Understanding Psychology within the Context of the Other Academic Disciplines

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Understanding Psychology within the Context of the Other Academic Disciplines
William E. Herman
Department of Psychology
State University of New York
College at Potsdam
Potsdam, New York, U.S.A. 13676-2294
Paper presented at the 23rd Annual Conference on the
Undergraduate Teaching of Psychology: Ideas & Innovations
Sponsored by the Psychology Department at
Farmingdale State College (a SUNY campus) held on
Saturday, March 21, 2009
At the
Doubletree Hotel, Tarrytown, New York 10591

Understanding Psychology Page 2

This paper is designed to assist undergraduate and graduate students as they study the field of psychology. As a course supplement, it intends to guide students in their learning throughout the semester and beyond the scope of the present semester in the form of lifelong learning. This learning tool will help students in organizing psychological terms, concepts, and ideas as well as connecting psychological constructs to existing schemas from previous academic courses. A contextual approach will be used that situates psychology historically and structurally within the academic traditions of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The field of psychology is understood by examining four current viewpoints (psychoanalytic, behavioristic, humanistic, and cognitive) that can be employed to critically compare and contrast theoretical perspectives. The information and ideas presented here will supplement a course textbook, classroom lectures and activities, outside readings, and other learning activities. The document is also designed for readers who need a quick overview, reference, or review of the field of psychology because they are new to the field, new to a particular course, or lacking a strong background in the field. This scholarly effort is dedicated to all of those who strive to develop a comprehensive and in-depth knowledge of psychology in an effort to apply these ideas to practical situations in their professional careers and personal lives.

Key Terms: teaching psychology, learning psychology, organization of knowledge

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Understanding Psychology within the Context of the Other Academic Disciplines
A traditional problem for college/university students is that they are expected to be more competent and flexible learners than many of their former high school peers. This implies that they can quickly absorb large amounts of complex information, transfer such knowledge appropriately, and understand such content at deeper levels of cognitive understanding. For example, students enrolled in their first undergraduate psychology course and those taking graduate psychology courses have offered the following legitimate concerns over the years:
They easily become overwhelmed by so many new terms and concepts.
They confuse terms and concepts due to cognitive overload and/or the different and specialized use of such terms and concepts as compared to usage in previous courses.
They fail to remember, organize, and connect what they have previously learned in a class or are currently learning in a course.
They lack an organized model of how the field of psychology could be understood.
They are missing an understanding of exactly how their current course instructor conceptualizes the field and that the conceptual vantage point of their current instructor could be radically different than teachers in previous courses.

It seems reasonable to assume that any learning tool that might help large numbers of students in even a few of the problem learning areas listed above could have a dramatic positive impact upon learning outcomes. The author of this paper has successfully employed just such a learning tool and offers this approach to an audience who obviously cares deeply about the teaching of psychology.

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While historians have their dates and chemists have the Periodic Table of the Elements to organize knowledge and impart important ideas to students, what can psychologists offer students and fellow professionals to structure psychological knowledge? This paper offers a professional paper the author has written and shared with students for nearly three decades that assists students as they construct their own knowledge of psychology. Such a teaching/learning approach also assures students from the start of the course that they know how the instructor interprets the field of psychology.
The first order of business is to situate the field of psychology within the established academic traditions or domains of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. All college students have had educational experiences in these domains, but few students have paused to compare and contrast how the courses they have previously taken are similar or different related to method of evidence for seeking truth, how the nature of what is being studied drives the search for new knowledge, and what societal reward systems can do to advance particular disciplines. Since all students have completed some courses in these three traditions, they possess cognitive schemas that are well worth tapping into when studying psychology, or for that matter other disciplines.

Next, students are introduced to the course instructor’s personal conceptualization of the field of psychology according to the psychoanalytic, behavioristic, humanistic, and cognitive perspectives in psychology. Students are succinctly shown how these four viewpoints have evolved in the history of the field and how different psychologists today might employ various theoretical viewpoints to explain, predict, and study human behavior. The course instructor helps students match up or classify theoretical ideas presented in the textbook during the semester with this model. For example, students are shown how the ideas of Freud and Erikson

Understanding Psychology Page 5 best fit under the psychoanalytic view which emphasizes unconscious/conscious motivation; the dynamic personality model of the id, ego, and superego; and the important influences of early childhood upon later development and through the adult years.
Most students are deeply appreciative when a course instructor attempts to teach a discipline while at the same time teach the structure of the discipline as Jerome Bruner (1960) had suggested many decades ago. This approach is easily adaptable by those who teach in sub-specialties other than those of the author who primarily teaches educational psychology and developmental psychology courses.
As readers ponder the five (5) student concerns regarding learning cited earlier in this paper, they should note that these key learning elements involve human memory, but much more than what students generally think of in terms of remembering. The memory process is usually a necessary, but not sufficient condition, for the type of higher-level learning outlined here that implies understanding, application, and evaluation. Memory is a complex process that also involves forgetting, confusing, organizing, connecting, and retrieving relevant subject matter.

Successful students are likely to already know this, but it is never too late to learn about the complexities of memory, how your personal memory system operates and is structured, and how it can be further improved. Students are urged to strive for the lofty goal of discovering the connections between “bits” of psychological knowledge and organizing such knowledge into coherent structures that will assist in later recall and result in deeper levels of understanding.

Psychology in the Larger Context
Imagine that it was possible to classify every college/university course into only one of the three following academic traditions: humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.
Consider the knowledge distinctions involved with learning related to taking a course or

Understanding Psychology Page 6 majoring in a discipline within these hallmarks. What does being a student of the humanities really mean? What does it mean to be a natural scientist or study the natural sciences? What does it mean to be a social scientist or study the social sciences? What similarities and distinctions exist between these three academic traditions?
One way to respond to these crucial questions would be to define what is meant by the humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. Prior to this step, students should already have some basic ideas from an inclusion versus exclusion standpoint based upon their previous academic training. Table 1 below is an attempt to organize disciplines or fields of study (think perhaps of high school and college/university classes you have taken) according to this paradigm. You should already recognize the names of most of these disciplines, but some of them might be confusing or actually fit under more than one heading.
Table 1
Academic Disciplines and the Three Traditions
It can be logically assumed that the disciplines listed under each heading share several common characteristics and disciplines under the same heading share more in common with each

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