Important Terms to Know in the Psychology Classroom

Important Terms to Know in the Psychology Classroom

Posted July 2019 by Sean Jackson, B.A. Social Studies Education, B.S.I.T.; M.S. Counseling; 7 updates since. Reading time: 8 min. Reading level: Grade 11+. Questions on classroom psychology terms? Email Toni at:

Studying psychology requires you to develop an understanding of an array of important psychology terms and definitions. Since psychology brings together many separate sciences, this means that the list of important terms to know is quite long.

Below, we’ve outlined some of the most critical terms you might encounter when studying psychology. These terms are arranged in alphabetical order for easier reference.

Amygdala – The amygdala is part of the limbic system and is responsible, in part, for behaviors related to eating and drinking, as well as sexual behaviors and aggression.

Anxiety – Anxiety involves a state of increased physiological arousal. Anxiety disorders are characterized by fear, apprehension, worried thoughts, and/or physical changes such as increased blood pressure, trembling, sweating, and dizziness. 

Autonomic nervous system – The autonomic nervous system is a division of the peripheral nervous system that is responsible for the functioning of internal organs and their processes, such as digestion, respiration, and heart rate. The autonomic nervous system is also the primary control of the fight-or-flight response.

Behavior – Behavior is a response or other action that is overtly observable and measurable.

Behaviorism – Behaviorism is a school of psychology that focuses on studying observable, measurable behaviors. 

Bipolar disorder – Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder characterized by periods of mania and depression. Emotions are extremely intense, and changes in mood are often rapid. Not everyone with bipolar disorder experiences depressive states, but everyone with this disorder does experience manic episodes.

Case study – A case study is an observational procedure in which a single subject is studied intensively over a long period of time.

Central nervous system – The central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord, optic nerves, and retina. The job of the central nervous system is to store and process information.

Cognition – The process of thinking, which includes learning, memory, perception, and consciousness.

Correlation – A correlation measures how two variables are related. A positive correlation exists when both variables increase or both decrease. A negative correlation exists when one variable increases and the other decreases.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) or Mental Disorders – The DSM is a diagnostic tool used by many in the helping professions to identify mental disorders and abnormal behaviors.

Dissociative identity disorder – A severe mental disorder in which a person has at least two distinct personalities. Each personality usually has a unique name, personality traits, characteristics, and memories.

Dream analysis – Dream analysis is a technique developed by Sigmund Freud in which a therapist interprets a client’s dreams (the actual events in the dream are known as manifest content) to reveal the hidden, underlying meaning (the latent content).

Drug tolerance – Tolerance builds with repeated drug use, which means larger and larger doses are required to achieve the same effect once generated by smaller doses.

Dysthymia – Dysthymia is a mood disorder that involves mild depression over a very long period of time.

Empirical study – This type of psychological research relies on systematic observation of behavior and specific measurements of those behaviors

Fight-or-flight response – This is a physiological reaction to a stressor in which the organism prepares to take action or flee.

Free association – Free association is a technique used in psychoanalysis that seeks to explore the client’s unconscious. The client is encouraged to say anything that comes to mind without editing their statements in any way.

Freudian theory – Freud’s psychodynamic theory of personality posits that conflicts between the conscious and unconscious, as well as childhood experiences, have strong influences on the development of one’s personality as an adult. 

Frontal lobe – Located in the front of the brain, the frontal lobe is responsible for the regulation of voluntary body movements.

Generalized anxiety disorder – A long-term disorder in which one feels anxious, but there is no clear reason for the anxiety.

Gestalt psychology – This theoretical approach to psychology holds that mental processes are best understood when evaluated as a whole (macro) rather than many smaller parts (micro).

Hippocampus – The hippocampus is located in the temporal lobe and is part of the limbic system. Its primary function involves memory.

Humanistic psychology – This psychological theory examines what it means to be human, to make one’s own choices, and how humans seek self-actualization.

Hypothalamus – The hypothalamus is located in the forebrain and has many functions, including those related to motivation and emotional behaviors. 

