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A Skills-Experience Inventory for the Undergraduate Psychology Major

A Skills-Experience Inventory for the Undergraduate Psychology Major
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  TOPICAL ARTICLES A Skills-Experience Inventory for the UndergraduatePsychology Major Daniel J. KrugerEugene B. Zechmeister Loyola University of Chicago Psychology majors develop a number of academic skills during theirstudiesthatarevaluableinfuturecareersandotherdomains.How-ever, assessment of experiences related to skill development can bequite difficult and resource intense. We present results of 2 studiesusing a skills-experience inventory to assess academic skill exposure.In the first study, graduating senior psychology majors reported greater exposure than freshmen in 7 skill-experience areas. The sec-ond study showed significant differences in exposure to 5 skill areasamong graduating seniors in 4 academic areas. A skills-experienceinventory may be an efficient tool for documenting the skills and ex- periences students encounter when majoring in psychology. Aliberalartseducationrepresentstheblendingofabstractvalues and factual knowledge that has been the ideal of Western schooling for over two millennia (Winter,McClelland, & Stewart, 1981). It stands in marked contrastto the emphasis on practical, marketable skills found in tech-nical or vocational training (cf. Hogan, 1991). The liberalarts graduate learns a wide range of analytical skills (Winteret al., 1981) as well as a range of cognitive competencies thatgo by names such as “reasoning skills, critical thinking, intel-lectual flexibility, [and] reflective judgment” (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991, p. 114). Graduates should gather informa-tion effectively, communicate well orally and in writing, andexhibit good interpersonal skills (Halpern, 1988).Numerous studies over the past several decades havesought to document the particular types of skills acquired byliberal arts students, and the evidence is encouraging. Assummarized by Pascarella and Terenzini (1991): Oursynthesissuggeststhatstudentsmakestatisticallysignifi-cantgainsduringthecollegeyearsonanumberofdimensionsofgeneralcognitivecapabilitiesandskills.Comparedtofresh-men, seniors have better oral and written communicationskills, are better abstract reasoners or critical thinkers, aremoreskilledatusingreasonandevidencetoaddressill-struc-tured problems for which there are no verifiably correct an-swers, have greater intellectual flexibility in that they arebetter able to understand more than one side of a complex is-sue,andcandevelopmoresophisticatedabstractframeworksto deal with complexity. (p. 155) Although these findings tended to support the value of aliberal arts education, it is not clear that students always rec-ognize the development of particular skills or their potentialapplication. Whether students choose a liberal arts educa-tion may well depend on their ability to see the connectionbetween the skills they acquire in college and the careerpathstheywishtofollow(e.g.,Hogan,1991).Inarecent U.S. News & World Report  article, Koerner (1999) pointed to thedecrease in the number of men taking the traditional collegecurriculum and speculated that college may, in the future,appear as a poor economic choice. Many male high schoolgraduates apparently see technical or business training asproviding more immediate payoffs—an option they prefer to“four years of   Beowulf   and student loans” (p. 48).Itisimportanttoidentifythespecificskillsacquiredbyun-dergraduates in various undergraduate disciplines and docu-ment student progress toward achieving these competencies.Within the psychology major, the set of achievable skills in-cludes thinking skills, language skills, information gatheringand synthesis skills, and research methods and statisticalskills (e.g., McGovern, Furumoto, Halpern, Kimble, & McKeachie, 1991). These skills are varied and distinctive;consequently, they have been elusive to specific delineationand measurement (Hayes, 1996). It may not be surprisingthat many students are not aware of the many skills acquiredduringtheirundergraduateyearsand,thus,donoteffectivelymarket themselves based on these competencies (seeMurray, 1997).Partlyinresponsetothissituation,Hogan(1991)andoth-ers (e.g., Clay, 1996; Murray, 1997) argued that skill identifi-cationandinformationregardingthedevelopmentofspecificskills should be an integral part of psychology courses. Whena psychology major seeks a job following graduation, askills-basedrésuméislikelytobemorevaluablethanonethatsimply lists courses taken and offices and positions held whilein school (Edwards & Smith, 1988; Murray, 1997). Levy,Burton, Mickler, and Vigorito (1999) developed a curricu-lummatrixofdesiredperspectives,skills,andattitudesforin-dividual psychology courses. They designed this instrumentto facilitate