2. The Reference Model

The Reference Model shows the basic dimensions and structure of the curriculum, i.e. the major facets to be distinguished and the main content areas to be covered. Below the model's dimensions and overall structure are presented, and a generic description of its content is given. Moreover, a list of didactic methods suitable for presenting the content is given.

2.1. Dimensions

The model has four dimensions, i.e. educational objectives, fields of study, type of science, and depth-of-specialization which are described here below

2.1.1. Educational objectives

Generally speaking three sets of educational objectives can be distinguished:

a. the acquisition of knowledge

b. the acquisition of skills

c. the acquisition of competencies for professional activity

d. the acquisition of competencies for scientific research.

The term 'knowledge' is used to refer to theories and concepts on work and organizational phenomena, to methods and techniques for studying them, and to empirical data. Knowledge should be conceived in a broad way. It includes the awareness of different approaches, the relationships between theories, etc. The term skills denotes the ability to apply knowledge and to effectively use methods and techniques. Professional competencies are complex sets of knowledge and skills by which problems encountered in professional practice can be solved. And research competencies are similar sets of knowledge and skills needed in designing and conducting research studies.

While the dimension of educational objectives is of a general nature it is used in the Reference Model to refer to knowledge, skills, and problems that are typical for the world of work and organization. General research methods and strategies, although certainly important, are supposed to be dealt with in the context of the psychology curriculum as a whole, and hence be left out of consideration.

2.1.2. Fields of study

It is generally recognized that the discipline of W&O Psychology covers three fields of study, each of which focuses on different parts and aspects of human work activity. These fields are:

a. work psychology

b. personnel psychology

c. organizational psychology.

Work psychology concerns people's work activity, i.e. the way in which people deal with their tasks. Persons are seen as workers who (individually and collectively) perform tasks that are derived from the work processes taking place in the organization. Important subjects are: tasks, work environment, time arrangements, performance, error, effort, load, fatigue, task design, tool design (cf. ergonomics), etc.

Personnel psychology concerns the relationship between persons and the organization, in particular the establishment of the relationship, its development, and termination. Persons are seen as individuals who at a certain stage of their career become 'employees' of an organization. Important subjects are: choice processes of individuals and organizations, abilities and capabilities, needs and need fulfilment, commitment, methods of selection, career development, appraisal, pay, training, etc.

Organizational psychology concerns the (collective) behaviour of people in relation to the shaping and functioning of socio-technical arrangements designated as organizations. People are involved in this arrangement as 'members'. Important subjects are: communication, decision making, power, leadership, participation, cooperation, conflict, organizational culture, organizational structure, technology, organizational change, interorganizational relations etc.

It should be noted that in some countries different notions are being used, pertaining to combinations or cross-sections of the three fields mentioned here. Examples are: Industrial psychology and Occupational psychology. The three fields of study have been chosen because they can be differentiated from one another rather well, in scientific as well as professional respect. In spite of some overlap, there are differences in terms of object of study and research methods on the one hand, and diagnostic and intervention methods on the other hand.

The relative development of the fields and the importance assigned to them have shown differences in the various European countries. In some countries there as been a single dominant area (e.g. work psychology in France, or in some Eastern European countries), in other countries one could see two main fields emerge (e.g. work psychology and organizational psychology in Sweden, or personnel psychology and organizational psychology in Spain), and so on. In other cases there has been a more balanced situation with a more or less equal position of the thee fields (e.g. in Germany and the Netherlands). Although differences in emphasis are still visible in both scientific research and teaching, and in professional activity, there is an apparent trend towards more balance between the three fields and a growing convergence between the European countries.

2.1.3. Type of science

The third distinction to be made is that between explanatory science, or science that tries to understand existing reality on the one hand, and technological or change-oriented science, that aims at changing reality on the other hand. While some disciplines are characterized by the prevalence of one of these types of sciences, this is not true for W&O psychology. As this discipline deals with a reality that is by its very nature created and modified by man, it has components of both technological and explanatory science. E.g. one finds both theory on work performance and on performance optimization, on workers' abilities and personnel selection, or on organizational analysis and organizational design. The relative emphasis on either type of science shows some variation from country to country, though.

The distinction between science and technology referred to here, should not be confused with that between fundamental research and application. Both explanatory science and technology have their fundamental research, and both can be applied by practitioners to singular problems of people or organizations. Research on principles of selection can be considered as an example of fundamental technological research. The explanation of a particular state of conflict that a client organization is in, a case of organizational diagnosis, represents an example of applied explanatory science. And so on.

2.1.4. Depth-of-specialization

Theories and methods of W&O Psychology can be dealt with at various levels, differing in breadth of scope and degree of detail. It is assumed that in general three levels can be distinguished: (a) the level of systematic introduction, covering principles, methods and facts of a certain subject area, (b) the level of focused study of problems and methods, and (c) the level of detailed study of a particular issue. The curricula offered by different universities differ with respect to the level of depth reached and the topics of greater specialization. In this way universities show their unique profile and history. The Minimal Standards allow for such diversity, but they also emphasize the need for commonality at the lower levels of specialization


2.2. Structure of the model

By crossing the four dimensions mentioned above a multidimensional matrix is obtained that shows the structure of the curriculum. For the purpose of graphic presentation the first three dimensions (educational objectives, fields of study and type of science) are selected and arranged in a two-dimensional layout in the following figure. The fourth dimension (level of specialization) is not displayed, since it does plays a minor role in the Minimal Standards. It should be borne in mind that existing curricula may differ in level of specialization, and that all curriculum components represented by the cells of the figure may differ with respect to this dimension.

