degrees-psychology
American Psychological Association. (2018b). The skillful psychology student: Prepared for success in the 21st century workplace [PDF file]. https://www.apa.org/careers/resources/guides/transferable-skills.pdf
American Psychological Association. (2019). The APA Introductory Psychology Initiative: Envisioning the future: Charting new directions for Introductory Psychology. https://www.apa.org/ed/precollege/undergrad/introductory-psychology-initiative/index
Centre for the Advancement of Interprofessional Education. (2019). About us: What is CAIPE? https://www.caipe.org/about-us
Goldsmith, A. H., Hamilton, D., Hornsby, K., & Wells, D. (2018). Interdisciplinary approaches to teaching. Starting Point. https://serc.carleton.edu/48978.1921
Gurung, R. A. R., Hackathorn, J., Enns, C., Frantz, S., Cacioppo, J. T., Loop, T., & Freeman, J. E. (2016). Strengthening introductory psychology: A new model for teaching the introductory course. American Psychologist, 71(2), 112-124. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0040012