Making Your AS Learning Really Strong

I’ve seen some examples of great learning both in lessons and in work which people have submitted in the run up to the AS exams. I’m noticing what people are doing well and things which you need to focus on to do even better. If you can work smart as well as work hard, you deserve to succeed. In no particular order …..

1) I’ve seen people make very good use of techniques which worked well for them at GCSE. In particular, I have seen people come in with cue cards and other methods for condensing their notes. I’ve been really pleased to see some clarity in these and also people focusing on the core information. We know in particular that knowing key terms and being able to to use them is an essential component for success in the exam. Those people whose cue cards focus on definitions put themselves at an advantage because we know that definitions are essential to clear answers.

2) I’ve been struck in recent weeks by the differences between GCSE and AS. You go from something where content is clearly defined and where if you know it you write it down to something where the exam is asking you to think on your feet and shape what you know to the question in front of you. I’ve had two people this week on two separate occasions tell me that they think it is absurd that they get two years to prepare for GCSE but 8 or 9 months only to make a much bigger step up to AS. In A2 in the last couple of weeks, we have been thinking about the step up from AS to A2 research methods. We need in AS to be thinking about that step up even though none of you have done Psychology before.

3) I’ve seen some great examples of people being thorough and covering everything. That’s been through people handing me a lot of questions which they have done or by making cue cards for everything. One of the things I’ve been trying to avoid for a while is people getting zeros for questions in the exam because they remember nothing about the question. Use the checklists on the front of the skeletons to check everything.

4) Making everything fit …… I’ve seen examples of answers where people have quoted evidence and summarised well but the evidence and the summary do not quite fit. Occasionally, people ask what they need to do to get better. It is often not about putting more information in but making sure that everything fits together properly. That often means shaping back to the question at the end of an answer.

5) Elaborating …. I see people stating a point in a sentence but leaving it there. Make the point clearly in a short first sentence and then elaborate through a second and, if needed, a third. Short sentences work best.

6) You don’t need to get 100% to get an A: it’s normally around 70%. When I show you mark schemes, I often focus on what you need to get full marks. It might be better to focus on the next level down. If you can make your work reasonable thoughout the exam, you will still be close to an A. On a 12 mark answer, reasonable for AO1 is “less detailed but generally accurate description that demonstrates relevant knowledge and understanding. Appropriate selection of material.” So why not aim for this as a starting point and then work upwards, adding detail and making sure everything is accurate to get to a 6? For AO2, reasonable is “Material is not always used effectively but produces a reasonable evaluation. Reasonable evaluation of research. A range of issues and/or evidence in limited depth, or a narrower range in greater depth. Reasonable expression of ideas, a range of specialist terms, some errors of grammar, punctuation and spelling.” So get a couple of issues which you can explain in a couple of sentences, then work out what to add. Start at reasonable and work upwards. If you can avoid muddle for both AOs, you will stay in “reasonable” and accumulate marks.

7) There’s no harm in asking for help and feedback. That is what the best learners do.

8) If you get confused by something, do not blame yourself. Ideas in Psychology are always being reviewed and opinions change. Some answers are better than others but there are often no right answers. So if something is confusing, it might be because it is not a very good idea, not because you didn’t grasp it.

9) One point which keeps coming out in both AS and A2 is thinking in opposites. You often need to be able to contrast things: biological and psychological, multistore and working memory model, secure and insecure, interview and questionnaire, life event and hassle. Thinking in opposites is a sign that you really understand the material.

10) This is difficult. I see fear of failure in the people I teach and I recognise it in myself in the learning I do. Having a go and failing can be tough. It feels good if you have a go at something difficult and succeed in your own terms.



  1. We got some really good things going when we applied the ideas in this post to doing some research methods questions. The most important thing seems to be to know the vocabulary. If you know what the words mean, you can answer the question. The obvious example was the phrase “experimental design”: I hope we have sorted this out now. We thought a bit about reading the stem. Using a highlighter is a good idea for picking out key terms but that is the second stage in a three stage process: you need to read for meaning and understanding as well. Sometimes, you need to make an inference. You can’t just pick out something written in the stem and copy it. If, for example you need to write an aim, you need to think about what the aim would be based on the information in front of you. We saw this in the therapies stem questions and we’ve seen it in the questions about aims and about qualitative/quantitative data question here. On a practical level, remember you can write anywhere on the question paper but your answer goes into the space provided. You need to cross out anything you do not want the examiner to mark.