Intelligence quotient (IQ) – IQ is calculated by dividing the subject’s mental age by their chronological age and multiplying the result by 100. It is used as an index of intelligence for people of various chronological ages.

Limbic system – The limbic system is a collection of structures in the brain in the cerebral cortex, thalamus, and hypothalamus, and is involved in regulating motivation and emotional behavior.

Major depression – Major depression involves at least two weeks of depressed mood, loss of interest in activities, disrupted sleep patterns, loss of energy, inappropriate feelings of worthlessness or guilt, significant weight loss or weight gain, inability to concentrate, and suicidal ideation.

Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) – The MMPI is a test used for diagnostic purposes and consists of statements people are asked to deem as “true,” “false,” or “cannot say” about themselves. The responses provided are then compared to responses from people with particular psychological disorders to help determine a diagnosis.

Mood disorders – Mood disorders, including major depression, dysthymia, and bipolar disorder, are characterized by mood swings or chronic periods of intense sadness.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – This group of disorders is characterized by intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive actions (compulsions) whose purpose is to reduce feelings of anxiety brought about by the obsessive thoughts.

Occipital lobe – This lobe is responsible for perception as well as the analysis of information received from the visual system.

Parasympathetic nervous system – Part of the autonomic division of the peripheral nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system is involved in involuntary behaviors, like breathing and digestion. It works to conserve body energy and calm the body after an emergency. In that regard, it works to oppose the sympathetic nervous system.

Parietal lobe – Located between the frontal lobe and occipital lobe, the parietal lobe is involved with body position and tactile senses.

Peripheral nervous system – The peripheral nervous system includes nerves that communicate between the central nervous system and other parts of the body, such as sensory receptors, muscles, and glands.

Phobias – Intense and irrational fears that lead to the persistent and extreme desire to avoid specific objects or situations.

Piagetian theory – Developed by Jean Piaget, this theory of cognitive development posits that intellectual development occurs gradually over a variety of stages during which people acquire, construct, and use new knowledge.

Placebo effect – The placebo effect occurs when a patient experiences beneficial effects from a placebo (a chemically inert substance), even though it has no therapeutic value.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – PTSD is an anxiety disorder that develops in response to a traumatic event. The individual then experiences the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects of the trauma over and over again, resulting in feelings of horror, fear, and helplessness, as well as physiological symptoms like increased heart rate, sweating, and trembling.

Projective personality test – These tests are used for personality assessments and ask test-takers to interpret ambiguous stimuli such as inkblots. The responses are evaluated using the assumption that the test-takers’ unconscious desires will be revealed.

Psychoanalysis – Developed by Freud, this theory utilizes techniques like free association, dream interpretation, and transference to develop insight into the client’s unconscious motives and impulses.

Schizophrenia – Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder characterized by disturbances of thought, delusions and hallucinations, flat affect, or withdrawal.

Self-concept – Self-concept refers to one’s beliefs about themselves based on one’s thoughts and the responses of others to oneself.

Social identity – Social identity is a part of the self-concept that is derived from membership in one or more social groups.

Social psychology – The study of how people relate, think about, and influence one another.

Stanford-Binet test – One of the most widely used intelligence tests, the Stanford-Binet was originally developed to help identify schoolchildren who were likely to have learning difficulties in school.

Temperament – This term refers to one’s broad emotional traits, including one’s level of energy and reactivity to external stimuli.

Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) – A projective psychological test, the TAT asks respondents to conjure up narratives about ambiguous pictures of people. The purpose is to help reveal the test-taker’s underlying motives, thoughts, concerns, and so forth.

Transference – Transference is the process in psychoanalysis in which the patient transfers their emotional reactions from childhood (i.e., those toward their parents) onto the therapist.

Unconscious – The unconscious is the aspect of the mind that contains thoughts, feelings, urges, and memories that fall outside the realm of consciousness and are difficult to bring into consciousness.

Wechsler intelligence scale – Developed by David Wechsler, this intelligence test uses verbal and performance scales to measure one’s intelligence. It was developed to specifically test adults, since the Stanford-Binet test was designed for testing children, and therefore was not a valid measure of adult intelligence. Today, there are several different Wechsler tests, including one for children.

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