program review and outcomes assessment, allow-ing for a content examination of individual courses in thecontext of broad curricular objectives.We created a skills-experience inventory with the goals of giving feedback to individual students as to the developmentof specific skills through the completion of the psychologymajor and of documenting the overall nature of skill acquisi-tion by psychology majors in our department. Accreditation Vol. 28, No. 4, 2001249  agencies, politicians, students, and their parents are placingincreased emphasis on outcomes assessment (Halpern,1988). Departmental and institutional assessment programsare often expected to srcinate in psychology departments,due to the expertise in relevant areas such as learning, adultdevelopment, psychometrics, and program evaluation(Halpern, 1988).Mostwouldagreethatoutcomeassessmentshouldincludemultiplemeasures(e.g.,Halpern,1988).Sheehan(1994)uti- lized multiple-choice tests; senior and alumni surveys; a cap-stone course with a research project; and archival data, suchas awards, presentations, publications, and acceptances intograduate school. We provide evidence from two administra-tions of a skills inventory that this instrument can contributein an important way to a multimethod approach to assessingthe benefits of majoring in psychology within the liberal artstradition. Study 1: A Skills-Experience Comparisonof Senior and Freshmen Psychology Majors  MethodParticipants.  Studentsfromanethnicallydiverse,urbanMidwestern university (  N  = 102) participated in this study.Graduating seniors majoring in psychology completed thesurvey while waiting for standard exit interviews required forgraduation. An informed consent form indicated that the re-sults would be used for research purposes and not to evaluateanyindividualstudent.Freshmenmajoringinpsychologypar-ticipated in partial fulfillment of requirements for fallintroductorypsychologyclasses.Themeanageofseniors(  n =51) was 22.7 years ( SD  = 4.3), and the mean age of freshmen(  n  = 51) was 18.7 years ( SD  = 2.5). Sixty-nine percent of freshmen were women, and 73% of seniors were women.  Materials.  Wesortedskillsidentifiedfromtheliteratureandfromconsultationwithpsychologyfacultyinto10generalskill areas, as defined in Table 1. We then developed 9 itemsfor each skill area (90 items in all), 3 items in each of 3 morespecific competencies representative of the general area.Items in each subarea varied in terms of our expected fre-quency of their occurrence. For example, the items in thethirdsubareaofwritten–oralcommunication,“conveyingsci-entific information coherently,” were the following:–– I often have explained a scientific concept to some-one.––Ihavepresented(orallyorinwriting)theresultsofascientific study.–– I have created a poster detailing the results of a sci-entific study. Procedure.  Foreachskillarea,participantsindicatedex-posure to a skill-experience by checking that item and indi-catedanyskillexperiencesnotaddressedbythenineitemsus-ing an open-ended item. Individuals received scores for eachskillareabasedonthenumberofitemstheychecked,rangingfrom0to9.Administrationoftheinventoryrarelytookmorethan 15 min. Results Table 2 reports the mean skill-experience levels in each of the 10 areas for the freshmen and seniors. The multivariateANOVAshowedasignificantoveralleffectforexperienceinthe psychology program,  Λ (10, 91) = .53,  p  < .001. Seniorsreported significantly more experiences in 7 of the 10 skill ar-eas:communication, F (1,100)=5.66,  p =.019;informationgathering,  F (1, 100) = 20.35,  p  < .001; interpersonal,  F (1,100) = 11.63,  p  < .001; critical thinking,  F (1, 100) = 13.22,  p  < .001; research methods,  F (1, 100) = 62.21,  p  < .001;ethics/values,  F (1, 100) = 18.02,  p  < .001; and technol-ogy–computer,  F (1, 100) = 4.28,  p  = .041. There were nosignificant differences for groups–organizations, behaviormanagement, or individual differences (see Table 2). The re-sults for research methods,  η 2 = .38; information gathering, η 2 = .17; and ethics/values,  η 2 = .15, indicates the greatesteffects. Critical thinking ( η 2 = .12), communication ( η 2 =.05), and technology/computer ( η 2 =.04) results also pro-vided evidence for skill exposure in these areas. 