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					The Place of Mathematics and Science in Undergraduate Psychology
Education
Baron Perlman
Lee McCann
University of Wisconsin—Oshkosh


A national survey of Psychology departments (N = 520) revealed that their institutions’ general
education Programs require that undergraduates take an average of one course in mathematics
(algebra or above) and two natural or physical science courses. Requirements for BA and BS
degrees were nearly identical. Some psychology departments are attempting to increase the
scientific literacy of their majors through a variety of course and proficiency requirements. Two
recommendations for further research concerning mathematics and science education are
offered.

    Concern and support for quality education (Bloom, 1987; Bowen, 1982; Boyer, 1987) are
persisten1- and widespread. General education is one element of a high-quality education when
it requires a minimum basic curriculum for all students, organizes a core of studies, and defines
essential areas of knowledge. Most educators recognize that these components are the
essence of general education and assume that these factors provide a coherent depth and
breadth of knowledge (Cheney, 1989). Our research focuses on the mathematics and science
components of general education.
    Educational goal statements for mathematics and the sciences reflect minimal requirements.
For example, a recommended 50-credit hour core curriculum (Cheney, 1989) contains only 6
credit hours of mathematics and 8 credit hours of natural science. These meager numbers
actually exceed the average existing requirements at institutions that include mathematics and
the natural and physical sciences in their general education programs. In 1988, 96% of the 4-
year colleges in the United States required general education (Lewis & Farris, 1989), but only
67% of these institutions required natural and physical sciences, and just 59% required
mathematics. For those institutions with general education requirements, the average was 2.5
credit hours of mathematics and 4.5 credit hours of natural and physical sciences.
    Green (1989) reported that even interested undergraduate majors are fleeing from the
sciences; more than 50% of the students planning science majors or technological careers
eventually change to non-science fields. Other college students and psychology majors
probably shun education in the sciences as well; even when they meet minimal institutional
guidelines, they may receive inadequate preparation in these areas.
    The scientific training that psychology majors receive depends largely on the adequacy of
institutional general education requirements. Because a BS degree is assumed to provide basic
mathematics and science literacy, psychology majors may choose or be advised to undertake a
course of study leading to a BS degree.
    An understanding of the mathematics and science literacy of our undergraduate majors will
require data on the number of general education credits they are required to take. Such data
should also include (a) the prevalence of institutional waiver and “pool” (i.e., take mathematics
or science) options that allow avoidance of apparent requirements and (b) the extent to which
individual psychology departments rectify perceived deficiencies in mathematics and science
preparation of their majors by adhering to or restructuring current requirements.

                                            Method
Subjects
   A list of 1,012 psychology departments in the United States that annually confer more than
five bachelor’s degrees was obtained from the American Psychological Association; 520 of
these departments were randomly surveyed.

Instrument
We wrote and pilot tested a questionnaire (available from the authors). We and/or a trained
research assistant carefully reviewed 520 catalogs for the institutions surveyed, and general
education requirements for five areas (mathematics, physical science, computer science,
foreign language, and English/literature) were pre-entered before the survey was mailed. Thi5
complete data set was then available for subsequent analyses. Our concern in this research is
student preparation in mathematics, natural and physical science, and computer science.
Respondents were asked for the following additional information; (a) institutional and
departmental demographics (e.g., highest degree offered and number of psychology majors)
and (b) whether the pre-entered general education data specific to each institution were
accurate.
    In addition, we requested information about departmental efforts to increase scientific
literacy. We wanted to learn if departments have additional requirements for graduation,
including specific coursework or demonstrated proficiency, and if departments were planning
new or additional proficiency requirements within the next 2 years. Finally, respondents were
asked to rank, in order of importance to a high quality bachelor’s graduate in psychology, five
general education areas in which psychology majors should have additional coursework.
    Reading each institution’s catalog provided data on two variables not included in the
questionnaire. We determined how many institutions allow students to demonstrate proficiency
in (i.e., place out of) mathematics, science, and computer science and/or “pool” (i.e., choose
between different areas of general education study).

