Making it Real: Psychology Applied Learning Scenarios (PALS)

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. 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.

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. 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.

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.

A 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’ and see the subject as more than just requiring rote learning of names and dates.

Would you or do you use PALS in class? Maybe you use them an never know about the evidence behind the use of them? Are they useful to use in class? Thoughts and examples in the comments as ever.


Norton, L. (2004). Psychology Applied Learning Scenarios (PALS): A practical introduction to problem-based learning using vignettes for psychology lecturers. LTSN.

(full text currently available online here)

Article based on a more formal and in-depth review of PALS by Jamie Davies found here.

How many uses can you think of for a paper clip?

“It is not what the man of science believes that distinguishes him, but how and why he believes it. His beliefs are tentative, not dogmatic; they are based on evidence, not on authority or intuition.”

Russell, 1945

I posted my Critical Thinking in Psychology essay recently where I discuss in depth critical (or rational) thinking in the context of A Level psychology. Here I want to share one of my favourite lessons of the year where I encourage my students to start thinking critically (find the lesson powerpoint at the bottom of the post or here).

One approach to increase students critical thinking skills is to get them considering methodological issues outside of the narrow framework of each subject specification and bring these issues to life. The use of activities such as ‘More cat owners have degrees’ demonstrating the dangers of misinterpreting correlational research and the possible bias caused by funding, and ‘The dangers of bread’ again illustrating issues of inferring causation from correlation act as excellent points for discussion about causation and correlation. Articles such as these teach students to be ‘savvy consumers and producers of research’ and develop the abilities needed to analyse, synthesise and applied learned information.

A key element of critical thinking is not taking results and conclusions at face value and questioning the methods that were used and any biases that these could have introduced when making inferences from results.  I have designed several activities  to make learners aware of  ‘blind acceptance of conclusions’conclusions’ and the fallibility of accepting results  without question. I have pulled all of these activities into one lesson with the aim of engaging students and creating an enthusiasm about evaluation.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 16.38.14Initially, I start with abstract questions to get the learners considering critical thinking outside of psychology and allow them to develop their own awareness. This starts from the moment they enter the room when the starter is the question ‘How many uses can you think of for a paper clip‘. After giggles, head scratching and some quite lateral thinking we move on to discuss what ‘critical thinking’ is.

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Before moving into discussion explicitly linked to psychology studies I ask them to write some instructions as to how to make a piece of toast. The students are a little suspicious at this point but after a few minutes you get the usual: get the bread, put in the toaster … and of course the debate on Nutella vs Marmite! Then I pose the question ‘but where did you get the toaster from …‘ and show the excellent TED video ‘Thomas Thwaites: How I built a toaster — from scratch

From here is time to turn my new ‘questioning‘ students back to psychology …

The first activity is based on hindsight bias, or the “I knew that all along” attitude, helping students become aware of the fact that anything can seem commonplace once explained if you are not aware of the underlying methodology.

This was the rationale for the ‘Lazarfield task’ that starts with the class being divided into two groups with each half receiving conclusions from a study (adapted from Lazarsfeld, 1949). However, unaware of this, the two groups received the opposite findings. For example group one would receive:

“Better educated soldiers suffered more adjustment problems than less educated soldiers.”

Whereas the second group would have:

Better educated soldiers suffered fewer adjustment problems than less educated soldiers.”

Each group have to make inferences about ‘why’ the conclusions might be true. Following on from the task students were asked to “did the findings make sense?” and to feedback their reasons. Only at this point will the class be made aware that they had the opposite findings and how easily it is to justify a finding after the fact. A discussion about the fallibility of the “I knew that already” attitude follows in relation to the students that the students have completed. This allows for the learner to review conclusions made and consider alternative arguments, confounding variables and biases in generalisations made.

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To then scaffold students’ analysis and evaluation skills a set of critical thinking questions to frame evaluation of research was adapted. These critical thinking questions provide students with important questions that they can use to establish the credibility of a research method. It also allows differentiation across learners providing the opportunity for those with low ability to give limited responses and the more able students to expand and demonstrate their synoptic awareness of research methods and the surrounding issues and concepts.

