Introducing first year students to psychology in professional contexts

O'Connor, Erin L., Hansen, Julie A., & Thorne, Gregory (2009) Introducing first year students to psychology in professional contexts. In First Year Experience Symposium, 6 -7 February, 2009, Brisbane, Qld.

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An undergraduate psychology degree provides a foundation for diverse career pathways. However, unlike foundation courses for professions such as social work, counselling, nursing, and education - which have a strong applied focus, and include substantial practical work - an undergraduate psychology degree has a strong theoretical focus, providing a foundation in the science of psychology, rather than applied training as a psychologist (which requires postgraduate study). As a consequence, undergraduate psychology programs typically include few opportunities for practical work placements.

Many first-year students enter the psychology degree with little understanding of what the course will be like, where their degree can take them, and of the many career options open to psychology graduates. Confronted with a program with a stronger focus on scientific principles and research than they had imagined, many students find it difficult to see the link between the theoretical knowledge they gain through their degree and its relevance and application to their future careers. This lack of clarity can persist throughout the degree, and is particularly problematic for students who exit the 3-year psychology degree and do not gain a place in a 4th year program, required for provisional registration as a psychologist.

The need to better address the relationship between theory and practice has been evident in graduates' comments on the Course Experience Questionnaire. While students rate the positives of our psychology program as excellent teaching, support and encouragement, and fascinating subject matter, the overwhelming suggestions for improvement have highlighted the need for stronger links between theory and practice, and more opportunities to gain practical experience. Thus, student feedback has identified a clear need to better link theory and practice, to ensure that students emerge from their psychology degree with "realistic ideas about how to implement their psychological knowledge, skills, and values in occupational pursuits in a variety of settings" (APA Taskforce, 2002).

In addressing this need, the School of Psychology & Counselling developed a very successful extra-curricular program of careers seminars and invited speakers, as well as orientation and support for students to undertake volunteer work in the community alongside their formal study. Our career development program, developed in collaboration with staff from the Careers and Employment Service, has been of significant benefit to the students who participated. Participating students have reported a much greater understanding of the relevance of their studies to future work, a greater appreciation of the application of psychology in the workplace, and more confidence in their own knowledge and abilities. However, these initiatives have little impact on the majority of students, who do not attend extra-curricular activities. These initiatives need to be embedded within the formal curriculum.

Action taken

A new first-year unit Psychology in the Professional Contexts was developed to introduce first year psychology students to the profession of psychology, making explicit the links between research, theory and practice, and engaging students, in the earliest stages of their degree, in their own career planning and development. The unit was designed to help commencing psychology students to contextualise their learning, to more clearly see the connections between their formal study and future career pathways, and to provide students with tools to actively manage and reflect upon their own learning and career development throughout the course.

Class time involved a diverse range of learning activities, including:

• Lectures introducing models of psychological practice; the diverse applications of psychology in the workplace and the community; and legal, ethical and cultural factors that shape psychological practice;

• Workshops and tutorials focussed on skills development to promote students' active and reflective learning and career planning.

• A range of engaging activities to bring the experience of psychological work into the classroom, including:

• Guest speakers from diverse areas of psychological practice;

• Opportunities to meet staff in the school and discuss their research and practice.

• Panel discussions involving past students; and

• A (humorous) debate by staff and postgraduate students: Is psychology past its prime?

By encouraging first-year students to see themselves as professionals-in-training in a vibrant and diverse professional community, we aimed to:

• increase students' awareness of professional opportunities in psychology,

• encourage student networking and volunteering throughout their course, • increase strategic elective choice and

• encourage students to engage in deep learning by providing them with tools to reflect on their learning and the professional applications of skills and knowledge gained through the degree.


Students completed three types of assessment tasks.

• Professional reflections. Across the semester, students submitted reflections through the QUT e-portfolio tool. Students described a recent learning experience and explained how they might apply this learning in a professional context related to psychology.