Procedure
   We gathered information about general education, proficiency demonstration to place out of
general education courses, and general education category pooling from 520 current
institutional catalogs and entered the data for both the BA and BS degrees on a questionnaire.
Chairpersons were asked to approve or correct these data and complete the remainder of the
questionnaire or to have these tasks done by a more knowledgeable colleague. General
education requirements were defined as the number of 3-credit courses an institution (college or
university) required. We converted quarter and trimester calendar systems to semester equiva-
lents (one 3-credit trimester or quarter course = 0.67 semesters of one 3-credit semester
course).

                                     Results and Discussion

   Of the 520 questionnaires mailed, 313 (60%) were returned. Of these 313 institutions, 181
(58%) were public and 132(42%) private. Forty-five (14%) offered only the bachelor’s degree,
137 (44%) offered the master’s degree, and 131(42%) the doctoral degree. The number of
psychology majors varied from 10 to 1,000 (M = 278, SD = 253, median = 185). 0n1y 43 (14%)
respondents changed pre-entered numbers of 3-credit general education courses in math-
ematics, science, or computer science. Comments indicated that some of these corrections
reflected very recent institutional changes in general education requirements. Because of the
limited number of changes, we assumed that the pre-entered general education data were
basically accurate and analyzed these data from all 520 institutions, including those institutions
without a returned questionnaire. (Complete tabular data and analyses are contained in a
technical report, which is available from the authors.)
Mathematics and the Sciences in General Education

   Institutional requirements. Our results indicate that students studying for either the typical BS
or BA degree are required to take one 3-credit course in mathematics at the level of college
algebra or above. This requirement is similar to the 2.5 required credits reported by Lewis and
Farris (1989). For the BS degree, 23.4% of the 479 institutions offering this degree require no
mathematics, and 7.9% require two thirds of one 3-credit semester course (conversion of
quarter or trimester courses left a number of institutions requiring two thirds of a semester
course). Fifty-three percent of the institutions require one course, and only 15.4% require more
than one 3-credit course in mathematics. For the BA degree, 27.6% of 520 institutions require
no mathematics, 7.9% require two thirds of one 3-credit course, 53.9% require one course, and
10.6% require more than one 3-credit course.
   Most students are required to take two 3-credit courses in the physical and natural sciences
(more than the 4.5 credits reported by Lewis & Farris, 1989). About 27% of the institutions
require one 3-credit course or less in the physical and natural sciences for the BS, 61.5%
require 1.33 to two courses, and 11.6% more than two courses. For the BA, 29.3% of the
institutions require one 3-credit semester course or less, 60.6% require one and one third to two
courses, and 10.1% more than two courses.
   Some institutions include computer science as a general education requirement, but most
students are not required to take it. For the BS, 68 institutions (22%) require computer science;
for the BA, 63 (20%) require it.

    The BA and BS degrees. We computed a t test between the number of 3-credit courses
each college or university required in mathematics for the BS and for the BA degree from the
sample of 520 institutions. There were significantly more 3-credit mathematics courses required
for graduation with a BS degree (M = 0.90) than with the BA degree (M = 0.82), t(476) = 4.13, p
< .001. The median and mode of 3-credit required mathematics courses were 1.0 for both the
BS and the BA.
    Comparable science data were analyzed. There was no significant difference between the
average numbers of 3-credit natural and physical science courses required for a BS(M=1.81)
and a BA degree (M=1.77), t(475)= 1.86, p > .06. The median and mode of 3-credit science
courses required were 2.0 for both the BS and the BA.
    Almost no computer science is required for general education. Of the 68 institutions requiring
it for the BS, 53 (78%) require one 3-credit course. Of the 63 institutions requiring it for the BA,
47(75%) require one course. The difference between the number of institutions requiring no
computer science and institutions requiring one course for the BA and BS is not significant,
x2(1, N = 967), p> .05. The median and mode of 3-credit computer science courses required for
the BA and the BS in general education were 0.
    The small but statistically significant difference between the numbers of 3-credit courses
required in mathematics has little practical meaning. Differentiation between the BA and BS
degrees appears to be meaningless at most institutions—a distinction without a difference.
    In summary, the role of mathematics, the sciences, and computer science in general
education is minimal, with a number of institutions requiring few or no courses. The extent to
which general education improves the capabilities of undergraduates in basic mathematics and
science seems distressingly limited unless departments can encourage their students (through
advising, departmental requirements, etc.) to take more mathematics and science than the stan-
dard institutional general education requirements.