250Teaching of Psychology Table 1.Ten General Areas of Academic Skills Skill AreaDescription1.Written/oral communicationThe ability to convey information effectively in both written and oral communication2.Information gatheringThe ability to obtain relevant information from publications, databases, and otherappropriate sources3.Groups/organizations/communityThe ability to work effectively in teams and with groups of other people4.Interpersonal/counseling/interviewing/ mentoringThe ability to effectively conduct one-on-one interactions, including counseling,interviewing, and administering standardized tests5.Behavior managementsupervision/teachingThe ability to teach, supervise, and manage behavior through personal skills and bymonitoring and manipulating relevant aspects of the immediate environment6.Individual differences/specialpopulations/cultural diversityThe ability to work with individuals from special populations and diverse cultures in asensitive and effective manner7.Critical thinking/problem solvingThe ability to critically evaluate situations and projects in a rational manner and reachconclusions based on the information available8.Research methodology/statisticsThe ability to design, conduct, and analyze the results of research experiments and studies9.Ethics/valuesThe ability to take into consideration the costs, benefits, and impact of projects on theindividuals involved and society in general10.Technology/computerThe ability to use computers for information gathering, analysis, and dissemination  Item analysis indicates that our expectations for the fre-quenciesofskill-experienceoccurrencesweregenerallyaccu-rate. Overall, 69% of respondents checked the first item ineachsubarea,39%checkedtheseconditem,and19%checkedthe third item. We performed a content analysis of theopen-ended responses to identify relevant skills or skill areasnotaddressedbytheinventory;wedidnotincludetheseitemsin the calculation of scores. The majority of responses to theopen-endedresponsesmentionedskillexperiencesaddressedin later sections of the instrument. Other responses includedpersonal traits, such as responsibility, that the inventory didnot measure. A few responses included skills not included inthe inventory, such as teaching an entire course. We may in-corporate these skills into future versions. Discussion Resultsfromtheadministrationofthisskillsinventoryindi-cate that undergraduates experience a variety of compe-tency-building tasks as part of their studies in psychology. Apsychology program may be particularly adept at developingcompetencyinresearchmethods,informationgathering,andethics/values.Lowratingsforbehaviormanagementandindi-vidualdifferencesmayindicatethatalthoughcourseworkex-poses students to this material, students are unlikely to holdpositions in which they set behavioral contingencies or workwith special populations. Only a few students reported thesetypes of skill experiences. The majority of freshmen respon-dentshadheldvolunteerpositions,indicatingthatthesetypesof experiences may now be quite common in high school. Study 2: A Skills-Experience ComparisonAmong Academic Areas One of the most common questions asked of college stu-dents is, “What’s your major?” One obvious contextual dif-ference in the academic experience is the major field studied.Lehman and Nisbett (1990), for example, found that socialscience majors exhibited strong gains in statistical and meth-odological reasoning, whereas natural science majorsexhibited strong gains in solving conditional logic problems.The psychology major may be distinctive not for the spe-cific knowledge and skills developed, but rather for the rangeofknowledgeandskillsdeveloped(Hayes,1996).Psychologycombines communication, interpersonal skills, critical think-ing, information gathering, research, and data analysis. Stu-dents discuss ethical issues and obtain practical experiencesthrough internships and lab courses. This study comparedgraduating psychology majors and students in other aca-demic disciplines using the skill-experience inventory. Wehypothesized that psychology majors would have experi-encedabroaderrangeofskill-relatedactivitiesincomparisonto other majors during their academic careers.  MethodParticipants.  Students (  N  = 124) from the same uni-versity as in Study 1 participated in this experiment. We ob-tainedfromtheundergraduatedean’sofficealistingofallstu-dents graduating in May, 1999. We then contacted 40individuals,basedonarandomselectionfromthelistofgrad-uating seniors, in each of four academic areas: psychology,naturalsciences(biologyandchemistry),humanities(historyand English), and other social sciences (sociology, criminaljustice, and anthropology). Sixty-six percent of psychologymajors,61%ofothersocialsciencemajors,69%ofnaturalsci-encemajors,and71%ofhumanitiesmajorswerewomen.Themean ages were 22.11 ( SD  = 2.60) for psychology majors,22.23 ( SD  = 2.96) for other social science majors, 22.18 ( SD =2.96)fornaturalsciencemajors,and22.67( SD =1.41)forhumanities majors.  Materials.  Because we designed the skill-experience in-ventory used in the first study for psychology majors, we mademinor modifications to create an instrument appropriate for allmajor fields, although we retained the same 10 general skill ar-eas. For example, we changed “I have given someone a psycho-logicaltestorsupervisedaresearchexperiment”to“Ihavetestedsomeoneforaresearchproject.”Inaddition,wemodified6itemscited by less than 10% of the psychology seniors or freshmen inStudy 1 to increase the appropriateness of experiences. Procedure.  