How do you revise?

Woods to sunshineYou will all have your favourite tips for revision, but here are a few more that might help move you out of the dark woods into the sunlight.

  1. You are looking for retrieval, not recognition, so stop highlighting big chunks of your textbook and start writing or planning answers with the book closed.  The IB Diploma exams are very near,  A levels are not much further away, and many of you will be sitting end-of-year exams.
  2. Revise what you don’t know, not what you know. This is linked to the above: it is reassuring to realise that we know some things, but testing yourself on what you know is pointless.  You need to test yourself, using old  on what you are not sure of.
  3. Write, write, write.  Don’t type your answers, unless you’ll be typing them in the exams.  Your writing muscles need to get into shape now! So, when you are planning answers, writing notecards of material in your own words, summarising studies, do it by hand.  You may have 5 or 6 hours of writing in one day in your exams, so get training now.
  4. Output, not input. Yes, by all means make recordings, diagrams, notes, overviews, pictures, but the crucial test is if you can use all these theories and studies you have learned to answer the question. So get hold of old papers and markschemes, or at least old questions, and start now.
  5. Plan your revision now.  Make a revision timetable, and plan to cover at leat two different academic subjects (like Psychology and French, for example) each day, for up to an hour each.  If you get tired, swap topics – so maybe study half an hour of sociocultural psychology and then half an hour of biological, planning the answers as you go.  Stick to your timetable.

These exams will soon be over, but learning is a life-long skill.

So What? How to engage in critical thinking.

critical thinking

We all know what critical thinking is when we see it – it is the ability not to stop at the seemingly obvious, but to look at the several possible meanings and probable explanations behind it.  It involves analysis and synthesis of ideas and explanations. Without critical thinking, psychology becomes a list of studies to learn and boxes to tick, with no engagement and argument.   The command terms at the beginning of the essays you write (Discuss, Evaluate, To what extent, Contrast) all require more than a list of research.

Next time you write an essay if you are a student, or mark one if you are a teacher, stop at the end of each sentence and ask ‘So what?’  This should trigger some critical thinking.  Think of these statements:

The results of the experiment lack ecological validity. Thousands of students will write this in the upcoming exams this May.  So what? Does this matter?  Does it affect what we can do with the results? Well, yes it does.  If the experiment was carried out in a lab with all variables controlled apart from the manipulated one (independent variable) and the measured one (dependent variable) then this unnatural situation could have led to all sorts of changes in participants’ behaviour.  In this case the results may not be a true reflection of how they would have behaved under natural conditions.

Researchers at the biological level of analysis sometimes use lab experiments on animals to investigate the effects of certain neurotransmitters on human behaviour.  This is another common point made in  answers about either neurotransmitters or research methods. The critical thinker will then go on to point out that this is because they believe that, as some animals have similar brain structures to humans, then they use brain chemicals in the same way. These experiments are used when it would be impractical or unethical or plain impossible to test  hypotheses on humans in the same way, but of course, the assumption of parity of brain processes between human and non-human animals is a contested belief and certainly not all results from animal studies can be successfully be applied to gain a better understanding of human behaviour.  However, it is significant that it was initially in rodents that the link between acetylcholine and memory was discovered, which has been verified in adult humans with Alzheimer’s disease.

So, while it is important to revise studies for your exams,  don’t forget to use them to make an argument, look at why they are relevant and always explain the explanations!

How to structure a short-answer question response on models of memory

MSM for blogHow to structure a 9-mark SAQ on models of memory (for the new curriculum, exams May and Nov 2019):

Describe one model of one cognitive process, using suitable research to support your answer. [9]

1 Introduce your model of memory – draw and label it. Say how it conceptualises memory e.g. as separate storage components; as a version of the STM etc.

2 Go into more detail on the model – what does it assume about memory? What does each component/aspect of it say about how memory works? DO NOT EVALUATE! Focus only on description and detail; expand your ideas, give examples.

3 Use ONE piece of research to demonstrate the model in action e.g. Serial Position Effect studies or the case study of HM for the MSM; dual-task studies or the case study of KF for WMM.

4 Expand on how the study you’ve used supports the MSM or the WMM. Be absolutely EXPLICIT in doing this, don’t leave any question marks or assume that the examiner knows what you mean. You should be LINKING BACK to the question throughout your answer, but particularly in your last paragraph

Word count – should be around 250-300 words. Use your time well – you only have 20 minutes to write this in an exam!

Theories of stereotyping

According to Tajfel (1970) we are naturally inclined towards Social Categorisation and Social Comparison. This tendency to think about people in terms of the groups they belong to and to make comparisons between our group and others would support the development of stereotypes.

This relates to the concept of ‘outgroup homogeneity’, researched by Qualtrone & Jones (1980). This theory proposes that we tend to perceive outgroup member as more similar to each other than they really are whilst recognising variation and individuality in ingroup members (whom we see as hetergenous). Taylor & Porter (1994) suggest that this tendency to see the outgroup as homogenous  is the product of social interaction patterns; we interact much more with people from our ingroups and thus get to know their individual differences and idiosyncrancies. However, we interact far less with outgroups which encourages us to develop a simplified social representation of them.

This still leaves us with the question of where the particular stereotypes come from – on what basis, for example, did the stereotype that ‘old ladies like cats’ come from?

The Formation of Stereotypes: how and why are stereotypes formed?

Our social world is very complex and has a great deal of information. To avoid information overload, we use stereotypes because they save energy and can easily be applied to people.

Why and how do stereotypes form, where do they come from?

Personal experience with group members and the groups themselves.

We make generalisations based on our experiences with people.

Gatekeepers like the media, family members, and authority figures.

