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AP Psychology Comprehensive Syllabus

AP Psychology Comprehensive Syllabus

Unit 1: Scientific Foundations of Psychology

Subtopic Subtopic Number AP Points to understand
Introducing Psychology 1.1 Understanding how philosophical and physiological perspectives shaped the development of psychological thought.

Identifying research contributions of major historical figures:

  • Charles Darwin
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Ivan Pavlov
  • Mary Whiton Calkins
  • William James

Structuralism: Analyzing the adult mind (the total sum of experience from birth to the present) in terms of the simplest definable components.

Functionalism: It is a psychological philosophy that describes the mind as a functional tool that allows us to adapt to our environments.

Different kinds of approaches: Evolutionary, Biological, Cognitive, Biopsychosocial

Understanding different domains of psychology: 

  • Biological: Concerned with the relationship between psychological processes and the underlying physiological event
  • Clinical: Concerned with the psychological specialty that provides continuing and comprehensive mental and behavioral health care for the people.
  • Developmental: It is the scientific study of how and why humans grow, change, and adapt across the course of their lives.

Cognitive, Experimental, Personality, Social, etc

Research Methods in Psychology 1.2 Understanding different research methods:

  • Experiments
  • Correlational studies
  • Survey research
  • Naturalistic observations
  • Case studies
  • Longitudinal studies
  • Cross-sectional studies

Behavioral research: It is the combination of quantitative and qualitative methods to measure human behavior, get new data, and analyze the effects of active treatment situations on human behavior.

Defining Psychological Science: The Experimental Method 1.3 Identifying independent, dependent, co-founding and control variables in experimental designs.

Use of experiments is to determine cause and effect.

Correlational research: Indicates if there is an existing relationship between two variables. However, this cannot depict cause and effect.

Selecting a Research Method 1.4 Predicting validity of behavioral explanations based on quality of research design.
Statistical Analysis in Psychology 1.5 Measures of central tendency: The number used to represent the center or middle of a set of data values.

Variation: The existence of qualitative differences in form, structure, behavior, and physiology among the individuals of a population, whether due to heredity or to environment.

Correlation coefficient: A statistic that is used to estimate the degree of linear relationship between two variables.

Frequency Distribution: A tabular representation of the number of times a specific value or datum point occurs

Descriptive statistics: Procedures for depicting the main aspects of sample data, without necessarily inferring to a larger population.

Inferential statistics: Ways of analyzing data using statistical tests that allow the researcher to make conclusions about whether a hypothesis was supported by the results.

Constructing graphs and calculating simple descriptive statistics

Ethical Guidelines in Psychology 1.6 How ethical and legal issues inform and constrain research practices and guidelines protect research participants.

Understanding the American Psychological Association, Federal regulations, Local Institutional Review Board and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee

Unit 2: Biological Bases of Behavior

Subtopic Subtopic Number AP Points to understand
Interaction of Heredity and Environment 2.1 Involvement of psychology of how heredity, environment and evolution work together to shape behavior

Identifying key research contributions of scientists like Charles Darwin

Traits: An enduring personality characteristic that describes or determines an individual’s behavior across a range of situations.

Behavior: How someone acts

The Endocrine System 2.2 Effect of endocrine system on behavior

The endocrine system plays a crucial role in regulating behavior by releasing hormones into the bloodstream that act on various organs and tissues throughout the body. 

Hormones are chemical messengers that can influence a wide range of physiological processes, including mood, motivation, appetite, stress response, and sexual behavior. 

Overview of the Nervous system and the Neuron 2.3 Central Nervous System: The body’s processing center – it consists of the brain and the spinal cord.

Peripheral Nervous System: A part of the nervous system that lies outside your brain and spinal cord. It plays a key role in both sending information from different areas of your body back to your brain, as well as carrying out commands from your brain to various parts of your body.

Neuron: A type of cell that receives and sends messages from the body to the brain and back to the body.

