Psychological Applied Learning Scenarios

Design a Psychology Applied Learning Scenario (PALS) with a critical evaluation of its use in this classroom.

“Knowledge is actively built up from within by a thinking person; knowledge is not passively received through the senses or by any form of communication.”
(Cakir, 2008, p196)

Psychology Applied Learning Scenarios?

Psychology Applied Learning Scenarios (PALS) allow a learner to develop flexible knowledge of a subject area, improve the effectiveness of problem solving skills and self-directed learning skills, and increase collaboration and intrinsic motivation (Hmelo-Silver, 2004). Students engage in self-directed learning and assessment through which they are required to explore a scenario to which there is no definite correct response. Within collaborative groups these learners work through the scenario applying their learning to the novel situation allowing them to demonstrate a wide variety of both lower (AO1) and higher level (AO2) skills. This concept of learning through experience is central to the development of PALS and has its roots heavily it that of problem-based and inquiry-based learning which argue for the importance of practical experience in learning (Dewey, 1983).

Inquiry-based learning and problem-based learning have been seen as a move forward since the 1960s where they were developed to formalise assessments within the medical school by Howard Barrows (Neville, 2009). Since then PBL/IBL has been applied to many different subjects at a variety of levels. Norton (2004) formalised PBL in Psychology through her work into PALS by providing specific guidance and examples of how these can successfully be embedded into Post-16 Education in Psychology. Over the course of ten years she developed PALS in a third year counselling module and has written guidance to practitioners as to how these can be embedded in a variety of different situations and for a variety of learners at different stages in their educational career (Norton, 2004).

When using a PALS the teacher acts as a facilitator helping to guide learners to possible solutions or signpost concepts, theories and studies that may hold part of a possible solution. A PALS distinguishes itself from PBL in the nature that within psychology learners are required to develop knowledge of several different approaches to understand behaviour of an individual (Norton, 2004). The nature of PALS allows the learner to engage with these different approaches to investigate and explore how these would provide differing explanations or treatments for the behaviour in question.

Within the context of a PALS a learner can explore the area without guidance from the teacher but safe in the scaffold of the activity. It has been suggested that too much guidance from teachers can have a detrimental effect on student engagement (Bloxham and West, 2007; Norton, 2004) causing learners to see the content of a course as a ‘paint by numbers’ (Millar, 2007) and not becoming aware of the more holistic picture of the module or specification.

The zone of proximal development has been defined as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p86). It could be argued that an appropriately created PALS provides ‘scaffolding’ for learners to allow them to apply their somewhat 2-dimentional knowledge to a novel situation. Therefore, the development of the PALS, both in the situation and the questions or tasks set as a result can provide differentiation across learners. Those more able learners will see links between their prior knowledge and the scenario bringing concepts, theories and studies from across the spectrum of their knowledge whereas the notes and signposts in the PALS and the questions within the task can support the less able students. The concept of scaffolding within tasks was introduced by Wood (1976) where he defined it as consisting “essentially of the adult ‘controlling’ those elements of the task that are initially beyond the learner’s capacity, thus permitting him to concentrate upon and complete only those elements that are within his range of competence.” (Wood et al., 1976, p90).

It has been suggested that the effectiveness of PBL/PALS has not been addressed outside of medical and gifted education (Hmelo-Silver, 2004) and that the majority of research on the effectiveness of these implementations has focused on cohorts of undergraduate and post-graduate students. The current assignment will investigate the effectiveness of a PALS that was produced and delivered to a A2 Psychology class within a sixth form environment, critically evaluate PALS as a pedagogical tool and discuss the place of PALS in current teaching in the Post-16 sector as both a teaching tool and a form of assessment.

Reflection on the Implementation of a PALS.

A PALS (see Appendix 1) was produced to be delivered to two A2 Edexcel Health Psychology classes. These classes had just entered a revision period moving towards a January examination and all of the specification content had been covered. The classes were working on application and evaluation skills. The lesson objectives of the session where the PALS was delivered were that students will be able to:

  • Describe at least two therapies and link to the use of one or more drugs in an applied situation.
  • Describe a drug therapy (methadone) and a psychological therapy and apply them appropriately to a PALS.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of treatments of substance abuse in relation to an applied situation.


