17 Nov 2016

Running Start… to a Great Career: Running a Business

Running Start… to a Great Career: Running a Business

This is a column geared toward early career psychologists working in practice settings. "Running start ... to a great career" features topics typically not covered in graduate school and includes tips and advice from psychologists.

Your graduate program prepared you well to be a clinician. Did it prepare you just as well to be a businessperson?

Probably not, says J. Kip Matthews, PhD, of AK Counseling and Consulting Inc. in Watkinsville, Georgia. “My program had no training whatsoever on private practice matters,” says Matthews, who started a two-person practice in 2003.

Fortunately, says Matthews, you can compensate for that lack of training and launch a thriving business. Start by asking these questions:

  • Am I prepared? Entrepreneurial training is helpful, says Matthews, who took classes at a local small business development center. Easing into practice gradually is also key. Matthews and his partner worked at a university counseling center before launching their practice — an invaluable way to gain experience and save the money they needed. “As our case load built up, we cut ties with our employer,” he says. Also keep in mind that things may take longer than anticipated. “Many people think they can start a practice immediately after grad school or postdoc,” Matthews says. “But many insurance companies want you to have been licensed for a couple of years before you can join their panels.”
  • J. Kip Matthews, PhD

  • What’s my niche? Matthews recommends that you become known for providing one or two specialties rather than being a jack-of-all-trades. You’ll be more successful if other practitioners think of you as the go-to psychologist for eating disorders, for example. That said, it’s important to be open to a variety of clients and concerns. When you’re just starting out, you may not have the option of being too selective about the clients you serve, says Matthews.

  • What’s my plan? If you need a loan to start your business, the lender will require a plan. But you need it, too. “It gives you clarity and focus,” says Matthews. The plan should describe your business and your services, assess community needs, analyze your local market and set financial and other goals. Matthews also creates a strategic plan with specific action steps each year.

  • Where should my practice be located? Choose a space close to potential clients’ homes or workplaces as well as public transportation. And given the push toward integrating psychological and physical health care, finding an office located near other health services is smart, says Matthews.

  • Who’s on my team? You want to spend your time helping patients, not doing taxes or figuring out data encryption. “Crowdsource” your team by asking friends and colleagues for recommendations about accountants, lawyers, computer whizzes and the like, suggests Lindsey Buckman, PsyD, who launched Buckman Psychological Consultants PLLC in Phoenix in 2010. If you need administrative help, consider taking on an intern who can answer calls and handle paperwork in exchange for mentoring, adds Matthews.
  • Lindsey Buckman, PsyD

  • How should I market myself? Get your name out by giving talks at community events, becoming a source for reporters, running ads, using social media and reaching out to key referral sources. Because Buckman specializes in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) clients and clients with chronic illnesses, she uses letters and follow-up calls to LGBTQ community leaders, LGBTQ resource centers, university counseling centers and physicians. But, she says, invest most heavily in your website, using search engine optimization techniques and keywords aimed at your target populations. Says Buckman, “A good website is the best marketing tool.”

Interested in Practice Management? Read our collection of articles on Practice Management curated specially for APA members and affiliates.

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17 Nov 2016

Are You Really Ready for Private Practice?

Are You Really Ready for Private Practice?

As a new psychologist, starting your own business is no easy feat. Here's advice to smooth the way.

By Tori DeAngelis
Print version: page 40

So you want to be a private practitioner? You're not alone. More than half of psychologists who deliver health services are primarily independent practitioners, according to the latest data from APA's Center for Workforce Studies.

But starting a practice fresh out of grad school isn't always feasible. Besides entering a difficult economy and lacking community connections, chances are you haven't yet acquired crucial financial and marketing acumen, says Steven Walfish, PhD, an Atlanta-based practitioner and president-elect of APA's Div. 42 (Psychologists in Independent Practice).

"Grad school teaches you how to be a good clinician, but no one teaches you how to run the business side of a practice," says Walfish, author with Jeff Barnett, PsyD, of the 2009 APA book "Financial Success in Mental Health Practice: Essential Tools and Strategies for Practitioners."

To prepare for the private practice path, experts advise you to:

Gain experience first

When you first leave grad school, think about working for an established group rather than trying to set up your own shop right away. By joining a group practice or taking a job in a community agency or medical setting, you can gain experience, connect with colleagues and have a guaranteed paycheck with benefits. It can also give you an inside look at how to run a business, says Dave Verhaagen, PhD, a managing partner at Southeast Psych, a large group practice in Charlotte, N.C.

"Like a lot of people out of grad school, I had no training at all in business," Verhaagen says. He opted to work for a few community agencies and then a group practice before launching his own. The experience gave him a good sense of the realities of the work world and "ideas about how I'd run my own business differently from what I saw out there," he says.

Develop a niche

While at the beginning of your practice you will probably need to take any and all clients, specialty niches tend to provide the best income and make the best use of your time and energy, psychologists say.