This is one of my favourite sessions of the year – you can actually see the students thinking, discussing and debating issues. They are staring to think like psychologists, like scientists. Not accepting what is in front of them but asking important questions. What is great to see is the reaction following the session – how the students often refer back to the session.

My only warning – I asked my students to keep asking ‘but why?‘ – they do!

How do you develop critical thinking skills in your learners? Could you adapt this session to your subject? If you do – please share it in the comments.

Idea-ology : Introducing Projective and Psychometric Tests

This week I have published my Teaching Critical Thinking in Psychology essay where I reflect on what is critical thinking and consider different classroom activities that I use to foster these skills in my students. This is from the abstract of the essay:

There is a wealth of literature across many domains that attempt to define what critical thinking is and how it can be implemented in classrooms and lecture theatres at both undergraduate level and post-16 education. This essay will attempt to define critical thinking in the context of post-16 psychology delivery, outline several specific interventions and scaffolds that can be implemented in a psychology classroom and assess how one could measure the effectiveness of any critical thinking strategies. Finally, the nature of critical thinking is discussed and a more appropriate term of ‘rational thinking’ is put forward as a label of what is desired from post-16 students.

venn-diagramOne tool that I use a lot in class in many different ways are Venn diagrams (in the theme of Venn’s, an interesting comparison here is that he also came from and lived in Hull) . These are excellent ways for students to visualise comparisons and contrasts in many different contexts. I use them for evaluation of studies, comparisons of treatments and as a tool to get learners thinking about how some issues can applied to two (or even three, four …) different concepts in psychology.

I have been asked how I might introduce projective tests and psychometric tests to students (in relation to the Thigpen and Cleckley’s study of Chris Sizemore) and with twitter being prohibitive to the 140 characters it was a great opportunity to start a new set of posts that I have been meaning to for a while that I am going to call ‘idea-ology’ – just some ideas that I have come up with (or shamelessly stolen from other excellent teachers) that I think could be used, butchered or ignored by other teachers.

When it comes to discussing personality with students the discussion often comes around to considering how we could measure personality. Ideas flow from the students; personality tests, interviews, clothing choice, number of friends on their myface/bebop profiles etc. I always like to introduce personality testing through the students conducting tests of their own. My usual task involves using a Venn diagram with psychometric tests at one side and projective tests at the other. The psychometric test I use is Eysenck’s EPI extroversion-introversion test. When students have completed this I introduce projective tests with the Rorschach inkblots and discuss these, what they see and what this might mean. I then administer a ‘projective test of my own’ – the Sketch Personality Measure.

Each student is given a sheet of A4 and a pen. They are told:

You will have 30 seconds to draw your interpretation of what I am about to say. You will only have to draw one item for this test. You will only have 30 seconds then the test will be complete. Do you understand? You are to draw … a tree.

Thirty seconds later you will have a massive array of trees produced, bushy ones, stick ones; once I even had a Christmas tree drawn. With this you then state that following your training you will now interpret their drawings and give them the results of their projective tests. Each tree tells us four things about the person:

  1. Confidence: the larger the tree on the page the more confident the person is. Find examples of both massive and tiny trees to demonstrate this.
  2. Optimism: the more ‘extra stuff’ in the image the more optimistic the individual is; do you have fruit in the tree? maybe a bird in the sky? a sun shining down? You’re optimistic.
  3. Happiness: the more foliage on the tree the happier you are with life. The more branches you have the more troubled you are.
  4. ‘Groundedness’: do you know what you want from the future? If your tree has roots you know where you are and where you want to be, if it’s floating around mid-air you don’t have the direction you need to move on.

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Following the laughs and giggles you have going through this go around the room and ask how valid the measure of personality was for each individual. Then comes the disclosure that you made it all up. There is no such thing as the Sketch Personality Measure. Then using the Venn as a scaffold discussion about the validity of both personality measures can follow and comparison of the methods can be added to the Venn.