Abnormal psychology courses are designed to provide students with the knowledge of theories and research concerning abnormal behavior or psychopathology, the branch of psychology concerned with mental and emotional disorders such as neuroses, psychoses and other mental health disorders, as well as with certain incompletely understood normal phenomena as dreams and hypnosis.
Teachers in this field of psychology usually deal with topics such as the frequency of abnormal behavior of various types, classification of abnormal behaviors into various diagnostic categories, causes of psychological disorders and the variety of methods employed in the treatment of abnormal behavior. This is a highly complex field of study, with many debates about new and older ideas. Interest in the phenomena of mental abnormality is shared by numerous groups of experts.
Proficiency in this field of psychology requires expertise in several branches of learning and skills acquired through years of experience. Explaining mental disorders is often difficult because they are composed of several factors and different theoretical perspectives which have been to be applied to diagnose or explain a particular behavioral abnormality or mental condition.
Although disagreement exists regarding which particular behaviors can be classified as abnormal, psychologists have defined several clear criteria for purposes of classification. The main objective of an abnormal psychology course is to educate students about the etiology, symptoms, course and treatment of a variety of mental disorders. Most instructors also hope to provide students with a sense of what people with mental illness experience on a personal level.
Courses usually start with history and overview in the form of an introductory lesson that helps students get a clear idea of what abnormal psychology is. The focus of the lesson could be on examining the evolution of abnormal psychology as a discipline and explaining the challenges in defining and classifying both normal and abnormal behavior. An essential part of abnormal psychology teaching is offering the students a closer look at the various types of disorders. These include mood disorders, personality disorders, schizophrenia, sexual disorders, delusional disorders, substance abuse disorders and dissociative disorders.
Psychology professors often integrate a variety of writing assignments into their courses. It is generally accepted that frequent short writing assignments requiring students to present their own opinions and analyses are more valuable in developing skills than the traditional end-of-term paper. However, care should be taken to avoid assignments with answers readily obtainable from published sources.
Teachers consider the case-study assignment one of the methods most helpful in evaluating students' ability to diagnose disorders. Students are given the opportunity to think about behavior from an explicit theoretical perspective as psychologists and to communicate these thoughts in writing. In a case-study writing assignment in an abnormal psychology course, which is described in the Handbook of Demonstrations and Activities in the Teaching of Psychology. (Volume 3, 2000), edited by Mark E.Ware and David E. Johnson, students were required to choose a figure from history, literature, the arts or current events. After choosing a fictional or a real individual, students were asked to summarize the individual's behavior and subsequently present a diagnosis.
In another written assignment, students were asked to read a book they were allowed to choose from a list. The books were chosen to reflect a range of disorders and etiological and theoretical perspectives. Based on information from the text and lectures, students had to describe what they believed to be important issues in their papers. Teachers could also use novels, biographies and autobiographies describing various cases of abnormal behavior, asking students to read their book and then subject the main character to an analysis. They were also set the task of describing the character's symptoms, the treatments available, as well as providing a diagnosis and a treatment plan. The assignment is designed to promote critical thinking and empathy for the mentally ill.
Teachers also use multimedia in their abnormal psychology courses. Playing clips of movies and other media featuring psychopathology is an effective way of showing students various disorders. In many cases, the session can be followed by a discussion of the inaccuracies related to psychopathology that are portrayed. Another way of fostering individual thinking among students is by using computerized case simulations. These simulations present clients suffering under various disorders, with students stepping into a therapist's role to assess, diagnose and treat patients.