Are all the AQA Psychology options equal?

Diverging pathways image

Although most schools have settled on the options they are teaching in AQA Psychology, many have had to make difficult choices; comparison of the available options seems to be a constant topic of conversation between teachers.

While writing multiple choice questions for The Complete Companions for AQA Kerboodle, I noticed a few less obvious differences between the topics and hope that this summary might add something to any future discussions you have.


One brave teacher I know chose to let each of her students decide for themselves which option they would study, but if you want to give your students a little more guidance, there are several basic observations to make.

The examiners obviously spent a lot of time deciding which options to place together in sections so that the overall outcomes for students would be similar. They then selected content so that the options were as of as similar complexity as possible.  All this while also ensuring that as many teachers as possible retained the ability to teach topics that they loved.

In her recent Oxford Psychology blog, Cara Flanagan observed that there were a few more spreads in The Complete Companions for the revised specification than there were for the old AQA(A) specification. However, she estimated that the total amount of content was similar because each spread in the new books was intended to cover the content for one essay, and essays in the new specification were worth fewer marks than in the old AQA(A). Cara incidentally observed that the options that students studied could make a difference of 8 spreads of the Student Book – equivalent to a whole option! For example, while Cognition and Development only required 7 spreads, Forensic Psychology required 13 spreads.

Could this mean that the options taking up the fewest spreads – Cognition and Development, Gender and Schizophrenia – are in some way easier than those with the most spreads – Addiction and Forensic Psychology?

A very simple analysis of the results from the first year of exams would not suggest so:

Section A Section B Section C
Topic Mean Score Topic Mean Score Topic Mean Score
Relationships 11.43 Eating Behaviour 13.34 Aggression 10.45
Gender 9.77 Schizophrenia 13.7 Forensic Psychology 9.34
Cognition and Development 11.24 Stress 12.54 Addiction 11.02

Table 1 – Average scores in AQA A Level Psychology Paper 3 options in Summer 2017

If you took the 3 highest scoring options – Relationships, Schizophrenia, Addiction (Average Total:  36.15) – you would only have scored 4.5 more than if you took the 3 lowest scoring options – Gender, Stress, Forensic Psychology (Average Total: 31.65). Given that the difference between grades was between 24 and 29 marks, the 4.5 mark difference between these topics was unlikely to make a big difference.  It also does not follow the pattern we might predict.  The lowest scores were in Gender and Forensic Psychology – one of the topics with the fewest spreads and one of the topics with the most spreads. Perhaps more importantly, it would be presumptuous to make any change based on one year’s results. Any difference this year is likely to revert to the mean next year and it is most likely that the relatively low marks in Gender, Stress and Forensic Psychology are because the extended writing questions were on sub-topics that were unfamiliar to teachers who had taught either of the old AQA specifications.

Writing multiple choice questions for Kerboodle

While writing multiple choice questions for Kerboodle, I noticed a few more subtle differences between the options.  My brief was to write a single question on every concept named in the specification and make them as similar as possible to the style of multiple choice questions used in the sample papers and past exams.

The first thing I noted was that there are surprising differences in the number of concepts named in each topic.  When we broke each topic down into distinct, named – and therefore directly testable – concepts, there were many more in some topics than in others.  In Table 2, the column for Named Theories or Groups of Concepts includes named terms that are more likely to be used in essay titles; for example, ’Discuss evolutionary explanations for partner preferences’.   The column for Specifically Named Concepts includes terms that candidates might be expected to name or that might be given simple definitions; for example, ‘Name two of the negative symptoms of Schizophrenia.’ or ‘Outline what Piaget meant by object permanence.’

Section Topic Sub-divisions Named Theories or Groups of Concepts Specifically Named Concepts
A Relationships 5 12 14
A Gender 6 8 19
A Cognition and Development 4 10 10
B Schizophrenia 6 14 13
B Eating Behaviour 6 15 15
B Stress 6 20 14
C Aggression 5 10 11
C Forensic Psychology 5 18 12
C Addiction 6 16 11

Table 2 – Count of sub-divisions, groups of concepts and named concepts in AQA Psychology Paper 3 Options

Of course, this is a simplification and it would be easy to construct questions that cross the boundaries, but it was an easy way to think about where the exam board would find it easiest to construct multiple choice questions and where they would have to ask questions requiring longer answers.

