We psychology teachers are very patient people. We know that for every theory that seems like common sense, there is another that is confusing and counter-intuitive. We also recognise that it takes time to develop a precise understanding of the terminology that will become familiar to every student that completes the A Level course.
Terminology is not just psychobabble, it is the tool of the trade. Every tool in the kitchen has its own name so that that two cooks working together can easily share and get their jobs done without having to explain exactly what they are trying to achieve every time they need a spatula before the pancake burns. Every tool in the garage has its own name so that a mechanic under a car can ask an assistant for a socket wrench without explaining how it works while fixing an oil leak. Every tool in an operating theatre… You get the point.
The same applies in psychology. It would be pretty impossible for the field to progress if every time two psychologists needed to talk about normative social influence, classical conditioning or independent measures design, they needed to agree on what they meant.
This is why we psychology teachers are so keen on terminology, and why we become so infuriated when students use it incorrectly. There are a few errors that are so frequent that they can push us to extreme measures. The first time a student makes one of these mistakes, we might underline it neatly. After reading a few more essays with the same mistake, we are circling it in red. A few more, and the red pen becomes larger. Too many, and the pen rips through the paper and we teachers marking at midnight scream so loud that it wakes our whole house.
You might like to share the following with your students. . .
- “In this case study, …”
The term “case study” means something specific to a psychologist. It is an in-depth study of an individual or a small group of people who often have something unusual about them and usually involves mostly qualitative data.
Some students call everything case studies, showing teachers and examiners that they have not understood that psychology uses a range of different sorts of evidence. These students use “case study” to refer to an experiment with sixty participants, a clear independent variable and the most precise quantitative dependent variable. To them, an observation study of 30 toddlers with clear behavioural categories conducted in a laboratory is just another “case study”.
Students who misuse the term give the impression that they only have a superficial understanding of research methods. They also divert themselves from the opportunity to use their knowledge of experiments or observations to evaluate the study. More importantly still, they make their teachers scream.
Think very carefully before writing, “In this case study, …”
Most teachers have become so used to scribbling “Title!” next to almost every graph that they have to mark that it only just makes it on to this list. Like a phobia that has been treated by flooding, they have corrected it so many times that it has lost its power to invoke any emotional response.
Take a look at the graph to the right. What is it for? What does it show? What were they measuring? What were they comparing? Who knows? Graphs without labels or titles are meaningless. More importantly, they also don’t get any marks in exams.
Given that the information you need to write the titles and labels is always stated in the questions, teachers find it very frustrating when their students don’t take the effort to copy them and get some of the easiest marks available.
Always include titles and labels on your graphs.
- “This proves …”
This is another favourite phrase of students who have only just started on an A Level course and have not yet appreciated the way science works. A Level psychology teachers get fed up with circling the word “proof” in red.
Proof is a logical concept, not a scientific one. Proof happens when an undeniable conclusion can be drawn from assumptions that cannot be challenged.
Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, demonstrated that no amount of evidence could ever prove a theory to be true because just one piece of contradictory evidence would prove the theory to be false.
Students who claim that research has proven a theory are showing that they don’t understand the most basic principles of how science uses evidence to support its theories.
Never write, “This proves…”
- “This study lacks ecological validity.”
Ecological validity is just one of the many types of validity you will learn about in the A Level. It refers to whether a study produces findings that are likely to reflect behaviour in the real world. If a study uses artificial stimuli or is conducted in an artificial environment, then it is possible that the results won’t be very relevant outside the environment it was discovered.
In the A Level, you will learn about lots of other types of validity. The specification names face validity, concurrent validity and temporal validity as well as ecological validity but it is likely that you will also learn about construct validity, predictive validity or cultural validity and gender bias. You might also consider whether all these different types of validity can be classified into broader categories called internal and external validity.
Think very carefully before writing, “The study lacks ecological validity.”
- “This result is very significant.”
In science, the word significant has a very specific meaning. It does not mean that the result is important. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that it is guaranteed to be correct.
When scientists use the term “significant” they mean that the results from the sample in their study are unlikely to have happened by chance and can be generalised to the target population with reasonable confidence.
When deciding whether a result is significant, scientists choose an amount of chance that they will allow and if a mathematical test shows that their results have less than that probability of happening by chance then they are called “significant”.
The important thing to notice is that significance is an all-or-nothing concept. If the scientist’s results are too likely to have happened by chance, they are not significant. If the scientist’s results are only just a little less likely to happen by chance than they need to be, they are still significant.
Most importantly, if the results are much less likely to have happened by chance than the scientist needs, they are not “very significant”. The researcher might be more confident that their results are significant and can be generalised, but it does not make their results any more significant or important. Suggesting that they are special because they are very unlikely to have happened by chance suggests a superficial understanding of how statistical testing works.
Never write “very significant”.
In my next blog, I’ll suggest how students can write answers that are so good that they don’t just avoid these errors but show such deep understanding of the underlying concepts that examiners will be overwhelmed by their genius. Be warned, the results may be unpredictable.
Dr George Smith is Head of Psychology at Millfield School in Somerset. 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.