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Psychology & Law

LES 443 - Spring 1998

Course Syllabus

Course Objectives


Weekly Reaction Comments

20% of course grade

Weekly (Minimum 10, Maximum 13)

Term Paper

Ungraded but Required


Class Participation & Attendance


Internet Participation

Extra Credit

Self-Evaluation Paper

Ungraded but Required


Grading: All assignments must be completed to receive course credit!

Graduate Student Requirements

Tentative Course Outline

Course Objectives

Interaction between the fields of psychology and law has greatly increased over the past few decades in three overlapping areas:

  • legal psychology--applied empirical research on issues important to the legal system (such as eyewitness accuracy, police selection, procedural justice, jury decision making, and legal assumptions about human behavior relevant to the rights of defendants, victims, children, and mental patients)
  • forensic psychology--legally relevant clinical areas where psychologists act as expert witnesses and consultants (as with the insanity defense, competence to stand trial, and civil commitment to mental hospitals)
  • psychological jurisprudence--efforts to develop a philosophy of law and justice based on psychological values

LES 443 Psychology and Law surveys material in all three areas, but emphasizes mainstream psycholegal empirical research. Throughout the course, we will examine the legal system's basic assumptions and procedures in light of empirical social scientific evidence as we seek to understand how the system actually works--not just how the law assumes that it works.

We will also examine in particular detail a specific controversial legal and policy issue: affirmative action. Does an empirical psycholegal approach clarify the public debate over the use of affirmative action as a remedy for racial and gender inequality? By the end of the semester you should have a better idea of the benefits and limitations of using psychology to shed light on problems of law and injustice.

Make sure you understand the requirements in this syllabus and in related handouts. The class format, requirements, topics, and grading system are somewhat flexible and open to discussion. Suggestions, comments, and general discussion about the course or other matters are welcome during my office hours or at other times.


Lawrence S. Wrightsman, Michael T. Nietzel, & William H. Fortune. (1998). Psychology and the Legal System (4th ed.). Monterey, California: Brooks/Cole.

Paula R. Skedsvold & Tammy L. Mann (Eds.). (1996). The Affirmative Action Debate: What's Fair in Policy and Programs? [Special Issue]. Journal of Social Issues, 52(4).

Articles on Library Reserve.

Daily newspaper. Pay attention to course-related articles!

Reading, Participating, and Attending

This is not a lecture class. Class discussion is central. To demonstrate that you have critically read the assigned material and thought about its implications, you should come to class prepared to express reasoned views, to ask questions about material that is unclear, and to apply the material to current events and other course issues. Class discussion will supplement rather than duplicate the assigned reading--I will not review everything in the readings. I will assume you understand the material unless you ask for clarification. If you have not read and thought about the material and are not prepared to discuss it, do not come to class.

Participation (20% of course grade)

We will try to structure class so that everyone feels comfortable taking part. If you find it difficult to get a word in or if you are not used to participating, tell me. If you tend to talk a lot, remember to give others a chance. Don't simply dismiss viewpoints that conflict with your own. Listen to what others have to say.

Quantity is less important than quality. A useful comment goes beyond mere agreement or disagreement or simple expression of personal views:

  • it reflects a consideration of issues addressed in assigned readings and previous class discussions
  • it offers a unique, but relevant, perspective
  • it contributes to moving the discussion and analysis forward
  • it builds on other comments
  • it transcends the "I feel" syndrome. For example, it includes some evidence, argumentation, or recognition of inherent tradeoffs; or it demonstrates how seemingly objective empirical data or legal conclusions are affected by underlying political or other values.

Controversial value issues have no universally agreed-upon "right" or "wrong" answers. Rather, they require informed discussion. The views you express in class or papers do not affect your grade. Feel free to say what you really think and to disagree with the books, with me, and with other students. However: A goal of this course is to improve your ability to present defensible positions. Thus, you must support your views thoughtfully, demonstrating that you understand the readings and the issues.