    Two final thoughts. Firstly, the way you work in other subjects sometimes helps you in Psychology. For example, you can use your knowledge of random sampling in Biology to answer the random sampling question here. However, be careful. It is clear that Psychology has its own way of writing a longer answer which is different from how you write in other subjects. One of the things that is really annoying me at the moment is that we have to worry about things in Psychology A Level writing which are just not part of the picture when you do Psychology as an undergraduate. Nobody worries there about key words, shaping, AO1 and AO2. Secondly, remember that there are 24 marks in PSYA1 and 12 in PSYA2 just for Research Methods. That’s a third of one and a sixth of the other not for writing down things you know but instead using the skills you have practised in the lessons this week. You can do it!!

  2. I’ve been marking some extra work which some people have handed in. Keep it coming. Some points emerge.

    a) We need to make sure we have revisited writing a hypothesis. It’s a problem because “hypothesis” in A Level Psychology means something different than in some other subjects and levels. In Psychology, a hypothesis is “a statement which makes a precise prediction about the outcome of the research. It is a statement which can be tested.”

    b) Age and EWT continues to be a problem. The skeleton notes are still not clear: apologies for that. In Parker and Carranza (1989), the children are more likely than the older witnesses to identify somebody in the sense that they are willing to pick out someone they think is the person who did the crime but the older witnesses are less likely to make a mistake.

    c) Having looked at some scripts written on printouts of past exam papers, it seems to me now to be important for anyone with normal size handwriting to use the extra space in order to access full marks.

    d) It’s good practice to repeat key words in the question in the first sentence of your answer. “What do the scores in Table 1 show?” “They show that ….”

    e) As I keep saying, full engagement with the stem means going back and picking out as much as you can.

    f) The question which catches people out most is the one that asks what research shows. There’s a related one which comes up once in a while: “describe one method used to study …”. I’m starting to see the problem with these. Someone pointed out last week that you sometimes get told to assume that the examiner does not know anything so you need to explain everything. That means that if you are asked to explain what research shows, you try to include the method as well and if you are asked to describe the method, it seems natural to describe findings as well. I think the best way to deal with this is that you assume that if you are asked for findings, the examiner already knows the method.

    g) Ethical issues with studies involving children: basically, you ask parents’ consent. This may come up in a res methods question in PSYA1 Early Social Development.

    h) Often, people lose marks because there is a sentence missing. Most commonly is the omission of “this shows that …” after a description of a study. The exam focuses on three things specifically. It wants you to make clear the link between evidence and theory, showing how a theory is backed by evidence. It tests your ability to elaborate on a point, not just state it in a sentence. It asks you to engage with a stem, identifying key points and making inferences with reference to your Psychology knowledge. In doing so, it seeks to separate those who can learn material from people who can really understand it.

  3. I’m pleased we have today’s exam out of the way. Well done to everyone who has worked hard and given it a go. That is half the battle done.

    I’d like to repeat and emphasise some of the points I have made here already. They seem to be relevant to the exam you did today, so should also be relevant to PSYA2 next week. Looking at the paper, the most important thing is to repeat the words in the question. For example, when it asks about the function of components of the working memory model, start by saying “the function of the visuo-spatial sketchpad is to ….”. Answering the question directly is the most important thing. See d) above.

    For the last two assessments, I have made sure that the number of marks available for each AO matches the number available for the actual exam. This should give the exam the same feel as the assessments you have done. Please remember that on PSYA2, 12 out of 72 marks are for research methods. Please also remember that stem questions make up a sizeable chunk of the AO2 marks. Point e) above is very important. There was no 8 marker on PSYA1 but there could be one or two 8 or 12 markers on PSYA2. In theory, they could ask a 10 marker as well: 5 for each assessment objective. To evaluate really well, please bear in mind the point about elaborating in h).