Think about populations you most enjoy and are best at treating, as well as what the market needs, experts advise. In Denver, private practitioner Susan Heitler, PhD, discovered a lucrative niche in marriage counseling when she noticed there were many people who wanted help creating better marriages — not just those in the throes of divorce. But there weren't many practitioners who could do that well. "You need to find something that's unique and in demand and that people are willing to pay for," Walfish says. "It will help you stand out from other practitioners."

Watch market trends

Be aware of social, geographic, economic and political trends that may square with your interests, says Walfish. If you live in a city but your specialty is children and families, consider practicing in the suburbs. If you notice one market trend evaporating (the need for psychological testing to assess personality structure, for example) and another one gaining steam (say, psychological testing for adult attention deficit disorder) determine how to get on the new track in a way that suits your abilities.

Walfish speaks from personal experience: When he began practicing in the 1980s, he conducted psychological evaluations for people in residential substance abuse treatment programs. Then, managed care came along and eliminated payment for those assessments, so he began specializing in short-term therapy. Today, Walfish sees patients considering weight-loss surgery, a high-demand area that fits his skill set well. He fully anticipates changing again if the market calls for it.

"The people who have long-term success are those who can adapt to these changes," Walfish says. "Without adapting, I think practitioners can get angry, depressed, burned out and fall into learned helplessness."

Create a strong plan

That includes developing a mission or value statement for your practice, a list of whom you'd want to work with if you decide to create a group practice and a business plan. To develop your plan, tap experts in accounting, taxes and mental health law, and talk with practitioners who are already out there, Walfish says. "Don't just go on the experience of one person who is terribly successful or one person who is all gloom and doom," he says. "The more private practitioners you can talk to in the beginning, the more accurate your knowledge base will be."

Develop new talents

To run a successful practice, you need to learn business skills, as well as skills related to new content areas you'd like to practice in. Heitler did extensive reading to get up to speed in her area and ended up writing two well-known books incorporating what she learned, "From Conflict to Resolution: Skills and Strategies for Individual, Couple and Family Therapy" (1993) and "The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong & Loving Marriage" (1997).

Sell yourself

It's not enough to be a good practitioner: You must market yourself, too, says Vancouver, B.C.-based practitioner Randy J. Paterson, PhD, author of the 2011 book "Private Practice Made Simple." That means giving free talks in venues such as schools and community centers. Also consider meeting with people who could refer clients to you, such as physicians, allied health professionals, educators and leaders in faith communities. Finally, be sure to use technology to your advantage — for example, building a strong website that defines your practice and draws clients to it.

In general, "you need to get over the idea that your clinical competence alone will sell your practice," says Paterson. "Ultimately it will, but not at the start."

Be bold

As you develop your practice plan, envision the kind of practice you'd really like to have and how to implement it, Verhaagen says. "We realized early on that we wanted the tone to feel fun and positive, not heavy," says Verhaagen, who specializes in treating young adult males. That's why when clients walk into his practice they encounter a bookstore with free coffee and Wi-Fi. In the treatment area, he's hung movie posters on the walls and placed mannequins of superheroes including Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman — a playful way of conveying themes of strength, resiliency and a positive focus.

"Also, be sure to vet potential hires to make sure they're a good fit with your values and culture," he says. Encouraging your team to spend time socializing so that they forge good personal bonds can likewise foster a healthy practice, says Verhaagen.

Respect your worth

Some graduate psychology students may feel that dealing with money is morally wrong or even beneath them. But to be successful, you have to know and appreciate your value in dollar terms, say practitioners. Learn to be comfortable charging a fee that reflects your worth and your area's market, Paterson advises. Remember that your hourly rate encompasses business costs including your phone system, computer, test materials, assistants and time you spend outside therapy working on a client's case. Be sure to compare your rates with those charged by other professions, he adds. "People [often] pay more to take their cat to the vet than they do to see a therapist," he says.

Charging a healthy rate for your services can actually promote good therapy, Verhaagen adds. It prompts practitioners to do their best work and provides clients the incentive to work hard, he says. "We can help a lot of people and do really good work and still think very much like a business," he says.


Your skills can be used in a variety of interesting ways besides seeing clients. For example, in addition to providing therapy, psychologist Tish Taylor, PhD, conducts workshops for teachers and educators on dealing with children who have emotional and behavioral problems. Genie Skypek, PhD, writes software that helps social service agencies track patients. Walfish and colleagues Pauline Wallin, PhD, and Lauren Dehrman, PhD, are using their consulting skills to develop an online business called The Practice Institute, which will help psychologists gain the tools to build successful private practices. Others author self-help books, create educational CDs and DVDs, conduct forensic evaluations and run corporate retreats. Aim for a practice that is varied, balanced and in sync with your interests, Walfish says.

"We have a tremendous skill set that gives us an advantage over other mental health professions," he says. "Extending that skill set helps to create opportunities."

Interested in Practice Management? Read our collection of articles on Practice Management curated specially for APA members and affiliates.

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08 Nov 2016

Network Using APA Social Media, Listservs

Network Using APA Social Media, Listservs

In addition to networking with other psychologists at APA convention and through our newly improved Member Directory, members looking to grow their network should also tap into APA’s various social media groups and join our Listservs.