Productive discussion requires regular attendance. You cannot participate if you are not here. If you cannot attend regularly, do not take this course. Attendance affects grades:

  • Repeated absence (e.g., 2 of the 15 classes) lowers your participation grade.
  • Frequent absence (e.g., more than 3 classes) can result in a failing grade for the course regardless of your grades on other assignments.
  • Regular attendance with minimal participation receives a C for participation.

E-Mail List Participation

Constructive course-related participation in the LES Program's e-mail discussion list or in course-related e-mail discussion lists counts for extra participation credit.

Weekly E-Mailed Reaction Comments
(20% of the course grade

To help prepare for class discussion, each week you will e-mail me a brief, relatively informal reaction to that week's assigned reading. [Can't e-mail?]

Each reaction should include at least one comment on each chapter and article assigned for that week; also indicate any parts of the material you do not understand. I will not grade each comment, but if a comment does not reflect careful thought, I will not count it. I will assign a grade at the end of the semester based on a combination of the overall quality of the comments and the number of comments you submit--a maximum of 13 (each week a reading is assigned), a minimum of 10.

Comments can be as short as a paragraph or two. Examples:

  • criticize the chapter's evidence or conclusions;
  • suggest ideas for future research designed to advance knowledge in this area;
  • point out conflicts in how psychologists and lawyers address a particular problem;
  • apply the material to a current news issue, movie, or book, or to experiences in your own life; or
  • integrate the reading with other course material.

Do not merely repeat material from the text, ask the same questions listed before each chapter, or simply agree or disagree. Instead, the comments should reflect thoughts that occur to you as you read the material with a critical eye, thoughts you might bring up in class.

In addition, you can also comment on the previous week's class discussion--for example, raising issues that remain unclear or that you'd like us to discuss further.

E-Mail Instructions

To incorporate your comments in my preparation for class discussion, I have to review them in advance and they must be in editable form. To make this possible, e-mail them to me no later than noon on Monday the day the reading is due (though preferably before then if possible!). You can obtain a UIS e-mail account and use computers on campus for free.

  • Send them to me as plain e-mail text (not as an attachment)
  • Do not use boldface, underlines, or other characters that do not always transfer successfully from one e-mail system to another
  • Begin the message's Subject line with LES 443 Reaction #, then type a number to indicate which reaction it is (e.g., for your first reaction: LES 443 Reaction #1)

One goal of this assignment is to improve class discussion; another is to allow me to respond to your concerns directly via e-mail as time permits. During the semester we will adjust the assignment as we gain more experience with it. Keep copies of all your comments in case there is doubt about how many you submitted.

No E-Mail?

If using e-mail is impossible for scheduling or other reasons, you can fax, mail, or hand deliver your reaction so long as I receive it by the noon deadline.

Term Paper

Your major project is an analytical paper that seeks to resolve a controversial psycholegal issue. Select a law-related topic that psychologists have examined using empirical research methods and/or psychological theory (e.g., how can jury decision making be improved? should criminal punishments be uniform or individualized? should a "reasonable woman" standard be adopted in sexual harassment law? should the insanity defense be abolished? should public schools require students to wear uniforms?). I must approve your topic in advance.

The goal is to critically examine your subject in depth, based on outside library and, when appropriate, other research (e.g., Internet searches of relevant databases or other sources, interviews with advocates or researchers, literature from advocacy groups or psychology organizations). The final paper, two preliminary papers, in-class reports, and a final presentation are together worth 60% of the course grade. See also the handout General Guidelines for Papers.

Beginning Now

Think about a general subject area and familiarize yourself with relevant resources in the research library and on the Internet. For ideas, look through the course texts and psychology-law journals such as Law and Human Behavior, Behavioral Sciences and the Law, and Psychology, Public Policy, and Law as well as search tools such as LegalTrac, PsychInfo, and the Social Science Citation Index.