The effectiveness of the PALS was measured in three separate ways and this was compared across two groups.

Outcomes from PALS session:

  • Grade on a 12 mark question following session: Compare two different methods used to treat substance abuse and evaluate them in terms of their effectiveness.
  • Student feedback following session and reflection after the essay question assessment.
  • One group had the PALS session prior to the summative assessment (b) and one will have the PALS session following the summative assessment (b).


The PALS was developed to provide signposts towards many different areas of psychology that had been covered over the unit that the students had completed but also allowed those who were able to think ‘synoptically’ to bring concepts and theories from the AS units. This would act as a way of differentiating between those students who saw each unit as an individual environment and those which were able to see the ‘bigger picture’ of the course and utilise higher level thinking skills (referred to later in the discussion). By creating the PALS rather than using a ‘turnkey’ pre constructed one it became more focused on what the learners had explicitly been completing on the course as suggested by Norton (2004).

Both of the classes had only completed applied questions in the form of past exam questions prior to the delivery of the PALS session and these require a much more diluted response to the question than the PALS demanded. Initially learners were given the PALS (see appendix 1) in groups of 2 or 3 and asked to read the scenario, then the questions, and then finally approach the scenario again in light of the questions so this would frame the information they were expected to make note of. The learners were allowed 15 minutes to complete this part of the task in their clusters.
Following this each of the sentences within the PALS were read out one-at-a-time by alternating groups and after each sentence the content of it was discussed and groups fed in their ideas on how the psychology that they are aware of could help explain or treat the behaviour. Students made notes on the sheet that they had to illustrate the variety of concepts, studies and theories that may be relevant. Finally, the clusters were asked to use the information from the group plenary to complete the questions and these were then shared in the final plenary session.

The timings of the session allowed the teacher time to rotate around the clusters facilitating the groups and assessing the impact of each student on the task at hand. Immediately it was apparent that the task was differentiating between the learners in the room with the more able learners being able to see the synoptic element of the task by building on other responses with more sophisticated reasoning. This allowed all in the group to be stretched; the more able students were able to take a lead and the less able students were able to learn from these students and have new ways of thinking modelled to them. This extended the PALS by incorporating a ‘learning by teaching’ element to the task whereby those students who had an idea or explanation of a behaviour were able to ‘teach’ this to other members of the group; a highly effective way of learning a topic (Roscoe and Chi, 2008).

As a piece of action research one of the classes were given a summative assessment prior to the PALS session and one class the following session to allow some discussion on the impact on learners and their abilities to answer a exam based question that require some application and evaluative skill. It was found that there was a difference between the two groups with the group that received the PALS prior to the assessment performing better than the group who completed the assessment first (U=82.5, n=22,20, p<0.01). It must be noted that this comparison was made without taking any baseline measures; the prior achievement of the classes; or the minimum target grades (based on ALIS) into account so one must be careful about making sweeping conclusions about the actual impact of the learners. A more sophisticated statistical analysis would be required and further research could build on this however at a low level the results do suggest that those students who were allowed the exposure to the PALS and the experience of discussing and developing ideas in an applied PALS task were able to better demonstrate these skills in the assessment.

A Critical Evaluation of PALS in a Classroom.

Within the context of a group of 16-18 A-Level learners each student will bring their own levels of prior knowledge both from within the subject, and from other subject areas that they are studying. As the teacher, one must differentiate between these learners and allow each to develop and progress within the subject (Bourne, 2008). Therefore, the development of problem-based activities such as a PALS has many advantages by improving both subject awareness and other vital studentship skills (as referred to in the introduction (Hmelo-Silver, 2004)).

When discussing the effectiveness of PALS the distinction between using is as a teaching tool or an assessment should be made. PALS can be used in many scenarios for developing knowledge and skills or assessing student progress. The PALS that was developed for this activity was designed so all students could illustrate their synoptic and application skills as the underlying knowledge needed to complete it successfully had already by taught and assessed. Further to this it provided signposts for learners as to the knowledge that they needed to revise and gave other students the opportunity to model skills that the lesser able students were not able to show prior to the session.

