When I first started teaching Introduction to Psychology, I found it difficult—much harder than teaching classes in statistics or research methods. I was able to give a lecture on the sympathetic nervous system, a lecture on Piaget, and a lecture on social cognition, but how could I link these topics together for the student? I felt a bit like I was presenting a laundry list of research findings rather than an integrated set of principles and knowledge. Of course, what was difficult for me was harder still for my students. How could they be expected to remember and understand all the many phenomena of psychology? How could they tell what was most important? And why, given the abundance of information that was freely available to them on the web, should they care about my approach? My pedagogy needed something to structure, integrate, and motivate their learning.
Eventually, I found some techniques to help my students understand and appreciate what I found to be important. First, I realized that psychology actually did matter to my students, but that I needed to make it clear to them why it did. I therefore created a more consistent focus on the theme of behavior. One of the most fundamental integrating principles of the discipline of psychology is its focus on behavior, and yet that is often not made clear to students. Affect, cognition, and motivation are critical and essential, and yet are frequently best understood and made relevant through their links with behavior. Once I figured this out, I began tying all the material to this concept: The sympathetic nervous system matters because it has specific and predictable influences on our behavior. Piaget’s findings matter because they help us understand the child’s behavior (not just his or her thinking). And social cognition matters because oursocial thinking helps us better relate to the other people in our everyday social lives. This integrating theme allows me to organize my lectures, my writing assignments, and my testing.
Second was the issue of empiricism: I emphasized that what seems true might not be true, and we need to try to determine whether it is. The idea of empirical research testing falsifiable hypotheses and explaining much (but never all) behavior—the idea of psychology as a science—was critical, and it helped me differentiate psychology from other disciplines. Another reason for emphasizing empiricism is that the Introduction to Psychology course represents many students’ best opportunity to learn about the fundamentals of scientific research.
The length of existing textbooks was creating a real and unnecessary impediment to student learning. I was condensing and abridging my coverage, but often without a clear rationale for choosing to cover one topic and omit another. My focus on behavior, coupled with a consistent focus on empiricism, helped in this regard—focusing on these themes helped me identify the underlying principles of psychology and separate more essential topics from less essential ones.