Advanced Placement Psychology

Topic Description

[The following information was taken directly from the College Board's Advanced Placement Program Course Description for Psychology: Copyright 2001.]

AP Psychology Course Description

I.  History and Approaches
A well-planned AP course introduces students to the discipline of psychology by emphasizing the his-tory of psychology as a science, the different theoretical approaches that underlie explanations of behavior, and the many different fields within psychology.

The course traces the emergence of scientific psychology in the nineteenth century from its roots in philosophy and physiology and covers the development of the major "schools" of psychology, showing how these schools differed in what they viewed as the proper subject matter of psychology and the methods they used to study it. This historical introduction helps students gain an understanding of the principal approaches to psychology: Behavioral, Biological, Cognitive, Humanistic, Psychodynamic and Social-Cultural. Students learn how these approaches differentially guide research and practice in psychology.

II.  Research Methods
The scientific nature of psychology is made clear through coverage of the methods psychologists use to answer behavioral questions. Emphasis is given to the experimental method and issues of appropriate experimental sampling and control, but other methods, such as the correlational method, which includes naturalistic observation, and the survey, are also covered. Accompanying the coverage of research methods is information on elementary descriptive statistics used in analyzing data, such as measures of central tendency, variability, and correlation. Further, students learn how inferential statistics are used to evaluate the results of the scientific process. Students also learn about the many different fields within psychology and about the importance of ethics in both scientific research and the practice of psychology.
III.  Biological Bases of Behavior
Students need to understand the relationship between biology and behavior. An effective introduction to this section of the course is an exploration of the range of techniques scientists have used to learn about brain function, from procedures such as ablation, direct stimulation, EEG, and evoked potentials to the newer imaging techniques, including CAT scans, PET scans, and MRI. Students study the brain as a key part of the body's nervous system, paying particular attention to the anatomical and functional relationships among the central, somatic, and autonomic nervous systems.

The course also helps students gain an understanding of how the nervous system functions on a cellular level by examining the structure and function of the neuron in the electrochemical transmission of impulses. Students then explore the interrelationship of the nervous system and the endocrine system. Lastly, they examine hereditary influences on behavior through a brief study of behavioral genetics that focuses on the inheritance of human traits.

IV.  Sensation and Perception
The study of sensation and perception often begins with the concept of threshold. Students learn about the measurement of absolute and difference thresholds and the physical, physiological, and psychological variables affecting those measurements. Understanding the concept of threshold allows for a study of the functioning of the various sensory receptors that transduce energy for use in the nervous system. In covering the various sensory systems, the course gives greatest emphasis to vision and audition, with less attention to the sensory systems for taste, smell, touch, pain perception and balance/equilibrium. Coverage includes anatomy and function of the eye and ear, theories of vision and audition, perceptual acuity, sensory adaptation, and sensory disorders such as deafness and color blindness.

Perception involves the interpretation of the raw materials provided by the senses. The study of perception focuses on the interplay between characteristics of the perceiver and those of the envi-ronment in the constructive processes of attending to and organizing experiential data. Students discover how stability is created in the perceptual world via perceptual constancies, how a three-dimensional world is constructed from a two-dimensional retinal image, what conditions are required for the perception of motion, and how familiar and unfamiliar patterns are perceived. Of major importance is the role played by experience in perception and the way in which perception can be improved by learning.

V.  States of Consciousness
In this section of the course, students are introduced to research information on different states of consciousness, ranging from normal occurrences in people's day-to-day lives to those that are markedly different from the experience of most people. Understanding consciousness and what it encompasses is critical to an appreciation of what is meant by a given state of consciousness. Thus, this unit often begins with a definitional overview that provides the basis for discussion of commonly experienced and atypical variations in consciousness.

A standard portion of the discussion of commonly experienced variations in consciousness is consideration of the two extremely different states of consciousness that usually fall under the title of sleep: NREM (Non-Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Students learn about the stages of NREM and REM sleep and are introduced to the functions, dysfunctions, and theories of sleep. The study of variations in consciousness frequently includes an examination of hypnosis, meditation, and daydreaming, as well as a discussion of the effects on consciousness of such drugs as narcotics, depressants, stimulants, and hallucinogens.

VI.  Learning
This section of the course introduces students to the differences between learned and unlearned behavior. It covers the basic learning processes of classical conditioning and operant conditioning and makes clear their similarities and differences.

