PhD in Psychology: Cognition and Instruction

Doctor of Philosophy in General Psychology: Cognition and Instruction (Qualitative Research)

Offered By: College of Doctoral Studies

Help Communities Process Behavior and Experiences

Grand Canyon University’s Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in General Psychology: Cognition and Instruction is designed for students who wish to work with adult educational communities. You will investigate how cognitive processes can inform the most appropriate and effective instructional methods.

The coursework in this doctorate degree in psychology covers topics relevant to building and analyzing desired learning outcomes, including social cognition and assessments. Additionally, you will have opportunities to:

  • Analyze the impact of nature and nurture on cognitive development
  • Use theoretical and empirical approaches to examine mental processes
  • Create psychometrically sound measures
  • Apply cognitive psychology to learning and instruction
  • Explore how cognitive processes are used in practice

Entry into this qualitative doctorate program focusing on cognition and instruction requires a master’s degree.

When I chose to earn my Doctor of Philosophy in General Psychology at GCU, I was particularly interested in the emphasis of cognition and instruction because as a college professor teaching English composition, I knew it would complement what I was already doing. Regardless of what subject I’m teaching, if I can look at the way students learn and the way I teach, and the interactions between the two, I can teach with a more unified approach.

Dr. Keziah Tinkle-Williams, Doctor of Philosophy in General Psychology, Class of 2021

Benefits of GCU’s Qualitative Doctorate in Psychology

In this PhD in General Psychology, you will personally examine events with the expectation of working toward a better understanding of an observed phenomenon. You are taught how to develop research studies for the purpose of gaining insight into how and why people think, believe and behave as they do. This program differs from GCU’s quantitative PhD in General Psychology: Cognition and Instruction degree, which focuses on the creation of a sampling plan and the collection of numeric data.

GCU is committed to meeting the needs of adult learners. Our university offers an intuitive and interactive e-learning platform designed to allow you to earn your doctorate from anywhere. You’ll benefit from the same quality of instruction and curriculum as our on-campus evening students, and you’ll be able to engage in discussions with fellow learners and instructors online. Continue to meet your other obligations while working toward your PhD in psychology online.1

Doctoral students have the opportunity to take the doctorate in general psychology both online and through in-person evening classes. This hybrid format offers learners the flexibility and convenience of our online classes with the added dynamic of in-person lectures and discussions. You may be able to fit higher education around your existing schedule, continuing to work, if applicable, while meeting with your cohort to work through the curriculum together. Individual programs can vary, but most evening programs meet one class at a time, one night per week.

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Alumni Doctoral Degree Scholarship
Now Available

GCU alumni enrolling in a doctoral program for the first time may be eligible for a $2,000 scholarship.§

Cognition Psychology Course Topics

An empirical, research-based approach is at the heart of the doctorate in general psychology: cognition and instruction program. You will research and analyze findings on topics in mental and thought processes. These include:

  • Memory
  • Reasoning
  • Intelligence
  • Motivation
  • Learning

By exploring the principles of learning in theory and practice, you may have the opportunity to make an impact in the instruction that takes place in formal education settings.

Use Qualitative Research Methods and Writing Strategies for Your Dissertation

Because research is integral to work in cognitive psychology, the dissertation process begins in the first course of this PhD in psychology degree program, during which you are introduced to doctoral dispositions. You will take courses in advanced research methods and writing strategies, which teach the skills needed to present and defend a dissertation.

You can develop a general psychology dissertation topic for the PhD in psychology based on your own research and interests. You may be inspired to further explore the topics reviewed in this program, including:

  • Psychological tests to measure learning outcomes
  • Collaboration to increase instructional effectiveness
  • Human learning and cognition
  • Psychological theories related to motivation, needs, love and existence
  • Appropriate tests and measures
  • Factors affecting individual behavior

This PhD in General Psychology degree includes two in-person residencies on or near campus. These short-term residencies are designed to offer you hands-on experiences with research design principles, personalized guidance, and the opportunity to orally present and defend your preliminary dissertation research.

Career Paths for Doctorate in Psychology Students

This PhD in psychology aims to teach you to research and apply evidence-based instructional practices that can help learners flourish. Some graduates continue in their current positions, while others may seek new opportunities, such as university-level teachers and researchers.

