True-life stories are better than fiction

Psychology. Fourth Edition - Psychology. Fifth Edition - Psychology. Eighth Edition - Psychological Science. Second Edition - Psychology - Psychology
November 24, 2006

These six textbooks are all American "glossies" covering broadly the same areas in much the same depth, with beautiful colour presentation, attractive layout, busy pages with cartoons, margin notes and a plethora of interesting boxes designed to stimulate critical thinking. It is hard to see, therefore, how the price of Don and Sandra Hockenbury's text can be justified at £60.99 when the others are all in the £30-£40 range. It is hardback, but so are two of the cheaper ones. The cheapest (by Peter Gray) is, I think, the most thorough.

Before getting into specifics about the different texts, let us consider what they have in common, starting with their supplements. UK psychology texts cannot compete with US glossies in this area, and the supplements seem to grow with each new edition. David Myers requires seven pages to describe the 37 supplementary items on offer, the Hockenburys requires six and the rest require between two and four pages. All offer an instructor's manual, a study guide, a reader, various DVDs and CDs, test banks, a student website and PowerPoint and/or transparency slides, but some offer much much more, especially Myers, the Hockenburys and Gray. One interesting feature is Michael Gazzaniga and Todd Heatherton's offer of an e-book version of the text at half-price, while Gray offers a customisable e-version without mentioning costs.

All the texts are friendly in their approach to student engagement and learning, using a variety of critical thinking features to encourage reflection rather than mere absorption. All are good at relating psychology to everyday experiences, but Myers probably has the most jocular and inviting style. I also like a glossary giving the number of the page on which the word appears (in Gray's, Hockenbury and Hockenbury's and Myers's texts).

Perhaps driven by past omissions and commissions, in which such books were male and US-centred, the Hockenburys specify on which pages gender and cultural issues are integrated, as do Wayne Weiten and Myers, who also include evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. However, Gray is by far the best at integrating culture throughout in a non-tokenist way that frequently draws psychology away from its traditional Anglocentric assumptions.

Gray's is the first general textbook I have seen to introduce students to the use and purpose of citations, in a section that explains the book's study aids. Another continuing aid is the provision of "Focus questions", which appear in the margin where other texts put brief summaries. As Gray explains, this gives the student a framework for reading the following text and for finding answers within it that can then be noted in the margin or elsewhere. Each chapter includes "Section reviews", which are conventional enough. More original is the "Concluding thoughts" section, in which the student is addressed directly and asked to reflect on the themes covered, relate these to other topics and question the text again at a broader overall level. Gray's chapter headings also differ refreshingly from the rather predictable contents of all the other texts, with the development of thinking and language separated from social development, separate chapters on social perception and attitudes and social influences following this, and memory grouped with consciousness.

Michael Passer and Ronald Smith's text is an "international edition", but I cannot see the rationale for this title, unless it refers simply to the cost-cutting paperback format. The text is American, the authors are from the US, there is no special attention to non-American findings, and the inclusion of cultural variations is brief and patchy. But integration of cultural issues is addressed in the preface, where it is conceptualised as an environmental variable in the book's integrating theme of levels of analysis (biological, psychological, environmental), which usefully requires the students to consider the chapter's material from these three perspectives.

The Passer and Smith text has many pedagogical features. Each chapter starts with a story that sets the scene for the chapter's topic. "What do you think?" boxes resemble typical questions set by class tutors for group discussion. The questions are answered later in substantial boxes.

"Research close-up" boxes are written as a mini-report (introduction, method, results, discussion), which could help reinforce report-writing style and focus. "Beneath the surface" boxes mainly expand on a point in the text with further information. "Applying psychological science" boxes sometimes do much the same thing but at other times usefully apply psychological findings in the cause of improving learning, revision, test taking and so on, or relate to everyday issues such as adjusting to shift work. Passer and Smith also use marginal "Focus questions" like Gray.

Gazzaniga and Heatherton's book is also "international", and the same criticism applies. This text would work least well with my students in terms of depth of treatment and appropriateness of research. Nevertheless, it has several attractive pedagogical features. It uses marginal questions about every two pages or so, but also has a running head, which asks a question at a broader level (not always usefully, for example "What is sleep?"). Early in each chapter these questions are listed and beneath these appears a set of statements that are a summary of the current state of knowledge outlined in that section. This feature serves as a useful organising tool for the student reader and may well have benefits at revision time. Chapters also start, as in Passer and Smith's book, with a news or history vignette that sets the scene. Unusually, there is no chapter with "language" in its title, and language development is tucked into five pages within the "Human development" chapter. Consequently, although Lev Vygotsky and Noam Chomsky are mentioned, there is no substantial coverage of the thinking and language debate.

