Advice for new/training teachers: 4. The benefits of teaching a new subject

New subjects: risky decision or wise move?

Students will often feel, and be told, that choosing to study a new subject at A Level is a risky thing to do. How do they know they will like it? Do they have the skills required to be successful? Will it be more difficult because they have no knowledge to build on? Would they be better off choosing a subject that they are more familiar with, even if it is less interesting to them? These are the sorts of questions students may ask themselves, or indeed may be asked of them by parents and other significant influences on their academic decisions.

All starting from the same place

I think the “newness” of a subject like A Level Psychology (assuming that students haven’t already taken GCSE Psychology) is a plus point for choosing Psychology as an A Level subject, not a minus. Starting a new subject frees students from the perceptions they, and others, have built of them regarding their ability and the likelihood of their success in the subject. When it is a new A Level all students can view themselves as potential Psychologists, providing they are interested in the subject matter, and all students are free to learn without the constraints of previously learned “bad habits” or other unhelpful subject-based baggage. A new subject represents a chance to really motivate students by introducing them to a whole new world of learning.

Building teacher confidence

For a new or training Psychology teacher this “fresh start” should provide grounds for a much needed confidence boost. Your students haven’t been learning the subject for years, with teachers that they regard more highly simply because they are more familiar, so you can make your own impression with the help of inherently fascinating subject material.

Share the benefits with students to boost their confidence

Make students aware that you are not judging them by their past experience and performance in a subject. Beyond any initial entry criteria students might have had to fulfil to take the A Level, it is a level playing field. Make clear to students that they will all be taught how to study Psychology and so all have equal access to developing the skills needed for success (definitions of success are likely to be somewhat personal to students). Make clear to students that many of the skills central to learning about Psychology are transferable to other subjects and learning in a range of contexts. Encourage students to consider how their skills as a Psychology student might help them in their other subjects, particularly as they may be approaching their learning in a different and novel way.

Realistic goals: learning as a gradual process

Make sure students do not expect to be getting top grades from day one in a new course. Devise assessments that build student confidence (this might mean avoiding grade-based assessment feedback too early on) as sometimes students give up too early, later regretting this decision; this regret can be particularly marked when their peers have persevered and achieved success. Create numerous opportunities for student’s achievements and developments as Psychology students to be celebrated. It is hard for students to be motivated if they go from being an A/B GCSE student, to feeling like they are underachieving at A Level in a new subject where they may have felt the choice was risky to start with.

Ask students to reflect on their first experiences of studying other subjects that they now consider second nature to remind them that the mastery of a subject and the skills required is likely to take a little time to develop. Analogies can be helpful to enable students to consider their approach to learning; for example, students could consider how an athlete proficient in one discipline might use the skills their have acquired to tackle another discipline that is new to them.

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