Diagnosing Online Psychology Degrees

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Clinical psychology department chair at Capella University reveals how online programs compare to the traditional classroom.

By Joshua Gunn

How can you learn to treat and diagnose patients from the comfort of your home computer, when most traditional students spend years learning and practicing at college campuses? An online psychology degree might sound too good to be true, but it's not. Many capable students have earned online degrees such as a BS in Psychology, MS in Psychology or PhD in Psychology by taking online classes and established successful careers in the field.

AllOnlineSchools.com caught up with Robert Schnedler, a veteran psychologist who has worked with children, adolescents and their families, and now serves as the chair of clinical psychology at Capella University, an accredited online institution. Schnedler was happy to explain how online psychology degree programs work at Capella, how students are tested on class material, how Capella provides a unique year-in-residence and what kind of jobs online psychology degree graduates find. His insight provides a must-read for people interested in pursuing a psychology degree online.

How are the clinical aspects of a psychology degree handled online?

Robert Schnedler: At a traditional university campus program, students take courses with associated labs. Part of the course is spent in the classroom learning about history and development, while part is spent in an associated lab where students practice what they have learned with each other. Once the procedures are mastered, there is usually an examination where each student must demonstrate their knowledge and acquired skills. Psychological interviewing and testing, therapeutic techniques and knowledge of ethics are learned in a similar manner.

At Capella’s Harold Abel School of Psychology, this same process is taught using a different approach. The classroom learning occurs using web-based learning platforms, where students learn about the history and development of psychology through online instruction. The laboratory experience is then provided through a year-in-residence program. Read more about Capella's online programs.

What does the year-in-residence entail?

Robert Schnedler: During the year-in-residence, students travel to Scottsdale, Arizona and meet intensively for two weeks in late June to jump start the online learning aspect of the program. Throughout the year, a series of eight weekend class meetings are scheduled where students attend classes and discussions from Friday through Sunday. Then, there is second two-week session in late June to complete the program. During this time, a portfolio review is undertaken, where students are evaluated over a 4-hour period to demonstrate mastery of the basic competencies such as relationship building, interviewing and test administration.

How do students benefit from the year-in-residence?

Robert Schnedler: The year-in-residence serves three fundamental purposes:

First, students receive face-to-face instruction to learn such competencies as clinical interviewing and forming relationships, test administration, therapeutic interventions and dealing with issues of ethics and diversity. Here, faculty interact with students in small group settings, where role playing and practicing amongst students allows them to master the skills needed for successful placement in a practicum.

Second, faculty members evaluate students to ensure that their skill sets, attitude, relationships skills, values and aptitudes are a good match for the profession. Only the face-to-face interactions allow for this type of scrutiny and permit faculty members to determine whether these students are good candidates for the profession.

The third purpose of the year-in-residence is for students to receive socialization to the profession. Students begin to understand what it means to be a psychologist by having face-to-face interaction with many faculty members through both formal and informal instruction. This socialization conveys the types of ethics, values, professional obligations to the field of psychology and the perspective that psychology brings to the evaluation and treatment of mental and behavioral disorders. Thus, the unique psychological perspective begins to be adopted by students as they work their way through the program.

Do online psychology degree students take tests?

Robert Schnedler: Some online programs have objective testing as part of their assessment procedures. At the Harold Abel School of Psychology, testing is not part of those procedures. Capella University has adopted the scholar-practitioner model of education. This approach focuses on the interaction amongst students and faculty using a discussion format and the submission of scholarly papers. In turn, grading is based on the quality of course room interactions and the topical papers submitted in fulfillment of each course requirement.

However, in courses like statistics, research design or psychological testing, projects and assignments may include the analysis of a set of data, the submission of a research proposal or the accurate scoring and interpretation of an intelligence test profile instead of a paper. Within the context of graduate studies, the demonstration of critical thinking skills seem to be best assessed through iterative discussions and papers rather than objective testing such as multiple choice or true/false formats.

Written expression is important within the field of psychology, and developing the ability to write papers using a standard format defined by the American Psychological Association is emphasized.

What fields do online psychology graduates enter into?

Robert Schnedler: A large majority of graduates from Capella's online psychology programs are working to provide mental health services in outpatient, private or public mental health facilities, while others work in residential treatment centers or hospitals. Some graduates also find success in working in forensics labs and corrections. Additionally, a recent graduate is now working with NASA evaluating the psychological aspects of long duration missions to the moon and Mars.