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Teaching guide: AS and A-level Psychology practical activities - podcast

These podcast teaching guides cover topics from our AS and A-level Psychology specifications. You can download them below.

Podcast 3: AS and A-level Psychology practical activities

As you know practical activities are a fantastic way to engage students and teach vital research skills that encourage students to be the curious thinkers of the future. In this podcast we explore ways of delivering practical activities with a focus on investigating short term memory.


Hello and welcome to AQA’s Psychology podcast aimed at supporting your teaching of our new AS and A-Level specifications. In this podcast we’ll highlight some of the ways students can be encouraged to develop their higher cognitive skills through the carrying out of practical work. This will be illustrated using the short term memory practical activity which can be found as part of the Practical Activities for Research Methods resource, in the teaching resources section located at aqa.org.uk/psychology-resources.

Your students will already be familiar with practical activities in the classroom. They will have carried out controlled studies in their science GCSEs before coming to your AS and A level Psychology class. Now studying human behaviour, they will now face a new set of expectations and demands. As your students will soon come to realise, psychology is a brilliant scientific discipline with thousands of interesting studies into human and animal behaviour.

A lot of us learn better from concrete, hands on experience compared to simply reading about something or just being told the facts. Practical work provides students with opportunities to develop the skills they will need to succeed at AS, A level and beyond. Practicals can enhance skills such as learning to distinguish between 'describe' and 'discuss', using maths skills and expressing coherent arguments. These are all essential to evaluating and discussing the work of published researchers, a vital skill when it comes to essay writing.

Students often don’t realise that research method principles are common across many disciplines. Practicals are an excellent and fun way of preparing your students for life beyond school or college; no matter what they hope to do.

Let’s have a look at Activity 1: Investigating short term memory, which as mentioned can be found at aqa.org.uk/psychology-resources.

The first class activity might involve learning about aims and hypotheses followed by generating some that are relevant to the study. In the memory activity, students are being asked to design and carry out a study in which the aim is to investigate short term memory differences between A-level students and older people, perhaps teachers, parents or grandparents. From this aim, students should be able to generate an appropriate and more specific hypothesis for the study. For example: there will be a significant difference in the number of words recalled from short term memory by 18 year old and 50 year old people. Alternatively, the hypothesis could take the following form: eighteen year old students will recall significantly more words from short term memory than 50 year old people.

The first example is a non-directional hypothesis, because it does not predict which of the two groups will recall more, only that there will be a difference in their recall. The second example is worded in directional terms, because there is a clear and specific prediction to the expected outcome, young people will recall more.

Ask your students to justify the choice of a directional hypothesis in preference to a non-directional one. By the end of your discussion they should understand that a directional hypothesis should be used when previous work has generally found that young people do recall more from short term memory. Whereas a non-directional hypothesis should be used if previous research into age and short term memory is contradictory, or perhaps there is very little, if any research to suggest that younger or older people will recall more.

To deepen the understanding of aims and hypothesis-writing you may want to devote a classroom activity to it. Ask students to look at studies you may have mentioned recently in class and ask them to think what the aims and hypotheses might have been. Distinguishing between aims and hypotheses can be tricky and this is a useful way of helping your students to learn the difference.

A good working hypothesis should also clearly identify the variables under study. In this case, the independent variable, the one being manipulated is the age of the participants and this has been clearly specified as 18 and 50 year olds. The dependent variable, the one being measured, is also evident. In this case, it’s the number of words recalled from short term memory by the two age groups, this is also known as the two conditions. Students could then be asked if there are any other variables which might influence the number of words recalled, since they may assume that age is the only influencing variable on word recall.

A poorly controlled study might allow other variables to influence recall: the location, the time of day or the participants' gender, for example. These 'extraneous' variables, if not controlled, may also influence recall, potentially leading to incorrect conclusions about the influence of age on short term memory. Ask students to consider what these other variables might be and how they could be controlled to minimise their influence on word recall.

Producing materials for practical work can provide many useful teaching and learning opportunities. Materials can be produced individually, in pairs, in small groups, or as a whole class exercise, providing students with valuable opportunities to demonstrate both independent and teamwork skills.

Short term memory can be tested in many ways, but one that is commonly used is through word lists. Students producing a word list will need to consider the size and type of font used, since a cursive typeface can be harder to read and may become one of those 'extraneous variables' and decrease recall ability. However, students could argue that a poor choice of font would probably affect both age groups similarly, and therefore would not give one group an advantage over the other. These are the sort of considerations students have to make and justify when designing their own materials or when criticising the methodology of someone else's study in an essay.

As a classroom activity ask your students to make a word list to test short term memory. They should be able to identify a number of problems, including:

* Making the list too short

This will result in 'ceiling' effects where the task is so easy that most words are recalled by all participants and any real age differences in recall will not show. This would need to be controlled. This means that it has to be dealt with by making the list longer. For short term memory, for example, students might decide that a list of twenty words is sufficient, since, according to published research, the normal capacity of short term memory is much less than this figure, for example: The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," by psychologist George Miller suggested that people can store between five and nine items in short-term memory. More recent research suggests that people are capable of storing approximately four chunks or pieces of information in short-term memory.