The qualitative feedback from students following the PALS was mixed however many of the students enjoyed the session and stated that they would be happy to complete a similar task. They could see the limitations of PALS in that it would be difficult to complete a PALS without prior teaching of content. This suggests that the strength of PALS are in assessing and differentiating student abilities at the end of a module of topic rather than being used to deliver content. Other comments centred on the skills that they were able to discuss in the collaborative context of the PALS with other learners and how they consequently would be able to attack an application question with more confidence. One student in the group who completed the assessment prior to the PALS actually commented on how it would have been more useful to complete the PALS session before the assessment. This was an interesting observation considering the aim of the action research above.

One aspect that supports the use of PALS is how it can improve engagement in class by keeping learners motivated and interested in a task. With a well-developed PALS all students should be allowed to demonstrate their abilities at all levels allowing the teacher to differentiate between learners. The PALS designed for this task did allow the teacher to orally assess the students’ abilities by moving around and having group discussions, however as the written task was collaborative it is difficult to make a more robust assessment of each individual’s abilities in answering a question and it would be possible for a student to ‘hide’ within the group. In future sessions the task could be changed to provide the collaborative nature of a PALS initially whereby students discuss the scenario and task in the groups, allowing the all-important modelling of behaviours by the more able students, but get the learners to complete the written elements individually to provide robust and solid assessment of each individual student.

In light of this within a 16-18 context it could be argued that PALS can be effective assessments at key points in a topic or module prior to more formal assessment based on examinations. Therefore, a PALS starts to become assessment for learning supporting learners and providing scaffolding for their exam based skills.
“In the process model, everything is directed at improving the process if learning, and even assessment plays a central role in this. Instead of appearing at the end of the learning process, merely as a check of the success, it becomes part of the process, appearing at all points during the programme, and thus used to feedback helpful information to the learners as they go along.” (Neary, pg 64, 2002)

There is more leverage to improve teaching through changing assessment than there is in changing anything else (Gibbs & Simpson, 2004, p22). In the current landscape of A Level assessment we are seeing movement towards more applied questions in exams that are requiring students to demonstrate more than just rote learning of studies. Especially in synoptic elements where students can actually move away from seeing psychology as simply having to learn a list of names and dates.

Much of the literature surrounding PALS focuses on the problem-based nature of the activities however a further issue to consider is that of the coming together nature of the tasks and how students within their groups can help each other learn. Von Glasersfeld refers to the importance of social interaction between learners and how this is central to the building of knowledge within a constructionist approach. As a result of this von Glaserfeld states the importance of the teacher realising that knowledge cannot be transferred to the student by linguistic communication but that language can be used as a tool in a process of guiding the student’s construction.

“The teacher will try to maintain the view that students are attempting to make sense in their experiential world. Hence he or she will be interested in students’ ‘errors’ and, indeed, in every instance where students deviate from the teacher’s expected path because it is these deviations that throw light on how the students, at that point in their development, are organizing their experiential world.” von Glasersfeld (1989, p3)

Constructivism is more a philosophy not a strategy (Cakir, 2008) but elements of this are most definitely embedded into the use of PALS and their effectiveness. Constructivist theory is becoming a more powerful cognitive theory in the current literature as ownership of learning is passed from the teacher to the student (Dougiamas, 1998, 2003) and PALS are a solid framework in which this is possible.

One student comment that was received referred to the skillsets needed and unfamiliarity with the task. This highlights that when introducing PALS to a class it is important to start with simple tasks that allow students to build up the confidence with the format. Following this they can be given more complex problems where even more elements are added to make them more realist (Merrill, 2002). Sweller described this as the ‘guidance-fading effect’ (Sweller, 2006). Within this it is suggested that a staged approach to tasks should be used, akin to having training wheels on a bike when a child is learning to ride. Support, both in signposts within the task and from the facilitator initially help the learner gain experience of the task. Gradually, as the learner becomes more adept and confident with the task and the skills needed these ‘training wheels’ can be taken away from the PALS allowing the student the freedom to demonstrate their skills (Sweller, 1988).

