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By Greyson Steele

First-year student retention within the Department of Psychology at Western Michigan University has decreased by 9.3 percent since 2012, according to data collected by the University’s Office of Institutional Research.

The data, stemming from the Office of Institutional Research’s annual report, revealed that since the fall of 2012, on average roughly 40 first-year pre-psychology students have not remained in the department upon entering their second year at the university.  In addition, the numbers revealed that fewer first-year students are entering the pre-psychology program at WMU, with only 120 declared first-year pre-psychology majors enrolled in the fall 2015, roughly a 14 percent decrease from first-year pre-psychology enrollment in the fall of 2011.  

The recent decrease in pre-psychology majors can in part be attributed to a university-wide decline in overall enrollment. Additionally, students’ misconceptions as to what the field of psychology involves as well as the difficulty of the science-oriented coursework has deterred students from the program.

Despite the fact that the department has seen a decrease in enrollment at the initial levels of study, the overall number of psychology graduates has remained constant.

“I think a lot of people who think they want to go into psychology don’t always really understand what it means to be a psychologist and what goes into it.  I think many think of it as like a social science whereas we all identify more with the hard sciences,” said Stephanie Peterson, chair of the psychology department at WMU.  “Some people just aren’t prepared for the level of rigor that the major requires when they first enter.  I think for some people that poses a challenge.”

Peterson is currently serving in her fourth year as the psychology department chair at WMU.  She highlights uncertainty among undergraduates as being a factor in decreased retention within the department.

“I think what’s challenging for our undergraduates is sort of figuring out where they fall and what exactly it is they want to do when they get done with school,” Peterson said.  “When I was a kid, what I went into my freshman year thinking I wanted to do was not where I ended up. That happens a lot.”

In particular, that appears to be happening currently within the psychology department at WMU, as the majority of recent psychology graduates did not start out as pre-psychology majors, according to Peterson. 

“People are still finding their way to us somehow,” Peterson said.  

Although the number of psychology graduates has been steady, Peterson does identify concerns regarding the high rate of undergraduate students withdrawing from the entry-level courses.  

One of those undergraduate students that chose to withdraw from the psychology program is 20-year-old Kourtney Senters.  Now a junior at WMU majoring in business administration, Senters originally had planned on pursuing a degree in psychology, with a desire to comfort people.

“Initially, I wanted to be able to help people.  Rather than going into college undecided, I thought psychology would be my route of choice in helping others,” Senters said.

Although she wished to help people, the psychology coursework proved to be anything but what Senters  had expected, ultimately leading to her to withdraw from the program halfway through her first semester.

“I could stay up for hours on end, reading and studying and feeling super confident about a test and I’d get there the next day and not even get a high ‘C’ on the exam,” Senters said. “If I wasn’t enjoying the courses early on, I didn’t believe I’d enjoy them a few years down the road either.”  

WMU freshman Jake Wisnaski, too, is beginning to have second thoughts regarding his enrollment in the pre-psychology program.  Originally “dead-set” on earning a psychology degree, the 18-year-old has been alarmed by the amount of scientific content the program has required in his first semester.

“What’s really changed my mindset has been finding out that it’s more scientific-based than people-based,” Wisnaski said.  “It surprised me that it wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be.  I thought I had a pretty good idea of what it was.”

In an effort to address the great number of first-year undergraduate students leaving the program, new teaching methods are currently being implemented into the entry-level courses, according to Peterson.  The department chair also highlights the importance of students making individual efforts to become more engaged.

“I try to encourage students to get involved as soon as they can in practicum activities, because that’s where you go out in the real world and you start applying some of the things you’re learning,” Peterson said.

A variety of opportunities to get involved in practicum activities are offered to undergraduate students according to Peterson, including the opportunity to work with young children with disabilities at area schools.  Additionally, Peterson highlights student organizations on campus including Psi Chi and the Student Autism Alliance of Michigan as further opportunities for first-year psychology students to become engaged.

Graduate students within the department play an important role in the engagement process as well according to Peterson, serving as mentors to the undergraduates.

“They not only help them with the things that are in the practicum but they help them with a lot of things within their academic lives,” Peterson said.

Specifically, graduate students help to outline the expectations of what it takes to progress further within the psychology program, while additionally assisting undergraduate students challenged by the initial coursework, according to Peterson.

Overall, the department chair emphasizes the commitment of the entire psychology department at WMU toward fostering undergraduate student success.

“Because we are very, very strong in graduate training here in this department, I think I’ve heard rumors that people think we don’t care much about undergraduates.  I would say that in this department, the faculty here just adore the undergrads and want to work real hard with them,” Peterson said.

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