Psychology is a fascinating subject that many high school students get exposed to for the first time. If you’re wondering what exactly you’ll learn in a high school psychology course, you’re in the right place.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: In high school psychology classes, students typically learn about psychological perspectives and theories, the brain and nervous system, stages of human development, social psychology topics like conformity and persuasion, and more methods like experiments and case studies.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll give you a detailed overview of the key topics covered in a standard high school psychology curriculum.

Psychological Perspectives and Theories

Psychoanalytic Perspective

The psychoanalytic perspective, developed by Sigmund Freud, emphasizes the role of unconscious thoughts and desires in influencing human behavior. This perspective suggests that our behavior is driven by unconscious motives and conflicts, which can be explored through techniques such as dream analysis and free association.

Psychoanalysis aims to bring these unconscious processes into conscious awareness, allowing individuals to gain insight into their behavior and make positive changes in their lives.

Behavioral Perspective

The behavioral perspective focuses on observable behavior and how it is influenced by external stimuli and the consequences of our actions. This perspective suggests that behavior can be learned through conditioning, whether it be classical conditioning (associating a neutral stimulus with a natural response) or operant conditioning (reinforcing or punishing a behavior to increase or decrease its occurrence).

Understanding the principles of behavior can help individuals modify their own behavior or shape the behavior of others in various settings, such as education, therapy, and parenting.

Humanistic Perspective

The humanistic perspective emphasizes the importance of personal growth, self-actualization, and subjective experiences. This perspective suggests that individuals have an innate drive to fulfill their potential and strive for personal happiness and fulfillment.

Humanistic psychologists, such as Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, believe that individuals have free will and are responsible for their own choices and actions. The humanistic perspective encourages individuals to focus on their unique qualities, values, and goals, and to develop a positive self-concept and self-esteem.

Biological Perspective

The biological perspective explores the biological basis of behavior and mental processes. It examines how genetics, brain structure and function, and other biological factors influence our thoughts, emotions, and behavior.

This perspective suggests that our behavior and psychological processes are influenced by our biology, including our hormones, neurotransmitters, and genetic predispositions. Understanding the biological underpinnings of behavior can help researchers and clinicians develop effective treatments for mental health disorders and improve overall well-being.

Cognitive Perspective

The cognitive perspective focuses on how people perceive, think, and process information. It explores how our mental processes, such as attention, memory, problem-solving, and decision-making, influence our behavior and emotions.

This perspective suggests that our thoughts and interpretations of events play a crucial role in shaping our behavior and emotional experiences. Understanding cognitive processes can help individuals develop strategies to improve their thinking skills, problem-solving abilities, and overall mental well-being.

Sociocultural Perspective

The sociocultural perspective examines how social and cultural factors influence our behavior and mental processes. It emphasizes the importance of considering the cultural norms, values, and social contexts in understanding human behavior.

This perspective suggests that our behavior is shaped by the society and culture in which we live, including our family, peers, and larger societal influences. Studying the sociocultural perspective helps us understand how individuals from different cultures and backgrounds may have different beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, and promotes cultural sensitivity and inclusivity.

Brain and Nervous System

Parts and Functions of the Brain

The brain is a complex organ that plays a vital role in our everyday lives. In high school psychology, students learn about the different parts of the brain and their functions. One of the key areas of focus is the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for higher-level thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making.

Students also learn about the limbic system, which controls emotions and memory, and the brainstem, which regulates basic bodily functions such as breathing and heart rate. Understanding the different parts of the brain helps students gain insight into how these areas work together to influence our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

Neurons and Neurotransmitters

Another important topic covered in high school psychology is the study of neurons and neurotransmitters. Neurons are the building blocks of the nervous system, responsible for transmitting signals throughout the body.

Students learn about the structure and function of neurons, as well as how they communicate with each other through chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. This knowledge helps students understand how information is processed and transmitted in the brain, and how imbalances in neurotransmitters can contribute to mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety.

The Endocrine System

The endocrine system is a network of glands that secrete hormones into the bloodstream to regulate various bodily functions. In high school psychology, students learn about the role of hormones in behavior and emotions.

They explore the connection between the endocrine system and the nervous system, and how hormones can influence mood, stress response, and other physiological processes. Understanding the interplay between the endocrine system and the brain provides students with a comprehensive understanding of the complex factors that contribute to human behavior.