• Team task: Profile of a related organisation. Teams of 3 to 5 students researched an organisation engaged in work related to psychology, and interviewed a representative from the organisation (not necessarily a psychologist). The students presented an overview of the organisation, their staff and clients, their mission, and their methods of work to their tutorial class.

  • Developing teamwork skills. This team task was supported by tutorial activities designed to develop communication and teamwork skills. The student teams participated in problem solving activities during tutorial time. With their tutors, teams analysed the strengths and weaknesses of their communication during these problem solving tasks, This analysis was not assessed.

• Exam. Students were assessed on their understanding of social, cultural, legal, and ethical factors that influence psychological practice. This exam was designed to encourage students to integrate material from different topic areas covered in the lectures, workshops and readings.

Tips and tricks

• Work collaboratively with careers and employment staff, to integrate personal and career development into the formal curriculum;

• Encourage reflection on learning and skills development from the outset of the degree;

• Clarify professional requirements, career opportunities, and the relevance and application of learning experiences in the workplace; and

• Invite students to have fun with their studies and interact with staff and other students (e.g., humorous staff debate to familiarise students with senior staff and post graduate students in a collegial environment.)

Results, evaluation, impact

The unit was evaluated through student surveys distributed prior to starting the unit and at the end of the semester. QUT’s universal online student evaluation tool, the Learning Experience Survey (LEX), was also used.

Commencing students have poor prior knowledge about the psychology profession.

A survey of the class of 82 students in the first week of semester suggested poor knowledge about the profession of psychology, or training requirements:

• Most students (57) were intending to become psychologists

o But only 22 students (26%) understood how long this training would take

o And only 6 (10%) of the 57 students who wanted to be psychologists were aware of the training requirements.

• None of the respondents were able to name a specific skill they believed should be included in their training.

Students' understanding of the profession of psychology and professional training requirements improved after completing the unit

• Student estimates of the number of years required for training as a psychologist (currently 6 years in QLD) improved: Average estimate in week 1 = 5 yrs (SD 1.26); average estimate in week 13 M = 5.9 years (SD 0.46), t (21) = 3.177, p < .001*

  • Based on 24 surveys able to be matched through a student-generated code only

• Students agreed/strongly agreed that their understanding of psychology as a profession had improved through studying the unit.

• Overall, the complexity of student-generated definitions of psychology did not change.

Student satisfaction with the course Based on Learning Experience Survey (LEX) responses (with 43% response rate):

  • 97.4% were satisfied with the workload and level of difficulty of the course.

  • 87.2% were satisfied with the relevance to the degree topic and the presentation of the lectures.

Student feedback – Strengths of the unit. The inclusion of guest speakers was brilliant, and makes learning from other units more relevant. Hearing their stories [past students] really enlightened me about the different avenues of psychology. It has made me feel more confident about the importance of completing this degree.

Group work was really valuable, and helped me to learn about myself as a group member, identifying my skills and my weakness.

Student suggestions for improvement. I would have liked more information about volunteering in the community.

I would have liked to see the unit as more of a history of psychology, complete with the guest speakers that we've had.

Future development of the unit

Further development of this unit will involve:

• Encouraging students to continue the initiatives seeded in this unit, through networking and seeking profession-based experiences (including volunteering) throughout their course;

• Consideration of other formats to encourage more interaction between students (e.g., an online wiki or networking site); and

• Further review of the workshops to ensure relevance to current and future developments in psychology. Presentations from QUT Careers and Employment staff and professionals external to QUT will continue to be important aspects of the unit.

Impact and interest:

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ID Code: 17957
Item Type: Conference Item (Poster)
Refereed: No
Keywords: higher education, first year, professional development, HERN
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Division of Technology, Information and Library Services
Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Health
Current > Institutes > Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation
Copyright Owner: Copyright 2009 (The authors)
Deposited On: 16 Feb 2009 22:46
Last Modified: 18 Jul 2017 14:40

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