Sir Graham Balfour School

A member of Insight Multi-Academy Trust


Subject overview 

Psychology is the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behaviour in a given context. In other words, we investigate why we think and behave in the way that we do; what makes an individual unique but also how does social interaction influence the way we behave in a wider setting. Psychologists develop theories about human behaviour through carrying out psychological research. Therefore, psychology is viewed as a science due to the ways in which research is carried out along with the deterministic outlook of these theories. For example, the biological approach may explain aggressive behaviour due to an over-production of testosterone, whereas the social learning theory may explain the same behaviour as a result of the environment that that individual has been brought up in. Hence, there is no ‘right’ answer in psychology in terms of explaining human behaviour, but instead many approaches to explain one behaviour in which we can compare and contrast against. Psychologists aim to bring about change in people’s behaviour and help individuals who are struggling with their psychological health and well-being. The subject therefore can be applied extremely well to students’ understanding of mental health and how disorders such as depression, anxiety, phobias and addiction can be treated effectively. Studying psychology will develop an array of skills; students will often take part in group work expanding their abilities to discuss opinion on a variety of psychological concepts. Tasks will involve looking at and analysing data, and arriving at conclusions regarding research findings. Furthermore, students will develop their written skills in order to answer extended exam questions, writing in full prose in an accurate and concise way with key specialist terminology. Psychology involves many biological concepts and mathematical content and therefore students must use and apply their mathematical and scientific knowledge across to this subject.


Exam Specification – AQA Psychology

Paper 1: Introductory topics in psychology

Social Influence – We all like to think that we know our own minds and that we make our own decisions. However, psychologists believe that we are all subject to the forces of social influence. For example, many of our everyday decisions are the result of pressures to conform to the behaviours and opinions of other people. Within this topic, students will investigate research into why people conform as well as research into why individuals obey those in authority positions. Famous research includes that of Asch, Zimbardo and Milgram – key figures in social psychology.

Memory – Can you remember how to ride a bike? Your first day at school? What happened on the 11th September 2001? The memory topic will allow students to delve into how we remember certain things, and the processes behind short-term and long-term memories. Students will investigate the role of interference and retrieval failure as explanations of forgetting. Alongside this, we look into memory research into the reliability of eyewitness testimonies, and how misleading information and anxiety can play a role on what eyewitnesses recall after experiencing an event such as a crime.

Attachment – Attachment begins with the interactions between infants and their caregivers. It is the responsiveness of the caregiver to the infant’s signals that has profound effects. Students will investigate the explanations of attachment, looking at whether attachment is a learned behaviour or whether it is has an evolutionary mechanism. Drawing on key animal studies by Harlow and Lorenz, we will attempt to use animal’s attachment behaviour and apply findings to humans. Furthermore, we cover the different types of attachment and how our attachments in early life affect our later childhood and adulthood relationships.

Psychopathology – Is it normal to feel like this? Are my feelings normal? What is normal? These are just some of the questions we will be asking ourselves when studying the psychopathology module. Students will have the opportunity to investigate the four definitions of abnormality, deepening their understanding of what is actually meant by abnormality and how what constitutes as normal changes from culture to culture, and society across time. The three mental disorders we study are phobias, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), through looking at how different approaches are used to explain and treat these mental health issues.

Paper 2 – Psychology in context

Approaches in Psychology – Different psychologists approach the study of human beings in different ways. In this topic, we explore some of the key approaches: behaviourism, social learning theory, cognitive approach, biological approach, psychodynamic approach and humanism. For each of these approaches we consider their suggestions as to how we should best investigate and understand human behaviour and experience. We also look into the origins of psychology; how Wilhelm Wundt opened the first psychological lab in 1879, and how this allowed for psychology to emerge as a distinct branch of study in its own right.

Biopsychology – The human brain is surely one of the most complex and fascinating of all biological systems. In this module, we discuss the idea that different functions of the brain are localised in specific brain areas e.g. how the motor area located at the back of the frontal lobe is responsible for voluntary movements, and how damage to this area may result in a loss of control over fine movements. Further to this, students are given the opportunity to explore the role of plasticity, hemispheric lateralisation and how our biological rhythms influence our sleep-wake cycle. This is the most scientific of all the topics covered at A-level.

