Topical and Applied Interests of Introductory Psychology Students

Article excerpt

Using forced-choice and continuous measures, introductory psychology students reported highest interest for the topical areas of clinical and social psychology (over biological, cognitive, and developmental) and for the applied areas of education and health (over business, environment, and law) at both the beginning and end of semesters. Among other results, some topical interests related to particular applied interests, women preferred developmental psychology more than men, but most pretest gender differences in interests (e.g., in biology) disappeared statistically by the end of the semester. We compared our method and findings with earlier interest research, noting several methodological and analytical improvements and one limitation. We also discuss possible uses of the data in teaching introductory psychology and other survey courses.

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Introductory psychology, like many large survey courses, is challenging to teach well (e.g., see Buskist & Wylie, 1998; Miller & Gentile, 1998). Introductory psychology covers all the major areas of psychology, and few instructors have extensive knowledge or training in more than one or two areas. This potential difficulty is highlighted by a survey of instructors and students who ranked "knowledgeable about topic" the most desired among 28 instructor qualities (Schaeffer, Epting, Zinn, & Buskist, 2003). Relatedly, the length of introductory psychology textbooks continues to grow (Griggs, Jackson, Christopher, & Marek, 1999). This amount of material is difficult to cover completely in a semester course and limits the time an instructor can devote to nonlecture activities (Miller & Gentile, 1998). The often large size of introductory psychology sections presents additional challenges, including trying to keep the attention or interest of so many students for an extended period (Buskist & Wylie, 1998). Regardless of class size, many students take the college-level course as a requirement and might not be inherently interested in the material. Miller and Gentile (1998) noted that "this diversity of needs and interests presents challenges to those teaching the course" (p. 89).

To address the growing length of textbooks, many instructors exclude some text material (Miller & Gentile, 1998), but decisions on what to exclude can be difficult. To address interest level, and to increase learning and retention, many instructors elaborate on the material with examples and in-class activities. To maximize such efforts, however, instructors need class time and perhaps some expertise in the specific areas. It would be helpful and efficient in constructing examples and activities and possibly in coverage decisions if instructors had knowledge of students' course-related interests.

Previous Interest Research

Across earlier interest studies (Anderson, 1970; Brown, 1980; McKenzie & Cangemi, 1978; Ruch, 1937; Zanich & Grover, 1989), introductory psychology students consistently showed least interest in physiological topics. Additional or more specific conclusions are difficult to draw due to differing measures and differing results: Interest ratings varied for developmental psychology, psychological disorders, and some social psychology topics. In particular, whereas two studies reported high rankings for psychological disorders (Ruch, 1937 [see preface]; Zanich & Grover, 1989), Brown (1980) reported low to moderate interest in disorders across two student samples. Interest in social psychology topics varied between moderate and strong, with the social psychology chapter receiving only the median ranking among 15 chapters (Zanich & Grover, 1989). Further research can clarify these varying results.

Several additional factors regarding earlier reports suggest a need for further research. Among methodological limitations, Brown (1980) noted that students may have rushed, "checking objectives on a hit-or-miss basis" (p. …