Some interesting thoughts on teaching psychology

Week 1 of my MSc in Teaching Psychology and we were asked to reflect on why students take psychology and if it’s a good preparation for university. Here are my thoughts…

Why Psychology?

To investigate the reasons for my students choosing to study psychology I set up a questionnaire that I emailed around to my current classes and placed on a Facebook page for previous students to complete. Over the duration of 5 days 54 students responded with the majority of those being current student AS 38%, A2 22%, 4% both) and 33% of the respondents being former students.  See the full results of the survey here:

Reflecting on the results to some of the closed questions I was initially surprised to find that 95% of the students had chosen psychology within their top three subjects with 40% of students choosing it as their 1st choice subject at enrolment. Also, it was interesting to see that the vast majority of students had some prior experience of the expectations of us as a psychology department and of the content of the course through year 10 taster days (20%), open evenings (52%) and Wyke Start (a three day taster in July for prospective students)(93%).

Reviewing the answers to the question ‘why did you choose to study psychology’ the overwhelming nature of the responses fell into the ‘sexy’ or intrinsic interest category suggested by Jarvis.  Of the responses I categorised 35 of the responses at falling into this category.  Further, when looking at these 35 there were four sub-categories that were evident: career or university progression, sounded interesting (both recognised by Jarvis) but two others were specifically stating that they wanted to know about people and why they behave the way they do (this could be merged with ‘interesting’ but I felt that it was worth noting) and those that stated it was a 4th option and didn’t know what else to take.

In relation to the ‘rigor hypothesis’ put forward by Jarvis no students referred to taking the course as they felt it was an easy option or that it would be more accessible than other courses in their program.  Actually, the responses to the ‘what advice would you give to a friend who was thinking of studying psychology’ suggest quite the opposite feeling from students who are half-a-term into studying the course. Analysing the responses I categorised them into the following:

Comments about the psychology course being:

Hard work, challenging etc. Fun, exciting etc. Interesting, eye opening etc.
18 5 16

The results from the question on comparative difficulty gave slightly different results to those found by Hirschler and Banyard (2003, Jarvis pg. 3) with only 24% of students finding the course slightly or much more difficult than their other courses and 50% stating it was ‘about the same’.

Although not in the remit of this task the comments to the ‘how could psychology be better’ often referred to course content, the specification content of the boards that we deliver and student reflection on teaching methods and resources in the department.  All things that I am currently reflecting on and will hopefully get to revisit over the duration of this course.  As touched on by Joanna a key point that is often noted by the students’ perceptions of psychology is that of interest in the subject.  A challenge is for psychology teachers to keep this interest as we deliver specifications that do not always allow the students to explore areas of their interest or more recent developments in psychology.

Preparation for University

Working at a sixth form where last year 325 of the 399 students applied for a higher education course and of these 254 took places in September 2011 it is vital that we are preparing those students for university. Almost 20% of our A2 psychology cohort (111 students) took placement on a psychology related course this year. Looking at the results from my questionnaire this could increase over the coming years with 53% of respondents stating that they would like to study psychology further following their A Levels.

More so than other subjects I feel that psychology develops many transferable key skills in research, analysis, data manipulation and evaluation and this may put the students at an advantage during their first year at undergraduate level (which is supported by the findings of Linnell, 2003). It seems we are preparing students at some level with some (maybe not enough) skills but the subject knowledge that we deliver at A Level is so far removed from that of many university psychology courses that it cannot prepare them for the demands, awareness of current research, and more specific disciplines within these courses.

I make the following comments with the full awareness it could open a massive debate on the pro-vs-anti coursework issue … but … now that coursework, assessed practical research skills (APRS), or whatever term you wish to attach to such work, has been removed from A Level specifications I do fear that we are not preparing our students with the level of ‘hands on’ awareness of conducting psychological experiments. Research and research methodology is central to any psychology degree and it could be argued that all the specifications do currently assess research methods through examination but I don’t feel that this is the same thing, not by a long shot. There is quite an interesting discussion about APRS in the October 2011 ATP Today magazine.

Currently I am delivering the Edexcel specification, which involves students conducting a variety of ‘studies’, that they then could be asked questions on in the examination. I do get the students to conduct a study, or at the very least, collect some data that can be collectively analysed as a class, but I don’t feel that they are getting the same experience as they used to pre-2008.

In a recent article in The Psychologist (The journey to undergraduate psychology) Phil Banyard is quoted as saying: “…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” ( Not too much to ask then! How are we as psychology teachers expected to foster and encourage all of these skills as well as covering the increasing content and skills required to be successful in any of the current A Level specifications?

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