Profiling the prospective Psychology student

Image of queuing students

Some years ago, the department I was in at the time analysed the A Level and GCSE results of everyone who took Psychology.  They found that the best predictor of performance on the A Level was Additional Science or the average grade that a student achieved in Triple Science.  If students had a B or higher, they usually went on to get a good grade but around 2/3 of those with a C grade or lower failed to achieve a grade in their AS units.

Times have changed. The specification we analysed doesn’t exist any longer, GCSEs no longer have alphabetical grades, and now very few students in the country take AS exams.  But it is also worth noting that as soon as the department shared their analysis of grades with prospective students, the tail of unsuccessful students almost disappeared.

Similarly, it is also worth noting that the Department for Education includes the subject content of A Level Psychology within the Science guidance document and almost all the Russell Group universities require candidates to take at least one Science A Level or Psychology.  Although I do not expect most of my students to go on to study Psychology at a Russell Group university, I trust that the basic expectations we should have for our students should reflect the higher expectations they have for theirs.

Now, when I talk to prospective students, I emphasise that Psychology is a science and that their experiences in GCSE Science should give them the best idea of what to expect, but I also keep in mind that around 1/3 of those students with C grades went on to achieve good grades– we all know that many of the students who underperform at GCSE become some of our most motivated A Level students.  I would never want to exclude anyone from studying Psychology, but want to give them fair warning about what to expect.

As well as advising them about the importance of GCSE Science, I also make it clear that they will need to be reasonably confident with Mathematics.  To help them appreciate this, I point out that many Psychology courses at university require a B grade (5/6) in GCSE Mathematics. As I write this, 14 of the 24 Russell Group universities require a B in GCSE Mathematics for entry in 2018.  I don’t think that the level of mathematics that students should face in the exams is likely to be beyond anyone, but I do believe that they should be given fair warning about what they will need if they think there is a possibility that they might try to study Psychology at a higher level.

I am not so concerned about English because the interpretation of metaphor and inductive analysis that is used in English requires very different writing skills from Psychology.  If students are also studying English A Level, I make an effort to explain to them that scientific essay writing is a new genre to master in which journalistic clarity is more important than the writer’s voice.  Similarly, only 7 of the 24 Russell Group universities require a B grade in GCSE English Language.

Finally, I take a look at some of the optional GCSEs they may have taken, to see if they give any indication that the student has the potential to do well in Psychology.  Some time ago, I was told that Geography was a good predictor and I can see the logic of this, as both require inference from statistical data.  Several Russell Group universities will accept Geography in lieu of an A Level in a science.  It also seems sensible to look at History, RE or Ethics & Philosophy because students with these subjects are used to learning large amounts of content, describing it clearly and using it to build arguments in a way that will support comparison of different explanations. In my experience, people with these subjects often find the first year a challenge, but become stronger and stronger as synoptic comparison becomes more important.  You could not set Geography, History or RE as requirements, but if a student has underperformed in one of the core subjects then a good grade in one of these might indicate that they will thrive in Psychology.

But there are always a few students who want to study Psychology but don’t have a B in Science and haven’t studied any other relevant subjects.  With many schools and colleges expecting students to commit to three subjects at the start of Year 12, how can we help them to decide whether Psychology is for them as soon as possible when they don’t have any experience in the subject?

A few years ago, I came up with the solution of asking any students who did not meet the department’s recommended grades to work through a simple worksheet that would give them some insight into the sort of work they would be doing and give me some insight into their existing skills and motivation.  More on this in my next blog, Helping students decide whether Psychology is the right A Level for them.

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.