* Another problem could be that the choice of words may be inappropriate

Choosing an auto-generated or, spontaneous list of words inevitably leads to a mix of easy, hard, short and long words. Some words may be harder or easier to recall because they are generation specific, are very distinctive or are uncommon words.

If students believe that any of these factors would influence one age group more than the other, then they would have to explain why this would happen, what the effect would be on recall and how they would deal with the problem.

Useful resources for list-making, such as those showing the most commonly used words in the language in which the study is being tested can be found on the internet.

Students will also need to think about other possible design issues, for example will the word list be provided on a computer or on paper? Will it be word processed or read out loud? As previously mentioned, not all of these will confound research into age and short term memory, and this is where students will need to think carefully about the specific problems they are identifying, since they must be appropriate to the research activity in question.

More obvious extraneous variables may spring to mind, (for example, how good the participants’ glasses are for reading) and there is no doubt that these may influence any participants’ performance, but students should be encouraged to think more scientifically about the way they have designed their own word list as part of a study into short term memory.

Students may criticise studies which have used word lists to test memory by suggesting that these lack any relevance to the real world. Encourage students to think carefully here, since word lists are used frequently in day-to-day life, shopping lists and vocabulary learning, for example. Word lists may therefore have limited relevance rather than none at all.

Next students will need to think about participants and sampling methods. The short term memory activity asks students to identify and justify aspects of the participant sample. Ask your students to justify the use of 18 and 50 year old participants. They may suggest that the 18 and 50 year olds are old enough to give their own consent to take part in a study.

By the end of the investigation students should also be able to distinguish between a population and a sample. It’s likely that a volunteer or opportunity sample will be used and the chosen sampling method should be described and justified. Assuming that the younger participants will be AS and A-level students, consideration might be given to the overall number of students at the school or college in question when deciding what percentage might be a good representation.

A discussion of possible alternative sampling methods could provide another useful classroom activity. Whilst students often correctly criticise published work in terms of the sample used, they may miss what the effect of this might have been on the results, and how this would influence the conclusions reached by the researcher.

It’s important for students to consider the ethical issues which might be relevant to their own practical work and in studies by other researchers. An activity based on ethical issues would be incomplete without suggesting how ethical issues should be, or should have been, dealt with by researchers.

Students should refer to the British Psychological Society code of ethics regarding the design and conduct of psychological studies and how to deal with ethical issues in research. Research in the wider world of academia and psychological practice involves risk assessment procedures and ethics committees, so it’s important that AS and A-level students are advised on the appropriateness of their own research activities and the application of ethical considerations to these.

Students may think that a word list is a harmless enough activity. However, there are still ethical considerations. Students should produce a brief for participants, so that those asked to take part know what they are agreeing to. This would allow someone with reading difficulties to decline without being put in a position of distress.

Practical activity work also provides students with opportunities to develop and enhance their data handling and analysis skills. Results from the word recall activity can be summarised into descriptive statistics such as measures of central tendency, range and so on. AS and A-level students will be familiar with descriptive statistics, they would have covered them in GCSE Maths, however the terms 'descriptive statistics' and 'measures of central tendency' may be unfamiliar to them.

Students will also be used to producing pictorial representations of data, so they should feel relatively comfortable producing graphs, bar charts and so on. It would benefit them to look at previous research methods questions from their psychology studies which have asked them to draw or interpret a graph, bar chart or other descriptive.

This podcast has briefly highlighted a few aspects of delivering practical activities in relation to studying the short term memory and has highlighted some of the considerations that you and your students will need to take into account when thinking about any practical activity. You may decide to ask your students to complete a larger research project or you may decide to carry out many smaller activities over the academic year. Whichever delivery method you decide to offer to your students, it will benefit them and help to develop their research methods skills.

Some of your students might be inspired to take their practical work in psychology further by undertaking an AQA Extended Project Qualification. We’ve seen diverse extended research projects in the field of psychology such as ‘are older siblings more competitive than their younger brothers and sisters?’ Extended Projects in Psychology must meet the criteria set for this stand-alone qualification. Extended Projects are welcomed by leading universities and can really help your students prepare for undergraduate study in psychology or related disciplines. You can find out more by visiting our website and contacting the Extended Project team on 0161 957 3980.

Please do use the online practical activities resource to support your teaching. They have been specifically designed to reflect the new specification’s content both in terms of topic areas and research methods in general - and remember: good research methods skills provide strong, transferable evaluation and discussion skills.

Thank you for listening to this instalment in AQA’s series of psychology podcasts. We hope that this has helped to effectively introduce practical activities and how you might deliver them to your students. If you have any questions feel free to contact us by phone on 01483 477 822 or email us at psychology@aqa.org.uk. Thank you and goodbye.

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