Here are some of the best opportunities to make professional connections via social media and APA’s Listservs:


American Psychological Association
APA's flagship Facebook page features discussions on the latest breakthroughs in psychology and human behavior.

APAGS (American Psychological Association of Graduate Students)
The place where psychology grad students can discuss life in grad school and learn about training, grant and travel opportunities.

APA Minority Fellowship Program
News and information from APA's training and development program for ethnic minority communities.

APA Practice Organization
News about the group's work to advance and protect the practice of psychology and promote the professional interests of practicing psychologists.

Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools
Network with fellow high school teachers, share curriculum ideas and learn about professional development opportunities.

Leadership Institute for Women in Psychology
Network with mid-career and senior women psychologists focused on increasing diversity and the effectiveness of women psychologists as leaders.


American Psychological Association Company Page
Information about APA, including address, contacts and recent activity.

APAGS Discussion Group
A forum for psychology students, their advisers and anyone interested in psychology training and education.

American Psychological Foundation Company Page
Information about the foundation, including address, contacts and recent awards.


American Psychological Association
APA's flagship Google+ page features discussions on the latest breakthroughs in psychology and human behavior.

You can explore all of APA’s social media channels here.

APA Listservs

In most cases, you’ll have to message the listserv organizer to be added to the distribution list.

TOPSS (Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools) Listserv
Receive periodic news and updates on Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools (TOPSS) activities and programs via e-mail. Learn more | Subscribe

Science Student Council Listserv
APA's Science Student Council — a student advisory group to APA's Science Directorate — has created a Listserv for research-oriented graduate students that will inform them of relevant news, awards, job opportunities and events. Learn moreSubscribe

ECP Listserv
This is for the unique interests and concerns of early career psychologists (ECPs) — that is, those who have received their doctoral degree within the past ten years. Learn more | Subscribe

ECP Leadership
The Early Career Psychologist Leadership Network (ECPLN) is a Listserv for early career leaders and aspiring leaders in APA governance; divisions; and state, provincial and territorial psychological associations. Learn more | Subscribe

The SES Network
The Socioeconomic Status (SES) Listserv provides a platform to share information and ideas, raise questions, and identify critical problems and issues related to socioeconomic status with representatives of various divisions, state associations, committee members, APA staff and other groups. Learn more | Subscribe

APA's Office of International Affairs
APA's Office of International Affairs maintains a listing of global networks related to psychology. Learn more | Subscribe

Practice List
The Practice e-mail list allows member psychologists to communicate with each other on issues related to professional psychology and to distribute important information regarding pending federal legislation, upcoming events or timely updates on other important matters. Learn more | Subscribe

The Psychology Teachers at Community Collages (PT@CC) serves psychology teachers within the two-year college community. Their electronic mailing list is for psychology faculty to discuss topics of shared interest. Learn more | Subscribe

Committee on Associate and Baccalaureate Education
Participate in APA governance by serving on the Committee on Associate and Baccalaureate Education. Learn more

APAGS E-mail Lists
APAGS e-mail lists bridge communication among graduate students within psychology. APAGS has set up a number of Listserv targeted to student interests. Learn more

APA has over 600 Listservs. You can explore them all here.

More Ways to Network Within APA

APA's 54 divisions are interest groups organized by members. Some represent subdisciplines of psychology (e.g., experimental, social or clinical) and others focus on topical areas such as aging, ethnic minorities or trauma. APA members, and nonmembers, can apply to join one or more divisions that have their own eligibility criteria and dues. Learn more

MFP Fellows Networking
The Minority Fellowship Program (MFP) maintains a list of the Minority Fellowship Program Fellows (PDF, 573KB) that includes each person's name, program, doctoral university and cohort year. Learn more | Request access

APA Fellowships
APA fellowships offer the opportunity to connect with a wide and varied group of psychologists at the intersection of psychology and policy-making. Learn more

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04 Nov 2016

An Introduction to the NHSC Loan Repayment Program

An Introduction to the NHSC Loan Repayment Program

Federal loan-repayment program can help recent graduates pay back their increasingly massive student loans.

The NHSC program is part of the government's Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). The program will help pay off your entire debt over as many years as it takes, provided you're working in an NHSC-approved site. The idea is that with your advanced degree, you'll give back to the communities that need it the most — and in exchange, the government will take care of your debt. Nearly 10,000 health professionals are enrolled in the corps at present and more than a quarter of those are mental health providers.

The experience can be incredibly rewarding and a win-win for all involved, says Becky Spitzgo, HRSA associate administrator and director of the NHSC.

The basic requirements are:

  • You must be a U.S. citizen.
  • You must be employed by an NHSC-approved clinic before you apply for the NHSC loan repayment program.
  • You must have an advanced degree from an accredited school and be licensed in the state in which you'll be an NHSC member.
  • As a mental health provider, you must be a health service psychologist (HSP), licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), psychiatric nurse specialist (PNS), marriage and family therapist (MFT), or licensed professional counselor (LPC). Many types of higher degrees in health care are eligible, including MD, DO, DDS, NP and others.
  • You cannot have consolidated other forms of loans (home equity, for example) and student loans.
  • You cannot have defaulted on a loan in the past.
  • You can't have a prior work commitment or scholarship that ties you to a particular location.