Lists of relevant World Wide Web links are posted on my website and the Legal Studies Program's web page; you should learn how to use Internet search engines if you don't already know how (instructions are available on the websites).

The Center for Teaching and Learning handout Distinguishing Between Subject Area, Topic, and Thesis describes how to narrow down a topic to a manageable question (the Center also has other handouts on improving research, writing, reading, and studying skills.)

Topic Question: February 16 (not graded, but required)

Submit your topic question for my approval. It is very important to have a clear, specific, reasonably narrow research question before beginning your research. You do not need to answer the research question now--you haven't done the research yet! However, the more details you provide, the more useful feedback I can give you. Thus, you should tell me your initial thoughts about how you will do your research (e.g., what sources have you found already?). What do you now know about the competing positions on this issue? What do you suspect your answer to your research question might be after your research is complete (and why you suspect that)?

This assignment is crucial. If it is late, your final paper grade will be reduced. I am available during my office hours to discuss your progress with you.

Progress Report: March 23 (or sooner, if you prefer; 15% of the course grade)

Submit a 3-to-5 page progress report in which you discuss your research so far and provide your tentative answer to your topic question: this is the thesis your paper will seek to prove. Discuss: How sure are you of your thesis? What kinds of legal and nonlegal resources have you found? What conflicting views have you come across? Where might you find more information?

Include a preliminary list of references, which should go beyond newspapers and popular magazine articles to include scholarly journals and legal sources. Remember that because books about specific legal issues are often outdated quickly, current journals are crucial. By this point you should have sent for needed books and articles using interlibrary loan and requested any relevant material from national or statewide organizations (e.g., APA policy statements on legal issues).

Final Paper: May 4 (or a first draft in April; 35% of the course grade)

Your final paper presents your defense of your thesis. The goal is to prove your point of view by reasoned argument and reference to supporting material, using relevant course concepts appropriately. Make sure you counter the other side's best arguments and evidence and consider any undesirable consequences that might result from your own position. Although the format and content can vary depending on your specific research question, in general you should:

  • describe the current legal status of the issue you select, taking into account relevant statutes, administrative regulations, and judicial opinions
  • assess the state of empirical research on the topic by reviewing the relevant psycholegal literature (psychology journal and review articles, law review articles, literature from relevant organizations) (e.g., are the law's underlying assumptions about human behavior in this area supported by available data?)
  • note the relevance of political, religious, philosophical, and other perspectives that might play a role in the legal system's response to your topic question (e.g., what are the law's underlying assumptions about preferred forms of societal organization, justice, or other related factors?)
  • clearly identify competing views, indicating the best arguments and evidence on all sides
  • reach and support a clear conclusion

The paper should probably be about 12-16 pages, plus references.

Footnote all quotes, paraphrases, and ideas you discover in your research (footnotes can be listed at the end of the paper).

Also include complete citations (with accurate citations to Internet resources).

I recommend APA style, but you can choose a different one. However, Legal Citation style is not appropriate for this social science paper. The Center for Teaching and Learning has handouts describing several footnoting and reference citation methods. The bookstore sells books on all aspects of term-paper writing.

Class Presentations (10% of the course grade)

Periodically you will make brief, informal oral reports describing the progress of your research. The purpose is to obtain ideas from others about possibilities to pursue; to teach the class about your topic; to demonstrate why your particular way of looking at the issue is correct; and to respond to questions.

Near the end of the semester, you will make a longer presentation that summarizes and defends your conclusions as if you were presenting the material to a relevant legal body (e.g., an appellate court, a legislative committee, a governmental agency).

Graduate Students

Graduate students must meet all regular requirements at a graduate level of competence. Other course modifications may be made as appropriate.

Self-Evaluation Paper

Your self-evaluation paper, due May 11, provides an opportunity for you to assess your work in this course and to reflect on what you have learned about the subject matter and about yourself. The typed paper should be at least 500 words.

