Information Services Office   4.5.2012


Prof. Leung Wing-leung Patrick
Prof. Fung Hoi-lam Helene
Prof. Chan Kwan-shing Darius
Newsletter No. 397 > Feature > Opening the Black Box: Department of Psychology

Opening the Black Box: Department of Psychology


Anatomy of an Academic Programme

The transmission of knowledge, the stimulation of thought, the promotion of research, and the creation of new knowledge are the core missions of universities as seats of higher learning. And, of all these mandates, the transmission of knowledge ranks as the most important, and the academic programme is its vehicle.

In psychology, the traditional school of behaviourism is concerned primarily with observable and measurable behaviour, rather than attempting to probe the inner processes of the human mind, which is seen as a black box by behaviourists. Opening the black box is what generations of psychologists set out to do.

Training Students to be Competent Researchers

Established in 1982, the Department of Psychology is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Prof. Cheung Mui-ching Fanny, chairperson of the department, says, ‘In many overseas universities, especially those in the US, psychology departments are big departments. Some of them have over 1,000 psychology majors. In contrast, we’ve had about 70 only for each cohort. And because of that, we have closer teacher-student relationships and our students have more opportunities to get involved in our teachers’ research. This is a characteristic of the Department of Psychology at CUHK.’

Prof. Fung Hoi-lam Helene, chairperson of the curriculum committee of the department, adds, ‘Our curriculum has more courses on research methods than many overseas universities do. They are Experimental Design, Introduction to Statistics, Psychological Testing, and Qualitative Research Methods. Such comprehensive training in research methods is rarely seen in the curricula of similar undergraduate programmes.’

On the curriculum there are Thesis Research and Research Practicum. Meant for students aspiring to an academic career, these two courses offer them chances to write a thesis and conduct research in collaboration with their teachers. They may be listed as co-authors of research papers and take part in academic conferences. The department organizes a poster presentation session at the end of each term to showcase its students’ research results. Professor Fung says, ‘Our curriculum committee provides a fund to encourage students to present their findings in international conferences.’

Professor Cheung says, ‘With solid research training, our students’ chances of being admitted to graduate schools are very high.’ Each year, about one-fourth of the graduates of the department opt for further studies. And those who choose to enter the workforce after graduation are also well equipped. In addition to the above-mentioned research practicum, the department provides practicum in three concentration areas, namely, education and human development, social and industrial-organizational psychology, and psychology and health, enabling students to acquire hands-on experience of the fields of their choice. That will help students to make better career choices by discovering the relevance and irrelevance of what they have learned in school to the workplace.

Transferable Skills

In Hong Kong, Europe or the US, a master’s or doctoral degree is generally considered the entry-level degree for practising psychologists. In that case, how does the Department of Psychology prepare its undergraduate students for their non-professional careers? Professor Fung says, ‘We equip our students with a variety of transferable skills.’

When faced with problems, psychology students are good at collecting data and making informed decisions. Professor Fung gives an example: ‘One of our graduates worked in an investment bank, which is seemingly unrelated to his training in psychology. But when he was asked to make a decision on whether to invest in an iron ore mine in Guizhou, his training paid off. He turned this abstract question into concrete investigative procedures to collect objective data for his judgment. He asked himself: What is the most important thing to an iron ore mine? It’s transportation. And you won’t transport iron ore by airplane or car. You have to rely on the railway. So he posted someone at the Guizhou railway to count the number of freight cars loaded with iron ore passing by. Then, he could estimate the transport capacity with the information and make his decision on whether to invest in the mine. This is one of the transferable skills we talk about. After you’ve made a decision, you have to make others accept it by means of persuasion, such as written reports or oral presentation. You make a hypothesis, test it and prove it. Our students learn all these skills from their group projects required by different courses.’

To enrich its students’ learning experiences, the department will set up a fund with donations from alumni to sponsor students. Professor Fung says, ‘Our General Psychology course requires students to do applied research projects. For example, CUHK students usually leave their food trays on tables at the campus canteens. If our students apply the knowledge of psychology that encourages people to return food trays, this fund can sponsor them to turn the project into reality.’

In the University’s internal quality assurance exercise, the Psychology Programme has been evaluated highly for its role-oriented curriculum design and its strong emphasis on the education of professional values. Although students’ workload is heavy, their academic results are outstanding.

Turning Professional

The Department of Psychology provides a variety of postgraduate programmes, including the Master of Social Science Progamme in Clinical Psychology and the Master of Philosophy Programme in Industrial-Organizational Psychology, for those who want to earn a professional degree. Prof. Leung Wing-leung Patrick, programme director of the former, says, ‘This MSSc is an entry-level professional degree for clinical psychologists.’

With a focus on mental health, this master’s programme is aimed at helping students to learn the practical application of the knowledge and theories they have acquired from the undergraduate programme, and psychotherapy for treating mental disorder.

The programme is based on the scientist-practitioner model of training. Professor Leung says, ‘We train our students not only as clinical psychologists, but also as scientists. Only with science training can they develop critical thinking, with which they are able to select reliable and valid research studies to help them to give diagnoses and therapy. When they become more experienced, we hope that they can do research to push back the frontiers of the field. That’s why we emphasize science training so much.’

The Master of Philosophy Programme in Industrial-Organizational Psychology is aimed at training professional psychologists to apply their knowledge to the workplace. Its programme director Prof. Chan Kwan-shing Darius says, ‘We teach students to use scientific and objective ways to design effective assessment, such as interviews, tests, for selecting and promoting employees. Many enterprises and consulting firms need experts in this field.’

Also based on the scientist-practitioner model of training, this programme provides students with comprehensive academic training. They are required to write a thesis and are sent out on placement in big companies during the summer break. They may also acquire professional and practical experience by taking part in the services provided by the University’s Assessment and Training to external parties. Most of the graduates of the programme work in the human resources departments of big companies or consulting firms. And about 10% of them choose to study for a doctoral degree.

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