Jennifer McIntosh and Sandie Cleland on first years' expectations. Plus useful resources for new students.

So what do you expect?

Jennifer McIntosh writes.

I WRITE now as a final-year undergraduate. It’s hard to believe it’s been three years. It’s all passed so quickly. I remember the first day of university vividly, I was so naive about what the course would bring. I spent my time here living in the present, never giving a second thought to the future, especially not in that first year. The last three years have been intense to say the least, but as I near the end of my course and university life in general, I know I’ll miss it once it’s over. As difficult and tiring as it’s been at times, it has also been great fun, and an experience I will not soon forget. When I started university, I was fresh out of sixth form. Life there was so safe; the courses were delivered in a strict and formal way. Very little independent thought was required. Teachers were there telling me what to do, how to do it and when to do it. I must admit, I liked it that way.
I guess I knew university would be different, I just didn’t know how different! The biggest differences I found in Year 1, and perhaps the hardest things to become accustomed to, were the laid-back nature of the lectures and deadlines given – in some cases three months in advance. For me, as for many students, that was three months of partying and procrastinating, and one night of working on an assignment – right before it was due. How things have changed since then!
So what did I expect of the course? Well, I definitely expected more contact time with lecturers. I soon found at university level I had to take responsibility for my own work and use my initiative where possible. I went from full-time A-levels, to six hours of lectures a week! Freedom is fantastic, but only if you know what to do with it, and at the time I had no idea what to do with the newfound free time. I wasn’t confident in my abilities and when it came to writing assignments,
I often felt lost in a mountain of books. I struggled to find the motivation to work alone and was concerned that I was wasting my time reading the wrong books, barking up the wrong tree. I expected lecturers to tell me precisely what to do, and was rather frustrated at times when they didn’t spell it out to me. I had succeeded in education in the past because the teachers set hoops which I was more than willing to jump through without a second thought. I just couldn’t do that any more, and many times I wished I could.
I’ve grown up a lot since then. With every essay I write I become a little more confident that I know what I’m doing. Not too confident you understand, but enough so I am not intimidated by the pile of books and numerous journals I am expected to read. Now I appreciate the freedom of the course and am particularly enjoying researching for my dissertation as it is a subject I can tackle with passion and enthusiasm. I realise that lectures answer queries in a way that prompts me to think for myself, so I come to my own conclusions rather than being spoon-fed information, absorbing it like a sponge and never really questioning it.
Even though I was told of the amount of statistics involved in psychology, I was taken by surprise after my first course on SPSS. Not surprisingly, I didn’t believe that statistics could be such an integral part of psychology. I was a little disappointed at first. I thought I’d escaped mathematics for good when I finished GCSE! Oh so naive. 
When I started the course I had no idea so much research has been carried out in the field of psychology. There is a wealth of information in the form of textbooks, journal articles and conference papers, but such information is incredibly difficult to access at times. I often feel I waste time trawling through abstracts, only to find I must pay to access the full text and references. In my first year I didn’t give much though to research, but I soon learned to appreciate the value of primary source material. These days I am often frustrated when I don’t have permission to view information until I buy or subscribe to the particular source. It’s terribly disheartening when my assignments suffer as a result.
Despite the encouragement of independent thought while studying, writing assignments is completely different. The standard format that must be adhered to often seems a little rigid. I understand that rules are in place to maintain consistency, but, for me at least, psychology should be subject to development and open to new ideas. I am pleased there has been a shift towards qualitative research recently. After all, attempting to fit the scope of human behaviour neatly into categories represented as numbers on an SPSS output always seemed a little narrow in my opinion.
I realise that I might appear cynical and overly critical of psychology at university. Let me assure you, this is not the case. There are aspects of the course I love and wouldn’t be without. For instance, I feel lecturers respect me not only as a student, but also as a person. I am encouraged to chat to lecturers on their level. Criticism is always constructive, and I am neither patronised nor undermined. I entered university with a vague notion of psychology. I thought I would learn a few party tricks, like how to psychoanalyse people! I also looked forward to being taught to interpret my own behaviour and perhaps even my dreams. Obviously, this wasn’t the case, at all! Still, I am far from disappointed. Instead of sitting day after day in a dimly lit lecture theatre like I had expected, I have been given the freedom to grow and develop as a person in my own right. I am not learning for learning’s sake, and I feel I will leave university a better, more rounded person with the ability to succeed in future endeavours.

