Observer Forum

Core Concepts

In his Presidential Column, Roddy Roediger [Observer, November 2003] well articulated the perennial depth vs. breadth question facing psychology programs in terms of course requirements. I recently completed my PhD after attending two institutions whose psychology departments required a certain degree of breadth in coursework. Based on my experiences in the two departments, I have some suggestions for enhancing core courses.

I was required to take several core courses in each program. In one department I was fortunate to have excellent core course experiences. The courses were fairly general, survey style courses (e.g., physiological psychology, cognitive psychology), some requiring a fairly in-depth research paper. This format was very useful because I was able to gain a broad knowledge base in a fundamental area of psychology and also take advantage of the research paper to delve more deeply into a topic of personal interest. In addition, I gained experience writing and reviewing the literature. On the other hand, I had two particular types of negative experiences with required core courses.

The first regards courses that were not appropriate for graduate psychology students. A required general graduate course should not be the same as an advanced undergraduate course. A student should be exposed to more sophisticated material by taking a core graduate course rather than being a teacher’s assistant in an undergraduate course. This is not to say that the course should be too focused on a particular area (see below). Roediger alluded to the excellent faculty at Yale as an incentive for him to take a lot of courses. If a program has a number of excellent faculty in an area, it presents a fantastic opportunity for creating an excellent core course in that area.

My other frustration was with required courses that were too specific. Core courses should survey a broad range of material within a general area. This provides students with a good foundation in that area, while minimizing the perception of time wasted on detail outside their area of interest. Utilizing the expertise of multiple faculty members may again enhance the course. More specific courses should be offered as core alternatives, or for students with an emphasis in that area.

I was also required to take a number of statistics courses in each department. In what was probably the most useful of these, the t-test was the most advanced analysis. This was one of the most intensive courses I have taken in my college career. The course taught me that statistics are a useful tool, but the data are most important. Much of the information in my subsequent statistics courses failed to sink in very well; the largely plug-and-play approach did not hold my attention unless it related to the type of research in which I was directly involved at the time.

A core course reflects on the entire department, not just on the faculty member (or members) in the classroom. Regardless of the quantity of coursework required, perhaps it is more important for departments to focus on the quality of their course requirements.

Jeffrey J. Sable
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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