Psychology is the ‘scientific study of the mind and behaviour’
What does this mean?
First of all, it’s important to note that psychology is a science. As with the natural sciences, psychologists employ the use of the scientific method to gather evidence. This is very important as many important findings in psychology are counter-intuitive and defy expectation. In A level Psychology, you will be analysing what scientific research has uncovered about fascinating questions including:
- Why do people unquestioningly obey destructive authority? Would I be likely to do the same in their position?
- Can we rely on the testimony of eyewitnesses who recall details of a crime? Is it possible to plant false memories in people’s minds?
- How and why do humans form attachments to their infants? What are the long term consequences if this attachment is broken?
- What is going on in the brain of a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)? Is it better to treat OCD patients with drugs or talking therapies?
There are many different ways to approach these types of questions. For example, if you consider the question ‘what causes depression?’, there are a number of different perspectives we could take. We could consider the genetic makeup of the person and their brain chemistry. Alternatively we could consider the experiences of people with depression and how this has influenced their thought patterns. The A level Psychology course considers a multitude of perspectives and year 12 students are introduced to the six ‘core’ areas of the discipline.
Biological Psychology uses genetic, neural and evolutionary explanations to shine a light on our behaviour. This area of psychology investigates the biological underpinnings of behaviour including brain structure, neurochemistry and genes. Year 13 students delve more deeply into the fascinating complexity of the brain, learning about topics such as neuroplasticity and functional recovery.
Cognitive Psychology focuses on the role of ‘thinking’ and how internal mental processes influence and shape our behaviour. Cognitive psychologists often focus their attention on areas such as perception, attention, intelligence and memory. The AQA specification focuses particularly on the cognitive processes involved in memory formation and – just as interestingly – memory loss!
Social Psychology focuses on how human thinking and behaviour is shaped by our social interactions with others. Year 12 students are introduced to concepts such as conformity and obedience through the findings of some of the most controversial and influential studies in psychology. This classic research includes Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram’s ‘shocking’ study investigating the power of destructive obedience.
Developmental Psychology considers how people develop throughout their lifetime. At A Level, the focus is on the development of an infant’s attachment to a primary caregiver, and the problems that occur when this does not happen.
Psychopathology is the study of mental disorders with research in this field aiming to give us an understanding of the underlying causes of these disorders. Alongside this, psychologists also aim to apply this knowledge in order to develop effective treatments. Across the A level course, students will learn about the causes and treatments of a range of mental disorders including depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias and schizophrenia.
Studying A level Psychology at Ashbourne
Psychology classes at Ashbourne tend to range from around 6-10 students. Considering the popularity of the subject, it is common for classes to include 8, 9 or 10 students. As a result of these small class sizes, the psychology teachers at Ashbourne are able to offer a high level of individual attention and support.
What support do we offer?
Psychology support clinics – the psychology department offers a lunchtime ‘drop in’ support clinic every week in which students can get one-to-one help from the psychology teachers. Due to popular demand, a Research Methods exam practice clinic was also introduced for year 13 students this year.
Psychology mentoring scheme – in the psychology mentoring scheme, year 12 students who require extra help are paired with year 13 psychology students. They meet their mentor on a weekly or fortnightly basis to receive extra support.
Psychology summer revision programme – like most subjects at Ashbourne, we run an Easter revision programme, however we also run a year 12 Summer revision programme for year 12 psychology students transitioning into year 13. This includes a structured timetable of summer work, regular assignments which are marked and receive feedback and individual performance review meetings with one of the psychology teachers in June and August.
How we challenge students
Psychology club – the weekly psychology club offers students the opportunity to explore psychology beyond the A level specification. Previous topics that have been discussed include: 19th century neuroscience, Borderline Personality Disorder, the psychology of cults, the evolution of language and the psychology of terrorism.
Lectures, books and documentaries – psychology students at Ashbourne are encouraged to read widely around the subject and are given book recommendations that relate to their specific interests. They also receive regular updates about psychology lectures in London and links to the latest documentaries.
Brain Day – Year 13 psychology students at Ashbourne have the opportunity to take part in Dr Guy Sutton’s ‘Brain Day’. This is a one-day introductory tutorial in Neuroscience and introduces students to the latest groundbreaking research in this exciting field. The students delve into fascinating undergraduate level content such as neurobionics and cerebral organoids as well as discussing questions such as ‘is there a criminal brain?’. The day culminates in a sheep brain dissection in which students can identify the different anatomical structures within the brain.
Ashbourne A level Psychology students
Lotte is a former student who studied A level Psychology at Ashbourne. She is now studying Psychology at the University of Liverpool after achieving an A in Psychology, A in English Literature and B in Biology. Below she offers her perspective as a former student and advice for students looking to study A level Psychology.
What did you enjoy most about studying A level Psychology at Ashbourne?
“I loved the variety of modules offered in A level Psychology. It felt like we covered such a broad range of interesting topics from attachment, to psychiatric disorders to memory. I also really enjoyed the biological aspects of the course such as learning about disorders of the brain, especially the different aphasias. I think psychology is a great subject for those interested in both humanities and sciences as it offers a combination of both. At Ashbourne I was always offered a great deal of support as well as resources to help prepare for the exam. The small class sizes meant we could thoroughly discuss different studies and theories in order to help us develop strong critical evaluations.”
What skills did you feel that you gained from the subject?
“I learnt how to critically evaluate research in regards to the way it’s conducted and its implications within a society. I believe it taught me to look more critically at the world around me and was applicable to my other A level subjects.”
What advice would you offer to a student interested in taking A level Psychology?
