An AO2 writing task for A2 Psychology with the help of some very relieved rats!

Digesting Research

Back in November 2005 the BPS blog (Research Digest) posted a piece entitled “Why perform Psychology experiments on rats” which included a defence of rat-based Psychology research by Dr. Stefan Soltysik. An interesting read in its own right, the piece provides a great stimulus for a writing activity perhaps best suited to A2 Level Psychology students to develop AO2 written skills.

The use of animals in Psychology

The Research Digest post is a response to a debate sparked by a previous post entitled “Phew! How rats sigh when they’re relieved”, which received many negative comments regarding the use of rats in the study on both ethical grounds and the possible benefit of this research to humanity.

Soltysik’s study found that rats who had been conditioned to fear a tone (using a electric shock) who also learned that another stimulus meant that no shock would follow, appeared to “sigh” (a deep additional inhalation) with relief when the “no shock” signal appeared. The researcher was invited to comment and defend the research, which was criticised for inflicting pain on the animals and revealing little to nothing about humans with the following justifications:

  • The shocks were argued to be less painful than the regular biting attacks experienced by a rat in “normal life”; the author also argued that an experimental rat has a better quality of life (e.g. food availability, regular temperature etc.) than a “wild” one.
  • Research of this nature will benefit humanity and animals as more knowledge means less unnecessary use of animals in future studies and drug trials.

Soltysik’s comments also imply that the authors feel that criticisms based on a blanket dislike of “animal experiments” are unjustified.

Writing in Psychology: AO2

After spending a series of lessons with A2 students specifically designed to address the need to elaborate a criticism to to gain AO2 marks – which involved making counter arguments in order to develop an analytical comment – I was somewhat surprised and disappointed to find that the essays I was marking largely seemed to be a series of relatively disjointed alternate contradictory arguments. It was as if the analytical offerings had been written by 2 people who vehemently disagreed but had been forced to share pen and paper. The “for and against” approach I had encouraged had back-fired somewhat but was an important lesson for me in not assuming that the next step is obvious. I quickly set about trying to find ways to encourage students to reflect on the differing view points they were coming across in their study of Psychology.

Effective AO2: a writing activity

Using opposing arguments, rather than always focussing on making them, can create a resource for a writing task designed to promote effective AO2 and how to go about structuring an individual argument in an essay. Notes from a class debate, or the content of an online “debate” – such as the debate surrounding the use of rats in research posted by the Research Digest – can be a perfect classroom resource for practising reflecting on differing view-points in order to offer critical commentary in written form.

Set students the task to write a relevant, focussed (it must be clear the point they are making) and elaborated (they must go beyond one line of argument and expand on their point) AO2 paragraph to fit into a provided essay title. If you are using the issues surrounding the use of rats as your stimulus this will need to be an essay title where this would be appropriate. Students should focus on drawing on the debate points or opposing views, not simply outline each side, reflecting on the counter arguments and offering commentary on the fact that there is opposition (particularly if they are hoping to get near A* standards, in my opinion, as this would inevitable mean they are elaborating meaningfully). You could provide an example to give students an idea of what this sort of writing might look like.

An example

I like to provide model answers, or parts of answers, to help explain to students how to go about writing about Psychology. It is important, however, that students see these as “one way” to write an essay response and that they spend time identifying transferable skills that will enable them to write any essay rather than try to use these model answers as revision tools for content. Here is an example of how the rat debate might be used for this activity and what the outcome might be:

Example AO2 writing (by me) attempting to show reflection on these arguments:

Whilst some animal studies in Psychology might seem to inflict unnecessary pain on animal samples and appear to be of little benefit to humanity, there are strong arguments to justify the use of rats in the context of this research. Although electric shocks might appear cruel due to their painful nature rat ”biting attack”  behaviour, which is a regular experience for any rat, is far more savage and painful. Although criticisms of using animals “in principle” may hold, the argument that the rat participants were harmed by the conditioning procedures perhaps does not.

It could be argued that the research lacks validity as “sighing” in humans may be a very different behaviour to a breathing response that appears to resemble this in rats. Investigating the purpose of sighing and communicating relief (and a possible evolutionary basis) in isolation in humans, however, would be problematic as we are much more complex and our behaviours often have multiple meanings. The increased validity of assessing a “relief sigh” in rats, without the confounding variables which would be present in a human study, may go some way to make up for the issues surrounding the generalisability of this finding.

The all-important HOW

It is really hard to explain how to write analytically, particularly when you find yourself just doing it without much effort because you’ve had lots of practice, but students need us as teachers, and ultimately more experienced learners, to try. Modelling the process is often more revealing than just sharing the end point.

I think writing analytically involves the following:

Being aware of the arguments and criticisms, then taking a view (I feel more convinced by the researchers justifications than the readers, who I know nothing about and who appear to be opposed to any use of animals regardless of the nature of the study or context) in order to make a reasoned judgement (that there are common issues with animal experiments but that they don’t always apply and there are also key advantages such as greater experimental control). It is worth stressing, however, that any points made must be in context, “cut and paste” AO2 that could be picked up and slotted word for word into another essay will not gain high marks.

When to use this

I would personally use the material provided by the Research Digest blog as the basis for a stand-alone writing task, even though the content of the research is not a feature of the specification I teach (AQA A). As the issue (use of animals) and the skill (AO2) is part of the spec, I think the content is irrelevant to an extent, in fact it can be an advantage to practise a skill without the burden of students thinking they’ve got to remember the material it is centred on. Make sure you provide several spec-relevant opportunities to transfer the skills though close to this activity.

If you want to keep your writing activities spec-relevant simply use arguments made during a class debates, discussion or opposing arguments offered in textbooks or extracts from papers focussed on critical analysis of a theory or area of research to create the same activity.

The AO2 writing activity in summary

Share one “for” and one “against” argument related to a piece of research students are very familiar with to model the process. Highlight the need to be aware of the arguments then invite students to take a view, sharing your own to model this process. Display or write as a class a reasoned judgement to increase students confidence putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) when it’s their turn. Now present students with a new small set of opposing arguments related to a theory, area of research of individual study, ideally where an issue or debate in Psychology is relevant. Ask students for their opinion in light of the differing views, then ask them to  write their analytical piece reflecting on this. Collect this written piece for assessment. You could repeat this activity at regular intervals working towards tailoring the written piece to fit into a specific essay title.


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