Thursday, 12 April 2012

Designing an Intro to Psych textbook

“Teach your children well, their father's hell did slowly go by,

And feed them on your dreams, the one they fix, the one you'll know by”.

I've been asked to scope out a proposal for a new UK/European based Intro to Psych textbook for undergraduate students.  So what should this book look like? Simply asking people what you should put into an Intro to Psych book has its problems. Here lies the vicious cycle that leads to a plethora of clone-like text books, most of which contain much of the same material, many of the same learning features (but using different buzzy names), all boasting much the same range of web resources, all dividing psychology into similar sub-sections and as a result all perpetuating the same "preordained" syllabus – the winner is the one with most pages and the biggest website!

My recent blog titled "Whatever happened to learning theory" led to some very interesting correspondences with Eric Charles (@EPCharles) about some of the things that were right and wrong with Introductory Psychology. Eric has posted a couple of blogs discussing what he believes is wrong with the way we currently teach Intro to Psych and also making some suggestions about what an Intro to Psych textbook should do ( and - I recommend you look at these in detail. But before I summarise Eric's points it is worth considering how Intro to Psych textbooks often get scoped in the first place.

I've already edited and contributed to one Intro to Psych text - "Complete Psychology" published by Hodder HE (  The first edition was published in 2002, and it represented an exciting race to be the first UK full colour Intro to Psych text. The book (all 849 pages) was written in six months, and although there are many aspects of the book that I'm proud to be associated with, it was very traditional in its representation of psychology. It adhered strictly to the BPS curriculum and unashamedly portrayed this as its main virtue. It was great fun to write and to work with the other contributors at that time, it was also fun spending a summer conceiving of and actualising a range of learning and presentational features for the book. But time, and the greater resources of the other larger publishers, has overtaken this project.

The trap we now fall into is that Intro to Psych textbooks have a desperate need to be as inclusive as possible. We are all open ears to every psychology lecturer who says "you didn't include x" or "there wasn't enough of y" - so we bung it in to be as inclusive as we can and to say we cover more material and provide more resources than any other textbook. What is perplexing about asking Psychology lecturers what they want from an Intro to Psych book is that, in my experience, prior to the book being written they will say they want X, Y and Z, but once it's written and on the bookshelves they rarely use X, Y and Z. Web resources are a good example. Lecturers will say they want PowerPoint presentations, seminar guidelines, photos and videos, but there's very little evidence they use these resources very much once they've been generated. In fact, most lecturers (quite reasonably) prefer to use their own lecture support resources.

So in the production of an Intro to Psych textbook a lot of effort often goes into providing the range of topics and resources that lecturers 'say' they want, and much less goes into the overall 'concept' of the book, and as a consequence into providing a modern, integrated, challenging syllabus for students which satisfies the developing intellectual needs of psychology majors, genuinely reflects the development of psychological science, and also provides psychology minors with a suitable overview of the discipline.

To go back to Eric Charles, he makes the very valid point that Intro to Psych books often serve as the main “controllable exposure that most people will have to academic psychology”. He also points out that Intro to Psych books should (1) continually challenge students to approach psychological questions in new and unintuitive ways, rather than striving to make the subject matter fit easily into their preconceptions, but (2) the emphasis should be on findings that remain generally accepted over long periods – providing a basis for the scientific value of psychology and for future research, rather than blindly focussing on cutting edge recent research, and (3) Intro to Psych textbooks should try to expose students to the complexity of current debates rather than trying to get students to express their own opinions about current debate. Most importantly, Intro to Psych books fail to provide a vision of the field as a whole, and they fail to make it clear why the same course should talk about “neurons, eye-balls, brain waves, rats pressing levers, Piaget, introversion, compliance, and anti-social personality disorder”. In addition he suggests that Intro to Psych books should not include “trivial but attention getting findings, or now rejected findings”. For example, he 1) challenges anyone to tell him what critical insight into psychology was gained from the Stanford Prison Experiment, and 2) why Freud’s theories are being treated in such great detail, etc.

So what should a modern Intro to Psych syllabus look like and how should a modern Intro to Psych book portray it?

First, syllabuses designed and recommended by learned societies probably don’t help to definitively answer this question. I am a great believer in the benefits that learned societies can offer their discipline and associated professions – and this has been practically demonstrated by my commitment over the years to the British Psychological Society. However, learned societies tend to be rather loosely bound organizations that have evolved organizational structures based on fostering as many representative interests within the discipline as can be practically sustained (and all competing for a high profile and a piece of whatever cake is being offered). Promoting and representing the diversity of the discipline in this way is likely to lead to a recommended syllabus that is characterized by its breadth and diversity rather than its structure and the developmental dynamics of the subject matter. It is certainly important to have breadth in the syllabus, but this approach rarely provides conceptual structure for the discipline as a whole – usually just a categorical list of recommended topics, usually according to an historically pre-ordained formula.

Second, asking psychology lecturers what they want in either a syllabus or a textbook leads to much the same inclusive, but unstructured, outcome – and this is very much the process that publishers go through when they review proposals for a new text book. The review process largely tells the author what is missing and needs to be included rather than providing insight into overall structure.

Nevertheless, the contemporary pressures of satisfying fee-paying undergraduate students does lead psychology departments to think about how Intro to Psych might be structured and portrayed – if only (and rather shallowly) in a way that keeps its students happy (and responding highly on the National Student Survey). In particular, many students come to psychology with the aspiration to become applied psychologists. This has almost certainly led to departments including more applied psychology courses in their first year syllabus and even trying to teach some core psychology through applied psychology modules. Nothing wrong with this if it successfully teaches core knowledge and keeps the students happy (see

So where do we go for an Intro to Psych syllabus that genuinely reflects the dynamic development of the discipline, provides an integrated structure and vision of the field, considers important theoretical, conceptual and methodological developments, and both challenges and satisfies students?