Right and Left Brain Hemispheres

The concept of right and left brain hemispheres is a popular topic in high school psychology. Students learn about the different functions associated with each hemisphere and how they contribute to our cognitive abilities.

The left hemisphere is often associated with language, logic, and analytical thinking, while the right hemisphere is linked to creativity, visual-spatial skills, and holistic thinking. Students explore how these different hemispheres work together to create a balanced and integrated cognitive experience.

Plasticity of the Brain

One fascinating area of study in high school psychology is the plasticity of the brain. Students learn that contrary to popular belief, the brain is not a fixed and unchanging organ. Instead, it has the ability to reorganize itself and form new neural connections throughout life.

This concept of neuroplasticity highlights the brain’s capacity for learning and adaptation. Students explore how experiences, environmental factors, and learning can shape the brain’s structure and function.

Understanding the brain’s plasticity helps students appreciate the power of education and lifelong learning in shaping our cognitive abilities.

Stages of Development

When studying psychology in high school, one important topic covered is the different stages of development that individuals go through. Understanding these stages can provide valuable insights into human behavior and help us make sense of the complex world around us.

Prenatal Development

Prenatal development is the first stage of human development and refers to the period from conception to birth. During this stage, the fertilized egg undergoes a series of rapid changes, eventually developing into a fully formed fetus.

Students in high school psychology learn about the various factors that can influence prenatal development, such as genetics, maternal health, and environmental factors. They also explore the different developmental milestones that occur during this stage, such as the formation of organs and the development of the nervous system.

Infancy and Childhood

The stage of infancy and childhood is a critical period of development that spans from birth to adolescence. During this stage, children experience significant physical, cognitive, and social-emotional growth.

High school psychology students delve into topics such as motor development, language acquisition, and the formation of attachments. They also learn about various theories of child development, including Piaget’s cognitive development theory and Erikson’s psychosocial stages.

Understanding these theories helps students gain insights into the ways in which children perceive and interact with the world around them.


Adolescence is a stage of development characterized by significant physical, cognitive, and social changes. High school psychology curriculum typically covers the unique challenges and experiences faced by teenagers during this period.

Students study topics such as identity formation, peer influence, and the development of moral reasoning. They also explore the impact of hormonal changes on behavior and the potential risks associated with adolescence, such as substance abuse and mental health issues.

Understanding the complexities of adolescence can help students develop empathy and support for their peers going through this transformative stage of life.


Adulthood encompasses the stage of development that follows adolescence and continues throughout a person’s life. High school psychology courses may touch upon the different aspects of adulthood, including physical and cognitive changes, career development, and relationships.

Students learn about the different theories of adult development, such as Levinson’s theory of adulthood stages and Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development in adulthood. They also explore topics such as marriage, parenting, and the challenges and opportunities that arise during this stage of life.

Understanding the various stages of development is crucial for high school students studying psychology. It provides them with a framework to comprehend the complexities of human behavior and allows them to gain insights into their own experiences and the experiences of others.

By exploring the stages of development, students can develop a deeper appreciation for the diversity and uniqueness of each individual’s journey through life.

Learning and Memory

In a high school psychology class, students will explore the fascinating world of learning and memory. This topic delves into how humans and animals acquire information, retain it, and retrieve it when needed.

Understanding the mechanisms behind learning and memory can provide valuable insights into human behavior and cognition.

Classical Conditioning

One of the key concepts taught in high school psychology is classical conditioning. This theory, pioneered by Ivan Pavlov, explains how associations are formed between stimuli and responses. Students will learn about famous experiments involving Pavlov’s dogs and how they were trained to associate the sound of a bell with the expectation of food.

This form of learning is also known as Pavlovian conditioning and has applications in various fields, including advertising and therapy.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is another important aspect of learning covered in high school psychology. This theory, developed by B.F. Skinner, focuses on how behavior is influenced by consequences. Students will explore concepts such as reinforcement and punishment, and how they can shape behavior.

They will learn about experiments involving Skinner’s famous Skinner box and how animals can be trained using operant conditioning techniques.

Observational Learning

Observational learning, also known as social learning, is a type of learning that occurs through observing others. In high school psychology, students will learn about the influential work of Albert Bandura and his Bobo doll experiment.

