A Review of Psychology Courses Taught
at Canadian Universities

Sam Hannah, Launa McManus,
Lisa Holmquist, & Gail Boivin
Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University

If the overwhelming focus on cognitive and perceptual issues found in Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology reflects the dominance of these fields in Canadian psychology, then this should be reflected in a preponderance of undergraduate courses focusing on these issues in Canadian universities. To investigate this, we examined the courses taught at seventeen universities, grouping them into six general categories: cognitive and perceptual, biological approaches, developmental psychology, social and personality psychology, applied psychology and other.

Universities were chosen from the Maclean's university-ranking feature in its Nov. 20, 1995 issue. While this does not supply a complete list of universities, it does provide an exhaustive sample. From this listing, the professional and comprehensive schools were chosen, as the primarily undergraduate schools do little research and their course content may not reflect the concerns of the research community. Of the twenty professional and comprehensive schools, we were able to find course descriptions, either in the form of paper calendars or on the Internet, for sixteen. For the seventeenth, Dalhousie, we were able to find descriptions of the research interests of its full-time faculty, and this was used instead as the research interests of faculty should reflect to some degree the research interests of the larger community. Faculty were scored for each unique interest area, using the same categories applied to courses; for example, if a faculty member listed memory and motor control as her of his area of interest, this would be scored as one in the cognitive/perceptual category, and one in the biological category.

Courses combining two approaches--such as the development of cognition--were categorized according to which seemed the dominant concern as indicated by the course description. Learning courses focusing on traditional behaviourist theories of conditioning and reinforcement were treated as cognitive, whereas learning is linked to cognitive issues such as memory, attention, etc., and theorists such as Leahey (1994) have argued that cognitive psychology is essentially a form of behaviorism that includes mental states, and is little different from the work of such cognitive behaviorists as Tolman. Biological approaches in this study include not only the obvious neurologically oriented courses, such as the neural basis of memory, but also such courses as comparative psychology and evolutionary psychology. Applied psychology includes not only clinical, but educational and organization/industrial psychology, plus any course that was explicitly described as having an applied focus; for example one course in the psychological impact of social change was described as being intended for those who expect to be, or already are, involved in managing social changes.

The 'other' category is a grab bag consisting mostly of methodology, statistics, general introductory and history courses. Also included are courses which had no obvious membership in the six categories, such as gender and sexuality, environmental psychology and emotion. This latter category was dropped from the Chi-square analysis since by its nature it included so many courses that it would produce a significant result regardless of the distribution of the other categories.

The pooled data from all seventeen schools was analyzed by a Chi square goodness of fit analysis; data from individual schools was subjected to the same analysis. As can be seen from the goodness of fit analysis, it does appear that the distribution of courses is not equal among the six categories, with both applied courses and cognitive/perceptual courses predominating. Among the experimentally oriented courses, the cognitive/perceptual category is clearly the most popular.

However, an analysis of the individual schools shows this bias is not uniform, and in one school is even reversed. Among almost half of the schools studied--including Simon Fraser--a fairly uniform distribution of courses can be seen. Furthermore, at two of the schools, Waterloo and Windsor, the skew in the distribution seems more due to a preponderance of applied psychology courses. At Western there seems a relative paucity of cognitive/perceptual courses.

Thus the dominance of the cognitive/perceptual approach within psychology would appear from this study to be highly tentative, with many schools endeavoring to give equal weight to a variety of approaches and interests. Whether this marks the collapse of cognitive popularity and the emergence of a greater intertheoretical approach, the rise of a new theoretical line of attack--perhaps the biological, it being the second most popular course category among the experimental courses--or whether the favor that cognitive psychology has found has always been a marginal affair is unfortunately beyond the scope of this paper.


Leahey, T.H. (1994). A history of modern psychology. Prentice-Hall: Englewood Cliffs.