Research Methods – What do people dream about? Do people dream more when they eat cheese? Is there a relationship between the amount of exercise people do and number of dreams that they have? Research methods is all about how psychologists go about answering research questions, like the ones stated above. This module involves students gaining a deeper understanding of the methods involved in carrying out psychological research, such as the different types of experiments that can be undertaken, how participants are allocated to each of the conditions, how a sample is chosen and what ethical issues need to be dealt with. Furthermore, students will develop skills in analysing and interpreting results of research, and in Year 2 will be introduced to statistical testing which involves understanding whether a result is significant or whether the result is purely due to chance.

Paper 3 – Issues and options in psychology

Issues and Debates – Is human behaviour the product of genetic inheritance or the environment? To what extent is human behaviour universal? Do humans have freewill over their actions or is their behaviour determined for them? These are the sorts of questions we explore within this topic. We cover a number of issues in psychology including gender bias, culture bias and ethical implications of research, as well as several debates: reductionism versus holism, nature versus nurture, nomothetic versus idiographic approaches and to what extent is psychology a science?

Option Topics – In paper 3, there are nine option topics of which three are undertaken to study. These are currently: Gender, Schizophrenia and Addiction, but are subject to change. Overall, these topics allow students to make use of their approaches and issues/debates knowledge and apply more specifically to an in-depth area of psychology.


Exam Board - AQA

Paper 1: Cognition and behaviour

Memory – Memory is the term given to the structures and processes involved in the encoding, storage and retrieval of information. Memory is essential to all our lives; without a memory of the past, we cannot operate in the present or think about the future. In this topic, we explore the role of the multi-store model, different types of long-term memories and how the brain actively reconstructs our memory. We also investigate whether memories are always accurate, and if not, what can affect the accuracy of our memories such as the impact of interference, context and false memories.

Perception – The Ponzo illusion. The Muller-Lyer illusion. Rubin’s vase. The duck-rabbit illusion. You may have heard of these, and even may have seen them with your own eyes. This module will delve into the reasons why these visual illusions work, such as the role of ambiguity, misinterpreted depth cues and size constancy. We also study two key theories of perception: Gibson’s direct theory of perception which focuses on the role of nature, and Gregory’s constructivist theory of perception which focuses on the role of nurture in our abilities to perceive.

Development – How did you become what you are? How did you learn what you know? This topic is very much split into these two themes. Students will have the opportunity to study the parts of the brain involved in early development, and to fully explore the role of Jean Piaget’s cognitive development theory, which is the way in which a child’s knowledge, thinking and intelligence changes as they get older. We then investigate the different ways in which we learn, including Dweck’s mindset theory of learning, learning styles and Willingham’s learning theory. The latter end of this topic can be applied well to the students’ own ways of learning.

Research Methods – Psychology is the study of individuals. But it would be impossible to study every single individual on the planet! Research methods focuses on the role of psychological research and how we can use different methods to study a sample of the target population. We investigate the role of laboratory experiments, field experiments and correlations to show relationships in data. The use of scientific and mathematical skills are crucial in this topic, as students will often analyse and draw conclusions about psychological phenomena.

Paper 2: Social context and behaviour

Social Influence – Why do humans often change their behaviour to fit with others? Why do humans follow the orders of those in higher authority than themselves? These are key questions we pose in the social influence topic, as we investigate the reasons behind why people conform and obey, and the classic research into these areas. Furthermore, we look at the role of prosocial behaviour and bystander intervention – why is it that more often than not we are unlikely to help in an emergency situation if there are other people present?

Language, Thought and Communication – The way we communicate is changing. And the way we use language is changing with it. Does this changing language in turn also change the way we think about things? Students have the opportunity to study Piaget’s theory of language alongside the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in terms of whether language affects thinking or thinking affects language. Within the topic, we also investigate the similarities and differences between human and animal communication, the role of non-verbal communication (eye contact, body language and personal space) and Yuki’s study of emoticons.

Brain and Neuropsychology – The most scientific topic of the GCSE specification is the brain and neuropsychology. Here, students explore the role of the nervous system and how this network of cells collects and responds to information in the environment. Furthermore, we look at the structure of the brain including the localisation of function and the consequences if damage occurs to these areas. The topic allows students to get a taster for cognitive neuroscience, the idea that specific areas of the brain are responsible for certain mental processes, along with the range of scanning techniques available to identify brain functioning.

Psychological Problems – This module provides students with an introduction to mental health, including incidences of mental illness, how these incidences have changed over time and cultural variations in beliefs about mental health problems. The two mental health problems we focus on in further detail are depression and addiction. We consider the characteristics of each disorder, theories/explanations from varying approaches, along with therapies used to help treat these mental health problems.



Sir Graham Balfour School
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