Here are some obvious and traditional approaches:

1.         The ‘shopping list’ approach – we can ask a cross-section of lecturers (and students) what they want to see in an Intro to Psych course, take the top 30 topics and commission a chapter on each.

2.         The ‘level of explanation’ approach – Commissioning sections on biological psychology, cognitive psychology, and behavioural approaches.

3.         The ‘core knowledge’ approach – a traditional one in which psychology is split into historically important core topics including cognitive psychology, biological psychology, social psychology, personality and individual differences, developmental psychology, and maybe abnormal psychology and conceptual and historical issues.

4.         The ‘lifespan approach’ – clumping sections of the book into describing and explaining the psychology of various life stages, including pre-natal, infancy, childhood and adolescence, adulthood, and old age.

5.         The ‘embedded features’ approach – Take a traditional approach to defining the core areas of psychology, but include a range of teaching and learning features in each chapter that convey visions of how the discipline is developing.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and I’d be grateful for your thoughts and suggestions about what an Intro to Psych textbook should be and should look like, and what it should (and perhaps should not) include. Whatever the outcome, it needs to be engaging and make both teaching and learning natural and easy processes. But most importantly for our discipline and how we teach future generations of students, it needs to convincingly reflect dynamic changes in the content and structure of psychology, and not just pander to the current market needs of the lowest common denominator.

Sunday, 1 April 2012


By now most of you will be aware of the new regulations governing experimental procedures introduced by the UK research councils (and following on from similar changes already applied in Europe and the USA). For those of us conducting behavioural, social and cognitive neuroscience studies on human participants it will represent a major change in the way we conduct our experiments, treat our participants, collect our data, and develop our scientific models. The major changes have been introduced to ensure that behavioural and neuroscience research using human participants complies with a mixture of research council developments on the importance of social impact of funded research and the recent EU Court of Human Rights declarations on the rights and civil liberties of individuals as extended to human participants in experimental procedures.

The most obvious change is the introduction of regulations governing the nature and impact of distraction activities in psychological experiments. In an attempt to spread the social and economic impact of biological science research to activities that take place in the experimental procedure itself, experimenters will no longer have a free choice of distractor tasks (e.g. in memory experiments) or inter-task activities to present to their participants. Researchers will no longer be able to ask their participants to count backwards in threes to prevent rehearsal of learned material. Instead, participants must engage in an activity that represents a significant social or economic contribution. The ESRC website provides a number of examples of the socially and economically inclusive distractor tasks that can now be deployed, many of which are designed to directly benefit the institution in which the research is being conducted. These include asking participants to empty waste bins in faculty offices, mark first year lab reports, prepare sandwiches for senior management luncheon meetings, and chair student misconduct tribunals. Participants with specific vocational skills can be asked to use those skills during experimental distraction tasks, including fixing laboratory plumbing, vacuuming carpets, cooking lunch for university research employees/technicians (but not for postgraduate research students), etc. During inter-trial intervals participants educated to FE level should be urged to teach 50-min Level 1 and Level 2 undergraduate student seminars, and to write draft exam papers for finals resits. Given the dismay expressed by many researchers to these fundamental changes in research protocols, RCUK has expressed regret at not including behavioural and social science researchers in the consultation process for these changes, but confirms that discussions with Russell Group Vice-Chancellors proved to be very constructive and Vice-Chancellors were said to be unanimously supportive of the new changes.

However, the major change to research council approved experimental procedures results from recent changes to human rights legislation. No longer can participants be coerced to ‘respond as quickly as possible’ in reaction time and related studies nor can they be given a fixed time in which to recall previously learned material in memory-related experiments. According to the legislation all participants “…must be treated with equality and respect in such a way as to allow the individual to fully contemplate the various stimulus and response choice options available to them before executing a response – a response which in many cases may be final and irrevocable within the confines of the experimental procedure”. This, of course, will have major implications for many experimental procedures, including choice reaction-time studies, Implicit Association Tests, many lexical decision tasks, as well as response bias training procedures and homophone ambiguity tasks.

Of this latter group of changes, perhaps the one that will have the greatest impact on researchers is the abolition of the fixed recall period in memory tasks. In future all participants will be allowed as much time as they require to recall prior-learned material and word lists. Research council guidelines now specify that participants in such studies should be given the opportunity to recall experimental material “…over as extended a time period as is necessary and befits the status of the participant as a respected and valued member of society”. The minimum recall time now recommended by RCUK is one week, timed from the end of the learning phase of the study. These guidelines state that all participants must be given a stamped addressed envelop when leaving the laboratory so that they can jot down any material recalled in the week following the experiment and submit that material to the experimenter for proper inclusion in the study analysis. Similarly, participants can no longer be allocated to different experimental conditions on a random basis without prior consultation. All participants must be given an informed overview of each experimental condition and allowed a free choice of the condition in which they wish to participate. The participant also has the right to change this choice at any time after the study has begun, and also will have the choice to sample each of the conditions before making a decision on which group to participate in. Researchers in individual institutions are encouraged to hold regular ‘fairs’ for participants that advertise and provide examples of the various experimental conditions in their studies and which will allow participants to make a fully informed choice of the experimental conditions in which they would like to participate. Placebo conditions must now be clearly labeled as such for the participant and cake provided for the participant at the end of a placebo procedure to compensate for the lack of a psychologically/biologically potent component in the experimental condition. Also, any procedures that involve deception must be approved by a locally-appointed panel of civil rights legal advisors – at least one of whom must be a fully qualified and experienced teacher of qualitative methods.

For your information, full details of these changes to the regulations governing experimental procedures in the behavioural and social sciences can be found at