Understanding the parts of a neuron

Neural Firing 2.4 Transmission: Transmission of a nerve impulse happens across a synapse

Neurotransmitter: They are chemical messengers that your body can’t function without. 

Neural Firing: A communication between neurons through electrical impulses and neurotransmitters.

Influence of Drugs on Neural Firing 2.5 Influence of drugs on neurotransmitters

Agonists: Substances that bind to synaptic receptors and increase the effect of the neurotransmitter.

Antagonists: Substances that also bind to synaptic receptors but they decrease the effect of the neurotransmitter.

Reuptake mechanisms: The process by which neurotransmitter molecules that have been released at a synapse are reabsorbed by the presynaptic neuron that released them. 

The Brain 2.6 Brain: The brain integrates sensory information and directs motor responses.

Major brain regions: Cerebrum, Cerebellum, Brainstem, etc

Lobes: A subdivision of an organ when rounded and surrounded by distinct structural boundaries, such as fissures. Lobes in the brain include – Frontal lobe, parietal lobe, temporal lobe, and occipital lobe.

Cortical areas: Areas of the brain located in the cerebral cortex. 

Brain lateralization: The left and right sides of the brain are specialized to attend to different information, to process sensory inputs in different ways and to control different types of motor behavior. 

Contributions of key researchers to the study of the brain

Tools for Examining Brain Structure and Function 2.7 Understanding historic and contemporary research strategies and technologies.

Sample research tools:

  • Case studies
  • Split-brain research 
  • Imaging techniques
  • Lesioning
  • Autopsy

Contributions of Roger Sperry – Research about development of tools to examine the brain

The Adaptable Brain 2.8 Neuroplasticity: The brain’s ability to modify, change, and adapt both structure and function throughout life and in response to experience.

Contributions of Michael Gazzaniga

Psychoactive drugs: A drug or other substance that affects how the brain works and causes changes in mood, awareness, thoughts, feelings, or behavior.

Psychoactive drugs and their psychological and physiological effects. Categories include

  • Depressants
  • Stimulants
  • Hallucinogens

Drug Dependence: A disease characterized by significant impairment that is associated with persistent and excessive use of a psychoactive substance.

Drug Addiction: A disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences.

Drug Tolerance: A condition that occurs when the body gets used to a medicine so that either more medicine is needed or different medicine is needed.

Withdrawal: The physical and mental symptoms that a person has when they suddenly stop or cut back the use of an addictive substance.

Key researcher contributions in consciousness research

Sleep and Dreaming 2.9 Sleeping: A state featuring relaxation, reduced metabolism and relative insensitivity to stimulation.

Dreaming: The stories the brain tells during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep.

Sleep cycle: A recurring pattern of sleep stages in which a period of slow-wave sleep is followed by a period of REM sleep. 

Neural and behavioral characteristics during the sleep cycle

Sleep disorders: Involves problems with the quality, timing, and amount of sleep, which result in daytime distress and impairment in functioning. 

Symptoms and ways to treat sleep disorders

Unit 3: Sensation and Perception

Subtopic Subtopic Number AP Points to understand
Principles of Sensation 3.1 Gestalts Principles: Modern study of perception


Top-down processing: Perceptions begin with the most general and move toward the more specific.

Bottom-up processing: Process of ‘sensation’, where the input of sensory information from the external environment is received by our sensory receptors. 

Sensory transduction: The transformation of the energy of a stimulus into a change in the electric potential across the membrane of a receptor cell. 

Absolute threshold: The smallest level of stimulus that can be deducted.

Contributions of major historical figures such as David Hubel, Gustav Fechner, etc

Principles of Perception 3.2 Understanding how experience and culture can influence perception

Schema: A cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information.

Role of attention in behavior

Visual Anatomy 3.3 Visual perception: The ability to perceive our surroundings through the light that enters our eyes.

Color vision: The ability to discriminate among stimuli on the basis of their hue.

Visual and hearing impairments: Visual – a person’s eyesight cannot be corrected to a “normal” level. Hearing – The loss of hearing

Synesthesia: A phenomenon in which additional perceptual experiences are elicited by sensory stimuli or cognitive concepts.

