Exam Feedback: September 2014

I’ve spent some time looking at both the AS and A2 exam results from DHSG and DHSB. I can see marks for individual questions and can relate these to how we covered each topic and how students did in assessments. I also have access to mark schemes and examiners’ reports.


I spent a lot of time worrying about whether we were getting essays right. We spent time in lessons writing sections, did revision sessions on essays and did a PSYA3 mock in addition to timed essays at the end of each topic. On three of the four essays, marks are really strong. There were marks in top band for AO1 in all three, with people regularly getting into “reasonable”. For AO2/3, there were regular marks in reasonable with occasional top band.

The exception was the question on parental investment where marks were stuck in “basic” or “rudimentary” for both areas. This is puzzling because we went through the same process for this question as for the others: use text book for AO1 summary, shape carefully to the question, gather evidence and make it fit, develop issues, debates and approaches. The thing about this question is that, unlike the others, it had not come up before. There was no previous mark scheme to act as guidance. I have made sure the google site page for this topic takes account of the mark scheme. Because exams are an unpredictable process where what the examiner is looking for is not always obvious before we start, there is bound to be variation.

The best thing to do about this is to carry on using the structure we developed last year. I am grateful to the students in Year 13 at DHSG who took time to help me produce a summary sheet which gives a clear structure. If we make sure that on this sheet, everyone knows how to summarise AO1 content shaped to a question and how to make evidence fit that summary. If we can add some reflections on the validity of this evidence which tell us something about the original behaviour,  and then bring in some IDA, that should be enough over four essay questions to pick up marks that do people justice.

The other main point which emerges is that people in general did worse on the non-essay topics – Addiction and Research Methods – than on the essays. The most obvious reason for this is that we did no PSYA4 mock and fewer practice questions for homework. I left it up to students to do practice questions on research methods. We looked at individual questions on each sub-topic in the lessons. The idea was for students to practise whole 35 mark sections with different sub-questions in their own time.  There is no one question where everyone went wrong.  Marks are just lower on average than they should be across both research methods and addictive behaviour. This isn’t about gaps in the course, it is about practice. The two exceptions to this are the question on relapse in addiction and on analysing qualitative data. Here, having clear notes was a real advantage. Now these notes are on the google site, they are even clearer and more accessible.

So to summarise, for A2, we will aim to

use a really clear structure for each sub-topic

ensure everyone has a summary sheet for each sub-topic

make sure we do plenty of exam practice for PSYA4 by finishing early



AS proved to be a tough exam. The point which emerged through last year is that GCSE to AS across a range of subjects represents a considerable step up. In Psychology, this step up is made more difficult by the fact that you are studying a new subject. One student last year made the point that she had had three years to make the step up from Year 8 work to GCSE, a gap which to her seemed not to be large, followed by seven months to make the step up to AS, which seemed huge.

The AS exam is difficult. It expects you to be able to shape your answer to a question. In GCSE, most of what you write is a verbatim repetition of what was in a text book or in your notes. The exam is a test of memory. For some fortunate people with good memories, that means doing a lot of work at the last minute without necessarily having tried hard the rest of the time. By the time you get to AS, the assumption is that you can already do that: you have the GCSE certificates to prove it. The AS exam tests your ability to use the information you can remember to answer unfamiliar questions. It is all about your ability to shape your answer. In both centres I know about, PSYA1 was a harder paper than PSYA2. Many questions contained a trip wire, a feature you had to notice in order to avoid tripping up. For example, question 2c asked you to evaluate an experimental design in the context of this experiment. You had to remember that “evaluate”  includes both strengths and limitations and you had to remember to make your comments match “this experiment”. In 2d which asks you to explain why random sampling would be a better technique, you need to refer to the sampling method which was used in order to compare it effectively. I could go on.

Another issue which gets in the way is how to tackle 8 and 12 mark answers. There are really two problems. The first is that people are often more worried about them than any other question. That means that in the exam, they are tempted to rush the shorter questions in order to get to the 12 marker. The second problem is that the examiners seem to expect more and more from them. I used to show people a 12 mark answer which was about 240 words long which almost got full marks. Last year, the examiners published a 12 mark script which was 338 words long and another which was nearer 500. People who are writing capable answers are still only getting 8 or 9 out of 12.

The problem then is that when they approach the exam, students fall back on methods which worked well for GCSE but which don’t do the job for AS. Specifically, people revise quite late and they spend their time on memorising. They are pleased when they see questions in the exam on a topic they recognise and write down what they know. They get low marks because the exam is about understanding, not memorising, and is about shaping, not repeating.

There are issues specific to DHSB students which you can read about here with a DHSB log in.

Our targets this year will therefore be

establish a core of information which needs to be learnt for each sub-topic so that no gaps are left

use time in lessons to learn how to read questions and respond in a focused and structured way

develop an understanding of each sub-topic through deeper questions which encourage mastery learning

start as we mean to go on: focus on the complex from the outset



  1. Hi Sir,

    I found this feedback really interesting regarding the A2 exam. I know a few of us were surprised that the Research Methods questions weren’t as difficult as we expected! Although I think with this exam it’s as much about “decoding the question” as actually answering it. For example, the analysing qualitative data question was pretty simple to understand.. However, I vaguely remember a question (maybe 3 or 4 marks) on recording data (I think!) that was difficult to understand/work out what the examiners wanted.

    Generally unit 3 was “easier” than unit 4, but this is probably because of the amount of practice we had done. I am surprised that the parental investment question was our weakest though because we had just done that one in revision class!! (Although I do remember in the exam having so much I wanted to talk about for AO2: maybe I skipped through this too quickly/tried to use too many studies without the depth needed at A2 level.)

    Anyway, just thought I’d post this in the hope it’s somewhat helpful to your new A2 class at DHSB..

    Thank you for your fantastic teaching and support throughout the last year, I will definitely miss A2 Psychology!

    Molly 🙂

  2. Thanks Molly: it’s kind of you to say so and it’s certainly helpful as I embark on the process again. I think your point about decoding is really important as is your point about skipping through. It’s something for us to keep in mind for this year.

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