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The Psychology Behind the Calculus Behind Psychology

What is it about psychology and math? For years, I’ve been following colleges working to align math requirements with students’ majors. The point is to ensure that students can acquire quantitative reasoning skills relevant to their fields of study. One outcome of this work to diversify math requirements is to reduce the use of Calculus as a gatekeeper, because only students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields and a few others (such as economics) that actually use calculus content are required to take it (or a related course). 

Virtually every time I hear about faculty balking at the idea of not requiring Calculus, it comes from a psychology department. The University of California San Diego, for example, requires Calculus as well as chemistry and physics for a B.S. in psychology, according to its website. UC Santa Cruz requires a Precalculus course, but an AP Calculus score of 3 waives that expectation for a B.A. 

Psychology majors at the University of Washington must take some form of Calculus or a Calculus prerequisite. And the University of Maryland requires psychology majors to choose from three varieties of Calculus—Elementary Calculus (for non-STEM majors), Calculus for Life Sciences, or Calculus 1. 

This took me by surprise when I started hearing about it. After all, as a social science field, psychology seems to be far more reliant on statistics than traditional mathematics. And, in fact, my scan of websites suggests that psychology departments pretty universally require statistics. 

Some among the departments require only statistics and research methods courses, with no other math requirement, a list that seems to be growing. Harvard, for example, does not specify a math requirement. Neither do Northwestern or the University of Chicago. Nor do flagship public universities such as UC Berkeley, the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia, and the University of Texas, Austin. 

Surely, if Calculus isn’t required by psychology departments on that prestigious list (with the exception of certain sub-specialties like neuroscience), it can’t be integral to learning psychology. But then, why do the other institutions—also quite reputable—insist on requiring it? 

Some say that psych departments cling to these courses as a measure of “intelligence,” but the other unfortunate answer appears to lie in psychology’s popularity. Many departments cannot accommodate all the students who are interested in pursuing the major. Requiring advanced mathematics is a way of limiting the number who qualify, psychology professors tell me, anonymously. 

It’s a convenient approach. As my colleague David Plank, formerly of Policy Analysis for California Education, used to say, “It’s easy to measure and hard to master.” 

But what does Calculus have to do with psychology? I worry that requiring a notoriously grueling course like Calculus could winnow out students with psychological insight but little interest in advanced math. It’s a concern shared by some psychology professors I’ve spoken with. 

Equally troubling, even those who manage to make it through the class may be getting little academic benefit other than access to the psych department. As one prof noted, “There are a lot of students who have calculus on their transcripts who can’t think quantitatively. A lot of that is about the way math is taught.” 

I also can’t help wondering what physics has to do with psychology: At UCLA, another over-subscribed psychology department, students are required to take either physics or chemistry. Or, perhaps it’s just a math requirement in disguise, since most of the physics and chem courses have a one- or two-semester Calc prereq? 

Still trying to wrap my head around that one….

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