Studies and Theories of Stereotype Formation:

‘Grain of truth’ hypothesis (Campbell, 1967)
Illusory Correlation (Hamilton & Gifford, 1976)
Confirmation Bias
Cohen (1981)

Some examples of research on stereotyping:

Hamilton & Gifford’s (1976) experiment tested the illusory correlation theory. This demonstrates illusory correlation, because there was no association between the traits and the group membershipIllusory correlations can lead to people remembering information that confirms the expected relationship. This is due to confirmation bias, or when one favours information that supports their preconceptions.

Cohen (1981) performed an experiment to determine whether stereotypes can affect the memories of people. Participants were shown a video, and half were told the woman in the video was a waitress; half were told she was a librarian. When participants recalled details about the video, they remembered details that seemed to be consistent with the commonly accepted stereotypes of the careers. Those who thought she was a librarian were more likely to remember she wore glasses. Those who thought she was a waitress were more likely to remember her drinking alcohol.

Therefore, stereotypes can affect the type of information we focus on and what we remember.

Emic and Etic Explained


Are you confused by the terms ’emic’ and ‘etic’ when applied to research methods?  It is hardly surprising, for a quick Google of these terms will produce diverse definitions, applied to both language and culture.  Once you get further into reading about how culture influences behaviour you will find that some writers even use them as nouns (’emics’ and ‘etics’) rather than as adjectives applied to particular approaches and research methods.

The origin of the words lies within the field of linguistics, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, and has been used in the terms ‘phonetic’ (representing speech sounds by symbols) and ‘phonemic’ (related to specific underlying sounds that distinguish two similar words).  Their first use in anthropology seems to date back to the 1950s, according to several dictionaries, and the way they are used in psychology is the same.

Etic research is research that compares data from different cultures in an effort to uncover general rules regarding human behaviour. Think eTic = ‘T for telescope.’  A telescope allows us to take a large comparative view of landscapes and see a lot from a distance.   This is often quantitative research that generates data tables.  (Höfstede’s research into cultural dimensions is a good example of  etic research).

Emic research is conducted within one culture or sometimes within one social group within the culture, and focuses on uncovering the individual and group meaning of people’s actions, communications and attitudes.  Think eMic = ‘M for microscope.’ A microscope allows us to take a very close look at very small details, and see the meaning of changes in cells, for example.  This is almost exclusively qualitative research that generates written data, often from video- or audio-recorded observations or interviews.  (Howarth’s focus group interview method researching the construction of social identity of Brixton youth, with detailed transcription of the interviews, is a good example of emic research).


Describe or Discuss? Applied to a biological approach question.

easter-3204589_640Every question on your IB Diploma exam paper, indeed every question you answer in class, begins with a command term.  A command term is a word (or a few words) that tells you the focus to take in your answer.  If it is a response to a short-answer question, then one of the most common command terms is ‘describe’:

Describe one ethical consideration in research at the biological approach.

However, an essay question might be:

Discuss ethical considerations in research at the biological approach.

For describe you will need to think of one ethical consideration that is very important for biological research, and describe it in detail – why it is particularly relevant to the biological approach, why it is necessary for studies to implement this consideration, and what the implications are if it is not applied.  Then find one biological study and show why this ethical consideration is vital for this study.  It doesn’t have to be a study where there is an ethical problem, and should be a study that you will be using anyway for other answers.

Discuss requires you to review at least two ethical considerations, say why they are particularly relevant to the biological approach and how they can be assured. There will need to be discussion over the role of ethics in biological research, which are the most important (two is plenty to discuss), and an in-depth analysis of the role of these two ethical considerations in specific studies.  There should be an argument (How important is anonymity? Is fully informed consent given by parents for children and young teenagers enough, or should the youngsters have to consent as well? Is it ever possible to meet all ethical requirements and have a valid study?)  Your conclusions should be supported by empirical data from studies that show a good knowledge of the research you have chosen.

But you knew this anyway, really: if a parent says to you, ‘Describe your new girlfriend/boyfriend’ you are not nearly as ready for an argument as if they say ‘Let’s discuss your new girlfriend/boyfriend.’  Are you? So – apply the same thinking to your writing, and you’ll be fine!

Emotion and memory


We all remember those special moments, don’t we?  The birthday party with the huge cake, or our first day at school, or when we broke our arm playing in the snow.  They seem as if they only happened yesterday, the memories are so vivid!

Many years ago, some classic research was conducted by Brown and Kulik (1977) into the phenomenon of what they called ‘flashbulb memories’:  memories of where we were when we heard startling news that had a strong emotional impact on us.  Their questionnaires and interviews suggested that indeed people did remember where they were and exactly what they were doing when they heard of President Kennedy’s death or the shooting of Martin Luther King.  Do you remember what you were doing when you heard of Michael Jackson’s sudden death? Maybe your parents remember where they were when the sad news of Princess Diana’s fatal car accident was broadcast?

However, later research showed how our flashbulb memories may not be so accurate as we think: one fault of Brown and Kulik’s method was that they had no independent way of checking the accuracy of their participants’ memories of where they were and how they heard the news.  Neisser and Harsch (1992) interviewed people one day after the 1986 Challenger Shuttle Disaster and again two-and-a-half years later.  One day after the event, 21% of participants reported hearing about the disaster on TV. But years later, 45% reported hearing about it on TV. Their memories of how they knew about the Challenger explosion had changed over time. Moreover, in the second interview, some of them reported being at certain events when they heard, despite such events not taking place at the time.  Neisser and Harsch concluded that although flashbulb memories are vivid and long-lasting, they are not reliable.

Test it for yourself – ask a person who was present when you both heard some shock news, and see how your memories coincide or how they are different.  You may be surprised!