“My advice is to not be afraid of statistics. I think the majority of students (including myself) hear statistics and instantly panic but they are nothing to worry about. You go through all the maths skills you would need for the exam in class. This also applies for Psychology at university, I was really scared of the statistics element but it ended up being my highest graded module!”
What is covered in the course?
At Ashbourne, we follow the AQA specification and so in year 13, students will have the opportunity to investigate certain topics in much more detail. Each year we select three optional topics from the following choices:
- 1 of Relationships or Gender or Cognition and development
- 1 of Schizophrenia or Eating behaviour or Stress
- 1 of Aggression or Forensic psychology or Addiction
Finally, it is very important for psychology students to understand the research methods that psychologists use to investigate the mind and behaviour. Research Methods is the most important topic in the A level and is taught throughout the two year course. This topic helps students to understand how psychological studies are designed and carried out. Psychology students are also encouraged to be very critical in their thinking and to constantly analyse the effectiveness of these methods.
What skills are involved?
A Level Psychology involves studying a wide range of topics, so there is a lot of information to absorb, and importantly, you will need to learn how to apply and evaluate (weigh up the strengths and weaknesses) of these studies and theories.
There are three assessment objectives that student performance is measured on in A level Psychology:
AO1: Knowledge and understanding → are you able to accurately describe the concepts, theories and studies you have learned about?
AO2: Application → are you able to apply your knowledge to different theoretical and practical contexts?
AO3: Evaluation → are you able to analyse and discuss the concepts, theories and studies you have learned and weigh up the strengths, limitations, applications and implications of this research?
What background do I need?
You don’t need any prior knowledge of Psychology in order to start the A level course. In fact the vast majority of students who join the A level course have not done the GCSE course and have no prior experience of the subject.
Since Psychology is a content heavy subject, it favours motivated students who have a strong memory for facts and theories. To succeed in the A level course, you do need a solid complement of GCSEs. Students with mostly C grades at GCSE may well find Psychology very demanding, especially the Research Methods component of the course.
The requirement to write essays, in which you present arguments for and against an issue, means that you should also have a good grasp of the English language and be a competent writer. As previously outlined, psychology is a science, so a strong GCSE in Science (especially Biology) will be beneficial. At least 10% of the overall assessment of Psychology will contain mathematical skills so students taking the course need to be comfortable with numbers. Any student who has a pass grade in GCSE Maths should not have too much difficulty with the maths content in the A level Psychology course.
A level Psychology does favour the ‘all rounder’, however the most important prerequisite in taking the course is that you have a genuine curiosity about the way humans think and behave.
An A Level Psychology course complements a range of other A levels and, as a result, the psychology classes at Ashbourne tend to include a varied mix of students with a range of subject combinations. Whilst psychology often draws in students who are studying other sciences, it also appeals to students who are strong at writing (e.g. English and humanities students) and students interested in business and economics.
A Level Psychology is a linear subject, assessed at the end of two years of study. The AQA examination board uses three examinations to assess you. Each of these exams comprises a number of short questions, essay questions and scenarios to which you are required to apply your knowledge.
Paper 1: Introductory Topics in Psychology (Social Influence, Memory, Attachment, and Psychopathology).
Paper 2: Psychology in Context (Approaches in Psychology, Research Methods and Biopsychology).
Paper 3: Issues and Options in Psychology (Section A is a compulsory section on Issues and Debates in Psychology. Sections B, C, D each contain questions on the in-depth option topics you’ve studied .
Beyond A level Psychology
A degree in Psychology does not require you to have studied Psychology A Level. However, many courses ask for a science subject, of which Psychology is one. A Level Psychology will provide you with the skills required of an undergraduate – an inquiring mind and the ability to use scientific research findings to support and challenge various claims about why people behave the way that they do.
The A level course demonstrates a broad range of skills from essay writing and critical thinking to data handling and statistics. Achieving an A level in Psychology indicates that you are numerate and literate as well as being able to engage in scientific enquiry.
Who teaches this course?
BSc Psychology; PGCE Biology (King’s College, London)
Emily’s passion for psychology and enthusiastic teaching is greatly appreciated by her students and reflected in their excellent results. She joined Ashbourne in 2017 to teach Psychology and Biology after completing her PGCE and attaining a first class degree in Psychology. She is particularly interested in biopsychology and its influence on psychopathology.
BA Human Sciences (Oxford); MSc Neuroscience (UCL)
Sarah brings a wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm to her lessons inspiring her students to engage fully with the subject and achieve success in the exams. She joined Ashbourne in September 2014. Before turning to teaching in 2010, she spent several years working in research, first at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge and at the Centre for Cognitive and Neural Systems at Boston University, and has published original research papers in the fields of cognitive neuroscience and psychophysics.
Suggested reading and resources
A myth busting book that distinguishes fact from fiction and takes a looks at key areas of modern psychology including brain functioning, perception, development, memory, emotion, intelligence, learning, personality, mental illness, and psychotherapy.
Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
Kahneman (and Amos Tversky)’s groundbreaking, and Nobel Prize winning, research into human behaviour finally debunked the long-held theory that people are purely ‘rational thinkers’. Their experiments demonstrate how systematic (and unconscious) biases influence the way people think and make decisions.
Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl
In this classic and influential book psychiatrist Viktor Frankl draws from his own and others’ experiences of Auschwitz to describe how people cope with suffering and concludes that people seek meaning and purpose to survive.
All in the mind
Psychologist Claudia Hammond presents this BBC radio series exploring new ideas in how we think and behave.
The Human Zoo
BBC radio series examines the quirky way we think, behave and make decisions.
What makes us tick?
Psychology talks on TED by psychologists, journalists, doctors and patients.
The Brain: A Secret History
Watch clips from this BBC series tracing the history of attempts to understand and manipulate the brain.