A Level Psychology

What do you most enjoy teaching?

Miss Ould:  I enjoy all aspects of the course for different reasons but the two topics I most enjoy teaching are Biopsychology and Memory. I find the structure of the brain really interesting and I enjoy discussing with students various examples of individuals who have experienced some form of brain trauma and the consequences of this. It is such an interesting area of research and it is always developing. There are some fantastic case studies that we look at including H.M and Phineas Gage that highlight how brain trauma can result in memory loss and changes to personality respectively. In memory we also look at the reliability of eyewitness testimony and the impact that key research has had on the criminal justice system. It is so important to see how psychological research has applications in everyday life and this topic allows students to have a go at being key eye witnesses themselves to see how reliable they could be!

Mr Flett:  There’s nothing that I don’t enjoy, but the bits that I always look forward to include the biological explanations for behaviour – which means the way that different brain structures might affect behaviour, or how chemical messengers in the brain might explain why some people have certain disorders and others do not.  I also enjoy understanding the possible impact of early childhood experiences on later childhood development or adult life.  And finally, what psychology has to teach us about how positive or negative team behaviours can be created, which can be important in lots of different workplaces, sometimes with very important consequences.

Mr Cole:  I teach units on psychopathology (mental illness) and on memory.   I find it all really fascinating.  Teaching about disorders such as OCD, phobias and depression is really interesting as we explore in depth mental health issues that lots of people have some prior knowledge about.  It is interesting to learn about the different explanations for these issues and the treatments that have been developed on the basis of these explanations.   Teaching about memory really resonates for me as a teacher because we spend so much of our time in schools trying to help students remember more.  Teaching and learning about this bit of psychology gives us all an expert insight into how memory works – and how we can make the most of our memories.

What are the differences between Psychology at GCSE and A Level ?

You won’t have done psychology at GCSE.  However there are a variety of subjects you could draw comparison with.

  • In GCSE History of Geography, you will need to write longer answers having remembered a variety of facts, and you’ll need to create arguments using them. In Psychology A Level, you need to read and understand a lot of evidence. Some evidence points in one direction, other evidence might point in a different direction.  In response to questions like ‘Discuss the view that aggression is caused by evolutionary forces’, you’ll need to create arguments in favour and against, and you’ll need to use evidence to support those arguments.
  • There’s a lot to remember – much more than at GCSE:  there might be a possible 30-40 topics in each exam, and you need to understand theories and evidence in each of them.  In the exams A Level Psychology you’ll need to write a variety of short and long answers, some 5 minutes answers, and some 20 minute answers (where you’d need to write at least two sides of A4.
  • Some parts of your GCSE Biology will be relevant. In A Level Psychology, you’ll need to explain processes in more depth and complexity than GCSE – for example you’ll look at the fight or flight response, but need to understand short and long term consequences in depth.  However most of the biology is in less complex than A Level Biology.
  • There is an element of maths in A Level Psychology, which is slightly harder than GCSE Maths.

Can you give us a quick summary of each of the units of work you do?

Mr Flett:

  • Attachment is about mostly about the development of children in their first two years, and the impact that this period might have on development as older children and as adults. We look at competing theories which explain the processes in different ways, and at research which looks at healthy development and more problematic issues (for example children who have had very difficult early years in orphanages) to see what health, education and social services might learn.  There are links between this topic and child language acquisition in English Language A Level.  Attachment can be an interesting topic for each of us personally, and some students like to discuss ideas with parents, although we try not to read too much into things ourselves!
  • The Social Influence module considers why people conform with others – in social or in work situations. It also considers which factors cause obedience, including why terrible orders have been obeyed during wartime.  Finally it considers how society sometimes changes its view – what helps minority viewpoints to be adopted by the majority.  We do plenty of practical experiments during this unit, and some students find it interesting to interpret what might be happening in employment or social situations around them.  Others make links with History, although History A Level will give a more in depth and complex treatment of the issues that we touch on briefly.
  • We also look at many of the different Approaches in Psychology: where the discipline of Psychology started and how it developed – taking in behaviourism, social learning, biological approaches, cognitive theory and cognitive neuroscience as well as Freud’s psychodynamic theory and the very different humanistic approach.  We also investigate Biopsychology where we learn about biological processes in the brain and in the hormone system