PALS foster engagement in class demonstrating to learners that the content that is delivered can be interpreted and applied in many different and novel situations. This ensures that we are meeting the learning outcomes that are expected of a psychology course. QCA state that within a psychology course some of the learning outcomes are to “develop an awareness of why psychology matters” (p3), and “develop an understanding of the relationship between psychology and social, cultural, scientific and contemporary issues and its impact on everyday life.” (QCA, 2007, p4). PALS allow a student to develop their knowledge and skillset and provide them with skills and experience that will make them better learners and improve their studentship skills, both now at A Level and by providing a solid foundation on which to build at higher education. Further to this PALS allow psychology and the studies and theories that a student has been exposed to be ‘brought to life’ illustrating to students the applied nature of the subject and improving motivation and engagement in lesson (Blair-Broeker, 2003).

A successful student of Psychology A-level develops a unique and broad skill set over the duration of their course. Hayes (1996) identified these as numeracy and literacy, knowledge resulting directly from the content of a psychology degree, and synthetic skills derived from the epistemiological characteristics of psychology as an academic discipline. Within the current climate in education it is tempting for teachers to deliver strategic lessons and assessments that ‘teach to the test’ (Halonen et al., 2003) and miss extending students knowledge and skill set and developing the higher level skills outlined by Hayes. This strategic approach to assessment can influence student learning (Conner-Greene, 2000) as the student’s focus is on rote learning of knowledge and evaluation which does not demand them to engage in more advanced kinds of thinking and learning (Bol & Strage, 1996) putting the learners at a disadvantage if they progress to study psychology at undergraduate level. Discussing the abilities of A-Level student to transition to higher education Banyard states “…the ideal psychology undergraduate is someone who engages, who has an interest, has their own ideas, and the ability to look beyond the question… we’re looking for people who ask questions, to have a sense of wonder and to be inquisitive” (Jarrett, 2010, p715). The development of PALS as both a teaching and assessment tool allows learners to develop these skills further and extend their knowledge, apply their learning skills at a higher level and equip them with skills that are necessary following a transition to higher education.

The term ‘psychological literacy’ was first used by Boneau (1990) and subsequently McGovern et al (2010) used the term ‘psychologically literate citizens’ to refer to students becoming “critically scientific thinkers and ethical and socially responsible participants in their communities” (p10). Through utalising PALS within class with learners we can improve learners ‘psychological literacy’ demonstrating best practice and critical thinking skills both as a facilitator but also allowing the modeling of this behaviour from other students in the group.

The psychological literature can help teachers identify why some students expend a great deal of effort in achievement situations and why others don’t. Reece and Walker (1997) identify a number of important factors related to motivation. Among these they note that studying is improved if interest is high and note that the teacher’s task is to maximise this interest. Similarly they note that arousal is a powerful stimulant and that periodic feedback is important to students, as they are then able to see that they are making progress. PALS allow the student to be engaged in their own learning and motivates them to find a, not the, solution to a problem. This intrinsic motivation is one of the core criteria of PBL techniques and it is evident in the PALS that have been developed and delivered to these classes.

It most be noted that It is apparent that there are individual differences as to what motivates and does not motivate a learner (Jones, Valdez, Nowakowski, and Rasmussen, 1994). Such differences may be a result of previous experiences of education, personality and preferred learning styles (Hillier, 2005). For example some students do not work well in the morning but work well in the afternoon. Some learners have a marked preference for the visual or auditory mode, some respond better than others to praise than others, some have longer attention spans than others; in short, each student has a personal and unique learning style. Although PALS require the learner to use a wide variety of different techniques that most learners should and are required to develop the qualitative feedback from the students who had the PALS delivered to them was wide ranging. It would be naïve to consider that PALS are able to provide all the skills and knowledge a student needs but used in appropriate contexts can be powerful teaching tools and allow assessment of student knowledge and enhance their ability to think ‘synoptically’.

PALS can be an effective tool if utalised appropriately by practitioners. The PALS need to be developed by the teacher and with classes, allowing them to develop and build upon their skills over the course of a module, course or year. In the current landscape of changing specifications and Ofsted requiring teachers to demonstrate that their students can independently lead their own learning PALS and other pedagogical tools such as this will become more important and necessary. A PALS allows a learner to both stretch and develop their learning of knowledge and skills in a collaborative way; by combining PALS with independent work or tasks following discussion the practitioner is providing a learning with a platform on which they can excel. Not only do PALS help contextualise current learning if delivered appropriately will ensure that the students start to ‘think psychologically’ (McGhee, 2001) and see the subject as more than just requiring rote learning of names and dates.