See the full list of requirements (PDF, 397KB).

One of the most important eligibility requirements is that you can't have consolidated loans, since this makes it almost impossible for the administrators to see where debt is coming from, says Spitzgo. "Loan vetting is the really challenging part of the process," she says. "Sometimes folks consolidate loans using home equity, and then we lose visibility into what the purpose of loans was. In those instances where we can't tell that the loan was for education, this can make loans ineligible."

Getting a job at an NHSC-approved site is the first step toward joining the program. Mental health clinics that wish to be considered for NHSC approval must be located in a Health Professional Shortage Area and meet the NHSC site requirements. Each approved site is given a HPSA score, which ranges from 1 to 25.

"If you're working at a clinic that has a HPSA score of 16 or higher, chances are good you may receive loan repayment based on our current funding levels," says Spitzgo. "When we evaluate applications, we start at the top, 25, and work our way down. Last year we were able to fund down to a HPSA score of 13."

Once you've been accepted into the program, you commit to it for a two-year period. During that time, if you're working full time in a clinic with a HPSA score of 14 or higher, the NHSC will pay $60,000 of your student loan debt. For scores of 13 and lower, the amount is $40,000. There's also an option for people to work part-time. Rather than communicating with the lender on your behalf, the NHSC gives you the funds directly, and you repay your lender. After the initial two years you must re-apply every year for an extension, but there's no limit on the time it takes to pay off your debt. Spitzgo says the average time to repay debt is about three to four years.

The program's benefits aren't just monetary. Much of its beauty is in the good it does for communities that may not have much access to mental health care, says Jonathan Leggett, PhD, an NHSC psychologist in Indiana. "Our culture's attitude toward mental health is changing, slowly, but it still takes specific work in individual communities," says Leggett, who grew up in a rural, underserved area himself. He says he's very grateful to be able to give back to a similar community as an adult. "The effort I've put into this community has really changed things there — the stigma is starting to fade, little by little."

The program's retention rate speaks for its effectiveness, says Spitzgo. "About 80 percent of the people who do the NHSC program stay in the clinic after they've paid off their debt," she says. "We have a high retention rate because working in this type of environment can be very fulfilling for the provider."

The NHSC application cycle opens in February. It is important to begin the process early, because you need to be employed at an NHSC-approved facility before applying. You can search for open positions using the NHSC search function, which allows you to find positions by discipline and geographic area.

By Alice G. Walton

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02 Nov 2016

Networking and Marketing Yourself: Easy Steps for Success

Networking and Marketing Yourself: Easy Steps for Success

Promoting your strengths and marketing yourself effectively are ways to stand out from the competition.

Many psychologists and graduate students don't feel comfortable promoting themselves. We'd rather allow our research, teaching and clinical experiences to speak for themselves. We just want to do our science or help people. Unfortunately, the real world, requires us to speak up. Open faculty positions often receive hundreds of applications and many of you are already aware of the significant competition in the APPIC Match as a result of the internship crisis. How can you stand out in a crowded field?

Promoting your strengths and marketing yourself effectively are ways to stand out from the competition. Self-promotion does not have to be sleazy; you can promote your skills and expertise in ways that are honest and genuine, but not boastful.

Here's how:

  • Reflect. First, think critically about your strengths, skill sets and what makes you unique as a future psychologist. Also think about the areas of growth you would like to work on while still in training that can help you identify your training goals and help you develop future strengths. If it is hard for you to identify your strengths, ask a trusted colleague to help you.
  • Develop a niche. You stand out by having a unique strength, especially one that is desirable in your area of interest. For a researcher, this could mean having an expertise in statistics/methodology (always desirable in a faculty candidate) or knowledge of a unique assessment technique, like fMRI. For clinicians, this could mean developing an expertise in trauma in veterans, or group interventions for severe mental illness. As a clinician, I have two niches: I am bilingual in Spanish and English and work with children with autism. Both niches have helped me get interviews and land jobs.
  • Update your vita regularly. To effectively market yourself, you have to have your materials ready to send quickly. Keep your vita accurate and up to date at all times. At a minimum, I recommend updating your vita every semester since it is easier to update your vita with each new activity as it occurs. I also recommend storing your vita on a cloud-based network such as Dropbox or Google Drive, since they allow you to forward your vita after meeting someone at a conference, even from your phone.
  • Create a strong elevator pitch. Be able to explain your research or clinical interests in one or two short sentences. I know this is hard because we love what we do and we can talk forever about it, but a short, clear description of your work demonstrates thoughtful communication skills. Practice your elevator pitch with a classmate, who can give you feedback on how you come off when speaking. Also translate your pitch for social media by developing a description of your interests for one or two tweets (140 characters each).
  • Set reasonable goals for networking. Thinking about networking can be overwhelming for you, especially at large conferences such as APA's Annual Convention that has 10,000 attendees. Make it easier for yourself by having small goals, such as talking to three new people and reconnecting with two others for every conference. At APA's convention — this year in Toronto, Aug. 6-10 — connect with others by attending sessions related to your work and at APAGS and APA division social hours (the APAGS Social is always held the Thursday evening of APA's convention; stop by the APAGS booth for more details).
  • Develop and nurture relationships. Many people find jobs through connections. Going to conferences and colloquia are ways of developing those connections. Nurture relationships by communicating regularly, and use social media to allow networking to develop. For example, connecting via LinkedIn is a great way to follow up after meeting someone at a conference.

