Why is Intro Psych so difficult?
Patrick A. Cabe, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke,
Department of Psychology and Counseling.


Because the course is "introductory," some students imagine that Intro Psych ought to be a relatively easy course. Yet many students are shocked to discover that it is one of the most difficult courses they take, especially early in their college careers. There are several reasons why this happens, and listing some of them for you to think about--and maybe do something about--may save you some hassle, disappointment, and grief. In fact, most introductory level courses will be more difficult than many students imagine for these same reasons.

The first reason Intro Psych is a tough course is that we will cover a very broad range of topics through the semester, from concepts and ideas that are very biological to others that are very "social," from topics that may sound like common sense to others that are challenging technical areas. Each of those topical areas will have its own vocabulary and concepts to learn, enough so that some observers claim that Intro Psych requires that a student learn more new terms than he or she would in a semester-long course in a foreign language! In addition, some of the “concepts” are just that: abstract concepts, which cannot be made concrete. Many human behaviors reflect an on-going process without a ‘beginning’ or an ‘end’—they are not ‘entities’. For example: schizophrenia is not an “illness” that can be clearly defined. Intelligence is something that no two psychologists may define the same way. Thinking! What is “thinking”? You get the idea.

A second big reason that Intro Psych turns out to be extremely demanding for many students is that they have little or no existing knowledge to attach this new content to. Researchers who study memory and the acquisition of knowledge tell us that the more you know about a topic, the easier it is to learn even more (because you will have more things to "hook" the new ideas, facts, etc., onto in your memory--sort of a Velcro theory). Knowledge grows by becoming woven into the body of your existing knowledge. If you don't know much at the beginning, if you have trouble finding these "hooks," it is surely more difficult to make such connections. Take heart, though, if you work at it you can often find aspects of your own "real life" experience and previous study that do in fact "hook" into the material you will study in Intro Psych. And as time goes by, you should be able to find connections from new material you encounter to material you studied earlier in the term.


A third reason for the difficulties in Intro Psych come from an issue that sorely complicates reason #2: the research literature is very clear on this point: Most students come into an introductory psychology course with a wealth of misinformation—misconceptions that they hold near and dear to their hearts and won’t let go of! Such "folk psychology" provides conceptual resistance to understanding the new information being presented. So the task for many Intro Psych students is to recognize that there is a mismatch between what they already “know”, and what they are not being taught. The next step is to confront any misconceptions with evidence for the correct conception. Without convincing evidence few people are willing to give up their misconceptions. Then the problems are compounded with new information being incorrectly attached to existing information—worse than the situation in reason #2.

Third, some students have to adjust (or learn for the first time!) the study habits needed to match the demands of college work. Some bring adequate or better skills, jump right in, and do just fine. Others, however, may never have had to work very hard at their studies in the past, and now discover that their study habits just don't work in college. Good questioning skills, good listening skills, good note-taking skills, good reading skills, good thinking skills, and--most importantly--good time management skills simply have to be there, if you are going to succeed in college. Confronted with the complexity of the material in a course like Intro Psych, a student may really struggle, if he or she has not developed those skills. Here are a few suggestions:

Reading Expectations: There can be a mismatch between a professor’s expectations and a student’s expectations. Foremost among these is what students are expected to teach themselves. College courses cover A LOT of material in 15 weeks, and not all that material can be taught in 3 hours per week of classroom time. You will be expected to do a tremendous amount of reading over material that you will be tested over, but which will not be covered in class. So: Reading expectations often exceed students’ expectations.


How Study Time is Spent: It’s not how much time a student studies that is important. It is, how that time is spent. Research studies show little relationship between study time and grades. C and D students tend to spend a lot of time on memorizing. A and B students tend to spend most of their time on analyzing information, comparing/contrasting terms, applying ideas, etc.

How to Read a Textbook: Textbooks cannot be read like a novel. You cannot just read for a while, put it down and pick it up again, wherever you left off. This will not work well. Here are a few suggestions: read any end-of-section or end-of-chapter summaries FIRST. This will give you a context for reading the section. When you pick up the book to read, don’t just start up where you left off. Start by reviewing everything you read in the previous sitting, and THEN move on. Finally, take notes as you read.


Newly-developing skills can't, and won't, get better overnight. Similarly, developing knowledge can't, and won't, blossom overnight. Any decent athlete or musician knows that what pays off is a routine of daily effort, going over what is already well studied or practiced, spending extra time on things that are more difficult, and extending their study and practice to new material. Learning the material in Intro Psych can't be done overnight, either. So establishing a routine of daily study (which some students never seem catch on to) will be a key to success in this course, as well as others. In other words, TIME MANAGEMENT is critical to your success.

Fourth, many students just find ways to mess up the simple stuff: They don't come to class, they don't read the textbook, they don't do the assignments or only do part of the assignment or don't follow the instructions for the assignment or they turn them in late (or any combination). So they throw away opportunities to earn what often is cheap credit toward their course grade. And of course they are also less well prepared for the tests. Can you see the lesson? Come to class, read the book, do the assignments (the whole thing, on time, following all the directions--and, yes, it does matter). Is that so hard?

Intro Psych will always be a hard course because the material is complex and broad, but it may be even more difficult for you because you may lack background and experience to tie all this new material to, and because your academic skills may be less-than-perfect. The material itself won't get any easier, but you yourself can improve in these other areas--IF you have the attitude that you CAN do it, and IF you put in the effort TO do it.