- Jennifer McIntosh was an undergraduate at York St John University College. This was the winning entry to the Higher Education Academy Psychology Network’s 2006 essay writing competition.

And what the research reveals

Sandie Cleland reports.

A PROBLEM for many undergraduates who set out to study psychology is that the subject does not always live up to their expectations. Talks at this year’s Psychology Learning and Teaching conference, organised by the Higher Education Academy Psychology Network, cast some light on the issue.
Through the use of focus groups and open-ended questionnaires, Bere Mahoney and Sarah Mason (presenting work carried out with Jodi Wallwork, University of Worcester) investigated undergraduate students’ understandings about the nature of psychology, and their expectations about the studying process. The students’ responses revealed beliefs inconsistent with the majority of an undergraduate syllabus. The three themes identified by Mahoney and Mason were firstly, that students believed the purpose of psychology is to change, help or cure the individual; secondly, that they believed that social phenomena are reducible to individual normality or pathology; and thirdly, that psychological knowledge about the ‘unique’ individual may be obtained predominately through lay methods such as listening, observing and introspection. It is little wonder then that they also expressed impatience with the hard grind of reading and theory. There were positives to be drawn from their findings, however, not least the enthusiasm that undergraduates have for studying psychology; they expressed great excitement at the prospect of exploring what they regarded as a ‘fascinating subject’. The key must be
to dispel myths surrounding psychology without destroying this enthusiasm.
The importance of undergraduates’ expectations about their course was highlighted by work reported by Karen Thomson (with Douglas Forbes, Glasgow Caledonian University). Among their findings was the fact that students who found their course matched or exceeded their initial expectations performed better than those who found it did not. Thomson discussed the findings of an ongoing study based at Glasgow Caledonian University, which is investigating the experiences of their psychology students. So far there have been some surprises; for example, that taking paid work did not appear to affect performance in coursework. Other findings were not quite so shocking; for instance, that although 81 per cent of students intended to attend everything at the beginning of their course, only 22 per cent actually did! Students who were confident by the end of the first semester that they had chosen the correct degree programme performed better that those who were not so sure. Interestingly, students who originally thought that the degree programme would be harder than they actually found it performed worse than those who found it as hard or harder. The transition from home life to university can be tough, and hopefully studies such as this will provide the basis for interventions that help students deal effectively with undergraduate life.

- Sandie Cleland is at the University of Aberdeen.

Useful resources for new students
The British Psychological Society offers membership to undergraduates studying psychology at an institution recognised by the Society for just £13 a year. For that you get The Psychologist each month, plus unrestricted access to its online archive; a quarterly student newsletter, Psych-Talk; reduced rates on conferences, books and journals; access to Europe’s largest psychology library; and the chance to join various professional and scientific interest groups to exchange information, ideas and knowledge with a wide range of professional psychologists. For more information and to join, see or contact Anna Woolley at the Society’s Leicester office ([email protected]).
The Higher Education Academy Psychology Network offers a wealth of useful information and resources specifically for psychology students. These include: advice on writing reports, web-based tutorials on variety of subjects, an annual student award, information about careers inside and outside professional psychology, and links to other sites of interest. Visit for more.
If you are a student and would like to get involved in developing this section of the website please e-mail [email protected].
The British Psychological Society’s Research Digest is a completely free, fortnightly e-mail roundup of the latest psychology research, linked directly to the student syllabus. It’s written in an engaging style, has weblinks for you to find out more, and is an excellent way of going beyond the textbooks, keeping up to date and making your work stand out! For past issues and to subscribe for the e-mail or RSS feed, visit
The British Psychological Society’s careers website at has information about  becoming a psychologist, finding a PhD supervisor and more.

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