This experiment demonstrated how children can learn aggressive behavior by observing aggressive models. Observational learning plays a significant role in the development of social skills and can have a profound impact on behavior.

Types of Memory

High school psychology classes also cover the different types of memory. Students will learn about sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory. They will explore the processes of encoding, storage, and retrieval.

Additionally, they will delve into the concept of working memory, which involves the manipulation and processing of information in the short term.


Forgetting is a natural part of the memory process, and high school psychology classes discuss the factors that can contribute to it. Students will learn about interference, decay, and retrieval failure as potential causes of forgetting.

They will also explore strategies for improving memory retention, such as mnemonic devices and rehearsal techniques.

Understanding the intricacies of learning and memory is crucial for gaining insights into human behavior and cognitive processes. High school psychology classes provide a foundation for further exploration of these topics in higher education and beyond.

Motivation and Emotion

In the field of psychology, motivation and emotion are two important aspects that are studied extensively. Understanding how motivation drives our behavior and how emotions influence our experiences can provide valuable insights into human behavior and mental processes.

Theories of Motivation

There are several theories of motivation that psychologists have developed to explain why we behave the way we do. One prominent theory is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which suggests that individuals are motivated to fulfill their basic physiological needs such as food, water, and shelter before moving on to higher-level needs like love, belonging, and self-actualization.

Another theory is the Expectancy-Value Theory, which posits that our motivation to engage in a particular behavior is influenced by our expectations of success and the value we place on the outcome. For example, a student may be motivated to study for an exam because they expect to perform well and value the potential rewards of a good grade.

Hunger Motivation

Hunger is a powerful motivator that drives us to seek out food and maintain our physiological well-being. The physiological mechanisms that regulate hunger involve complex interactions between the brain, hormones, and the digestive system.

When we are hungry, the hormone ghrelin is released, signaling the brain to increase food intake.

Psychologists have also studied the psychological factors that influence hunger motivation. For example, external cues such as the sight or smell of food can trigger hunger even when we are not physiologically hungry.

Additionally, emotional factors such as stress or boredom can also lead to increased food consumption as a way to cope with these emotions.

Achievement Motivation

Achievement motivation refers to the drive to excel, accomplish goals, and succeed. This type of motivation is often influenced by a combination of internal and external factors. Some individuals may have a strong intrinsic motivation to achieve, meaning they are driven by personal satisfaction and a sense of mastery.

Others may have a more extrinsic motivation, where they are driven by external rewards such as praise, recognition, or financial incentives.

Psychologists have also studied the impact of achievement motivation on academic performance. Research has shown that individuals with high achievement motivation are more likely to set challenging goals, persist in the face of obstacles, and engage in effective study strategies.

Theories of Emotion

Emotions play a crucial role in our daily lives, influencing our thoughts, behaviors, and overall well-being. Psychologists have developed various theories to explain the origins and functions of emotions.

One well-known theory is the James-Lange theory, which suggests that emotions are the result of physiological responses to stimuli. According to this theory, we experience emotions based on how our bodies respond to different situations.

Another theory is the Cannon-Bard theory, which proposes that emotions and physiological responses occur simultaneously and independently of one another. This theory suggests that emotions are triggered by the brain’s interpretation of a situation, leading to both physiological changes and emotional experiences.

Positive and Negative Emotions

Emotions can be categorized as positive or negative based on their valence. Positive emotions, such as joy, happiness, and excitement, are associated with feelings of well-being and satisfaction. On the other hand, negative emotions, such as anger, fear, and sadness, are associated with discomfort and distress.

Research has shown that experiencing positive emotions can have a range of benefits, including improved mental health, enhanced resilience, and better social relationships. Conversely, prolonged or intense negative emotions can have detrimental effects on our well-being and may contribute to the development of mental health disorders.

Understanding motivation and emotion is essential in many areas of psychology, including clinical psychology, organizational psychology, and educational psychology. By studying these topics in high school psychology, students gain valuable insights into human behavior and develop skills that can be applied in various aspects of life.

Social Psychology

Social psychology is a fascinating branch of psychology that examines how individuals’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the social environment. It provides valuable insights into the dynamics of human interactions and helps us understand why people behave the way they do in social situations.

