E-xcellence in Teaching, December 2009
Learning Objectives for Introductory Psychology: May I Object?
Josh R. Gerow
Indiana University - Purdue University at Fort Wayne
All psychologists will readily agree that what we used to call "intentional
learning" is more effective and efficient than "incidental learning."
Cognitive psychologists now talk about the "focused and unconscious
processing" of information -- as John Watson, Fred Skinner, Greg Kimble,
Bill Verplanck and others spin in their graves. Regardless of terminology,
it does seem to be true that purposively setting about to learn something is
a smart way for students to behave. Intending, focusing, and effort do matter.
Thus, the notion of providing students a set of objectives or learning goals
appears to be -- prima fascia -- a good thing to do. Before we step into a
class, we should have a firm idea of what it is that we want our students to
learn. In other words, we should be aware of our "learning objectives."
Learning objectives can serve as a set of organizing statements. I've
written ten editions of an introductory psychology text (and six brief
editions), and continue to be guided by the advice I received nearly 25
years ago from my first editor, Scott Hardy of Scott Foresman & Co.: "Tell
them what you are going to do; do it; then tell them what you have done."
The most impressive and extensive set of learning objectives I have yet
encountered is the 2005 revision of the National Standards for High School
Psychology Curricula. It was written by a truly blue-ribbon panel and can be
found at www.apa.org/ed/natlstandards.html. The document includes learning
objectives for every conceivable topic in general psychology, followed by
examples of how students may demonstrate their knowledge of these
objectives, which they call "performance indicators." Here is a very brief
sample of some of those indicators. Students may indicate their
comprehension of varied objectives by:
• Summarizing some 19th century scientific research findings (e.g.,
Helmholtz, Weber, Fechner).
• Describing how learning affects neural transmission (e.g., Eric Kandel's
• Discussing how bicultural and multicultural individuals may express
different personality dimensions (e.g., code-switching) depending on the
• Comparing the views of Chomsky and Skinner on language development.
• Defending spiritually-based explanations for abnormal behavior (e.g.,
soul loss, transgression against ancestor).
There are 48 pages of such performance indicators, and remember, these are
designed for high school students!
I do not object to these objectives. They provide excellent guidance for
what one ought to be doing in a first course in psychology. My objection
comes when we start to believe that these might be the sorts of things that
our students will remember after their final exam, much less for the rest of
Related to this point, I share a true story. I recently met a man whose
daughter had just been in my introductory psychology class. He guessed that
he himself had taken that same class from me in about 1971. With a smile, he
said, "I remember you and that class -- ding-foof-slobber." This was my
simple little mnemonic for remembering the essence of Pavlovian
conditioning: Ring a bell, blow food powder into a dog's mouth, and it will
salivate; or ding-foof-slobber. This, 38 years later, was a former student's
primary recollection of the hours we spent together in the classroom.
The point of this essay is that we all need to spend time focusing on the
question: What 5 or 6 things do we want our students to carry with them long
after the class is over? To me, these are the real learning objectives of
any course. In this spirit, I recommend a brief article in the December 2006
APS Observer by Julie Gosselin, who was at the time a graduate student at
Universite de Montreal. Speaking to the issue of what students might
remember from our courses, she wrote, "Always hope for more, but be prepared
to settle for less."
I conclude by sharing some of my own major learning objectives for
introductory psychology. I do not argue that these should be your learning
objectives. I offer them only in the spirit of encouraging you to think
concretely about those issues that you would like your students to remember
should you encounter them 31 years from now.
1. That Gerow guy was one great teacher! (How's that for intellectual honesty?)
2. Psychology is a science. Our cognitions come from many different
sources, tradition (e.g., "My grandmother always used to say..."); common
sense (e.g., "Absence makes the heart grow fonder."); faith (e.g., "There is
a God" or "There is no God."); or the arts (e.g., "Shakespeare really knew
what truth is."). But when we are being psychologists, we rely on the
methods of science. That science may yield beliefs that are counterintuitive
(e.g., Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959) or controversial, but it the method of
psychology. My favorite quote from the history of psychology (Galton, 1894)
captures this sentiment: "I can find no evidence that the intensity of a
belief is any measure of its validity."
3. Psychological functioning is always more complicated than it may appear
at first, and interactionism is a powerful concept. Nature and nurture
interact. Personal dispositions and situations interact. Specific
experiences and culture interact. Almost everything in psychology resonates
with a biopsychosocial model of explanation.
4. There are individual differences. All of psychology's "laws" are
nomothetic and are expressed in terms like "by-and-large," "in the long
run," or "more often than not." For example, students with high SAT scores
will do well in college, at least through their freshman year. Indeed, no
two people are alike, and no one person is exactly the same from one moment
to the next. Given the nearly infinite number of ways in which we each are
different from all others, sometimes it is a wonder that we get along with
each other at all.
5. One's experience of reality is often more important than reality itself.
What we perceive and what we remember are surely dependent upon events as
they occur. But they also are influenced by one's motivation, expectations,
and past experiences. For example, simply consider the conflicting reports
of several eyewitnesses to the same event.
That is a short list. I do hope for more than the comprehension and
recollection of these large ideas. Here are my second-tier objectives for my
students. I hope they come to appreciate that: (a) Thorndike's Law of Effect
is old, but its essence is still true; (b) Persons with psychological
disorders are not weak, or bad, or sinful; (c) Life is short, stress is bad,
and it's important to learn how to cope; (d) Distributed practice is
superior to massed practice; (e) Our ability to pay attention is severely
limited; (f) Psychotherapy works; (g) Spanking doesn't; and (h) It is always
a good idea to know when to stop. I believe that time is now.
Festinger, L., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1959). Cognitive consequences of forced
compliance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 203-210.
Galton, F. (1894). The part of religion in human evolution. National Review,
Gosselin, J. (2006). What my students taught me: Early teaching experiences.
APS Observer, 19(12), 181. Retrievable at
About the Author
Josh R. Gerow graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1967 with a PhD
in experimental psychology. He taught for two years at the University of
Colorado at Denver before joining the faculty of Indiana University - Purdue
University at Fort Wayne (IPFW) in 1969. After retiring in 2001, Dr. Gerow
returned to IPFW in 2007, where he currently is visiting professor in
psychology. He has authored or co-authored sixteen editions of an
introductory psychology text (the most recent with Pearson Custom
Publishing), and virtually all of the ancillaries that accompanied them. His
research has focused on factors that affect performance in introductory
psychology and teaching psychology in high schools.