Cognitive psychology specialists may pursue employment across a range of workplace settings. These may include:2

  • Universities
  • Government or private research centers 
  • Hospitals
  • Consulting groups

There is a range of possibilities available to the curious researcher. After earning your PhD in general psychology with cognition and instruction specialization, you may decide to focus your professional practice on exploring why some people develop sensory or perception difficulties or on the most effective methods for learning foreign languages. Alternatively, you may decide to become a psychology consultant for the business or legal fields.2

Graduate With a Doctorate From an Institutionally Accredited University

As an institutionally accredited university, GCU is proud to continue our longstanding tradition of delivering quality instruction to our student community. The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) has continually accredited GCU since 1968. The College of Doctoral Studies shares the university’s commitment to upholding the principles and standards established by our accrediting bodies.

PhD in Psychology: Cognition and Instruction Degree FAQs

Earning a PhD in psychology is a significant undertaking. Before you enroll, consider browsing the following FAQs and answers about the cognitive psychology field.

Cognitive and behavioral psychology degrees both use principles that can help people live better lives. Behavioral psychology primarily focuses on the observable behavior of individuals. It is the scientific approach to exploring how our behavior can be shaped by reinforcement and punishment. A cognitive psychology degree deals with information processing. It uses principles of human learning and development as well as cognitive processing.3

Cognitive psychology researchers focus on the internal mental processes of individuals. They study how people perceive events and life experiences, memory and language processing, and how people think and then come up with solutions or decisions.4 A career in cognitive psychology may involve jobs within universities, government agencies, treatment centers and research facilities.2

The amount of time it takes to complete a PhD in general psychology can depend upon a variety of factors (e.g., previous completed prerequisites and/or prior experience). To practice in a clinical setting, students pursuing a cognitive psychology and instruction program may need specific licensing required by their state. GCU does not offer a clinical program. GCU’s PhD in cognitive psychology offers online and evening courses that allow flexibility during a rigorous program. For information about time to completion, visit the doctoral programs page.

If you’re passionate about figuring out how the brain works and how to help students learn more effectively, then studying cognitive and instruction psychology could be the right choice for you. There will likely be some aspects of the degree program that you may find challenging, but these are opportunities to embrace personal growth and professional development. By the time you defend your dissertation, you may notice that you feel more confident about the subject matter and that you feel capable of pursuing exciting professional opportunities in your field.

If you are eager to explore how people learn and how instruction and assessment can lead to academic achievement, a qualitative general psychology degree may be for you. Apply today to earn your doctorate at GCU.

1 Online courses exclude programs with residencies and field experience.

2 American Psychological Association. (2014). A career in cognitive psychology. American Psychological Association. Retrieved Nov. 8, 2023.

3 Psychology School Guide. (n.d.). What is the difference between cognitive and behavioral psychology? Psychology School Guide. Retrieved Nov. 8, 2023.

4 American Psychological Association. (2022, May). Cognitive psychology explores our mental processes. American Psychological Association. Retrieved Nov. 8, 2023.


§ MOU-Alumni 2000 Doctoral-May2024: The Alumni Scholarship for Doctoral Programs is only valid for those applicants who submit a complete application and begin a Doctoral program in May 2024. This scholarship cannot be used in conjunction with any other GCU scholarship or awards and only applies to online and evening programs. Please speak to a university counselor for complete details.

Time to Completion and Dissertation Process

To learn more about time to completion and the dissertation process at GCU, visit our doctoral page.

Course List

60 credits
Degree Requirements:
60 credits

Core Courses

Course Description

This course introduces doctoral learners to the principle elements of research, scholarly writing, and effective argumentation. Learners are made aware of the dispositions and expectations of doctoral researchers as well as the University’s overarching values and beliefs regarding research and the responsibility of scholars to contribute new knowledge to their respective fields of study. Learners begin the process of identifying a researchable dissertation topic and are acquainted with appropriate scholarly resources that support the development of the dissertation.

Course Description

In this course, learners are introduced to the critical reading of scholarly qualitative and quantitative literature at the doctoral level. Learners also explore the concept of synthesizing the scholarly literature to identify problems and problem spaces that emerge to form a researchable topic of study. The application of scholarly argumentation from the extant literature to defend the need for a research study is discussed.

Course Description

This course is designed to familiarize the graduate student with the major schools of thought in psychology and their philosophical origins. The individuals and their personal experiences are examined in depth. The social, economic, and political forces that have influenced the developing discipline of psychology are also examined.

Course Description

This course is an introduction to the nature, origins, and history of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Although not a clinically based course, the course does address the psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic strategies used to assist individuals with managing personal and inter-personal issues leading to improved mental health.