Visual Perception 3.4 Illusion: A process involving an interaction of logical and empirical considerations. 
Auditory Sensation and Perception 3.5 Hearing process and its relevant anatomical structures
Chemical Senses 3.6 Taste and Smell processes and its relevant anatomical structures
Body Senses 3.7 Understanding sensory processes and its relevant anatomical structures:

  • Touch
  • Pain
  • Vestibular
  • Kinesthesis

Unit 4: Learning

Subtopic Subtopic Number AP Points to understand
Introduction to Learning 4.1 Contributions of key researchers in the psychology of learning such as Albert Bandura, Ivan Pavlov, Edward Tolman, etc

Kinds of learning: Insight, Social and Latent

How biological constraints create learning predispositions

Classical Conditioning 4.2 A few classical conditioning phenomena:

  • Acquisition
  • Extinction
  • Spontaneous Recovery
  • Generalization

Classical Conditioning: Behaviors that are learned by connecting a neutral stimulus with a positive one, 

Operant Conditioning: A method of learning that uses rewards and punishment to modify behavior.

Observational Learning: A method of learning that consists of observing and modeling another individual’s behavior

Contingencies: A conditional, probabilistic relation between two events.

Operant Conditioning 4.3 Effects of operant conditioning

Reinforcement: Anything that increases the likelihood that a response will occur. The two kinds are – Positive and negative

Punishment: A consequence which reduces or aims to reduce the likelihood of a targeted and undesirable behavior from happening again. The two kinds are – Positive and negative

Social and Cognitive Factors in Learning 4.4 Addressing behavioral problems by:

  • Behavior modification
  • Biofeedback
  • Coping strategies
  • Self-control

Unit 5: Cognitive Psychology

Subtopic Subtopic Number AP Points to understand
Introduction to Memory 5.1 Memory: The faculty of encoding, storing, and retrieving information.

Automatic processing: A type of processing that does not involve conscious effort or deliberation.

Shallow processing: Cognitive processing of a stimulus that focuses on its superficial, perceptual characteristics rather than its meaning. 

Metacognition: The knowledge and regulation of one’s own cognitive processes

Psychological and physiological systems of memory

  • Short-term and Long-term memory
  • Implicit and explicit memory
  • Sensory memory
  • Prospective memory

Contributions of key researches in cognitive psychology such as Noam Chomsky, Elizabeth Loftus, etc

Encoding 5.2 Understanding how memories are constructed and encoded

Encoding: Encoding is the first process of memory, during which information is transformed so that it can be stored. 

Storing 5.3 Understanding how memories are stored effectively

How it is stored: The brain stores memories by changing how neurons talk to each other.

Retrieving 5.4 Understanding strategies to retrieve memories 

Ecphory: This process of memory retrieval involves the interaction between external sensory or internally generated cues and stored memory traces.

Forgetting and Memory Distortion 5.5 Understanding strategies to improve memory and typical memory errors
Biological Bases of Memory 5.6 Learning psychological and physiological systems of short and long-term memory

Short-term memory: Capacity to store a small amount of information in the mind and keep it readily available for a short period of time.

Long-term memory: Transfer of information from short-term memory into long-term storage in order to create enduring memories.

Introduction to Thinking and Problem Solving 5.7 Discussing and understanding the characteristics of creative thought and creative thinkers
Biases and Errors in Thinking 5.8 Identifying problem-solving strategies and factors that create bias and errors in thinking

Cognitive Bias: They are systematic cognitive inclinations in human thinking and reasoning that often do not comply with the tenets of logic, probability reasoning, and plausibility. 

Error: Irrational and extreme ways of thinking that can maintain mental and emotional issues

Introduction to Intelligence 5.9 Intelligence: The ability to think, to learn from experience, to solve problems, and to adapt to new situations.

Understanding how psychologists measure intelligence. Some examples are:

Fluid Intelligence: The ability to think abstractly, reason quickly and problem solve independent of any previously acquired knowledge.

