Psychology A level joins the sciences

March 23, 2007

New status will boost university-level teaching, the British Psychological Society hears. Faisal al Yafai reports.

Reclassifying A-level psychology as a science will benefit the teaching of the subject at university, the annual conference of the British Psychological Society has heard.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is changing its classification as a science, which means that teaching A-level psychology will have to fulfil the common core criteria the QCA has set for sciences. The new specifications will be taught from 2008 and will affect university intakes two years later.

Jeremy Airey, professional development leader at the National Science Learning Centre at York University, led a workshop at the conference. He said that the A-level change would mean students were likely to be better prepared for university-level psychology in future.

"There is a perception in higher education that young people who come to psychology don't have a numerate background," he said. "But increasingly they will have a more realistic idea of what psychology is. They will be more exposed to the methodology and better versed in mathematics."

Psychology is one of the fastest growing A-level subjects - it was the fifth most popular A level last year - and Mr Airey said admissions tutors had to recognise its value as a science subject.

Rob Stone, senior experimental officer in the psychology department at York who helped lead the workshop, said: "I'm in favour of the changes because it will enhance students' awareness - some get into A-level psychology thinking it's less mathematical."

Mr Stone demonstrated to delegates a simple experiment he often uses with first and second-year undergraduates. It uses adapted glasses to skew the subject's view of the world, showing that the brain can adapt to even significant changes in how light falls on our retinas. The point, said Mr Stone, is to try to get A-level psychology students to think in a more scientific way.

But he pointed out that the increased focus on science might put off students who want to avoid mathematical subjects at A level, potentially denting psychology's future popularity.

The BPS expected more than 400 delegates to attend the conference at York this week.

Elsewhere, Doug Carroll, professor of applied psychology at Birmingham University and an experienced editor on journals in the US and UK, held a workshop on how to get work published in the prestigious journals.

He said that while content, in terms of having an original idea that contributes to either theory or practice, was important, it was not the only factor to bear in mind.

He also advised researchers to go shopping. "Go and read the journal you're interested in and see if it's interested in your type of work. You have to be aspirational but realistic. Have a shopping list of titles so, if they say 'no', you know where you're going next."

While some papers are accepted without revision, many usually required amendments.

He said: "If you are asked to revise your paper, be aware that they might only look at the paper again, not necessarily accept it."

Professor Carroll added that researchers should not simply resubmit a revised paper but enclose a covering letter with a point-by-point explanation of the changes. This helps an editor see what has been changed at a glance.

If the paper is rejected, it is possible to challenge the editorial decision, but Professor Carroll said that a strong case was essential.

What the conference papers say

  • Bullying via use of new technologies such as text messaging and e-mail has risen dramatically in the past few years, according to research by Nathalie Noret of York St John University and Ian Rivers of Queen Margaret University. The British Psychological Society conference heard that a survey of 15,000 secondary school pupils found that bullying had leapt from 14.5 per cent in 2002 to 20.6 per cent last year. The results went up and down for boys, but there was a consistent rise among girls. 
  • The 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 is the UK's "JFK moment", new research suggests. Although the attacks happened in New York, more people in the UK remember where they were at the time than recall their movements when Diana, Princess of Wales, died in August 1997, according to the research conducted by Martin Conway of Leeds University and BBC Radio 4. Professor Conway told the conference that 10 per cent of the 10,000 respondents to the national memory survey believe they recall their first year of life.
  • Bright students who feel under pressure may turn to heavy metal music to help them cope, according to Stuart Cadwallader and Jim Campbell at the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth at Warwick University. They looked at the family, school attitudes, leisure activities and music tastes of more than 1,000 students. Rock and pop were the top music choices, but pupils into heavy metal often had lower self-esteem. Pupils spoke of using the music as catharsis, to release frustrations. Mr Cadwallader suggested gifted pupils may experience more pressure than their peers and use the music as a way to purge those feelings.

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