Students received an e-mail describing thestudy and asking for their participation. We attached theskills-experience inventory to the e-mail. Students could ei-ther reply with their responses saved into the document orcomplete a hard copy in the freshmen dean’s office. As an in-centiveforstudentstocompleteandreturnthesurvey,weof-feredtworaffleprizesof$25forstudentsineachofthefourar-eas. We followed up the e-mails with phone calls for thosewhodidnotreturntheinventory.Finally,wemailedacopyof the inventory to remaining students 1 week after graduation,along with a letter on department stationery asking for theirhelp.Weincludedastampedenvelopeaddressedtooneoftheauthors to facilitate return of the inventory.One month after we sent the mailing, we had received 35responses from the natural sciences, 32 from psychology, 32from other social sciences, and 25 from the humanities. Weexcluded from the analysis 3 respondents who failed to indi- Vol. 28, No. 4, 2001251 Table 2.Mean Scores for Study 1 FreshmenSeniorsSkill Area  M SD M SD  1.Communication*3.981.664.741.672.Information gathering**4.571.956.542.073.Groups/organizations4.702.144.652.004.Interpersonal**2.781.173.781.815.Behavior management3.522.363.372.056.Individual differences4.501.514.671.907.Critical thinking**3.371.314.592.068.Research Methods**2.261.775.742.629.Ethics/values**3.501.815.222.4410.Technology/computer*5.411.456.021.57 Note. Thepossiblerangeofmeanscoresis0to9,with0indicatingthatthestudentcheckednoskillexperiencesforanarea,and9indicatingthatthestudentcheckedallpossibleskillexperiencesforanarea.* p  < .05. ** p  < .001.  cate their major. We calculated area scores in the same man-ner as in the first study. Results TheBartletBoxtestindicatesthattheassumptionofhomo-geneity of variance was met for all the univariateANOVAs—animportantconcernduetotheunequalsamplesizes.Table3showsthemeanscoresforeachacademicareainthe 10 skill categories. The analysis indicates a significantoveralleffect,Wilks’s Λ (30,326.48)=.56,  p <.001,andsta-tisticallysignificantdifferencesin5ofthe10skillareas:com-munication, F (3,120)=4.54,  p =.005, η 2 =.05;informationgathering, F (3,120)=5.81,  p <.001, η 2 =.08;interpersonal, F (3, 120) = 5.45,  p  = .002, η 2 = .11; research methods,  F (3,120)=10.18,  p <.001, η 2 =.19;andethics–values, F (3,120)= 7.19,  p  < .001, η 2 = .11.Groups/organizations, behavior management, individualdifferences, critical thinking, and technology- and com-puter-skillareasdidnotexhibitsignificantdifferences.TukeyB tests revealed that psychology majors indicated greater ex-posure to communication and ethics/values skills than didother social science majors and humanities majors. Naturalscience majors reported more experiences than humanitiesmajors in ethics/values skills. Psychology majors reportedmore experiences than the three other groups for interper-sonal, information-gathering, and research-methods skills. Discussion Study 2 provides evidence that psychology majors differfrom other academic disciplines in their experience of com-petency-building skill activities. Psychology majors had sig-nificantly greater exposure in five skill areas. Somewhatsurprisingly, natural science majors paralleled psychologymajors more than did those from the other social sciences. Conclusions These studies provide evidence for an efficient means of measuringexposuretoskill-buildingactivitiesinundergradu-ateprograms.Study1indicatessignificantdifferencesinexpo-sure to skill areas between those beginning and completingtheirundergraduatepsychologyprogram.ThisresultparallelsPascarella and Terenzini’s (1991) summary of gains in cogni-tive capabilities and skills during college and establishes theskills inventory as a valuable tool in a multimethod approachtooutcomeassessment.Study2alsoprovidesevidenceofma-jor-specificdifferencesinexposuretocognitiveskillsasafunc-tion of undergraduate training in the liberal arts. Psychologymajors reported an impressive array of skill experiences com-paredtotheirpeersmajoringinotherfields.Thisfindingsup-ports Hayes’s (1996) assertion that psychology majors gain abroad range of skills. Because we srcinally developed the in-ventoryforusewithpsychologymajors,facultyfromtheappro-priate fields should provide input on item content if the skillexperiences of nonpsychology majors are to be analyzed.Results from the inventory can provide useful feedback tostudents by identifying experiences in skill areas related totheir career goals. The general results may provide facultywith valuable information as part of a multimethod approachin assessing skill exposure in their programs. Departmentsmay track the academic experiences of their students andstructure course activities to enhance skill development.Neither study displayed significant differences for skills re-lating to groups and organizations, behavior management, orindividual differences. These results suggest that students