Miss Ould:

  • Memory focuses on how we take in, remember, and forget information. We look at two contrasting models of memory and then spend time looking in more depth at types of long term memory and theories of forgetting. We then look in detail at eyewitness testimony and how different factors such as leading questions and anxiety can affect the reliability of this. Students enjoy looking at the real life applications of this topic in the justice system and how the police should interview witnesses in the most effective way possible through the use of the cognitive interview. Students enjoy taking on the role of eyewitnesses in various tasks within this unit and interviewing each other as well as being able to design and build the models of memory.
  • Psychopathology is a very popular unit amongst students in the course. Here we look at what is considered ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ behavior and how we may be able to diagnose and intervene with an individual who may be a danger to themselves or others. We consider four definitions of abnormality and critically consider the strengths and limitations of each. This is a topic which leads to a great deal of discussion amongst students and promotes respect for individual opinion. The topic also includes learning about phobias, depression and OCD. We look at what may cause these disorders and how they can be treated. It has very important links to psychology in the economy as we know that mental health issues are serious and can lead to many people taking time off work. Therefore, considering the best course of treatment for each individual is very important.
  • The relationship topic is very diverse as we look at both evolutionary explanations of relationship formation all the way through to current day dating which involves more virtual relationships as dating apps become increasingly popular. We learn about various theories and links are made between the attachment unit covered with Mr Flett as you revisit early childhood experiences and how this can influence adult relationships. We also consider why people form parasocial relationships (celebrity obsessions) which generates interesting discussions. Within this unit students often take part in designing and carrying out their own research which focuses on theories of physical attractiveness and this allows you to apply your research method skills.
  • Myself and Mr Flett teach research methods. This is an integral part of the course which involves evaluating different methods of investigation, as well as data handling and analysis. You are able to use this knowledge to critically evaluate research studies in all topics of psychology and in various parts of the course you will have the opportunity to carry out small research tasks to allow you to apply this knowledge further.

How is Psychology different to Sociology?

These subjects can compliment each other in terms of understanding how society operates.  Some of the social psychology, for example looks at what processes can influence social change.  Sociology can help your written technique (as can History, English, Philosophy and other subjects which can benefit Psychology).  Sociology has its research methods, some of which are similar and some of which are different to Psychology.

However Psychology is tending to explain individual behavior and it is based in the family of sciences.  Therefore it adopts more scientific techniques at a smaller scale, and it crosses biology and includes much more numeracy than Sociology, including some interpretation of statistics.  Sociology looks at issues on a larger scale.  If you enjoy arguing about things that you might come across through newspapers and in the media, in terms of informed comment on social issues, including some political perspectives, then Sociology might be more up your street.  If you are interested in the more individual level explanations then Psychology might suit you more.  You may like both of course.

Do you have examples of what previous students have gone on to do in your subject?

I am currently working in Newcastle University’s Institute of Health & Society as an intern. I am helping on a research project where we are trying to identify interventions (whether it be behavioural, psychological, philosophical) that will encourage people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds to sign up to the organ donor register. The paper will (fingers crossed!) be published towards the end of this year – I am happy to send you a copy as and when it is published if you would like? As part of this internship I took a trip to London where we held 2 discussion groups with people from BAME backgrounds and gathered their thoughts on the interventions we had collected, which was a really great learning experience. This whole internship has been great at providing insight into what it would be like to work as a researcher full-time, and the fact that I get my name on a published paper is an added bonus!

There are certainly more Psychology graduates than there are jobs available in what you might see as ‘psychology’ (eg. in the health sector/counselling and similar areas).  However it has many skills which give great insights into businesses and other organisations, or the research skills become very useful in marketing, public health and so on.

Comments from some current students:

Watch the video at the top of this page to see some discussion.