Teaching Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy to Undergraduate Psychology Students

By Ryan, Tracey Ellen; Blau, Shawn et al. | Journal of Instructional Psychology, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Teaching Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy to Undergraduate Psychology Students


Ryan, Tracey Ellen, Blau, Shawn, Grozeva, Dima, Journal of Instructional Psychology


This article describes an experimental undergraduate psychology course that ran for two semesters during the 2009 academic year at a private, urban university in the United States. Students learned the techniques and strategies of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) with a focus on the practical elements of the process. Students often used the techniques to address their own real-life problems that they encountered during the semester. Descriptive data was collected from students at the end of the semester which revealed that students considered this course more "practical" than other psychology courses, the course content was highly relevant to the students, and that students valued the experience. The primary purpose of this paper is to describe the rationale for the course, present the developmental process and provide some early descriptive data about the course.

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Undergraduate psychology classes are replete with content and theory, original research articles and readings that facilitate understanding of psychology as a scientific discipline. Some undergraduate programs even offer a "specialization" where students gain specific knowledge of neuroscience, forensic psychology, developmental psychology or a number of other subfields.

Throughout this process, we encourage our students to "think like scientists" as we attempt to engage them in the higher levels of reasoning, such as analysis and synthesis. Sometimes, we allow students the luxury to think and write about how the psychological concepts that we teach apply to their own lives. But typically, mastering the content and research related skills are paramount in our classes.

The end result is a student with a broad "knowledge base" in general psychology along with perhaps one or two particular subfields. We congratulate ourselves as professors when students are also able to review the literature and write persuasively about a psychological topic. At the end of our research methods courses, we delight in their ability to design a convincing experiment or survey tool to test a hypothesis. We are prouder still when a few of our students demonstrate their understanding of research methodology by evaluating strengths and weaknesses in a study or when they are able to interpret psychological data in a sophisticated way. Our student scores on the Graduate Record Exam in Psychology or the Major Field Test in Psychology even give us "objective" evidence of how well we are doing our jobs as professors of psychological knowledge.

During the undergraduate experience, most students become familiar with cognitive-behavioral theorists and clinicians such as Ellis and Beck, along with the broad theories that correspond to the techniques they espouse. They become aware of cognitive behavioral theory on an abstract level and develop an idea of how this therapeutic technique could potentially improve one's thoughts and corresponding maladaptive behaviors and emotions. Some students are able to compare and contrast cognitive behavioral theories and corresponding strategies with others such as a strict behavioral approach or the psychodynamic perspective. These are all worthy goals of an undergraduate psychology program.

However, we wanted to create an undergraduate psychology course that would add a more practical and personal dimension to the curriculum. We wanted a course that actually had the potential for a larger number of students to gain a deeper understanding of their own and others thoughts and emotions. Perhaps even more importantly, we wanted to teach students' skills that they could use in their own lives to recognize their own and others' irrational thinking and corresponding maladaptive emotions and behaviors. We wanted a course that had the potential to actually improve students' lives over the course of fifteen weeks. We felt this was at least as valuable as the more scientific and content driven goals of our undergraduate program. …

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