Networking and marketing aren't dirty words. These steps are manageable ways to identify your strengths and promote yourself in a genuine way.

By Nabil Hassan El-Ghoroury, PhD, associate executive director, APAGS

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02 Nov 2016

8 Ways to Network Better on Twitter

8 Ways to Network Better on Twitter

Your next job or grant may be 140 characters away.

One in five U.S. adults now uses Twitter, finds a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center. Along with LinkedIn and Facebook, Twitter is a social media platform that's also a valuable tool for netting jobs and other opportunities; a 2014 survey by Jobvite found that half of employers surveyed used Twitter for recruiting.

Because it offers the chance to meet other professionals and share timely information in an informal, open-access environment, Twitter is also an important tool for science communication.

But merely having a Twitter handle won't grow your professional presence — you need unique skills to get and hold people's attention. Here are eight ways to maximize your Twitter network:

  1. Identify yourself. To help people — and search engines — find you on Twitter, make sure your profile includes your real name and a link to your website, as well as a high-quality photo and a few words about your areas of expertise. Find great examples at Twitter's best practices blog: https://blog.twitter.com/2015/tweettip-twitter-profile-best-practices.
  2. Dive in. Follow people and organizations you want to get to know. Then immerse yourself by tweeting about the latest news in your field, retweeting others' posts and applauding psychologists who publish important new research. "When you mention somebody, they'll often retweet you if you've said something nice about them," says Amy Lynn Smith (@alswrite), a communications strategist who helped with President Obama's 2012 campaign. "That kind of reciprocity is what makes Twitter successful."
  3. Participate in online events. Join Twitter chats or consider hosting one yourself. The National Institute of Mental Health hosts chats regularly — find a list at www.nimh.nih.gov/health/twitter-chats/index.shtml.
  4. Live tweet. Attending a conference? Let other attendees know you're there by tweeting top talking points, or discussing sessions including the conference hashtag.
  5. Use graphics. Tweets with photos and video have engagement rates — likes, retweets and clicks — 35 percent higher than those that don't, according to Twitter.
  6. Be modest. Talking about your work builds credibility. Too much self-promotion, though, can be off-putting. "If it's your intent just to share all the wonderful things you have done, Twitter will ignore you," says Benjamin Miller, PsyD, of the University of Colorado School of Medicine, who uses Twitter to share health policy news.
  7. Don't disappear — or deluge. Most followers appreciate regular engagement, according to a 2012 report by Salesforce, a data analysis firm. Posting one to four times per day is optimal; more than seven times daily and your readers may tune out.
  8. Have fun. Let your personality shine to help followers get to know you. Humor helps; think cocktail party conversation. "It's not called social media for nothing," Smith says. Remember, though, that screen grabs are forever, so stay professional.

For more tips on using Twitter effectively, visit #learnsocialmedia, an ongoing chat. And be sure to follow @APA_Monitor to stay on top of practice news and psychology research.

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25 Oct 2016

Emerging Career Paths in Psychology

Emerging Career Paths in Psychology

As the discipline of psychology – and how it’s taught – continues to evolve, psychology students/post-docs, early career psychologists, researchers and clinical practitioners are finding that their training and education can open doors to rewarding careers that they’d never before considered.

Whether you’re happy with your current path and just want to learn about how to expand your impact, looking for a shift in focus or function, or something in between, watch our webinar on emerging careers.

Emerging Career Paths for Graduate Students

In this 30-minute webinar, learn more about the types of careers that are possible, including government, non-profits, and industry. Also, how to position yourself for such career opportunities. And practical tips for self-assessment, job search, professional presentation.

Emerging Career Paths for Early Career Psychologists

In this 30-minute webinar, learn more about assessing and marketing the skills you already have, practical tips for conducting an opportunity search and hear stories of psychologists who’ve taken on emerging careers.

Emerging Career Paths for Research Psychologists

In this 30-minute webinar, learn about thinking beyond as “academic” vs. “non-academic.” Opportunities to support psychological science and conduct research. Plus practical tips, like skills assessment, coaching, and networking.

Emerging Career Paths for Clinical Practitioners

In this 30-minute webinar, learn about creating opportunities in emerging practice areas, maximizing your full scope of practice and training. Plus, practical tips and resources for exploring innovative paths.

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24 Oct 2016

PsycIQ Division Profile: Division 2, Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP)

PsycIQ Division Profile: Division 2, Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP)

APA's Division 2, Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP), advances understanding of the discipline by promoting excellence in the teaching and learning of psychology.
Through its dedicated and robust web site, www.teachpsych.org, STP provides teaching resources and support to help educators at all levels — high school, undergraduate, and graduate — grow in their careers and deliver the best and most rewarding instructional experience to the next generation of psychologists.

