How I teach Business Psychology

My teaching in the field of business psychology acts as the focus of this article. Business psychology as a discipline uniquely combines evidence-based business and psychological knowledge in order to nurture ethical future psychologists and business practitioners. In this vein, I explore the techniques of research-based teaching and applied learning as some strategies for teaching.

Research-based teaching pertains to grounding the course content in research (usually aligned to the research specialism of the course tutor), as well as rooting its modes of delivery in best available evidence. Further, students are required to develop their own research as part of their third-year dissertation projects, and first-year students are encouraged to take part in this work as research participants. Applied learning refers to students learning by engaging in direct application of skills, theories and models to real-world scenarios — a crucial element of developing as business psychology practitioners.

Subject disciplines have been likened to tribes or archipelagos, whereby they have evolved their own jargon and member identity. Echoing Freidson’s seminal commentary on the professions (1986), by maintaining an inimitable identity impenetrable to those not initiated into the discipline, the business psychologist preserves social status and professional power. Through the application of signature pedagogies, students are ritualised into the discipline and the profession if business psychology during the course of their studies.

Business Psychology students taking part in group work.

Research-based learning is an extension of the mantra of ‘evidence-based teaching and practice’ which pervades the field of psychology more broadly. Psychology as a discipline has been accused of suffering from ‘scientism’ — the belief in the superiority of scientific techniques. A feature of this is the push for measurement and positivism approaches, in order to firmly establish psychology as holding the legitimacy of ‘proper science’ and to set it apart from the elements of working with the human psyche which may be associated with unethical practices, quackery or even the supernatural.

Healy (2005) defines research-based teaching as largely consisting of inquiry-based learning, for instance through designing and leading one’s own research project and delineates it from ‘research-led’ teaching whereby the curriculum is informed by the tutors’ own research interests. Indeed, the extent to which research-led teaching is feasible is called into question with the teaching, assessment and administrative work volumes facing university tutors and undermining their capacity for research activity (Bottrell and Manathung, 2019).

Carrying out one’s own research into a specific subject area may help students become ‘unstuck’ when faced with learning threshold concepts. It has been suggested that undergraduate students are likely to gain most benefit from research in terms of depth of learning and understanding when they are encouraged to actively participate in it (Healey, 2005). Meyer and Land (2003) proposed the idea of threshold concepts to describe central but difficult concepts that learners need to grapple with and to deeply master in their specific subject area to be able to see ‘the world through the eyes of the discipline’.

There does not appear to be consensus in the literature as to what threshold concepts within psychology are. However, Gurung and Landrum (2013) surveyed undergraduate psychology students about what they perceived to be ‘bottleneck concepts’, in other words those they were stuck on. The highest rates concepts related to empirical research methods and methodologies, thereby suggesting that the undergoing the practice of research to apply one’s knowledge rather than simply learning about research practice theoretically may help elucidate the subjects which students typically find more challenging. It follows that participation in research activities supports the students to enter a ‘liminal space’, whereby they apply their knowledge of research methods and begin to acquire the threshold concept, finally achieving greater mastery of the concept at research project completion. In addition, involving their peers in structured research activities and tasks, where they have to work together to achieve the task, can contribute further to students becoming ‘unstuck’ by making the individual and group thought process transparent and open for discussion and negotiation.

Designing or taking part in research can also be viewed as an example of applied learning. An example of the applied learning used on some business psychology courses is the work-based consultancy projects that the students undertake. This involves learning within a real-world context, applying the consultancy cycle and psychological theory to an organisational problem and keeping a reflective log when undertaking work experience in industry. The portfolio, which is formatively assessed, in Collins’ (1990) terms is a learner-created product reflecting the process of development over time. In line with Collins’ notion of celebrating accomplishment in situated learning in order to reflect real-world decision-making processes, students are asked to reflect on their achievement within their reflective log.

Undertaking this portfolio-based consultancy project within a workplace is an example of situated learning, whereby students interact with an authentic organisational scenario. Situated theory was developed by Lave and Wenger based on the assumption that knowledge should be presented in authentic social context that involves its application. Lave and Wenger (1991) argued that situational learning is the ‘process of becoming a full participant in a particular socio-cultural practice and that this process includes, indeed subsumes, the learning of knowledgeable skills’. However, it is worth noting that if situational learning was to subsume classroom learning, then perhaps this calls into question the utility of traditional qualifications and maybe even higher education itself.

Indeed, McLellan (1994) summarises the key components of the situated learning model as: ‘apprenticeship, collaboration, reflection, coaching, multiple practice, and articulation of learning skills’, arguably those can be attained outside of the traditional classroom setting. And yet, one can question the real-world authenticity of a student’s work-based experience as a junior untrained staff member, secondly the work-based consultancy project is designed as an opportunity to apply classroom based learning, therefore establishing it as a precursor to initiation into a work setting.

I ask my students to reflect critically on their experience of the work context and the opportunities and limitations of applying psychological theory to business scenarios. In line with transformative learning theory, they are encouraged to challenge their original assumptions about the workplace and reflect on how these may have developed as a result of undertaking the project. This can be viewed to use Mezirow’s (1990) terminology as premise reflection, whereby the student critical re-examines their long-held presuppositions and beliefs, thereby becoming a reflective psychology practitioner as part of their initiation process into the membership of the business psychology profession.

References

Bottrell, D. & Manathung, C. (2019) (eds). Resisting Neoliberalism in Higher Education Volume I: Seeing Through the Cracks. Palgrave Macmillan.

Collins , A. (1990) . A teacher’s portfolio: What is necessary and sufficient? Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, 16–20 April, Boston, Mass.

Freidson, E. (1986). Professional powers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gurung, Regan A.R. and Landrum, R. Eric. (2013). “Bottleneck Concepts in Psychology: Exploratory First Steps”. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 12(3), 236–245.

Healey, M. (2005). Linking Research and Teaching to Benefit Student Learning, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 29:2, 183–201.

Lave, J., Wenger, E., (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McLellan, H. (1994). Situated Learning: Continuing the Conversation. Educational Technology, 34(8):7–8.

Mezirow, J., & Associates (1990). Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood A Guide to Transformative and Emancipatory Learning. San Francisco, CA.

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