A powerful feature is the provision of a timeline at the start of each chapter detailing the important historical developments in the topic under discussion. These could take the student a long way back, covering aspects of philosophy and relevant physics (for example, in perception) as well as milestones in psychology.

Myers's text also includes a timeline, but this is on the inside front and inside back covers and is a linear history of psychological thought. Myers seems to me to have the most enthusiastic voice of all the authors under review. His pages also bristle with what might be termed distractions (cartoons, quotations, definitions), but these are, of course, intended as attention keepers: these days students are not allowed simply to read text from one page to the next. With so much attention-grabbing material, though, short attention span should not be a barrier to enjoyable reading.

In this eighth edition, there is a pedagogical innovation. The main text headings (for example, "Sensory adaptation") carry an associated numbered learning objective ("Describe sensory adaptation and explain how we benefit from being aware of unchanging stimuli"). After every five or six learning objectives, a "Learning outcomes" box appears that states what should have been learnt under each objective. This is a very useful short-distance revision activity that, in addition, provides summaries of the preceding material, leaving the end of the chapter free for new self-test questions and important terms. Myers puts a lot of emphasis on critical thinking, using boxes called "Thinking critically about" and "Close up" throughout - where topics and issues are looked at in depth - but tackle too, within the main text, various "pop psychology" notions such as that we use only 10 per cent of our brains.

The Hockenburys use a pedagogical system similar to Myers's objectives. Each subsection of a chapter starts with a key theme and several key questions. These are not answered later on, however, and serve much the same purpose as Gray's focus questions, although the Hockenbury system is more tightly focused. But "Concept review" boxes every few pages do engage the reader in revision of key ideas using exercises in the form of multiple-choice questions, blank filling, matching and so on. The margins are littered with quotations, cartoons, pictures and definitions. This book certainly kept me reading when I dipped in. Each chapter starts with a lengthy true story about ordinary people that sets the theme of the chapter and is connected later to the psychological material. Critical thinking is promoted through "Science versus pseudo-science" boxes and "Critical thinking" boxes. Each chapter ends with an "Application" box that relates psychology to the reader's own life, for example "Minimising the effects of stress" or "Superpower memory". At the chapter's end are key terms but also a handy synopsis of the achievements of "Key people". Altogether, this text represents an excellent study package, but it comes at a price.

The Weiten text packs in a lot of activity at the chapter's end. As with the other books, the student can visit the web companion for further study activities, but special to this book is the direction to Thomson Now!, where, following a chapter test, a personalised study plan is created directing the reader to rectifying his or her areas of weakness. Weiten's book has the most attractively produced layout I have ever seen in a psychology book. The graphics are numerous and beautiful throughout especially in the neuro-anatomy section, which will delight physiological psychology tutors with its unusual and highly effective artistry. Each chapter, as in the Hockenbury text, starts with an extended real-life story or literature extract but, sadly, in the "Personality" chapter this is all about environmentalist and television personality Steve Irwin, who died recently, in the present tense. The authors must be itching for a reprint. Like the Hockenburys' book, each chapter has an "Application" section that often supports students in their learning and otherwise relates to one's everyday life (for example, where to find a therapist and what to look for). The packed margins include "preview" questions for each subsection, mostly answered later in reviews of key points. An interesting feature is the identification of seven unifying themes (such as cultural heritage, empiricism and subjective experience), several of which are made relevant to each chapter. This helps give a more connected feel to what can otherwise seem a very fragmented subject. Like the Passer and Smith text, each chapter contains one mini-report of a featured study.

All these books would be acceptable as course texts. I think I would choose Myers's book for fun and engagement, Gray's for depth and cultural sensitivity, Weiten's for sheer beauty and Hockenbury and Hockenbury's as an all-round package, if only it were not so darned expensive.

Hugh Coolican is principal lecturer in psychology, Coventry University.

Psychology. Fourth Edition

Author - Don H. Hockenbury and Sandra E. Hockenbury
Publisher - Worth
Pages - 670
Price - £60.99
ISBN - 0 7167 6446 6

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