Resources of note:

Visit Division 2 to learn more about what they do to serve psychology educators!

Interested in Education? Read our collection of articles on Education curated specially for APA members and affiliates.

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24 Oct 2016

Teaching Confirmation Bias Using The Beatles

Teaching Confirmation Bias Using The Beatles

Help your students understand and avoid cognitive errors.

By John A. Minahan, PhD

Confirmation bias is the original sin of cognition. In seeking proof for only what we’ve already decided is true, we open ourselves to unlimited errors of thought. Maybe I’m amazed at my horoscope's accuracy. That seems innocuous enough. But maybe I’m also disgusted, yet not surprised, by the behavior of a particular ethnic or religious group, or convinced that mounting casualty rates prove the imminence of victory in a war my nation is waging. Confirmation bias is a serious subject. That doesn't mean, however, that you can’t have fun teaching about it. In fact, a bit of fun may be just what your students need to loosen its hold.

A (good-natured) dirty trick. Confirmation bias usually gets a big assist from "not me" thinking. Begin this lesson, then, without appearing to. Casually mention how you went to the store the other day and got stuck in the slow line. Grumble about the other line always moving faster, then stand back and watch. Most if not all students will have a story about the same thing happening to them. Nod sympathetically and move on; you’ll come back to this later.

“Paul is dead.” Today's students love The Beatles, whose music now has all the fuzzy warmth of things associated with (gulp) grandparents. Vinyl records will make this lesson even more retro and cool. Play "Strawberry Fields Forever," in which John Lennon remembers the park where he played as a child. At the very end, we hear a distorted and barely audible voice. Play this brief segment several times and ask the class what the voice is saying. Answers will likely range from "I'm very bored" to "cranberry sauce" to a declaration that it’s just gibberish. Wrong. The voice is saying, "I buried Paul."

Some students will hear it; some won't. The key thing is that millions of people did, and for good reason: Paul McCartney, who had given the world such brilliant and beloved songs as "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby," died in a car crash in 1966. The surviving Beatles tried to keep it a secret, and even put an imposter in his place. But by 1969 the truth began to leak out, largely because The Beatles themselves, out of guilt-driven loyalty to their fans, had been planting clues.

If a few class members already know this legend, they can help you reassure the rest not only that Paul is still very much with us but also that The Beatles never dropped any hints about his death. What then gave this rumor such widespread acceptance? Once this question is on the table, so is an examination of confirmation bias.

The "proof." There’s a wealth of sources you can draw on (a representative list follows this article). Begin with the cover of the Abbey Road album. In this iconic image, we see the four of The Beatles crossing a London Street. Invite the class to view it as a funeral procession. In the front is John, whose white suit marks him as God. Ringo follows, wearing a preacher’s old-fashioned frock coat. After him comes Paul — or the Paul lookalike, wearing the kind of conservative suit you'd see on a corpse dressed for burial. He's out of step with the others (aha) and shoeless (the dead don't need shoes) and holding a cigarette (often called a “coffin nail”) in his right hand (Paul was left-handed). George is last, appropriately, because his work shirt and jeans indicate he’s the gravedigger.

Nearby, a Volkswagen has a license plate that reads LMW 28IF, which means "Linda McCartney Weeps" (Linda was Paul’s wife) and that Paul would be 28 if he were still alive. The police car on the other side of the road symbolizes the law enforcement officials at the scene of the fatal accident. How do we know Paul died in a car crash? Look at the car parked ahead of the Volkswagen and imagine a line connecting its two right tires; when extended, that line goes through Paul’s head.

By now, you should be hearing comments ranging from "Aren’t you just finding what you want to find?" (which is good) to "Yeah, I sort of see it" (which is better). Offer more proof: On the album’s back cover, some tiles on a concrete wall spell out "Beatles." A cluster of smudges appears to the left. Connect these “dots” and you get the number 3: Only three Beatles are still living. The tile containing the "s" in Beatles has a crack in it, meaning the band is no longer united — and hasn’t been for years. Remember the "I buried Paul" line? Now that we know what to look for, we can find clues aplenty, as many fans did when they pored over album covers, parsed song lyrics and played Beatles songs faster or slower or even (and most notoriously) backwards.

Fact and reason. Hopefully, your students will point out that it's possible to hear just about anything when the words are distorted enough, just as it’s possible to find proof if you've already decided what's true. Try passing out the words to any Beatles song. For example, "Love Me Do" expresses a wish for "somebody new" and "someone like you" — clearly a reference to the band’s need for a lookalike replacement. Except for this problematic fact: The song was composed years before Paul’s “death.”

More facts: the rumor began as a prank article in a college newspaper. The Abbey Road cover came about because The Beatles, having increasing trouble working together, decided on a simple shot of them crossing the street near their recording studio. Paul was barefoot because it was a hot day. The LMW 28IF license would encode no message about Linda McCartney weeping because Paul and Linda hadn't even met in 1966, the year he supposedly died. Plus he was 27 in 1969, and the "I" in "28IF" is a one.

