The National Conference on Undergraduate Education in Psychology:
A Blueprint for the Future of Our Discipline

by Diane F. Halpern, PhD

Undergraduate education is big business, with a record 15.9 million students enrolled in U.S. colleges in 2007—the largest number ever, which is matched with record enrollments worldwide. The number of students in college is expected to continue to increase at a rapid rate into the foreseeable future. The reasons for the increased enrollments in higher education are obvious: A college degree has become the passport to the middle class, and our future as a country and as a participant in the increasingly complex global puzzle depends on the success of our students.

There are many critical questions for the varied stakeholders in higher education. What do college students need to learn and be able to do so that they and their children can enjoy a world of peace, a healthy and long life, and economic stability? How can we arrange learning activities so they will have the knowledge and wisdom to deal effectively and ethically with complex issues? What are our students’ lives like, and what can they expect for their own future?

Many of us who are the administrators or professors for today’s college students are out of touch with the realities of our students’ lives. When I saw a recent television commercial that instructed me to STM to my DWP to download the Desperate Housewives video game to my iPOD, I thought that maybe I would qualify for membership in “the clueless.” (Let me add that I am writing this from Hong Kong, where I am living for a few months, and these instructions were on an English language channel from mainland China. And, no, it was not a bad translation.)

As a group, our students vary along every dimension we can categorize, but there are summary data that we can use to glimpse into their collective lives. The annual Freshman Survey from UCLA (Higher Education Research Institute, 2007) found that about 25% are “frequently bored in class, almost 80% frequently or occasionally drink alcohol, almost 20% work full-time, so it is not surprising that 65% frequently or occasionally oversleep and miss class. Data from other sources, such as the creative class project devised by Michael Wesch, an assistant professor of anthropology at Kansas State University, found that college students spend much of their time multitasking—more specifically, checking e-mail, IM-ing (instant messages for those of you whose lives are not a constant blur of communication technology), facebooking, and shopping while in class, while doing homework, and while doing almost everything else. They read about half of the class material, and many will graduate deeply in debt, a fact that will constrain their job choices to those that pay well. Our students are entering a world with global problems that include pollution, poverty, racism, and terrorism, just to name a few. In light of all of the changes in the lives of our students and what they need to be able to do, how has higher education changed to meet these challenges? Besides such gradual changes as reducing the percentage of tenure-track faculty, increasing class sizes and the number of courses offered online, and ratcheting up the research requirements for faculty at many institutions, my answer is “Not much.” Most of the problems facing America and, indeed, much of the rest of the world are behavioral in nature and will require behavioral solutions.

It is against the changing landscape of rapid change in our students’ lives and in the knowledge and skills they will need to know that APA’s Board of Educational Affairs is sponsoring a National Conference on Undergraduate Education in Psychology. Approximately 80 psychologists dedicated to quality undergraduate education will convene June 22–27, 2008, on the beautiful campus of the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA. We sincerely thank the university for their generous support.

Attendees at the National Conference on Undergraduate Education in Psychology will seek answers to critical questions for the future of our discipline. The popularity of psychology as a major continues to increase. It is the major of choice for students who are considering many different career paths after graduation, and there are few students who will graduate from college without at least one course in psychology. Most of the problems facing America and, indeed, much of the rest of the world are behavioral in nature and will require behavioral solutions.

Heart disease, cancer, and stroke are the principal causes of death in the Western world, due, to a large extent, to lifestyle variables such as overeating, lack of exercise, smoking, and stress. Drug addictions, racism and sexism, environmental pollution, violence including terrorism, child abuse, and separation and divorce are among the many maladies plaguing our society whose causes can be found in behavior. An aging population and an explosion in information technologies present both opportunities and challenges for American society. We want to prepare undergraduate students who will tackle these issues and find solutions that will alleviate the problems.

Nine working groups are planned for the conference, each addressing a central theme. Participants have applied to attend and were selected in January 2008 from a stellar list of psychologists, each of whom has made a deep commitment to undergraduate education. We will address a wide range of topics, including the following:

  • The use of new learning technologies (e.g., automated tutoring systems)

  • Applications from the science of learning

  • Increased diversity in our students and faculty

  • Learning outcomes assessment

  • Models of curricula

  • Quality in instruction

  • New ethical concerns created by a revolution in our biological and sociocultural understanding of psychology

We are planning on several outcomes, including a book to be published by APA, Undergraduate Education in Psychology: A Blueprint for the Future of the Discipline, and videos of debates on such “hot topics” as:

  • Affirmative action for men

  • What to do about grade inflation

  • How to accommodate the increasing number of students who request special accommodations for learning and testing

  • Whether we can have quality education with online learning

  • Whether course content should be tailored to the interests of students

The nine themes revolve around questions we must answer to create a world-class educational program that provides students with the workplace skills needed in the information age and a solid academic background that prepares them for advanced study in a wide range of fields. On behalf of our stellar steering committee (a true dream team), I welcome your ideas and concerns.