Flynn Effect: A secular increase in population intelligence quotient (IQ) observed throughout the 20th century

Savant Syndrome: Persons with various developmental disorders, including autistic disorder, have an amazing ability and talent. 

Compare and contrast historic and contemporary theories of intelligence

Contributions of key researchers in intelligence research and testing such as Alfred Binet, Francis Galton, Charles Spearman, etc

Psychometric Principles and Intelligence Testing 5.10 Interpreting meaning of scores in terms of the normal curve

Learning standardization strategies to establish reliability and validity.

Labels related to intelligence testing: Gifted and Intellectual Disability

Components of Language and language Acquisitions 5.11 How biological, cognitive and cultural factors converge to facilitate, acquire and develop the use of a language.

Unit 6: Developmental Psychology

Subtopic Subtopic Number AP Points to understand
The Lifespan and Physical Development in Childhood 6.1 Factors that affect prenatal development:

  • Nutrition
  • Illness
  • Substance Abuse
  • Teratogens – Any agent that causes an abnormality following fetal exposure during pregnancy.

Motor Skills: A function that involves specific movements of the body’s muscles to perform a certain task

Social Development in Childhood 6.2 Understanding the influence of social factors on socialization

Contributions of key researchers in developmental psychology in the area of social development in childhood such as Diana Baumrind, Harry Harlow, Mary Ainsworth, etc

Nature and nurture in determination of behavior

Influence of parenting styles on influence development

Cognitive Development in Childhood 6.3 Maturation of cognitive abilities

Contributions of key researchers in cognitive development during childhood such as Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, etc

Adolescent Development 6.4 Maturational challenges in adolescence

Maturity: The ability to deal effectively and resiliently with experience and to perform satisfactorily in developmental tasks (biological, social, cognitive) characteristic of one’s age level.

Adulthood and Aging 6.5 Possible steps to maximize lifespan after predicting physical and cognitive changes that emerge

Contributions of key researchers in adulthood and aging such as Erik Erikson

Moral Development 6.6 Contributions of key researchers in moral development such as Carol Gilligan, Lawrence Kohlberg

Moral Development: The process whereby people form a progressive sense of what is right and wrong, proper and improper.

Gender and Sexual Orientation 6.7 Understanding how sex and gender influence socialization and other aspects of development

Unit 7: Motivation, Emotion, and Personality 

Subtopic Subtopic Number AP Points to understand
Theories of Motivation 7.1 Motivation: Reason why humans or animals initiate.

Some motivational concepts to understand behavior of humans and animals:

  • Instincts
  • Incentives
  • Overjustification effect
  • Self-Efficacy

Strengths and weaknesses of motivation theories. Some theories include:

  • Drive reduction theory
  • Arousal theory
  • Maslow’s theory

Specific motivation systems:

  • Eating
  • Sex
  • Social

Contributions of key researchers in motivation and emotion such as Alfred Kinsey, Abraham Moslow, Hans Selye, etc

Specific Topics in Motivation 7.2 Biological reasoning behind motivation:

  • Needs
  • Drive
  • Homeostasis
Theories of Emotion 7.3 Emotion: A complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral and physiological elements

Some theories of emotion include:

  • James-Lange
  • Cannon-bard
  • Facial feedback hypothesis
  • Joseph LeDoux’s theory

Understanding how cultural influences shape emotional expression and variation in body language.

Stress and Coping 7.4 Stress: A state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. 

Theories of stress:

  • General adaptation theory: Describes the physiological changes your body goes through as it responds to stress.
  • Stress-related illness: An increased stress load or reduced ability to adapt. This increases their vulnerability to health problems.
  • Unhealthy behaviors: Overeating / undereating, anxiety, muscle tension, headache, etc

Effect of stress on psychological and physical well-being

Introduction to Personality 7.5 Personality: The enduring characteristics and behavior that comprise a person’s unique adjustment to life

Research methods used to investigate personality:

  • Case studies
  • Surveys
  • Personalities inventories

Contributions of key researchers in personality theory such as Alfred Adler, Paul Costa, Carl Jung, Carl Rogers, etc

Psychoanalytic Theories of Personality 7.6 Psychoanalytic theories: It states that our childhood experiences and unconscious desires influence behavior. 