Course Description

In this course, learners are introduced to key components of qualitative and quantitative research designs and the means to critically appraise the application of research designs as observed in the scholarly literature. The University's core research designs are presented. Consideration is given to the initial selection and defense of a research design to address a problem that emerged from the extant literature.

Course Description

This residency allows learners to continue developing their skills as academic researchers. Learners will have hands-on experience applying quantitative and qualitative design principals to develop the foundational elements for their potential dissertation studies. Prerequisite: RES-850, RES-825, RES-831, or RCS-831.

Course Description

This course provides an introduction to the sampling, data collection, and data analysis methods employed in qualitative and quantitative research designs. Learners explore the alignment of sampling, data collection, and data analysis methods to the research topic, research questions, and research design. The course positions learners to select qualitative or quantitative designs for their dissertation studies. Prerequisite: RES-831.

Course Description

This course examines the historical and theoretical background of the behavioristic movement and its major works. The course also examines methods and techniques to help teach and learn new behaviors as well as the concepts and strategies to diminish or eliminate unwanted behaviors.

Course Description

This course examines theoretical and empirical approaches to understanding different mental processes, including perception, attention, reasoning, intelligence, creativity, concept formation, memory, mental imagery, language, emotional states, and moral reasoning. The development and underlying foundations of these processes and their instantiation in the brain are examined.

Course Description

This course explores the historical roots, theoretical foundations, major works, and guiding philosophy of Humanistic, Transpersonal and Existential (HTE) psychology. This course also examines the different approaches to studying HTE as it relates to human motivation, needs, will, love, and existence in a contemporary world.

Course Description

In this course, learners explore the basic components of GCU qualitative core research designs including descriptive, case study, and phenomenology. The nature of epistemological foundations and the structure of problem statements, purpose statements, research questions, data sources, collection and analysis approaches are discussed in the context of each design.

Course Description

In this course, learners differentiate the epistemological foundations and explore the data trustworthiness, research ethics, and potential for bias in descriptive, case study, and phenomenology research designs. The process of building a rationale for design choice and aligning the research questions, interview questions, problem statement, and purpose statement is addressed. Sources of qualitative data are introduced for each design, and ethical aspects of research are discussed. Prerequisite: RES-841.

Course Description

This course is designed to apply theories of cognitive psychology to learning and instruction, and thus explores the principles of learning in the context of formal education. Educational research related to classroom practice and application is considered in four domains: information processing/memory, attitudes/motivation, intelligence, and formal learning.

Course Description

In this residency, learners orally present and defend an expanded design of their preliminary dissertation research from RSD-851. Emphasis is placed on developing the qualitative dissertation. Prerequisite: RES-843.

Course Description

This course is a study of social cognition, including how people understand themselves and other people. Prerequisite: PSY-863.

Course Description

In this course, learners apply the skills of the practitioner-scholar. They are self-motivated and committed to reflective practice. They actively seek input from other scholars while continuing to design independent research under the guidance of the dissertation committee. Prerequisite: RES-871, PSY-885, RSD-883, or RSD-884.

Course Description

In this course, learners explore qualitative data collection techniques and sources of qualitative data in the context of answering the research questions posed by a study. Consideration is given to the recognition of data saturation and the management of data. Learners continue to work with their respective dissertation chairs to prepare a written statement of data collection, and management activities. Prerequisite: RES-843.

Course Description

In this course, learners apply the skills of the practitioner-scholar. They are self-motivated and committed to reflective practice. They actively seek input from other scholars while continuing to design and/or conduct independent research under the guidance of the dissertation committee. Prerequisite: PSY-955.

Course Description

In this course, learners focus on the interpretation of qualitative data to produce written research findings, results, and implications. Learners continue to work with their respective dissertation chairs and apply information from this course to move ahead in the dissertation process. Prerequisite: RES-873.

Course Description

In this course, learners apply the skills of the practitioner-scholar. They are self-motivated and committed to reflective practice. They actively seek input from other scholars while continuing to design and/or conduct independent research under the guidance of the dissertation committee. Prerequisite: PSY-960.

GCU Online Student

Pursue a next-generation education with an online degree from Grand Canyon University. Earn your degree with convenience and flexibility with online courses that let you study anytime, anywhere.

* Please note that this list may contain programs and courses not presently offered, as availability may vary depending on class size, enrollment and other contributing factors. If you are interested in a program or course listed herein please first contact your University Counselor for the most current information regarding availability.

* Please refer to the Academic Catalog for more information. Programs or courses subject to change.