Students learn about the basic phenomena of learning, such as acquisition, extinction, spontaneous recovery, generalization, discrimination, and higher-order conditioning. They study the effects of reinforcement and punishment in different, specific learning paradigms: reward and omission training, and active and passive avoidance, among others. They also consider important independent variables such as amount of practice, schedules and delay of reinforcement, and motivation. In addition, they learn about the various types of graphs used to show the results of experiments on learning and how the principles of learning are related to practicalities such as emotional learning, taste aver-sions, coping versus helplessness, and biofeedback and self-control.

In its coverage of biological factors in learning, this section of the course reexamines the biological bases of behavior discussed in the earlier section and focuses particularly on biological constraints on learning. Through its coverage of insight and social learning, it lays the groundwork for the study of cognition.

VII.  Cognition and Language
Cognitive psychology is concerned with the processes involved in the transformation, reduction, elaboration, storage, recovery, and use of sensory input. In this unit, students discover that cognition begins with sensory input and that information coding (the conversion of sensory input into some storable form), kinds of knowledge, and types of processing are concepts central to cognitive psychology. They learn that codes are created from cognitive processes that serve as the basis for our knowledge of the world, and that codes can be stored, recovered, and reconstructed. They also learn that reconstruction is a common occurrence that is highly correlated with our general world knowledge.

The course considers kinds of knowledge and types of processing. The distinction between procedural and declarative knowledge is emphasized, as are the distinctions between controlled (effortful) and automatic processing and between serial and parallel processing. The course next introduces students to the topics of memory, language, thinking, problem-solving, and creativity. Students learn about reconstruction, complexity, episodic and semantic memory, forgetting, the role of context, and current models of memory processes and practical methods for improving memory. They then study the various psycholinguistic models of language and learn how biological, cognitive, and cultural-social constraints operate on the acquisition, development, and use of language. Students are also introduced to the relationship between language and thought, as well as to theories and evidence of the role of metacognitive skills in thinking. Psychological views of different modes of thinking are also considered.

Students then move on to consider problem-solving strategies. They examine the distinction between algorithms and heuristics as well as some of the common difficulties people have in solving problems, such as functional fixedness. Finally, they study theories on and evidence of creativity's role in problem-solving and thinking.

VIII.  Motivation and Emotion
In studying motivation, students learn about the forces that influence the strength and direction of behavior. They discover that although early theories of motivation focused on internal instincts, needs, and drives, later theories acknowledged the role of external incentives. Students also learn that more recent theories conceptualize motives into at least two distinct types: primary (physiological) and secondary (social). In the case of the primary motives - such as hunger, thirst, pain, and sex - psychologists have identified many of the neural and hormonal mechanisms that are associated with the motivational state. The motives for sex and aggression appear to be more complex than those for hunger and thirst, involving both physiological and environmental mechanisms; however, even hunger appears to be influenced by environmental stimuli, particularly in the case of people who are obese.

The study of emotion centers on the complex interactions between brain and body that are associated with feelings of love, hate, fear, and jealousy. Different theories - such as James-Lange, Cannon-Bard, Schachter-Singer, and opponent-process theory - provide different explanations of the relationship between physiological changes and emotional experiences. Central to much current theorizing and research is the concept of arousal; that is, the activation of several physiological systems at the same time, suggesting a relationship between task performance and level of arousal. A currently important concept related to emotion and motivation is stress. Researchers in this area fo-cus on the impact of life changes, daily stress, and emergency situations on physiological and psychological well-being. Personality characteristics as they relate to physical function are also of interest (for example, the association between stress and cardiovascular disease). Coverage of the stress response ranges from Selye's general adaptation syndrome to contemporary cognitive views of stress and coping. Useful findings on strategies for coping with stress are also studied. Students also explore the nature of and responses to conflicting motives.

IX.  Developmental Psychology
The concept that development is a lifelong process is basic to the study of developmental psychology. By development, psychologists mean changes over time in characteristics such as physiology, emotion, perception, cognition, and memory, particularly as the change relates to periods like in-fancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Thus, students need to consider from a life span per-spective the major dimensions in which development takes place and the role that gender plays within each dimension. These dimensions are physical, cognitive, social, and moral. The questions of greatest current interest to developmental psychologists are whether development is continuous or discontinuous and to what extent genetics, physiology, and external environment (i.e., nature vs. nur-ture) influence the course of development. Closely connected to both of these questions are the concepts of critical or sensitive periods and culture.