How about some reasonable criteria for an imposter? Looking like Paul would be the easy part. He would also have to sing like Paul, and walk and talk and smile in that adorable way like Paul and compose instantly hummable tunes like Paul. Oh, and play bass. Left-handed. Which returns us to the key question: Why did so many people put so much faith in something so unfounded?

Follow-Up Activities

  1. Research The Beatles and their times. Maybe it was easier for their millions of long-time fans to believe in tragedy and conspiracy than in the truth: As Paul himself told Life magazine, he was "not dead, but the Beatle thing is over." And the band did in fact plant "secret" messages in their album art and music, albeit at random and in a whimsical mood just to see if anyone would notice; hence the distorted phrase at the end of "Strawberry Fields Forever" (which actually is “cranberry sauce”). Also, given that this rumor of death and cover-up was most virulent in America, and given that Vietnam was happening and Watergate was looming, perhaps the credulity becomes less incredible.
  2. Invent a rumor about a celebrity and then find the "proof." To counter the morbid tone of the Paul-is-dead legend, and to make this rumor feel all the more attractive, focus on something we might wish for instead of something we dread.
  3. Connect these discussions to more pressing or far-reaching scenarios. For example, a student believes that the C+ she just got on her algebra quiz proves she can’t do math. Having already decided she's a failure, would she not draw the same conclusion from an A-? Imagine then the healing effect of freeing herself from confirmation bias. This discussion may also lead to some complex and controversial issues involving race, religion, politics, ideology and morals. If handled with intelligence and sensitivity, such a discussion will help students not only generate testable hypotheses but also experience the compassion and empathy that critical thinking can elicit.
  4. Watch the live feed from the "Abbey Road Crossing Cam," which makes for strangely compelling viewing. The camera faces a different direction, but it's the same crosswalk. Generally, no more than a few minutes will elapse before someone stops in the middle of the street to be photographed recreating the famous scene, often to the clear annoyance of London drivers.
  5. Ensure no one leaves this lesson feeling judgmental ("Not me") by reminding students of their "other line always moves faster" discussion at the start of class. Why do we think that? Could it be we look for proof only during those few times when our line is moving slower and don’t look for proof during the many more times our line is not moving slower? The nonnormative is perceived as normative because the normative is not perceived at all. That is, the very rarity of the event makes it feel as if it happens continually — yet one more way in which confirmation bias creates its own reality. What if we could change that? We all engage in confirmation bias, which means we can all do something about it. "You say you want a revolution?” The Beatles asked. "You better free your mind."

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24 Oct 2016

Think Like a Scientist: Harnessing Current Events to Teach Psychological Science

Think Like a Scientist: Harnessing Current Events to Teach Psychological Science

Try these critical thinking activities to foster scientific literacy.

Every day the news media trumpet psychology-related findings with the potential to affect our lives directly and indirectly. And we do mean every day.

  • "Testing Neurons With Ultrasound" (Gorman, 2015).
  • "Study Does Not Link Breast-Feeding With Child’s IQ" (Bakalar, 2015).
  • "Effectiveness of Talk Therapy is Overstated, a Study Says" (Carey, 2015).

These headlines are just a sample from the website of one newspaper, The New York Times, on one day. In fact, the talk therapy article listed here even elicited a letter from the American Psychological Association pointing out that this article “was minimizing the clear benefits of psychotherapy that have been found over many years of research” (Anton, 2015), leading to an online dialog about psychology research. The media and other Internet sources, with their abundance of psychology-related material, provide a perfect proving ground for teaching scientific literacy.

A major goal of our courses — especially introductory psychology — is to teach students to be strong critical thinkers about psychology-related claims. This approach fits with current emphasis on teaching skills, and not just content, in the psychology classroom (see APA, 2013). In our opinion, the most important of these skills is scientific literacy.

To do this, we look to the growing body of research on how to teach scientific literacy. Most importantly, active learning, broadly defined, has been demonstrated to lead to better outcomes than straight lecture (Freeman, Eddy, McDonough, Smith, Okoroafor, Jordt, & Wenderoth, 2014). More specifically, Lovett and Greenhouse applied cognitive psychology research to the teaching of statistical and research methods concepts and developed several principles of effective teaching (2000). They found that students do not readily generalize new learning to other contexts. They also found that students tend to learn best when they can integrate new information into what they already know.

To help students build on what they know, we repeatedly dissect media examples so students apply psychological science to a variety of contexts. We start each class meeting by asking students to find psychology-related stories online — in major newspapers, on sports blogs, in political statements or even fashion e-zines. (For students without a connected device, we allow sharing. Alternatively, students can find an article before class.) There are only two rules: The article must be from the last 24 hours to demonstrate that psychology-related stories emerge every day, and it can’t be from a psychology-specific source like Psychology Today; it’s too easy when every story is related to psychology.

Without exception, students readily locate multiple examples — even in news sources that might seem far afield. Some are based on actual scientific research, like those in the headlines we opened with, whereas others are somewhat suspect, like the supposed relation of lipstick color to personality (Schultz, 2015) or tennis star Serena Williams’s superstitious belief in not washing her socks while on a winning streak (Brodie, 2014).

