...is growing in authority and relevance

January 27, 2006

Miles Hewstone, who has helped edit 16 books, says texts have come a long way in presentation and suitability from the dull, monochrome volumes he remembers as an undergraduate

The honour of publishing the first textbook on psychology is generally bestowed on Wilhelm Wundt, whose Principles of Physiological Psychology appeared in 1874. Never in his wildest dreams could Wundt have predicted that the subject would capture the minds of so many young students.

By any number of indices, the popularity of psychology today has exceeded all expectations - there are some 40,000 students at all levels in UK higher education institutions. Yet it is still thought of as a young discipline.

When I decided in 1974 that this is what I wanted to study, there was little or no career guidance at school. The number of undergraduates accepted on degree courses each year has risen by nearly 2,000 over the past five years, and more than 8,000 students graduate in the subject every year.

More than 80 per cent of today's psychology graduates are women, which may have something to do with a lack of understanding of what a psychology degree involves and just how scientific it is. Every student must learn about experimental methods and statistics for analysing data, and physiological psychology remains a core part of the discipline, with all students required to have a basic understanding of the nervous system.

Only a small proportion of graduates will go on to become chartered psychologists, but that has not prevented membership of the British Psychological Society from rising to more than 40,000 members. Does this mean we are unnecessarily training tens of thousands of psychologists? Not at all. The transferable skills a psychology degree offers are self-evident - not least the understanding of human behaviour, in individuals or groups.

All these skills are useful in many domains and occupations.

Psychology has met with equal enthusiasm in schools. Tens of thousands take it at A level, with even more traditional schools adding it to their curriculum. I am ambivalent about this development. On the one hand, thanks in no small part to television shows such as Cracker and Big Brother , ever more young people are interested in the subject, many of whom go on to read it at university. So it is advertising, marketing and foot-in-the-door sales all in one. On the other hand, most first-year lecturers are familiar with the difficulties of teaching lecture theatres comprised of a bimodal distribution of genuine neophytes and overconfident savants who have "done"

memory, conformity, adolescence or whatever at school. Of course, the teaching of psychology at school can only skim the surface, and sparking enthusiasm is a significant achievement in itself.

Looking back, there has been consensus about the core content of psychology textbooks in every generation since 1890 despite vast increases in our knowledge base. The four major content areas are biological bases of behaviour, cognitive and affective processes, developmental processes, and social bases of behaviour.

By sitting in a dark room and thinking hard, I tried to summon up neural traces of what I had been taught as an undergraduate at Bristol University in 1975-78. From biological bases, I remembered study of the limbic system, the key role of the amygdala and the intriguing Kluver-Bucy syndrome (bilateral damage to the temporal lobes of primates). From cognitive and affective processes, I recalled hours of lectures on memory (Ebbinghaus's early studies on memory for nonsense syllables; recall v recognition) and the James-Lange v Cannon-Bard theories of emotion (which argue about the physiological foundations of emotions). From the recesses of my mind I retrieved developmental psychology lectures on Piaget's stages and Chomsky on language; while from my first, career-deciding classes on social psychology there was the drama of Milgram's first study on obedience and Asch's elegant experiments on conformity.

These nuggets of information, and more, appear in my own co-edited textbook, Psychology , but that does not mean the discipline has stood still. The pages of references at the end of the book reveal many sources from the decades subsequent to my student years, but I have never understood the obsession of some authors (or is it publishers?) with the proportion of "new" references, as if new studies are inevitably better than old ones. We need to teach and study psychology with an eye to the past as well as to the present, and many experimental classics more than merit their place in contemporary textbooks.

If the core of the discipline looks quite constant since I was a student 30 years ago, there have been notable changes and additions to the core curriculum. In particular, neuroscience has arrived, and every modern textbook has to have its colour photo of an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scan. But so too has meta analysis, the quantitative review of empirical literature, which helps any student see today - in a way that I as a student could not - how solid the knowledge base is, or is not, in a topic under review.

There have also been major changes in how UK students are taught. They are instructed in greater numbers, with worse staff-to-student ratios, and with fewer tutorials than 30 years ago. One response has been that there is more spoon-feeding, whether in the form of handouts for every lecture or textbooks that are much more attractive and accessible. If I compare our new book with the texts I studied from, I am struck by many different features of the new generation: use of colour (essential for demonstrating some visual-perception effects and a huge help in learning the structure of the nervous system); text that is broken up with photographs, figures, tables and other diagrams. No reader of the modern era of textbooks would ask Alice's Wonderland question: "What is the use of a book without pictures?"

In Psychology , there is also a much more important didactic structure to each chapter: clear headings; learning objectives; key terms organised in a glossary; "research close-ups" that convey in some detail how research was carried out; "everyday psychology" boxes that apply basic principles to real-life contexts; summaries; revision questions; and further reading.

Twenty years of teaching still leave me with many unanswered questions, not least why, after you have slaved to prepare a useful reading list, some students still surf the web and pad out their essays with unsubstantiated claims. Another question I have tried to answer is, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, "what is it that a student wants?" It is clear that, from a student's perspective, there ought to be one book to cover all courses in a three-year degree. That is, of course, impossible, or should be, unless dumbing down reaches its nadir. But, working with a series of creative commissioning editors at Blackwell, I have tried to put together a range of books useful for specific purposes at specific stages of the degree - from the general textbook to readers that reprint classic and contemporary research articles to an encyclopaedia of articles on all major topics in social psychology. Armed with all these volumes today's students are, in my view, much better served than we were in my day, where the fare consisted mostly of dull, monochrome volumes, with pages of unrelenting text, and American texts full of irrelevant examples.

Looking back, I note that I have edited 16 books, many of them aimed at teaching students more effectively. To paraphrase Olympic champion Steve Redgrave's plea to be kept away from boats, I wonder if I should ask a colleague to shoot me if they see me anywhere near another edited book. But I hope to continue not only to produce original research, but also to write and edit for students, conscious of, as Thomas Mann says in The Glass Bead Game , "the pleasure it gives to transplant the achievements of the mind into other minds and see them transformed into entirely new shapes and emanations - in other words, the joy of teaching".

Miles Hewstone is professor of social psychology and a fellow of New College, Oxford. Psychology , edited by Hewstone, Fincham and Foster, is published by Blackwell, £29.95.

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