Conformity and Obedience

Conformity and obedience are two important concepts in social psychology. Conformity refers to the tendency of individuals to adjust their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to align with those of a group.

It is influenced by factors such as the desire to fit in, the fear of social rejection, and the need for social approval. Obedience, on the other hand, refers to the act of following the commands or instructions of an authority figure.

These concepts were famously studied by psychologist Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram, respectively.

Prejudice and Discrimination

Prejudice and discrimination are unfortunate aspects of human behavior that can have significant negative impacts on individuals and society as a whole. Prejudice refers to preconceived opinions or attitudes towards a particular group of people based on stereotypes, while discrimination involves treating individuals unfairly or unequally because of their membership in a certain group.

Understanding the causes and consequences of prejudice and discrimination is crucial for promoting equality and social justice.


Persuasion is a powerful tool that can influence people’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. In social psychology, researchers study the various techniques and strategies that individuals and organizations use to persuade others.

This includes understanding the factors that make a message more persuasive, such as the credibility of the source, the emotional appeal of the message, and the use of persuasive tactics like reciprocity and scarcity.


Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when a group of people make faulty decisions because they prioritize harmony and consensus over critical thinking and objective analysis. This can lead to poor decision-making, as dissenting voices and alternative viewpoints are suppressed or ignored.

Understanding groupthink is important for avoiding the pitfalls of group decision-making and promoting a culture of open-mindedness and constructive dissent.

Bystander Effect

The bystander effect refers to the tendency of individuals to be less likely to help someone in need when other people are present. This phenomenon is believed to occur due to diffusion of responsibility, social influence, and a fear of social embarrassment or negative evaluation.

By studying the bystander effect, psychologists aim to understand how and why people sometimes fail to intervene in emergency situations and to develop strategies to encourage prosocial behavior.

Research Methods

In a high school psychology class, students learn about various research methods that psychologists use to study human behavior and mental processes. These research methods provide valuable insights into the workings of the human mind and help psychologists make informed conclusions about various psychological phenomena.

Here are some of the key research methods covered in a high school psychology curriculum:

Descriptive Research

Descriptive research involves observing and describing behavior without manipulating any variables. It aims to provide a detailed picture of a particular phenomenon or group of people. One common method of descriptive research is naturalistic observation, where psychologists observe and record behavior in its natural setting, without any intervention.

Another method is surveys, where researchers collect data by asking participants a series of questions. Descriptive research helps psychologists understand patterns and characteristics of behavior in different contexts.

Correlational Research

Correlational research examines the relationship between two variables. It aims to determine whether a relationship exists and the strength of that relationship. Correlational research does not imply causation, but it can provide valuable information about the association between variables.

For example, a study might find a positive correlation between the amount of exercise an individual engages in and their overall well-being. Correlational research helps psychologists identify patterns and make predictions about behavior.

Experimental Research

Experimental research involves manipulating variables to determine cause and effect relationships. In an experiment, researchers manipulate one variable (the independent variable) and measure its effects on another variable (the dependent variable).

This allows researchers to draw conclusions about causality. Experimental research often involves random assignment of participants to different groups to ensure unbiased results. For example, an experiment might investigate the effects of sleep deprivation on memory by randomly assigning participants to either a sleep-deprived group or a well-rested group.

Experimental research helps psychologists draw causal conclusions about behavior.

Case Studies

Case studies involve in-depth examination of a single individual, group, or phenomenon. Researchers collect detailed information through interviews, observations, and reviewing documents or records. Case studies are often used when studying rare or unique cases that provide valuable insights into specific psychological phenomena.

For example, a case study might examine the effects of a traumatic brain injury on an individual’s personality and cognitive abilities. Case studies provide rich and detailed information that can contribute to our understanding of complex psychological issues.

For more information on research methods in psychology, you can visit the American Psychological Association’s website at


From psychoanalysis to social psychology, a high school psychology course covers all the critical topics to give you a solid foundation. You’ll gain insight into human behavior and mental processes while learning useful research and critical thinking skills.

While this outline summarizes the key concepts, there are always opportunities to go more in-depth. If you find psychology fascinating, consider taking AP Psychology or psychology electives later in high school. The skills you build will serve you well in college and life.

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