Taking a holistic approach to the course

connections jigsawI have been trying over the past few years to do this, and am sometimes asked what I mean by ‘a holistic approach.’  The easy way is to demonstrate using an example. If you are teaching/studying the abnormal psychology option, for instance, you will probably be doing this after you have spent some time looking at the core approaches to explaining human behaviour (biological cognitive and sociocultural) and also looking at research methods and ethics.

So, now comes the time to apply your learning to the content of this option. Explore the differences between psychiatry (more medically and biologically based) and psychology (more cognitively and socially based). Take major depressive disorder, for example: how might a psychiatrist explain it?  How might they look for evidence to see if their explanation is correct and what sort of evidence would they see as valuable? How valid is their method of looking for evidence? How reliable is it? Does it allow them to develop a theory of etiology of MDD that has good explanatory power? How might they want to treat MDD once they are sure a person is suffering from it? Discuss the benefits and limitations of this treatment. Are there any ethical considerations regarding this treatment? 

Now, how might a cognitive psychologist explain MDD? How would s/he look for evidence and what would they accept as evidence? How valid is this method? How reliable is it? Does it allow them to develop a theory of etiology of MDD that has good explanatory power? How would a cognitive psychologist treat MDD.  Discuss the strengths and limitations of this treatment. Are there ethical considerations regarding this treatment?

What about sociocultural arguments that childhood trauma, domestic violence, poverty and stress can all singly or in combination be responsible for MDD? That removing the conditions that lead to MDD is the best treatment? 

Finally, consider the eclectic approach that is more common nowadays. What is the evidence that a combined approach to both the diagnosis, explanation of* and treatment for MDD may be more successful than a single approach? What is the evidence that doing nothing also works? What about a choice of approaches, or sequential treatment?

If we start the abnormal psychology option with these questions and work together to answer them, then the specific content becomes easier to understand in context of perspectives on abnormal psychology, and within the framework of approaches to research. This can be put into practice in the other options as well. Put it all together!

*e.g. Interaction between genetic vulnerability, environmental trigger and possible faulty cognition.

Planning your course effectively – the biological approach and development

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The biological approach to children’s cognitive development is well-established, as it seems obvious that learning must be directly related to neurogenesis (growth of new synapses connecting neurons) and neural pruning (‘cutting back’ of synapses no longer needed).  But of course this development through neuroplasticity requires not only good nutrition and nurturing to prevent injury, but also social stimulation, so a lot of research has looked at how trauma and deprivation may affect the cognitive development of the child, by delaying or preventing brain development in crucial areas like the hippocampus and amygdala.

The techniques used to study the brain and neuroplasticity topics under the biological approach can be successfully taught using material from the developing as a learner and the influences on social and cognitive development topics within the developmental psychology option. Recommended studies are Chugani’s (1998) PET scans of children from birth to late adolescence; Gotgay et al’s (2004) longitudinal study mapping brain development using MRI scanning; Luby et al’s (2013) research into the effects of poverty on the brain and the mediating effect of caregiving.

More help with planning is coming in the following weeks!

References (summaries of these studies can be found in Psychology Sorted Book 2):

Chugani, H. T. (1998). A critical period of brain development: studies of cerebral glucose utilization with PET. Preventive Medicine, 27(2), pp. 184-188.

Gotgay, G., Giedd, J., Lusk, L., Hayashi, K., Greenstein, D.et al. (2004). Dynamic Mapping of Human CorticalDevelopment During Childhood Through Early Adulthood. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101(21), pp. 8174-8179.

Luby, J., Belden, A., Botteron, K., Marrus, N., Harms, M. P., Babb, C.,et al. (2013). The effects of poverty on childhood brain development: the mediating effect of caregiving and stressful life events. JAMA Pediatrics, 167(12), pp. 1135-1142.


Planning your course effectively – the sociocultural approach and health


The sociocultural approach is increasingly used in health psychology, as it became obvious that not all disorders could be explained through a biological etiology.  For example, addiction can be caused and sustained through our position in social groups, and treated through the support of social networks. Pegg et al. (2018) conducted a survey that investigated social identity and alcohol use in teens and found that higher levels of exposure to alcohol-related content on social networking sites was associated with higher levels of alcohol use, as the online social identity was maintained through an alignment of behaviour with other members of the online social group. Many health promotion programmes are underpinned by social cognitive theory, with its focus on the interaction of behaviour, internal personal factors (biology and individual cognition) and environmental influences and the key concepts of agency, self-efficacy, vicarious reinforcement and motivation.

More examples on the way!


Bandura, A. (2004). Health promotion by social cognitive means. Health Education & Behavior, 31(2), 143-164.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: a social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall.

Pegg, K. J., O’Donnell, A. W., Lala, G., & Barber, B. L. (2017). The role of online social identity in the relationship between alcohol-related content on social networking sites and adolescent alcohol use. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 21, 50-55

Tajfel, H., Billig, M. G., Bundy, R. P., & Flament, C. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1(2), 149-178

Wenzel, S. L., Green, H. D. Jr, Tucker, J. S., Golinelli, D., Kennedy, D. P., Ryan, G. & Zhou, A. (2009). The social context of homeless women’s alcohol and drug use. Drug and Alcohol Dependence105(1-2), 16–23.


Planning your course effectively – more overlaps

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Similarly to the biological approach, there are many overlaps between the cognitive approach and the options of abnormal psychology, development, health and human relationships.  For example, the psychology of cognitive processes and their reliability can explain clinical biases in diagnosis of disorders, debates regarding the etiology of  disorders and also inform their treatment.

Watch out for more of these!

Planning your course effectively – exploiting the overlaps

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Here is some support when planning for the new school year. This is one of the most useful exercises I have ever done before teaching a course on psychology. Using a table, or a simple Venn diagram, as above, identify the overlaps between the core approaches and the options. Putting these posters around your class, sharing them with students, and using them for your own planning can clarify and structure your thinking and theirs. This is so useful when it comes to revision.

For example, as we can see, the biological approach to human relationships comprises mainly evolutionary psychology arguments. The same overlaps mapped between biology and abnormal psychology would identify brain neurochemistry as a key conceptual argument. The biological approach to childhood development looks at brain development and neuronal networking.

Doing this helps immensely with understanding the big picture, and also minimising the studies one needs to cover. If teaching the human relationships option later in your course, when students are learning about evolutionary psychology in the biological approach earlier in your course – here are their examples.

I will be mapping more of these over the following weeks, so watch out for them before term starts!