As instructors, we save the best of both scientific and not-so-scientific examples in our e-folders for the relevant introductory psychology chapter. Once a week, we engage in a longer-form exercise in which we introduce one example that offers opportunities for active learning. Over a 20- or 30-minute period, we use a four-part framework in which students:

  1. Identify the claim the researchers or journalists are making.
  2. Evaluate the evidence that is cited to support the claim.
  3. Consider alternative explanations for the finding.
  4. Consider the source of the research or claim.

Here’s a recent “ripped from the headlines” example. (For each step, we’ll include instructor preparation information.) A The New York Times blog post published on the same day as the articles listed above asked “Does Mindfulness Make for a Better Athlete?” (Reynolds, 2015). The reporter concluded that the study's findings “could mean that closely attending to our bodies might help us to be better, calmer athletic performers.”

Identify the Claim

In class, students read the article and identify the claim — in this case, that mindfulness improves athletic performance. At this step, we include a related interactive component. In fact, we choose articles that lend themselves to an activity. In this case, we might have students discuss in pairs their own anxieties about performance, whether in an athletic, artistic or academic endeavor. We would introduce some mindfulness techniques and have students practice them in the context of their own example. We might follow with a larger class discussion about how mindfulness might help performance.

As part of identifying the claim, we also ask students to talk about how the researchers have operationally defined the concepts they are studying. We encourage the students to think about different ways that the same concepts could be defined and measured, and how those differences might affect research findings.

Instructor preparation: Choose the article; develop a related activity that encourages active learning.

Evaluate the Evidence

Now we dig into the actual evidence, first by examining the source, in this case the blog post. The blog post tells us this research was published in a journal and conducted by scientists at a university, all good signs. It also tells us that the study was conducted on just seven elite BMX riders, all from the USA Cycle Team, who had their brains scanned while learning to identify signals of potential problems, underwent seven weeks of mindfulness training and then had their brains scanned again. Following the training, their response to the indicator of trouble ahead was improved, and they showed less “physiological panic.”

We then guide a discussion of the pros and cons of the study as presented in the news source. The pros include that university scientists were involved, and the study was peer reviewed. The cons include that there were just seven participants, with no random assignment and no control group. This is a within-groups design, and counterbalancing is not possible.

We then turn to the peer-reviewed journal article (Haase et al., 2015). In this example, we would inform the students that the researchers described this study as a pilot, acknowledging the small sample size. The published report also includes helpful graphs and brain scan images, some of which we would project so students could see the specifics of the data. We would reiterate the pros and cons that we gleaned from the article.

Instructor preparation: Locate and read the original source; identify specific information that will help students understand and evaluate the evidence.

Consider Alternative Explanations

For this step, we guide students to identify alternative explanations for the findings. We might do this as a larger group discussion or have students discuss in small groups first. For this example, we would discuss the lack of a control group and the possibility of confounds. But we would also discuss the alterative explanation that perhaps mindfulness led to different brain patterns — improved response with less “physiological panic” — without leading to improved athletic performance. After all, the researchers did not actually measure athletic performance.

We would ask students to identify where the blogger was careful to point this out. Specifically, she noted that “the experiment did not look at actual, subsequent athletic performance” (Reynolds, 2015). We would then point out that this is even more carefully discussed in the journal. The researchers explicitly point out that mindfulness training could have led to the results they reported “without actually affecting performance itself” (Haase et al., 2015, p. 10).

Instructor preparation: Develop a list of alternative explanations; locate and read any additional articles that relate to these alternative explanations.

Consider the Source

Finally, we compare and contrast the source we started with — the blog post in this case — with the peer-reviewed journal article. We talk about what to look for in a news story or other source that indicates that it’s based on research, including names and institutions of researchers and a mention of a published study. In cases in which there is no peer-reviewed journal article, like some websites that make wild claims to sell you something, we discuss the flaws of sources that don’t point to science.

Instructor preparation: Develop a brief overview (we use PowerPoint) of why peer-reviewed journal articles are almost always a better source than a newspaper, blog or website, and of what students should look for when evaluating these. This can be reused when this activity is repeated with a new source. We also recommend evaluating sources using the CRAP test (currency, reliability, authority and purpose/point of view) that can be found at many university websites.

This format for a recurring activity was developed based on research on the scholarship of teaching and learning and allows for active learning and repetition across contexts. In our experience, early in the semester, students have difficulty finding examples of psychological science in the news, unless a headline makes it explicitly clear that a given finding is from the field of psychology. By the end of the semester, they start to see psychological science everywhere — from sports stories to breaking international news.

Similarly, early in the semester, students have difficulty working through the four-part framework. But, just as many of them become skilled at noticing when psychological science is at play, many of them also become skilled at thinking critically about research. They learn to ask the right questions and to seek out appropriate answers for these questions — the mark of a budding psychological scientist.

By Susan A. Nolan, PhD, and Sandra E. Hockenbury, MA

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