Unprepared undergraduates?

Madeleine Pownall, a Psychology undergraduate at the University of Lincoln, has concerns.

On paper, the A-level syllabus is fascinating. It explores gender, eating behaviour, aggression, sleep, perception and more. However, there is a clear discrepancy between the A-level course and the world of psychology beyond the classroom. This is not the first time that A-level psychology has been scrutinised, but up to now the conversation has been reserved for commentary from established psychology academics. As a psychology undergraduate and recent A-level alumna, I call upon students, academics and teachers to join the discussion on how we can bridge the gap between A-level and university.

The topics in the AQA syllabus are areas of study with potential for serious discussion and controversy. Arguably, debate is a hallmark of any good research question or theory. Unfortunately, psychology A-level leaves little room for this. There is a large amount of content, meaning that lessons are often a whistle-stop tour of a particular area. How can we expect to teach the science of human behaviour and not allow any time for immersive and inquisitive conversation? Cohorts of students are leaving sixth form or college alienated and confused by the rigid teachings of A-level psychology, and so may cut their psychology career short. Or rather, students sign up for the BSc and are wholly unprepared for the critical thinking that is expected of them – and so quickly drop out. I’m not sure which one is worse.

Sixth form saw a full day of timetabled hourly lessons, with a clear syllabus and relatively little self-directed study at all. With this in mind, it is no surprise that undergraduates struggle with the transition to university. It is also no surprise that the number of students dropping out of university in first year is higher than ever (see Times Higher Education, March 2017). Most of my university timetable is left free for ‘self-directed study time’. This aims to cultivate an ethos that encourages original thought and nurtures self-motivated learners. However, this approach is worlds away from the culture of A-level psychology. This discrepancy is particularly salient given the long-standing published research which identifies ‘feeling academically unprepared’ as a main motive for dropping out of university (see Rickinson and Rutherford, 1995). I propose that education is more generally approached as an overriding interdisciplinary experience, with more fluid transitions between stages.

The A-level assessment structure does not equip students with the skills they require in a degree and beyond. During my A-level I never wrote an essay or a scientific report. Jarvis (2012) notes that report-writing in psychology A-level has disappeared completely since 2008. Prose-based assignments are cornerstones of a psychology degree structure – and a key skill to have in order to pursue any applied psychology career. However, despite AQA’s best efforts to replicate this – using all the right phrases in exam papers: ‘Outline and evaluate’ and ‘Assess’ – the assessment of A-level content is too limited to engage students in any meaningful way. After reviewing a past A2 paper, I found a model answer to an ‘Assess’ question. Validity, reliability and replicability were accepted as ‘evaluation points’ in a bullet-pointed list. China Mills and Jenny Slater, two psychology lecturers from Sheffield, attempted to answer psychology AQA exam questions. They approached the question with a critical eye, offering a contemporary interpretation of the issues. However, their answers were not included in AQA’s list and so they scraped few marks.

I fear that the results-orientated culture has caused the A-level to compress interesting topics into neatly structured exam questions, rather than nurturing a generation of engaged critical thinkers and evaluative minds. It is therefore unsurprising that high performance in psychology A-level does not predict degree classification (Betts et al., 2008). Ultimately, it is left to both undergraduates and academics to ensure that transition from the rigid and prescriptive nature of A-levels to the independent ethos of universities is done smoothly. Therefore, and I ask this with genuine interest in responses, where do we go from here? What can psychologists do to improve this transition?

Madeleine Pownall
Psychology undergraduate,
University of Lincoln

- See also 'The journey to undergraduate psychology', and our forthcoming 'Guide to University Life'.

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