Demanding greater rigour

Are misrepresentations rife in the teaching of psychology?

As a child I remember leafing through Sense and Nonsense in Psychology by Hans Eysenck. It seems that A-level Psychology is at risk of promoting a new version of nonsense. I was prompted to write this letter after reading the Research Digest article ‘What the textbooks don’t tell you about psychology’s most famous case study’ (August 2015) about misrepresenting research in textbooks, no doubt a result of a form of Chinese whispers where knowledge is distorted by serial reproduction without reference to the original. This is evidently the case in some textbooks written for students. The article reminded me of a recent experience of my own.

Students at A-level are expected to know about demand characteristics. However, as I discovered when I spent a few months teaching A-level again, there was a misunderstanding that arose from use of language. It transpired that they learnt stock phrases such as ‘participants might show demand characteristics’.The expression is to be found in some textbooks. Their understanding was vague but they guessed it might be something to do with the characteristics of the participants. They took some convincing, to say the least, that the characteristics were cues, particularly in experiments, that prompt participants to work out what is expected of them. As Orne said: ‘The cues which govern his [sic] perception – which communicate what is expected of him and what the experimenter hopes to find – can therefore be crucial variables. Some time ago I proposed that these cues be called the “demand characteristics of an experiment”’ (Orne, 1969. p.146).

Having finally accepted, if doubtfully, that it was not the participants’ characteristics that were being referred to, students duly sat their exam. One of the questions on the paper, to my despair, asked students to explain how the participants in the Strange Situation might show demand characteristics. I contacted the chief examiner, but suffice to say that the exam question was considered to be adequate. I know that one of my students crossed out the question in the answer booklet and wrote ‘participants cannot show demand characteristics’. The student was able to answer as expected, however, and would have gained the marks. However, no doubt many of the students thought I had had no idea what I was talking about, now justified by the question in front of them.

The gripe might seem insignificant but is representative of a situation that Richard Griggs highlighted in his analysis of textbooks, covered by the Research Digest. It is the tip of a rather messy iceberg. The A-level syllabus is very broad, and it can be hard to track down original sources. However, an associated difficulty is that academic rigour runs the risk of falling foul of exam papers, mark schemes and the knowledge of markers. Teaching psychology, it seems, requires knowledge of these as much as an accurate knowledge of psychology.

Dr Hilary McQueen

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