  Avoiding requirements in mathematics arid the sciences. Allowing a student to place out of
general education mathematics or science courses is not a common practice based on our
reading of college catalogs for statements on the use of advanced placement tests or other
demonstrated proficiency measures. Of 520 institutions, only 9 stated that they allowed
proficiency in mathematics to meet general education requirements, 0 allowed physical and
natural science pro6ciency, and 5 allowed proficiency in computer science. (These data are
underestimates of policies allowing proficiency demonstration for two reasons. First, such
policies are dispersed throughout catalogs and difficult to find; we probably missed counting a
few. Second, some institutions allow demonstrated proficiency but do not list this policy in their
catalogs.) If students take advantage of proficiency policies, their college education adds less
value in these curricular areas. An absence of proficiency waivers, however, does not ensure
that a robust general education experience awaits the incoming student.
   Institutions may have general education requirements allowing a student to completely avoid
an area of study by choosing among areas (i.e., the pool approach). At 57 of 520 institutions
(11%), students could completely avoid mathematics; at 27(5%), they could avoid the sciences.
For example, at 30 institutions (6%), students could take mathematics or computer science; at
21 (4%), they could choose mathematics or the sciences; at 5 (1%), they could choose
mathematics, the sciences, or computer science. One institution offered the option of computer
science or the sciences with no mathematics. In summary, at 79 of 520 institutions (15%), a
student may avoid mathematics or the sciences either through proficiency or by choices among
content areas. These data do not mean that all students choose such options.

Departmental Efforts to Increase Scientific Literacy
   Requiring additional courses. Many psychology departments find institutional general
education requirements in mathematics and science preparation too limited and require more
coursework for majors. Overall, 123 of 313 departments (39%) followed this pattern. Seventy-
five psychology departments (24%) require courses beyond those required in general education
for the BA degree; 60 departments (19%) require additional courses for the BS.
   This requirement is almost always one additional mathematics course. Ninety-one
departments (29%) require additional mathematics. (We do not have data subdividing this
requirement for the BA and BS degrees.) It appears that at least one fourth of these
departments require statistics taken in a mathematics department in lieu of or in addition to a
departmental statistics course. (An exact count was impossible.)
   Fifty-six departments (18%) require additional course-work in the physical and natural
sciences. Thirty-eight (12%) require science courses beyond general education requirements for
the BA degree; 44 (14%) have such requirements for the BS. This additional science
requirement is typically for two 3-credit courses beyond general education requirements.
   Thirty-seven departments (12%) require computer science coursework beyond general
education requirements. Twenty-six (8%) require computer science for students seeking a BA
degree, and 25 (8%) require computer science for students pursing a BS. (A department can
have this requirement for both the BA and BS; therefore, the numbers do not sum to 37.)

   Restricting the psychology major to certain courses as a requirement for graduation. Eighty-
two departments of the 313 responding (26%) report some form of restrictive general education
requirement (e.g., requiring majors to include biology as part of their general education science
requirement). Of the 42 departments that restrict students in mathematics, 36 (86%) do so in
statistics or algebra courses. Of the 49 restricting the physical or natural sciences, 34 (69%) do
so in biology. These departments appear to be striving to ensure that psychology students take
courses to complement their major.

  Requirements for admission to the psychology major. Fifty-five of 313 departments (18%)
have specific requirements for admission to the psychology major. The most common, adopted
by 33, is a minimum grade point average (GPA), with 17 departments requiring a minimum GPA
of 2.0, 13 requiring a minimum of 2.5, and 2 departments requiring a 3.0. (One respondent did
not provide the minimum GPA required.) A few departments require successful completion of
certain mathematics and science courses for admission to the major. Fourteen (5%) require
mathematics courses, such as college algebra or statistics; 7 require physical and natural
science courses; and only 3 require computer science. The remaining departments had
requirements in other areas (e.g., completion of all general education requirements and
English).

    Demonstrated proficiency in mathematics and the sciences required for graduation. It is
uncommon for a psychology department, its college or university, or both to ask that students
demonstrate proficiency (aside from simply passing courses) in mathematics and the sciences
before graduation. Although 147 departments and institutions of the 313 sampled (47%) report
proficiency evaluation in some area, mathematics proficiency is required by 59 departments/in-
stitutions (19%), physical and natural science by only 3 (1%), and computer science by just 7
(2%). Proficiencies are measured primarily using locally developed measures (e.g., a
mathematics proficiency test and/or minimum grades in specific courses; see the technical
report available from the authors).
    Psychology departments are not planning new or additional mathematics or science
proficiency testing within the next 2 years. Only five departments have such plans for
mathematics, none for the physical and natural sciences, and nine for computer science.

