Today’s Occupational Therapy Degree Program: Five Common Courses to Expect
Occupational therapy is a popular career pursuit for many reasons, not the least of which is the opportunity to help people live their lives to the fullest possible extent.
In learning how to promote healthy behaviors, prevent injuries, regaining skills, and providing cognitive supports for clients, you’ll be equipped to assist people of all ages lead a better life.
Of course, like any career in the healthcare field, there is a lot of schooling required to become an occupational therapist. In fact, you can expect to spend five or six years in school to get a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree.
There is some variation from one occupational therapy program to the next in terms of specific courses you must take. Likewise, since occupational therapy is such a holistic practice, there are many different courses you might need to take to graduate.
Of course, there are also plenty of common courses no matter what school you attend. What is also certain is that an occupational therapy degree is one that will set you on an exciting journey toward helping others.
Let’s have a look at some of these common courses so you know what to expect as you pursue your undergraduate and graduate degrees in occupational therapy.
Please note that the courses listed below are common to graduate programs in occupational therapy. Since there are many different undergraduate options (i.e., pre-occupational therapy, kinesiology and health, and exercise therapy among them), we felt it was better to focus solely on graduate courses.
Historical and Theoretical Foundations of Occupational Therapy
Historical and theoretical foundations of occupational therapy is not just a common course, but also a critical one. That’s because it helps lay the foundation for understanding occupational therapy as a science and a practice.
In addition to exploring how occupational therapy developed as a profession, you’ll also learn about the processes of providing clinical occupational therapy services. Along with that comes an evaluation of professional responsibilities, professional ethics, and the values that should drive your practice as an occupational therapist.
Additionally, courses on the foundations of occupational therapy will explore the theoretical bases of this field, including a look at both historical and modern perspectives.
Usually, this is a survey course that’s delivered in lecture format because there is so much material to explore and discuss. However, many professors include features like site visits and guest speakers on a variety of topics, that way you can learn how occupational therapy is implemented in the real world.
Professional development is another course that you’re likely to see no matter what school you attend for your occupational therapy degree.
Though this course is usually only worth one credit, it is a critical course to take because it gives you the opportunity to learn how to set goals, evaluate your knowledge and skills, and engage in self-reflection so you can be a more competent occupational therapist.
The value of this course is enhanced by a mentorship with an occupational therapy faculty member. This mentorship usually involves a healthy dose of one-on-one sessions with your mentor so you can work together to set professional goals, lay out your educational plan, and identify any weaknesses that you need to work on in your program.
Typically, professional development courses also include group work, that way you can explore professional topics with members of your class. This group-based exploratory learning will be valuable to you as you learn what it means to practice effectively, ethically, and professionally because you will gain an understanding of different perspectives from your own. Since occupational therapy is needed by a widely diverse population, it’s important that you be aware of how people from different backgrounds approach aging, recovery, and other health-related issues.
In many cases, professional development courses include a portfolio component. This might include a log of your learning activities, including time spent reading and researching occupational therapy topics as well as any fieldwork (i.e., site visits, internships) that you have completed.
Occupational Therapy Theory
While a foundations of occupational therapy course will explore occupational therapy theories, it is necessary to take a dedicated course on this subject due to its breadth and depth. As a result, a theory course is one of the most common that you’ll find in an OT program.
Theory courses in occupational therapy review the many different theoretical perspectives that are used in the practice of OT.
Typically, this course focuses on occupation-based models, but you will have more than enough opportunities to explore other perspectives as well.
One of the primary components of this course is to develop the ability to compare different theories of occupational therapy and learn how each is applied in the practice of assessing a client, developing a treatment plan, and carrying out that treatment plan.
Regardless of the differences between occupational therapy theories, they all have the same goal in mind – to promote health, prevent disease and disability, and enable others to take control over their lives to the extent possible.
Kinesiology for Occupational Therapists
Occupational therapists often take kinesiology courses because of the need to understand how the human body moves – including how it should and should not do so!
In addition to learning about the different structures and systems in the body, this class will give you insight into the geometry of movement, or kinematics, as well as the forces that influence the movements our bodies can make, which is called kinetics.
Understanding these components of human movement is required as much of the work of occupational therapy is to help clients rehabilitate their bodies after an injury. You can’t recommend a course of action for a client that is recovering from a broken hip if you don’t understand how the hip works, what structures it works with to generate movement, and the types of exercises and other treatments you might enact to help the client make a full recovery.
So, don’t assume that kinesiology is nothing more than a physical education-related course. Far from it! You’ll learn about a wide range of topics, including:
- How muscles function
- Joint movements
- Posture and balance
- Inherited diseases and genetic factors
- Traumatic injuries
Of course, these and many other topics are explored through a multicultural lens, both from a familial and a societal standpoint. Again, as an OT, you work with people from all sorts of backgrounds, so it’s important to understand how to deliver culturally competent services.