Some Final Thoughts …

Reynolds (1965), and particularly Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986) discuss how developing practitioners come gradually to take for granted aspects of their practice which initially preoccupied them, and move on to be concerned about (reflect upon) wider matters. This taking-for-granted on the one hand, and reflection on the other, offers a view of how reflection-on-action deepens in the course of a career (Atherton, 2005). Through researching and implementing a PALS and investigating the impact of this on learners through this action research.

In a Sixth Form College environment reflective practice is ultimately a way for teachers to search for ever-improved ways to facilitate learning. Reflective practice is based on a belief that organisational change begins with individuals and unless we as educators change the way we do things, there will be no meaningful educational change. Reflective practice also incorporates the belief that much resistance to change is rooted in unexamined assumptions that shape habit. To create change, then, we much examine current practice carefully and develop a conscious awareness of these basic assumptions (Osterman and Kottkamp, 2004).

Throughout this first module of the MSc and through the implementation of the PALS that has been discussed above my teaching practice has been altered and I have been given the opportunity to reflect upon my teaching and assessment strategies. I believe that PALS have a place in teaching at A Level and that these can form a strong foundation upon which students can develop higher-level thinking and critical thinking skills. With the prospective changes to psychology specifications and the changing education reform on the horizon I believe that we will see a move from students needing to demonstrate basic knowledge skills in examinations to showing the ability to synthasise their knowledge and apply this to novel situations. Anecdotally, I feel that this shift in focus is already happening in examinations, especially conducting a content review of the most recent sessions’ questions both at AS and A2 level.


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Appendix 1: PALS Activity

Peter is a 19-year-old first year university student who has recently moved away from home in Hull to live and study in Manchester. Since arriving in Manchester he has been a loner and has not integrated onto his course or with the other students in his hall of residence. Recently, he has found a group of ‘friends’ who have introduced Peter to heroin. Peter for the first time in months has a social group. Over the last 6 weeks he has become a frequent user with his intake increasing to almost half-a-gram a day.

At university, Peter’s lecturer is concerned about his attendance in class and has confronted him about this and his poor work ethic on the course. His lecturer suggested that he see a counsellor or take advantage of the university ‘buddy’ system to help focus his studies. Peter agreed to see a counsellor who found that from the age of 15, when his parents separated, Peter has had periods of depression that he dealt with by turning to excessive alcohol abuse. On several occasions he has attempted to ‘get dry’ but has always failed and returned to drink as an escape route for his problems.

Peter’s counsellor is concerned about his destructive behaviour and has come to you for advice on what possible routes he could suggest to support and treat him. To help Peter consider and complete the following tasks:

  1. Using your psychological knowledge from across the course attempt to explain possible reasons for Peter’s destructive behaviour. You can use studies, theories or concepts form both AS and A2 psychology to support your explanations.
  2. Suggest possible interventions that could be put into place to support Peter and treat his substance abuse. These interventions should be supported with studies, theories or concepts from the course.
  3. For each of the interventions you have identified in (b) critically evaluate the effectiveness of implementing the programme with explicit reference to Peter and his personal situations.
  4. Write a proposal (no more than 400 words) that you can give to Peter’s counsellor that identifies the intervention(s) that you feel would be the most beneficial, why you think this, possible side effects of the interventions, and the expected outcome with times.


Appendix 2: Student Scores on 12 Mark Question

There is a significant difference between the scores between the two groups (U=82.5, n=22,20, p<0.01).

3 Comments Psychological Applied Learning Scenarios

  1. Pingback: Psychology Applied Learning Scenarios (PALS) | Research for the Advancement of Psychology Teaching

  2. Mandy Wood

    Thanks for uploading this Jamie, I had not heard of PALS before you mentioned it the other day and realise that essentially this is the approach that I am intending to take with my “Tales of the City” project. I will let you know how we get on. I was going to use the Heath brothers SUCCESS model (inspired by Clare’s talk at ATP) as a framework to help the pupils understand why we are using stories at the moment but this provides another dimension.


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