What’s so difficult about Psychology?

Every student of Psychology finds at least something difficult! It can be hard for teachers to put themselves ‘into the students’ shoes’ and understand their problems with ‘learning’. I got some insight into this when I spent several years at a local college doing a part-time course in a second language and taking GCSE and AS exams.

The answers that students give can be revealing and helpful to teachers. A common one that I heard was ‘all those studies’. ‘What’s the problem with studies?’, I said. ‘There are so many to learn’. ‘I get them confused’. ‘I can’t remember the names of the people who did them’. Those are some of the answers I got. So, time to find out how to offer some help and reassurance.

I started by looking at the specifications and exam papers for GCSE, AS and A Level Psychology to see what part ‘studies’ play. It’s worth noting that ‘studies’, ‘evidence’ and ‘research’ usually amount to the same thing. Here’s a summary of what I found out:

The specifications:

  • Some studies are specified. This may be as a complete set of ‘core studies’; with reference to the work of particular researchers, e.g. ‘Asch’s studies of conformity’; by identifying some within topics /themes, e.g. ‘functions of eye contact (Argyle 1975) or more generally, e.g. ‘studies of bystander intervention’
  • The general expectations of students in the assessment objectives refer to knowing, understanding, analysing, interpreting, evaluating and applying studies related to the relevant topics
  • Ideas in the research methods topic can be illustrated and reinforced using studies from other topics offering an opportunity to re-visit details of them
  • There is a requirement for students to take part in research activities. These could include simulations of historical studies

The exam papers:

Studies can have a big role. I surveyed three exam papers from different exam boards and did a rough calculation of the marks linked to studies

  • GCSE: 25% research methods; 21% links to studies
  • AS: 14% research methods; 33% links to studies
  • A (The research methods unit): 40% research methods; 41% links to studies

Studies were involved in a wide variety of ways involving command terms such as ‘describe’, ‘outline’, ‘evaluate’, ‘discuss what research has shown’, ‘refer to evidence’, ‘criticise’, ‘outline implications’, ‘outline applications’, ‘address criticisms’; ‘design a study’

So, students were quite right to identify ‘studies’ as a key part of Psychology! I’ve come across several frameworks for storing the details of studies such as ‘CREAM’ (Conclusion, Results, Evaluation, Aim and Method). It’s shame that AMRCE isn’t an English word! I’d like to suggest some questions that may help students(and teachers) to make the learning of studies as profitable as possible: and suggestions might help:

Why am I learning about this study?

  • Is it written in the specification? If so, these are particularly important. It’s really useful to have a copy of the specification and use it to follow the course
  • Does it support or challenge a psychological theory, explanation or treatment?

Do I need to know the names of the researchers?

  • YES, if they appear in the specification. You will need to link the studies to the named researchers
  • OTHERWISE, I would say ‘No’, unless you find that this is the best way to recall the study

How can I learn and recall the details of a study?

  • Students may know what ‘works best for them’. I encourage recalling the method/procedure, linked to the topic and, if appropriate, the name of the researcher. Many ‘methods’ are distinctive and unusual, e.g. Milgram’s electric shock studies, and other features of a study can usually be worked out, e.g. the aim, the results and points of evaluation

How will I use this study?

  • That’s linked to the first point. Looking at exam questions and papers helps. There may be questions about procedure, results, critical points and opportunities to use studies to support or challenge psychological theories, explanations and treatments

How many studies do I need to know? I hope it is less than you think. Your specification may limit this to core studies. If not, it may be helpful to focus on these:

  • Those mentioned in the specification
  • Those with clear details
  • Those you are likely to recall confidently
  • Those that may serve more than one function, e.g. the ‘serial position’ study in ‘Memory’ can be used to support the existence of both LTM and STM
  • Those that clearly support or challenge a theory or treatment

Finally, a couple more thoughts. Using ‘mind maps’ about key ideas in the course can be a useful tool in revision and could include brief details of the studies to use to support or challenge.

It will probably be hard to do, BUT, encourage students to be ruthless in ignoring studies that aren’t exam relevant. This particularly applies when they practise exam questions in the final weeks of revision. I hope there is something there to help or reassure!

In another post I’d like to look at some of the types of question that involve studies and offer suggestions on how to tackle them.

Our anonymous writer, P, has many years experience of teaching and assessing GCSE and A Level Psychology in a large comprehensive school.