On face value this would make it seem that some topics are obviously easier than others because they contain fewer specified elements.  Cognition and Development and Aggression apparently only have 20 and 21 elements in them respectively while Eating Behaviour and Forensic Psychology have 30 and Stress has 34.  However, I began to wonder whether the opposite were true.

This was prompted by the observation that it was easier to write multiple choice questions to cover some options than others because topics with few specific named concepts did not lend themselves to multiple choice format questions.  Although it was easy to write a set of questions on specific concepts to cover almost all the sub-topics in Gender, most of the specifically named concepts in Stress were all in the sub-topics on measuring stress and individual differences.

At the same time, the distinction between groups of concepts and specific concepts was not always clear.  For example, Kohlberg’s theory was named, so it could be placed in ‘Named Theories’ and each stage was also named, so each could be placed in ‘Named Concepts’.  On the other hand, Piaget’s ‘stages of intellectual development’ fitted most neatly under ‘Named Theories’ but the stages were not named independently.  This made Cognition and Development look slim because, while it would be hard to imagine anyone learning about the stages without learning the names of the stages and their features, it limited the ability to write basic exam-style multiple choice questions because there were fewer specific concepts to refer to.  Essentially, having fewer concepts named in the specification hid the amount of content that any teacher would actually expect to cover.

A similar distinction became obvious between topics that referred to social learning theory.  In Gender, the specification simply says ‘Social learning theory as applied to gender development’, while in Eating Behaviour the specification says ‘social learning including modeling, reinforcement and media’.  Examiners might find it easier to write multiple choice questions for Eating Behaviour, where they had specifically named concepts, than for Gender, where they had only implied the content that candidates would need to learn. In addition, students might find it easier to prepare for the Eating Behaviour topic because the concepts they are expected to refer to are more explicit.

Consequently, I wondered whether teachers might be able to use this fact to inform their choices about which topics might suit them or their students best.  It struck me that rather than providing a simple signpost to which topics were easier or harder, the number of concepts specifically named in topics might instead give some insight into qualitative rather than quantitative differences within the topics.

This occurred to me when I was writing questions on Forensic Psychology and compared them with the questions I had written on Aggression.  In Aggression, the relatively low number of theories and terms did not mean that there was less content to cover than in Forensic Psychology, but instead hinted at the nature of the content.  The content in Aggression was more open and questions were more likely to require extended writing.  This might favour teachers who prefer to make their own decisions about what content to teach and students who preferred preparing and revising extended answers. The content in Forensic Psychology was more distinct and examiners are more able to specify exactly what content candidates should write about. This might favour teachers who prefer to know exactly what they are expected to teach and students who prefer learning clearly defined chunks of information.  Similarly, I wondered whether it might lead to a difference in the way in which candidates might need to approach essays. In a topic like Aggression, essays are likely to benefit from a more narrative incremental development of ideas and holistic evaluation – ‘Discuss evolutionary explanations of human aggression” – whereas in Forensic Psychology, essays are more likely to require comparison and contrast of different approaches to the same problem – ‘Compare and contrast Anger Management and Restorative Justice.’

Incidental learning

Though it was interesting to compare the options in this way, after a year of teaching two of the options that achieved the lowest averages in the summer’s exams, I think it is also important to consider the synoptic benefit of the topics.

Historically, some of the topics have been much more valuable for supporting discussion in the Approaches and Issues and Debates essays than others.  Gender and Forensic Psychology, for instance, are the only options that require candidates to consider psychodynamic explanations.  It’s not clear that this will be as important as it was in the old AQA(B) specification, which required candidates to refer to topics they had studied, but it might provide an easy way to reinforce knowledge of the approaches.  Similarly, some topics provide more obvious opportunities for meaningful projects that support the development of practical research methods skills.  I have always enjoyed persuading my students to pretend to be children of different ages doing Piaget’s tests of object permanence, conservation, egocentrism and class inclusion, while Stress provides opportunities for testing correlations between scores on self-report scales, personality types, hardiness or basic physiological measures, which are often of interest to sixth formers.

In summary, although there might be subtle qualitative differences between the topics that might have an effect on the motivation and performance of some students, as a teacher you should also consider the global benefit of how the topics you choose fit into the total picture of what you want your students to get out of the course.

Dr George Smith teaches at Clayesmore School in Dorset.  After his degree, he combined his love of technology and language by conducting research into computer-mediated communication. He moved into teaching when he discovered that he enjoyed the daily excitement of dealing with the challenging questions asked by A Level students more than sitting in a lab by himself writing software.