donot obtain these skill experiences through coursework, buttheymightthroughextracurricularactivities.Study2didnotdisplaysignificantdifferencesamongacademicareasforcriti-cal thinking or technology/computer skills. Students fromeach discipline apparently had significant and comparableexposure to activities in these skill areas. Exposure to infor-mation technology is now an integral part of the undergradu-ate experience. Students frequently use programs for wordprocessing, e-mail, and accessing the Web. In fact, it is quiteunusual for a student not to use computers during college.We assessed students on the basis of their participation inskill-developing tasks, rather than on an assessment of theirabilities in these areas. Further research should assess the ef -fects of these experiences on student learning. Although theprecise skill levels of the students may not be known, the in-ventory does indicate the extent and diversity of opportuni-ties for skill development encountered by undergraduates. 252Teaching of Psychology Table 3.Mean Scores for Study 2 PsychologyNatural Science a Social Science b Humanities c Skill Area  M SD M SD M SD M SD  1.Communication5.22 a 1.804.54 a,b 1.693.81 b 1.394.16 b 1.762.Information gathering6.75 a 2.055.14 b 1.575.38 b 2.215.08 b 1.563.Groups/organizations5.091.984.712.264.311.994.761.734.Interpersonal4.75 a 2.253.14 b 1.733.38 b 1.433.28 b 1.935.Behavior management4.192.413.291.923.342.244.122.606.Individual differences5.161.904.912.184.691.555.361.467.Critical thinking5.252.004.571.464.412.004.281.818.Research methods6.69 a 1.804.51 b 2.244.63 b 2.153.28 b 2.159.Ethics/values6.03 a 2.094.94 b 2.244.34 b,c 1.793.40 c 2.0610.Technology/computer6. Note. Means with different subscripts differ at  p  < .05. a Naturalsciencestudentsmajoredinbiologyorchemistry. b Othersocialsciencesstudentsmajoredinsociology,criminaljustice,oranthropology. c Humanities students majored in history or English.  Vol. 28, No. 4, 2001253 We believe it is reasonable to assume that those who checkdifferent experiences and items containing less-common ex-periences, such as participation in a research conference,have greater levels of competence. This assumption is alsoonethatemployersappeartomakewhentheyexamineapro-spective employee’s résumé. To that extent, the results of these studies suggest that psychology majors bring many im-portantskillstothemarketplace.Thisinventorymayprovidea useful reminder to students about the benefits of a collegeeducation and suggest marketable skills that are attractive toemployers. References Clay,R.(1996,September).Isapsychologydiplomaworththepriceof tuition?  APA Monitor,  p. 33.Edwards, J., & Smith, K. (1988). What skills and knowledge do po-tential employers value in baccalaureate psychologists? In P. J.Woods (Ed.),  Is psychology for them? A guide to undergraduate advi-sors  (pp. 102–111). Washington, DC: American PsychologicalAssociation.Halpern, D. F. (1988). Assessing student outcomes for psychologymajors.  Teaching of Psychology, 15,  181–186.Hayes, N. (1996). What makes a psychology graduate distinctive? European Psychologist, 1,  130–134.Hogan, P. M. (1991). Vocational preparation within a liberal artsframework: Suggested directions for undergraduate psychologyprograms.  Teaching of Psychology, 18,  148–153.Koerner,B.I.(1999,February8).Womenareagrowingmajorityoncampus.Sowhataremenupto—Andwho’slosingout? U.S.News& World Report, 126,  46–50, 53–55.Lehman, D. R., & Nisbett, R. E. (1990). A longitudinal study of theeffectsofundergraduatetrainingonreasoning. DevelopmentalPsy-chology, 26,  952–960.Levy, J., Burton, G., Mickler, S., & Vigorito, M. (1999). A curricu-lummatrixforpsychologyprogramreview. Teaching of Psychology,26,  291–294.McGovern, T. V., Furumoto, L., Halpern, D. F., Kimble, G. A., & McKeachie, W. J. (1991). Liberal education, study in depth, andthe arts and sciences major—Psychology.  American Psychologist,46,  598–605.Murray, B. (1997, July). Bachelor’s graduates seek greater chal-lenges.  APA Monitor,  p. 32.Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (1991).  How college affects stu-dents: Findings and insights from twenty years of research . San Fran-cisco: Jossey-Bass.Sheehan,E.P.(1994).Amultimethodassessmentofthepsychologymajor.  Teaching of Psychology, 21,  74–78.Winter,D.G.,McClelland,A.J.,&Stewart,A.J.(1981).  Anewcase for the liberal arts.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Notes 1. This research was supported by an internal grant from LoyolaUniversity Chicago.2. WepresentedportionsofStudy1attheAugust1999conventionoftheAmericanPsychologicalAssociationandportionsofStudy2 at the May 2000 meeting of the Midwestern Psychological As-sociation.3. Copies of the inventories are available at SendcorrespondencetoDanielJ.Kruger,InstituteforSocialRe-search,Room2203,P.O.Box1248,AnnArbor,MI48106–1248.
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