What do I need to know about the synoptic element of the new GCSE Psychology specifications?

Image of links in chain

As the summer holidays rapidly become a distant memory and we find ourselves dealing with all that another busy school year brings, this September will also see many of you starting to teach a new GCSE Psychology specification.

There are potentially many questions that you may have when faced with the newness and the unknown of a new specification, and one such question is likely to be about the synoptic element which is now part of all the new GCSE Psychology specifications.

For those of you who also teach A Level, this synoptic element may not be anything new, but for many it may be a puzzling – and perhaps worrying – addition to the new topic areas you are already trying to get your head around.

You may have heard terms like ‘synoptic assessment’, ‘synopticity’ or ‘synoptic link’ and have wondered what on earth they all mean. Well, the good news is, at GCSE level, all you (and your students) really need to know is that it’s about being aware of and understanding the connections that exist between the different topic areas.

All of the new GCSE Psychology specifications are based on the DfE subject content and this states that “specifications must require students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the interrelationships between the core areas of psychology”[1].  Of course all of the specifications have gone about fulfilling this synoptic requirement in differing ways.  For example, the AQA specification states that “students will be expected to draw on knowledge and understanding of the entire course of study to show a deeper understanding of these topics”[2]  while the OCR specification simply indicates that both papers will include synoptic assessment.

I know that it might be tempting to see all of this as just another thing that makes the new specifications more demanding and potentially beyond many GCSE students.  However, I think that there is another way of looking at this synoptic element. I believe it is a positive thing for our students to be learning that, just as all the parts of our physical body are connected to one another in some way, so are our psychological components. Our memories are not an entity completely separate from our perception of the world or from the language we speak. Psychological problems may be the result of a number of things, including the way we see the world around us, chemicals in the brain and how much sleep we get. We are complex beings, and all that makes us who we are is intricately woven together.

”That’s all very well and good,” I hear you say, “…but how do I actually go about teaching my students to address the synoptic element?” Well, my first suggestion is that you don’t make a big deal of it!  The students are not aware that this is a new concept at GCSE level and, as I have already suggested, all of our psychological components are connected and so it follows that all of the topic areas you will be covering have natural links between them anyway. If students get used to you drawing links between different topic areas, it will simply be a normal part of psychology for them.

Another suggestion is that you use synoptic links as a way to revise topics you have already covered and to introduce ones yet to come. In order to help you find the areas where synoptic links occur within the specification you are teaching, some textbooks (such as the second edition of the Oxford AQA GCSE Psychology Student Book), have clearly identified these for you. It is also worth looking at the exam board websites, as some of the new schemes of work, lesson plans and other resources available there may offer further guidance or identification of synoptic links between topic areas. Specimen exam papers may also include examples of questions that involve synoptic assessment.

I’m sure that many of you will already be starting to form your own ideas about teaching synoptic links between topics and, as this is a concept now found in many GCSE and A Level subjects, discussing ideas and sharing good practice with your colleagues may also be really beneficial.

So, in closing, I wish you all the best for the new school year and hope that you will soon be just as comfortable covering the new specification as you were with the old one.

Tracy Mendis is an experienced teacher and examiner. She has recently been part of the author team working on the AQA GCSE Psychology Student Book (Oxford University Press). She is also an experienced trainer and course presenter.

Take a look at how AQA GCSE Psychology identifies synoptic links.

[1] DfE subject content GCSE Psychology, page 5

[2] AQA GCSE Psychology Specification, page 9