Comparing this with other theories of personality.

Behaviorism and Social Cognitive Theories of Personality 7.7 Behaviorist cognitive theory: A theory of learning that suggests that all behaviors are acquired through conditioning processes.

Social cognitive theory: It describes the influence of individual experiences, the actions of others, and environmental factors on individual health behaviors.

Comparing Behaviorism and Social Cognitive Theories with other theories of personality

Humanistic Theories of Personality 7.8 Humanistic theories: A perspective that emphasizes looking at the whole individual and stresses concepts such as free will

Comparing humanistic theories with other theories of personality.

Discuss how cultural context can constrain personality development

Trait Theories of Personality 7.9 Trait theories: An approach to the study of human personality. 

Comparing trait theories with other theories of personality.

Measuring Personality 7.10 Identifying assessment strategies and evaluate test quality

Personality inventory: A type of questionnaire designed to reveal the respondent’s personality traits.

Unit 8: Clinical Psychology  

Subtopic Subtopic Number AP Points to understand
Introduction to Psychological Disorders 8.1 Psychological Disorder: A condition characterized by distressing, impairing, and/or atypical thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Contemporary and historical conceptions of what contributes to psychological disorders

Relation between psychology and the legal system

  • Confidentiality: A principle of professional ethics requiring providers of mental health care or medical care to limit the disclosure of a patient’s identity, his or her condition or treatment, and any data entrusted to professionals during assessment, diagnosis, and treatment.
  • Insanity Defense: The defendant admits the action but asserts a lack of culpability based on mental illness. 
Psychological Perspectives and Etiology of Disorders 8.2 Approaches to explaining psychological disorders

Diagnostic Labels and its consequences

The Rosenhan Study: An experiment conducted to determine the validity of psychiatric diagnosis

Neurodevelopmental and Schizophrenic Spectrum Disorders 8.3 Neurodevelopmental Disorders: A group of conditions in which the growth and development of the brain is affected.

Schizophrenia Spectrum: This condition is characterized by one or more of the following: hallucinations, delusions, and disorganized speech, etc

Psychotic Disorders: A group of serious illnesses that affect the mind

Neurocognitive Disorders: Describes decreased mental function due to a medical disease other than a psychiatric illness.

Bipolar, Depressive, Anxiety, and Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders 8.4 Anxiety Disorders are a group of mental health conditions characterized by persistent feelings of fear, worry, or anxiety that are excessive or disproportionate to the situation. 

Bipolar Disorders are a group of mood disorders characterized by episodes of both manic (elevated or irritable mood) and depressive symptoms. 

Depressive Disorder is a mental health condition characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest in daily activities.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a mental health condition characterized by intrusive, unwanted, and recurrent thoughts, images, or impulses (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions) aimed at reducing anxiety related to these obsessions.

Trauma- and Stressor- Related, Dissociative, and Somatic Symptom and Related Disorders 8.5 Dissociative Disorders: A group of mental health conditions characterized by a disruption or disconnect from one’s thoughts, memories, feelings, identity, or perception of reality.

Somatic Symptoms: Physical sensations that are associated with a psychological or emotional disturbance, such as pain, fatigue, digestive issues, or headaches.

Trauma Disorders: Mental health conditions that can develop after exposure to a traumatic event or experience, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder (ASD), or adjustment disorder.

Stressor Disorders: A group of mental health conditions that arise from exposure to stressful life events can result in symptoms such as anxiety, depression, or adjustment disorders.

Feeding and Eating, Substance and Addictive, and Personality Disorders 8.6 Feeding and Eating Disorders are a group of mental health conditions that involve disruptions in eating habits, such as excessive or inadequate food intake, and are often associated with significant distress and impairment in functioning. Examples include Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder.