Table 1: Reference Model


objective/ type of science

General Course (G)

W1 P1 O1

Knowledge of theories 



P2 O2

Knowledge of theory



P3 O3

Diagnostic skills



P4 O4

Intervention skills


Professional Training

(e.g. stage, ethics course)

Professional competencies

Research Training

(e.g. research project, advanced method courses)

 Research competencies



2.3. Content of the model

The model as presented here helps to set a standard for the content which European curricula in W&O-psychology should meet. That is, it helps to provide an operational definition of the 'common core' of W&O-psychology as it has developed till the end of the 20st century. The model is described in two parts. First, the educational objectives are specified, taking into account the distinction between types of science. The objectives correspond to the rows of the above presented matrix. Secondly, a generic description is given of subject matter to be covered by each of the curriculum components. These components correspond with the cells of the matrix. A more detailed description of the curriculum components is given in the section on Minimal Standards.

2.3.1. Educational objectives

The following educational objectives should be met:

1. Orientation

Orientation means: the acquisition of (meta)knowledge about W&O psychology, the context in which it is developed and practised, especially nationally and in Europe, and the general methods of research and application.

2. Knowledge of explanatory theory

The knowledge to be obtained includes empirical knowledge about psychological phenomena related to work, employment relations and the functioning of organizations, as well as knowledge of theories by which such phenomena can be ordered and explained. It also includes meta-knowledge like the awareness of different approaches, the relationships between theories, etc.

3. Knowledge of technological theory

Technological knowledge or 'know-how' pertains to the ways in which the empirical reality of work and the psychological phenomena related to it can be influenced. It includes knowledge of the possibilities for the design of work, personnel management systems, and organizations, and the ways by which they can be changed. It includes meta-knowledge about different technological paradigms (e.g. selection, training, development) and their relationships.

4. Diagnostic skills

These skills relate to the use of methods, techniques and instruments by which psychological phenomena can be assessed, including tests, interviews, observation techniques, job analysis instruments, content analysis, etc.

5. Intervention skills

These skills concern the (re)design of tasks and tools, as well as personnel management programmes (especially selection and training), and organizational arrangements, as well as the implementation thereof. Skills also cover training and participative interventions.

6. Professional competencies

These competencies include intake, diagnosis, problem solving, planning, intervention, evaluation, reporting, and documentation with regard to a particular type of problem posed by an individual or organizational client. Communication, client participation, and professional ethics are aspects deserving special attention.

7. Research competencies

Research competencies relate to the formulating a research problem, retrieving and reviewing existing evidence, making a research design, sampling, getting access to respondents, data collection, analysis, reporting and documentation.

2.3.2. Curriculum components

Curriculum components are defined as parts of the curriculum covering the knowledge, skills, and competencies to be acquired by the students with respect to the various combinations of fields of study and types of science. They are described in terms of topics to be studied and mastered by the students.

1. Courses

Most curriculum components can be operationalized by means of courses or other teaching activities. For the sake of convenience we make a distinction between: courses, apprenticeship (stage) and research projects. It should be kept in mind courses may take on different didactical forms. The same is true for stages and research projects.

In terms of their content courses may be either 'pure', that is only deal with the particular subject falling into a single cell of the model or be 'integrative' (or 'mixed'), that is cover two or more cells. Courses can also be differentiated in terms of depth-of-specialization. In a good curriculum both types of courses should be present. Pure courses offer a basis for a systematic development of declarative or procedural knowledge, while integrative courses help to make connections between various components and domains of knowledge. Integration is often sought along the lines of a problem, a theme and a professional role. Integration can also take place along specific dimensions of the model, e.g. from theory to skills (dimension I), across fields of study (dimension II), from existing reality to change (dimension III). Moreover, integration can be achieved on the basis of a theoretical or methodological approach (e.g. cognitive theories, or qualitative methods).

2. Apprenticeship (stage)

The general aim of the stage is to familiarize the student with the professional setting and activity of W&O psychologists, and to acquire basic professional competencies as described above. This is achieved by involving the student in an professional activity that brings him into contact with a client (organization) and a typical problem. Typically the student learns to work independently while being supervised by an expert. Different types of stages can be distinguished, like e.g.:

a.     orientation type: familiarization to a certain professional setting

b.     safari type: temporary presence in the setting for a particular purpose (e.g. the collection of data)

c.     rotation type: systematic familiarization with different parts of an organization, different roles, etc.

d.     role type: learning to fulfil a particular professional role

e.     project type: performing a project (individually or in a team) defined by a company or the university.

3. Research project

The general aim of the research project is to develop research competencies as were described above, by setting up and executing a research study under supervision by an experienced researcher. Projects can use a variety of methods, and include field experiments. Field studies, case studies, surveys, laboratory studies, and so on. They can be performed in companies as well as in university settings. Typically research projects include a study of the literature on a certain issue.


2.4. Didactics

Didactic methods are of great importance for in the training of W&O-psychology. Particularly important is that methods used confront the students with the reality of work and organization, as it exists in Europe, both in the classroom setting and outside of it. The professional and research competencies deserve special attention as well, as they have some unique features not found in other fields of psychological study. There is a need to disseminate the best didactic methods in order to improve the general effectiveness and efficiency of training.

Table 2: Didactic methods

       Knowledge                   Skills            Knowledge and skills

1. Lecture

2. Lecture and questions

3. Demonstration

4. Audiovisual

5. Computer Demonstrations

6. Practitioner's report

7. Student reading

8. Exercise

9. Computer exercises

10. Simulation / role play

11. Student assignement

12. Student group assignement

13. Case study

14. Discussion meeting

15. Small group discussion

16. Student oral presentation

17. Student paper

18. Site visit / excursion


The table above shows the didactic methods currently in use in European W&O curricula, structured according to the type of educational objective served.

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