One successful way to introduce students to the study of developmental psychology is to discuss the major criteria that psychologists use in judging observations of developmental phenomena. Following this introduction, students are ready to consider such techniques of data collection as self-report, naturalistic observation, the experimental method, and clinical methods, as well as the research designs used to study development. The most prominent research designs used by developmental psychologists are longitudinal, cross-sectional, or some combination of the two each of which has its own requirements for data gathering.

As students progress through this section of the course, they learn about the different theories of development, for example, those of Erikson, Piaget, and Kohlberg, Gilligan, and Kübler-Ross. As with other areas of psychology, the specific changes investigated by developmental psychologists are ultimately understandable in the context of some theory; that is, a broad framework or body of principles that can be used to interpret the changes. Such a theory must relate developmental changes over time to important independent variables.

X.  Personality
In this section of the course, students come to understand the major theories and approaches to per-sonality: psychoanalytic/psychodynamic, humanistic, cognitive, trait, and behaviorist. In the process, they learn about the background and thought of some of the major contributors to the domain of personality: Adler, Allport, Bandura, Cattell, Jung, Mischel and Rogers. Through their study in this area, students recognize that each of the approaches to personality has implications for their understand-ing of both normal and abnormal personality, the assessment of personality, models of personality development, and the treatment of dysfunctional behavior.

Students also learn about research in personality, including the kinds of methods that are employed (such as case studies and surveys), the differences among research orientations, and the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. The course exposes students to the major assessment techniques used in the study of personality, such as personality inventories, projective tests, and behavioral observations. Discussion of these instruments necessarily includes consideration of the reliability and validity of each.

In addition, students examine the idea of the self and the related issues of self-concept and self-esteem. They learn how the self develops, how self-concept and self-esteem are assessed, and how both of these constructs are related to other aspects of the individual's functioning.

XI.  Testing and Individual Differences
This section of the course deals with the assessment of human differences in aptitudes, intelligence, interests, and personality. It details the various types of tests used to assess these traits and the methods by which the tests are constructed. It describes the measures obtained from tests and the process of standardizing these measures. It treats the several ways of measuring the reliability and validity of tests and explains the establishment and use of norms.

In this section of the course, students learn about the major theories pertaining to the structure of personality and intelligence: trait and type theories of personality, and general versus special-factor views of intellect. They also deal with the development of intelligence and consider the extremes of this trait: retardation and giftedness. Students are exposed to a number of controversial issues and interpretations related to the concept of intelligence: genetic versus environmental determinants, race differences, possible cultural bias in tests, and the use of measures of intelligence for the selection and placement of students in the educational system.

Finally, students confront the moral issues that arise in connection with the use of tests, such as conflicts over the confidentiality of the information obtained on tests, problems in reporting the results of tests to the individuals who take them, the use of test scores for making comparisons among people, and the social impact of the use of tests.

XII.  Abnormal Psychology
A way to introduce the study of abnormal psychology is with a discussion of the definition and diagnosis of abnormal behavior. Criteria that identify behavior as abnormal could be statistical comparisons, sociological norms, or adaptive behavior. Criteria of abnormality are given differing degrees of salience in the many different categories of abnormality specified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association. A survey of these disorders, based on the most recent edition of the DSM, is an important component of this section of the course. Specific attention needs to be given to the following categories of disorder: mood, personality, dissociative, somatoform, anxiety, organic, and psychotic.
XIII.  Treatment of Psychological Disorders
Students are introduced to the treatment of psychological disorders through an overview of the approaches used by therapists of different treatment orientations. Behavioral, humanistic, psychoanalytic / psychodynamic, Gestalt, cognitive-behavioral, and pharmacological approaches to treatment are often discussed.

The mode in which therapy is administered can also vary. Therapy may be administered on a one-on-one basis, as is the case in clinical psychoanalysis, or within the context of a group, as in the case of support groups, encounter groups, and/or family therapy. Therapy may also be administered on an out-patient basis, as in the case of a counseling center, or within a hospital or other institutional setting. Students are also exposed to the research that has been done to assess the effectiveness of different therapeutic techniques.

Finally, students are exposed to prevention and intervention techniques offered at the community level. Such services include educational programs, crisis intervention, telephone hot lines, and counseling.

XIV.  Social Psychology
In this section, students first learn how the structure and function of a given group may affect the behavior of the group as a unit (as in the case of group polarization) or the behavior of the individual group member (as in the case of deindividuation).