Personality Disorders are a group of mental health conditions that involve patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are significantly different from what is considered typical or healthy, and cause problems in relationships and daily functioning. Types include Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and Avoidant Personality Disorder.

Introduction to Treatment of Psychological Disorders 8.7 Psychotherapeutic Intervention refers to the use of various techniques and approaches in therapy to address mental and emotional problems, including but not limited to anxiety, depression, trauma, and relationship issues. 

Contributions of key researchers in psychological treatment such as Aaron Beck, Albert Ellis, Sigmund Freud, etc

Psychological Perspectives and Treatment of Disorders 8.8 Treatment orientations used in therapy:

  • Behavioral
  • Cognitive
  • Humanistic
  • Psychodynamic
  • Cognitive-Behavioral
  • Sociocultural

How cultural and ethnic context influence the success of the treatment

Treatment of Disorders from the Biological Perspective 8.9 Effectiveness of specific treatments from a biological perspective
Evaluating Strengths, Weaknesses, and Empirical Support for Treatments of Disorders 8.10 Some treatment methods include:

  • Individual 
  • Group
  • Rational-emotive
  • Client-centered
  • Sociocultural
  • Biopsychosocial

Unit 9: Social Psychology  

Subtopic Subtopic Number AP Points to understand
Attribution Theory and Person Perception 9.1 Attribution Theories: Attribution theories are psychological frameworks that attempt to explain how individuals interpret and make sense of the causes of events or behaviors. 


  • Fundamental Attribution Error
  • Self-serving bias
  • False Consensus effect
  • Confirmation Bias

Impact of social and cultural categories on self-concept:

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
Attitude Formation and Attitude Change 9.2 Contributions of key researchers in attitude formation and change such as Leon Festinger

Persuasion Strategies: They are techniques or methods used to influence the attitudes or behaviors of others.

  • Central route to persuasion
  • Peripheral Route to persuasion
  • Cognitive Dissonance
  • Elaboration likelihood model

Cognitive Dissonance: It is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a person holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values, or when their beliefs or behaviors are inconsistent with one another. 

Conformity, Compliance, and Obedience 9.3 Conformity: Refers to the act of adjusting one’s behavior or beliefs to align with the norms or standards of a particular group or society.

Compliance: Refers to the act of agreeing to a request or demand made by an individual or group, often due to perceived social pressure or authority.

Obedience: Refers to the act of following instructions or orders given by an authority figure or person in a position of power, often without questioning or resisting their commands.

Contributions of key researchers in the areas of conformity, compliance and obedience such as Solomon Asch, Stanley Milgram, Philip Zimbardo, etc

Explain how individuals respond to expectations of others

Group Influences on Behavior and Mental Processes 9.4 Structure of different kinds of group behavior

Impact of the presence of others on individual behavior. Some include:

  • Bystander effect
  • Social Facilitation
  • Group Polarization
  • Social Norms
  • Conflict Resolution
Bias, Prejudice, and Discrimination 9.5 Bias: Refers to a tendency or inclination towards a particular perspective, opinion or judgment, often without conscious awareness or rational justification. 

Prejudice: Refers to a preconceived or irrational judgment or attitude towards an individual or group based on their perceived characteristics such as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or other social identity markers. 

Discrimination: Refers to the act of treating individuals or groups differently and unfairly based on their actual or perceived characteristics such as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or other social identity markers.

Some processes that contribute to differential treatment of group members:

  • Ethnocentrism
  • Stereotype
  • Scapegoat theory
  • Mere-exposure effect
Altruism and Aggression 9.6 Altruism: It refers to the behavior of an individual who acts selflessly for the benefit of others, often without any expectation of personal gain.

Aggression: It is a behavior or action that is intended to cause harm or injury to another individual or group, either physically or psychologically.

Interpersonal Attraction 9.7 Attraction: The interest in and liking of one individual by another, or the mutual interest and liking between two or more individuals.

READ MORE: A Comprehensive Guide to the AP Psychology Exam

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