Advice for new/training teachers: 3. Coping with “heavy content”

Time is precious in the A Level Psychology classroom

Many subjects are regarded informally as being “content heavy” (in other words there’s lot to learn and remember), a label that often emerges to support arguments for the need for more teaching hours. Psychology has certainly had its fair share of (often unjust) unofficial labels and the “content heavy” one seems to crop up fairly frequently.

As Psychology is a vast subject and involves learning about the research that has been conducted, I think, it is somewhat inevitable that the amount of material to be learned will be challenging. To study the subject in a meaningful way and reflect the broadness of the discipline, the content is unlikely to be scant. The label in this case then seems somewhat justified. The problem, however, is that usually when subjects, are referred to as “content heavy” this is because the amount of material needed to “get through” in a limited amount of time is perceived to be unfairly heavy (perhaps in comparison to other subjects) and therefore the content load is perceived to be a problem.

Be more productive by helping students to learn for themselves

Until such time as the specification content changes, the amount of material is what it is but it doesn’t have to be a problem and you don’t have to rush through topics to complete the course.

Through the A Level course your students will learn a number of (potentially) transferable skills every time they come across a new area of Psychology and, believe or not, they don’t actually need to hear you as their teacher tell them everything they will learn in their A Level. The content immediately feels lighter when the focus is on teaching students how to study Psychology and gradually making yourself redundant in this process. Hanging the content on the skills students are learning should make the load feel lighter and teaching feel less like racing through a heavy specification.

How? Some practical tips

There are a number of ways to use time more efficiently and productively. Here are some suggestions.

Make sure you know the specification

Don’t over teach. Find out as much as you can about the scope of the specification (some exam boards such as AQA have reduced content in some areas of the specification) and write an exam response yourself to get the measure of just what can be retained and used effectively.

Skills over content

Share de-contextualised (skill-based rather than content-based) learning objectives to make the skills (such as analysis, writing to convey understanding or evaluating research) explicit and allow students to see the cross over, giving them a greater chance of recognising when they need to use these skills again in another similar learning situation (in other words help students to transfer their learning).

Change the focus from content to skills to avoid over-whelming students with worries about large amounts of material. Help students see that there are lots of opportunities to use the same relatively small set of skills over and over again in novel contexts.

Expectations

Avoid unnecessary repetition. Make sure your students are aware that the first time you explain a theory or concept and assess their understanding it could be the last time. Avoid giving students the impression that you will come back to it later or teach it again in a revision class.

Independent study

Ask students to do preparatory reading, comprehension tasks or notes to allow an activity based on this knowledge to be more productive.

Identify parts of the specification, or areas of a topic, that are accessible enough to study independently. Be clear with students that this is to improve their study skills and monitor this (don’t just hope they are doing what you asked). Reading, taking notes and completing a task or essay on an area which is supported well by the textbook or other resources you provide, can work well leading up to a seminar style discussion where misconceptions can be ironed out.

Avoid splitting up a topic and asking different students or groups to read and take notes then swap. It might mean you cover a topic in less time but it is highly likely that this will not result in learning (remember the objective is not to fill up folders of notes). Used as part of a “jigsaw” style activity (follow this link to find out more about this style of group work and some other ideas), however, allocating students different material for initial study can be effective.

 

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