Shippensburg University
Psychology Department

PSI High Newsletter

Volume 25, No. 1
October 1999
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How can excellence be encouraged in high school psychology?

APA provides guidance

After more than four years of work, the American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force for the Development of National High School Psychology Standards produced its 1999 version of National Standards for the Teaching of High School Psychology. Rather than using the concept of standards as meaning mandatory practices associated with penalties for deviation, the APA Standards are intended to help guide curriculum development by supplying content and performance objectives, and by suggesting teaching approaches that have been shown to help students achieve those objectives. Providing you with a taste of the Standards is what this Psi High Newsletter attempts to do.
According to the Standards, quality high school psychology courses ask students to meet clearly described expectations that are challenging. Both students and teachers see learning as being a lifelong process that involves a variety of experiences, relationships, and settings. Within a model high school psychology course, those endeavors should include: learning that is active and collaborative, student-selected research projects, service to the community, and activities that encourage an appreciation for diversity issues.

What is the role of active learning?

It is a tool that should be used

Although the Standards specify numerous content guidelines, they also make the point that, in general, education in this country focuses too much on conveying information and not enough on teaching skills for inquiry and problem solving (that can help to motivate a desire for lifelong learning). Consequently the Standards advocate the use of active learning and describe the following requirements for it.
(1) Every student in the class actively participates.
(2) Students appreciate the relevance of what they are doing with regard to other learning experiences they have had and with regard to their everyday lives. By putting focal points of content in meaningful contexts, students are more likely to care about the material and, consequently, are likely to learn more deeply.
(3) In addition to knowing and understanding material, students develop critical thinking skills by applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating.
(4) The amount of time devoted to active learning can be tailored by the teacher.
(5) Active learning involves feedback to the participants. This can be graded or ungraded, and can be from the teacher or from other students in the class.
(6) When using active learning, teachers should respect the privacy of students and should not require them to engage in activities that would lead to unpleasant social consequences.
Using active learning does not prevent teachers from lecturing, but it does mean implementing a variety of instructional strategies. These can include students actively participating in endeavors such as the following: interactive approaches for note taking, demonstrations, games, debates, writing, small-group and dyadic exercises, problem solving, computer-facilitated tasks, research, community activities, and psychology clubs.

What content should be covered?

Five domains should be addressed

The Standards identify five domains of content that should be taught, with three of them having optional content areas from which teachers can choose. Such selection is necessary because, as the Standards note, no single course could cover all fifteen content areas that are identified. (Within a one-semester course, the Standards recommend covering at least five but no more than ten areas.) Here are the five domains and the fifteen content areas.

Introduction and Research Methods

Biological Bases of Behavior
Sensation and Perception
Motivation and Emotion
Stress, Coping, and Health

Thinking and Language
States of Consciousness

Lifespan Development

Individual Differences
Personality and Assessment
Psychological Disorders
Treatment of Psychological Disorders
Social and Cultural Dimensions of Behavior

The Standards advocate beginning the course with the Methods Domain, Introduction and Research Methods content area. This unit should describe the science of psychology, address its history, highlight relevant careers within psychology, and consider methods for studying behavior and mental processes. In addition to this initial treatment, attention to research methods and appreciation for historical developments should continue to be interwoven throughout the course as students learn the content of other domains.

How are students expected to respond?

There are four performance objectives

The purpose of the emphasis on active learning and the specification of content areas is to encourage courses that will lead to meaningful learning by students. The expectations for student performance are described by four course objectives.

Students demonstrate mastery of basic concepts within the five domains. On a personal level, they appreciate that attitudes and social behavior are largely learned, and that such learning occurs within historical and cultural contexts.

Students do the following: accurately listen and observe; cautiously interpret others’ actions; understand psychological findings, evaluate their quality, and examine their generalizability; explain causality from multiple perspectives; avoid conclusions unless there is sufficient evidence; and use ethical standards.

Students effectively interact in the following ways: in both speaking and writing use psychological concepts to explain behavior; effectively use technology as a means of analysis and as a way to enhance communication; use appropriate interpersonal skills when interacting with others, including encounters with individuals from diverse backgrounds; understand issues from multiple perspectives; and demonstrate honesty, fairness, and reliability that leads to respect and trust from others.

Students reflect the values of psychology through the following: desire to understand others; appreciate the range and complexity of mental processes and behavior; know the value of scientific explanations for behavior; recognize the value of technology; desire lifelong learning; acknowledge that psychology has a role in the promotion of human welfare; and appreciate cultural influences on learning and behavior.

How specific do the standards get?

Here are part of the Learning Standards

After concluding this unit, students understand:

(1) Characteristics of learning

(2) Principles of classical conditioning

(3) Principles of operant conditioning

(4) Components of cognitive learning

(5) Roles of biology and culture in determining learning
Content Standards With Performance Standards and Suggested Performance Indicators

CONTENT STANDARD 1: Characteristics of learning
Students are able to (performance standards):

(1.1) Discuss learning from a psychological viewpoint.
Students may indicate this by (performance indicators):
• Listing the important historical figures in learning
• Defining learning as relatively permanent changes of behavior resulting from experience
• Distinguishing learning from performance
• Demonstrating the use of theories of learning in applied examples

(1.2) Recognize learning as a vehicle to promote adaptation through experience.
Students may indicate this by (performance indicators):
• Articulating how changes in adaptation can result from genetic factors or learned experiences
• Comparing how cultures differ in promoting learned behavior

CONTENT STANDARD 2: Principles of classical conditioning
Students are able to (performance standards):

(2.1) Describe the classical conditioning paradigm.
Students may indicate this by (performance indicators):
• Explaining how, according to Pavlov’s theory, a neutral stimulus becomes capable of evoking a response through pairing with an unconditioned stimulus
• Labeling elements in classical conditioning examples
• Designing procedures to produce classically conditioned responses

(The Standards continue in a similar fashion for the remaining three sections of the Learning content area.)

You can have your own copy of the Standards

The Education Directorate of the American Psychological Association will provide you with a copy of the Standards free of charge. There are several ways you can request a copy. You can call Sherill Simons in the Education Directorate (202-336-6076), you can email her (, or you can send her a letter (Education Directorate, American Psychological Association, 750 First Street, NE, Washington, DC, 2002-4242). The Standards also are available on the web (

In addition to the information highlighted in this newsletter, in the Standards you will find the following: detailed content and performance guidelines for all fifteen content areas, sample content outlines for courses, strategies for lesson plan development, and numerous resources for psychology teachers.


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