Students then learn the basic concepts of social cognition. One of these is attribution, the ways in which individuals form judgments about other individuals' behavior and about their own. Attributions of behavior are a blend of situational and dispositional factors. The influence of stereotypes on attributions of behavior is also considered. Students learn that attitudes are relatively stable be-liefs and feelings that individuals may have about controversial political issues, other social groups, or other individuals. Prejudice, for example, is an unjustified attitude toward a given group or its cultural mores.

Students are also exposed to classic studies dealing with the concepts of conformity, compliance, and obedience and learn how findings in the laboratory setting can shed light on everyday behavior. For example, students discover from Milgram's classic study on obedience that people may defer to a perceived authority figure on a decision as important as one involving life and death. Students also learn about the etiology and expression of aggressive/antisocial behavior and its impact on both the aggressor and the targets of the aggression.
Finally, students are given an overview of the key concepts and theoretical perspectives of organizational behavior, that aspect of social psychology that has implications for analyzing the behavior and performance of individuals and group structures in organizations such as corporations or other business/industrial enterprises.

Summary Outline

Percentage Goals
for Examination
(Multiple-choice section)
Content Area

I. History and Approaches

A.    Logic, Philosophy, and History of Science
B.    Approaches
1.    Biological
2.    Behavioral
3.    Cognitive
4.    Humanistic
5.    Psychodynamic
6.    Sociocultural
II. Methods
A.    Experimental, Correlational, and Clinical Research
1.    Correlational (e.g., observational, survey, clinical)
2.    Experimental
B. Statistics
1.    Descriptive
2.    Inferential
C.    Ethics in Research
III. Biological Bases of Behavior
A.    Physiological Techniques (e.g., imaging, surgical)
B.    Neuroanatomy
C.    Functional Organization of Nervous System
D.    Neural Transmission
E.    Endocrine System
F.    Genetics
IV. Sensation and Perception
A.    Thresholds
B.    Sensory Mechanisms
C.    Sensory Adaptation
D.    Attention
E.    Perceptual Processes
V. States of Consciousness
A.    Sleep and Dreaming
B.    Hypnosis
C.    Psychoactive Drug Effects
VI. Learning
A.    Biological Factors
B.    Classical Conditioning
C.    Operant Conditioning
D.    Social Learning
E.    Cognitive Processes in Learning
VII. Cognition
A.    Memory
B.    Language
C.    Thinking
D.    Problem Solving and Creativity
VIII. Motivation and Emotion
A.    Biological Bases
B.    Theories of Motivation
C.    Hunger, Thirst, Sex, and Pain
D.    Social Motives
E.    Theories of Emotion
F.    Stress
IX. Developmental Psychology
A.    Life-Span Approach
B.    Research Methods (e.g., longitudinal, cross-sectional)
C.    Heredity-Environment Issues
D.    Developmental Theories
E.    Dimensions of Development
1.    Physical
2.    Cognitive
3.    Social
4.    Moral
F.    Sex Roles, Sex Differences
X. Personality
A.    Personality Theories and Approaches
B.    Idiographic and Nomothetic Research
C.    Assessment Techniques
D.    Self-concept, Self-esteem
E.    Growth and Adjustment
XI. Testing and Individual Differences
A.    Standardization and Norms
B.    Reliability and Validity
C.    Types of Tests
D.    Ethics and Standards in Testing
E.    Intelligence
F.    Heredity/Environment and Intelligence
G.    Human Diversity
XII. Abnormal Psychology
A.    Definitions of Abnormality
B.    Theories of Psychopathology
C.    Diagnosis of Psychopathology
D.    Anxiety Disorders
E.    Somatoform Disorders
F.    Mood Disorders
G.    Schizophrenic Disorders
H.    Organic Disorders
I.     Personality Disorders
J.    Dissociative Disorders
XIII. Treatment of Psychological Disorders
A.    Treatment Approaches
1. Insight Therapies:  Psychodynamic / Phenomenological Approaches
2. Behavioral Approaches
3. Cognitive Approaches
4. Biological Therapies
B.    Modes of Therapy (e.g., individual, group)
C.    Community and Preventive Approaches
XIV.    Social Psychology
   A.    Group Dynamics
   B.    Attribution Processes
   C.    Interpersonal Perception
   D.    Conformity, Compliance, Obedience
   E.    Attitudes and Attitude Change
   F.    Organizational Behavior
   G.    Aggression/Antisocial Behavior