    I have been greatly impressed by the way so many of you have approached AS this year. We haven’t got everything right but a lot of good things have been done. Well done and keep it going.

  4. Now we have got PSYA2 out of the way as well …..

    Some of the themes outlined above apply to this paper. You need to read the question and answer it directly. One question asks for “conclusions about the effectiveness….” So that is what you have to write about. Research methods are there in the form of a graph about the effectiveness of therapy and a data table about biological methods of stress management. We’ve practised those. I’m glad we established that there are 12 marks for research methods which cannot be ignored. You also had to write about Milgram’s methodology. I’m pleased we had a thorough look at that and did a 12 marker on Milgram. We had practised stem questions in relation to therapies: remember Mea and her eating in public. We had also practised applying a definition of abnormality to a stem in the last test you did. I hope that everyone now understands what “full engagement with the stem” means. You have to go back to it and pull out as much as you can.

    I am writing your reports at the moment. As I do so, I am thinking about the transition into A2. The course this year has been about learning a core, adding some extension to deepen your understanding and to give you something more to write about, asking some important questions about what we know and then applying all of that to some exam questions.

    For some of you, the progression will be natural. You will need to learn a bit more, extend your knowledge further by reading more widely and write in more depth. You will need to be able to answer longer stem questions and show a deeper understanding of how science works in longer Research Methods questions. AS will have prepared you for this because you have engaged with it fully. Even if you haven’t got a top grade in AS, if you are trying to do the right thing, you will make progress.

    Others of you have not fully engaged. You might have thought that it is OK to come to lessons just to write things down. You might think that extension tasks are a waste of time. You might have chosen not to attend on days when there is a test. You might have thought it is OK to coast through and do a bit of work at the end. That, after all, is what worked at GCSE. I hope you can see now that the AS exam is not designed to reward you. It is testing your ability to engage with the subject over the course of a year and to challenge yourself to think critically about it. There are too many aspects of the exam to catch you out which you cannot manage if you do not fully engage with the course or do so only in short bursts. This will be even more true of A2. You need to think seriously about what you want to get out of this and, more importantly, what you want to put in.

  5. So at the end of this process, we need to be clear about how A2 is different from AS. The four main differences are:

    a) In AS, you write about 150 words of evaluation on a 12 mark question. Points elaborated to produce informed commentary in greater depth on a narrow range of issues or on a wider range of issues in reasonable depth. Mixture of strengths and limitations with contextualised methodological commentary. When you get to A2, you need to write 400 to 500 words of evaluation on an essay. Extended evaluation is needed, using supporting evidence and issues, debates and approaches to develop a line of argument. Methodological commentary must spell out the implications for the theory to which evidence relates.

    b) In AS, stem questions are shorter. You have seen stem questions where an inference needs to be made based on hints in the text: identifying an aim when only a procedure is described in the stem (June 2012), describing stages of a therapeutic process when only the symptoms are given (June 2014 PSYA2), writing a hypothesis based on a description of method and a results table (June 2013). When you get to A2, stem questions are longer and require you to make links, for example to models of abnormality in addiction questions or to the main features of science in research methods questions.

    c) In AS, you have to focus on shaping your answer: explain what research has shown, explain how the findings of one or more studies demonstrate that short-term memory and long-term memory are different. In A2, you have to go beyond shaping to unpack concepts in your answer: if you write about the filter model of relationships, you need to explain how a filter works, if you write about evolutionary explanations of food preference, you need to explain why a preference offers an evolutionary advantage.

    d) In AS, students tend to focus on one thing at a time. Answers are shorter and people need to know that they grasp each bit. In A2, the focus is on making links and seeing how everything fits together. In an essay, an explanation is linked to research evidence which supports it and issues, debates and approaches arise from explanations and evidence.

    The good news is that there is a natural transition from AS to A2. It is very rare to find a student who does well at AS but cannot make the transition to A2. On the other hand, if you have not fully engaged with AS and picked up the right study habits, you will find you have a lot of catching up to do in A2. I have seen people do it but it is hard.

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