Occupational Therapy Screening & Evaluation
In most OT graduate programs, you’ll have to take two screening and evaluation courses – one for infants, children, and adolescents and another for adults and seniors.
In both cases, you’ll learn about the relevant assessments you might need to use to determine what services a person needs. You’ll explore measurement theory, processes of assessment, statistics, and how to select and interpret a variety of occupational tests. These tests might include:
- Checklists and histories
- Standardized test batteries
- Non-standardized tests
- Screening assessments
The purpose in studying these topics is to build competency in the practice of occupational therapy. You must develop therapeutic skills, to be sure. But you must also understand how to evaluate a client to determine if they need occupational therapy services to begin with.
And since treating an infant and a senior take on very different forms, it’s necessary to take these two courses, that way you’re equipped to attend to the specific and unique needs of patients of a variety of ages.
Occupational Therapy Interventions
If you want to become an occupational therapist, you’ll need a detailed understanding of the interventions at your disposal. This course will give you just that.
Generally speaking, occupational therapy programs split the intervention course into two courses. The first semester, you’ll learn about screening, evaluation, and treatment approaches for children. In the second semester, you’ll focus on interventions specifically for adults. You’ll also take part in studies on improving critical reasoning skills, communication skills, and learn about ethical practice as well.
In terms of interventions, you’ll gain an understanding of the suite of interventions available to you for treating patients with a wide range of occupational-related problems. As part of this, you’ll likely be required to take part in a practicum experience during which you will be exposed to the clinical practice of occupational therapy. Practicum experiences usually involve a mix of observations and practice.
Not all of your work as an occupational therapist will be with clients that have a physical injury or disability. Instead, much work is to be done with individuals that have psychosocial problems.
A course in psychosocial interventions will introduce you to the wide array of psychological disorders and explore the interventions you can implement to help your client live more effectively and independently.
For example, you’ll learn how to recognize an acute psychological episode, develop rehabilitation plans to address those specific episodes, and develop health promotion activities that enable your client to lead a mentally and physically healthy life as possible.
Additionally, you’ll learn about various treatments that are at your disposal for groups and individual clients. You’ll explore different treatment settings, theoretical approaches, assessment strategies, and intervention as well.
These courses usually have a clinical experience as part of the requirements. Clinical experiences give you the chance to see how occupational therapy techniques are implemented in a real-world situation with a client that has one or more psychological issues. It’s also a chance for you to observe OTs in the workplace and apply what you’ve learned in the classroom to a clinical setting.
Research in Occupational Therapy
The purpose of a research course for occupational therapists is to promote the notion that research, evaluation, and continued learning are critical to effective practice. Not only does research enable you to glean information from the existing body of knowledge, but it also enables you to explore new areas that could lead to improvement in how occupational therapy services are delivered.
When you take a course like this, you can expect to learn:
- How to design a research proposal
- How to make research-based decisions
- How to be a good consumer of research
- How to implement appropriate research methodologies
- How to secure grants for future research
Usually this is a lecture-based course with a lab component. You’ll likely be required to complete an individual research project, scientific paper, scientific poster, or perhaps even a combination of all three.
You can learn about occupational therapy in a classroom all you want, but the real test is putting that learning to the test in the field. That’s what a fieldwork course will help you do.
While other courses in an occupational therapy curriculum might have field visits, practicum experiences, and other out-of-class activities, they aren’t as detailed or as in-depth as the fieldwork component.
In most situations, you’ll actually take two fieldwork courses, each of which lasts about three months. During that time, you’ll work in the field under the supervision of an occupational therapist. You will undertake a variety of tasks, including:
- Working with clients
- Maintaining accurate paperwork
- Managing occupational therapy services
- Conducting screening evaluations
- Treatment planning
- Discharge planning
- Occupational therapy research
Many programs allow you to select the location of your fieldwork experiences, or at the very least submit a list of locations where you’d prefer to have your fieldwork experience. However, this isn’t always the case, so you might be assigned to a location that requires a longer commute.
These Courses are Just the Start
As noted earlier, it’s a long road to become an occupational therapist. But at the end of that road is a very noble and rewarding line of work.
The journey to becoming an occupational therapist will see the up-and-comer learning all about the human body, making evaluations, planning treatments, working with patients of all kinds, and gaining other crucial skills as seen in these commonly required courses. But this is just a sampling of the courses you might take in your occupational therapy program.
For even more information regarding occupational therapy work or the requirements for becoming an occupational therapy professional, The American Occupational Therapy Association is a leading representative organization for the industry with which further inquiry is recommended.
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Updated July 2021