Are Mathematics and Science Courses Important for a Quality Psychology Bachelor’s
Graduate?
We asked respondents to rank five areas of additional requirements in order of importance on a
S-point scale ranging from most important (1) to least important (5). The physical and natural
sciences (M = 2.27), mathematics (M = 2.38), and computer science (M = 2.48) were ranked
first, second, and third, respectively, and nearly equal in importance. These average rankings
are not as close to a ranking of 1 as we had hoped, suggesting that the scientific base of
psychology is not as highly valued as it could be. English/literature was tanked fourth (M =
3.44), and foreign language was tanked a distant fifth (M = 4.43). It is interesting to note the
rank of computer science, because it is seldom listed as a restricted area of study or as a
general education requirement. Overall, mathematics and the sciences are valued, but this
value is not always reflected in departmental requirements for majors.
                                          Conclusions

   Despite the need for a citizenry better educated in mathematics and the sciences, enhancing
scientific literacy will be difficult at both the institutional (general education) and department
levels. Many respondents wrote detailed and thoughtful comments about this problem. For
example, the belief exists that additional quality or rigor will drive students away. Requiring more
mathematics and science is almost universally perceived as increasing rigor, labeling the
institution elitist. Tensions also exist between requiring and advising, between the goals of a
department and the goals of its college or university, and between desirability and feasibility.
   There is much to be done in mathematics and science education. As a first step, we
recommend the development of a national database on general education with a mechanism for
continuous updating. This database would support a variety of research projects, help answer
current questions, and direct corrective action. A second recommendation is to learn to what
degree scientific inquiry and methodology ate taught to psychology majors. To what extent are
we as faculty contributing to the scientific literacy that many of us value? Analyzing course
syllabi and surveying psychology faculty would be two ways of following through on this
recommendation.
    Psychology is a discipline with both natural and social science components and both
academic and applied aspects. Members of the American Psychological Association, especially
Division Two (Teaching of Psychology), are in a good position to evaluate the science
requirements needed for a strong general education for both the BA and BS degrees and for a
strong undergraduate major in psychology. We must design and put in place curricula reflecting
what we, as scientists, believe are minimal requirements for functional literacy in mathematics
and the physical and natural sciences for our students. We hope the data reported herein will
facilitate an informed discussion leading to such requirements.


                                          References

Bloom, A. (1987). The closing of the American mind. New York: Simon & Shuster.
Bowen, H. R. (1982). The state of the nation and the agenda for higher education. San
   Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Boyer, E. L. (1987). College: The undergraduate experience in America. New York: Harper &
   Row.
Cheney, L. V. (1989). 50 hours: A core curriculum for college students Washington, DC:
 National Endowment for the Humanities.
Green, K. C. (1989). A profile of undergraduates in the sciences. American Scientist, 77, 475—
   480.
Lewis, L. L., & Farris, F. (1989). Undergraduate general education and humanities requirements
   (Higher Education Surveys No. 7). Rockville, MD: Westat.


                                             Notes
1. We thank our university’s Faculty Development Program for support in conducting this
   research.
2. We also thank Andrea LaBine and Kim Mueller for their valuable contributions to data
   collection and analysis. Our colleagues, F. Alan Hartman, Laura Koppes, Susan McFadden,
   Robert Moore, and Wanda Trahan, lent their time and expertise willingly. Members of our
   advisory board, Steve Davis, Tom McGovern, Wilbert McKeachie, Joseph Palladino, and
   Mark Ware, offered support and telling comments. Cynthia Baum (American Psychological
   Association) and Joseph Johnston, Jr. (Association of American Colleges) were extremely
   helpful.
3. In addition, we thank the many psychologists who took the time to complete our
   questionnaire, thereby making this research possible.
4. Requests for reprints or a more detailed technical report of the data presented in this article
   should be sent to Baron Perlman, Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin—
   Oshkosh, Oshkosh, WI 54901.

				
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