Evaluate your learning with respect to the course as a whole and each course component: attendance, participation, assigned reading, reaction comments, papers, and class presentations. You should (a) reflect on what you have learned, critically examining your strengths and weaknesses in each area using specific examples; (b) give yourself a grade using the criteria described below; and (c) explain the reasons for your grade.

Although I will not grade the evaluation, it is required. You are in the best position to know the amount and nature of the time and effort you put into this class. Sometimes that can be conveyed best to the instructor through a thoughtful, thorough, honest self-evaluation and can make a difference in the case of borderline or erratic grades.


Teachers at UIS are required to assign grades when asked to do so by the student. This can be a difficult, frustrating, and sometimes destructive task. I am glad to provide evaluative feedback in the form of written comments and one-to-one conferences, but reducing a subjective evaluation to a single letter is a gross oversimplification. Grading fosters excessive competition at the expense of real learning, and makes distinctions among you for the benefit of institutions over which you have little control. Although the significance of a single grade is often minimal, I know that worrying is inevitable when your overall GPA affects graduation honors, postgraduate education, and careers.

To reduce your anxiety, consider taking the course on a Credit/No Credit basis. If you do so, your transcript will indicate either Credit (for undergraduates receiving at least a C and for graduate students getting at least a B) or No Credit, and the course will not count in your GPA.

Remember, though: To receive a C, all work must be completed in satisfactory fashion, with regular attendance. Students who plan on just getting by with a C sometimes miscalculate and end up with No Credit.

If you choose to receive a grade, keep in mind that I take grading seriously. I use the system described in the UIS Catalog, modified by pluses and minuses:

A = Excellent
= Good
C = Fair
D = Marginal But Passing
U = Unsatisfactory

Final course grades are based on the weighted average of all assignments, though I may give less weight to a single grade that is much lower than your others.

Students who are interested in the material and who work hard to meet all course expectations, read all assignments carefully, attend class and participate regularly, and routinely produce good work typically receive a B. Students whose truly excellent work goes beyond course expectations and requirements receive an A.

Note: Upper-division college students generally are expected to work about two hours outside class for every hour in class (eight hours a week on outside assignments for a four-credit course). Some students need more than eight hours to do adequate or better work. If you do not have enough time available, you should not take this course.

Cheating: Students who commit plagiarism or violate other standards of academic honesty will fail the course and be subject to further disciplinary action that can result in expulsion from the university.

If you have questions or concerns about your grades, please see me.

Tentative Course Outline


Course Introduction

Psychology and the Legal System (Wrightsman, Nietzel, & Fortune)

W Preface
W 1 Psychology & the Law: Impossible Choices




W 2 Psychologists & the Legal System

Fox, Psychology and Law: Justice Diverted (On Reserve)


W 3 Legality, Morality, & Justice


Journal of Social Issues: Affirmative Action [Special Issue]

JSI Articles 1-5

Fox, Social Sciences's Limited Role in Resolving Psycholegal Social Problems (On Reserve)



W 4 Lawyers: Socialization, Training, & Ethics
W 5 Theories of Crime


W 6 The Police & the Criminal Justice System

The Thin Blue Line (video)


W 7 Crime Investigation: Eyewitnesses
W 8 Identification and Evaluation of Criminal Suspects


Spring Break


W 9 The Rights of Victims & The Rights of the Accused
W 10 Between Arrest & Trial



W 11 Forensic Assessment I: Competence & Insanity
W 12 Forensic Assessment II: Civil Issues


W 13 The Trial Process
W 14 Jury Trials I: Jury Representativeness & Selection
W 15 Jury Trials II: Assumptions & Reforms

Frontline: Inside the Jury Room (video)


W 16 Psychology of Victims
W 17 The Rights of Special Groups
W 18 Punishment & Sentencing


JSI Articles 6-7


JSI Articles 8-13


Term Paper Presentations



Term Paper Presentations
Course Evaluation



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