Education Leadership Conference

The learning that takes place after a psychologist earns a doctoral degree is a crucial but often-overlooked part of the field’s educational continuum, APA Executive Director for Education Cynthia D. Belar, PhD, said kicking off APA’s 2010 Education Leadership Conference on Sept. 11.

The annual meeting, during which psychologists visit policymakers on Capitol Hill to advocate for psychology’s educational priorities, focused this year on lifelong learning in psychology.

“We have paid more attention to undergraduate and graduate education in psychology than to professional development and lifelong learning — despite the fact that much more time is spent in the course of one’s career than in the preparation for that career,” Belar told more than 130 representatives of psychology education and training groups, psychological membership organizations, APA divisions and APA governance groups.

External forces are now pushing all the health professions to devote more attention to lifelong learning, said Belar. These forces include the rapid growth of knowledge, technological changes and the mounting push for accountability, she said, adding that such pressures will only increase. There’s also talk of more federal involvement in policymaking for continuing education (CE) for health professionals, she added, pointing to the Institute of Medicine report, “Redesigning Continuing Education in the Health Professions,” published earlier this year.

“Compared with some other groups, we have not conducted as much research on lifelong learning in psychology, nor have we developed an agenda to maximize the effectiveness of lifelong learning,” Belar said.

Although there’s evidence that CE works, she said, the research base is not yet strong enough. As a result, important questions remain unanswered. Do practitioners learn anything from continuing-education programs and apply that learning to practice? Are “seat time” and self-assessment enough to ensure the CE system’s credibility? Would workplace or point-of-service learning be more effective than the current approach to CE?

“We need not just CE in evidence-based practices but evidence-based CE,” Belar emphasized.

Of course, she added, CE and lifelong learning are not synonymous. For researchers, lifelong learning might be reviewing journal manuscripts or attending APA’s Advanced Training Institutes. For educators, it might be taking advantage of the centers for teaching and learning that offer professional development opportunities on many campuses.

How best to encourage lifelong learning among researchers and educators is another area in need of attention, said Belar. How can we help scientists keep up with new methods? Can the scientist-educator model facilitate the professional development of psychology teachers?

The new emphasis on lifelong learning has implications for graduate education in psychology, said Belar. Although some have argued in favor of a more technical or vocational approach to training, she said, graduate programs in psychology have historically emphasized teaching students how to learn. Other health professions are now adopting this approach rather than focusing exclusively on knowledge and skill acquisition and retention, she added. As other psychologists have said, she added, psychologists need to educate not merely for competence but for the ability to adapt to change, generate new knowledge and continuously improve performance. “We are at risk if we define our ‘student learning outcomes’ only in terms of functional competencies,” Belar said.

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.