AO2 for Unit 3: Some examples

Analysing research in written form

It is always useful to have examples of what effective AO2 might look like for Unit 3 (Topics in Psychology). I find it useful to get students thinking critically and consciously about their writing. Many students will often be able to analyse verbally to a high level but struggle to do their ideas justice when they come to write about them. Using a set structure can help but students should also have the flexibility to feel their own written style is valuable if it meets the exam criteria.

Structuring AO2

I usually get students to start by simply stating what the problem or strength is (identify) then explain what they mean and why it’s a problem (justify), finally they should take it a bit further and develop the point where possible without being repetitive (elaborate). This structure is one that has been suggested by a number of people and works quite well.

Using approaches, issues and debates in AO2

A2 Level students need to use appropriate broad Psychology-wide arguments in their analysis. This can all to often result in student essays resembling a list of issue/debate terms, as if they are playing a round of key words bingo with the examiner rather than writing well crafted essay.

AO2 board

Getting copies of your students exam papers from previous exam sessions is an excellent way to show students what good AO2 looks like or you can construct your own examples to model effective AO2 using approaches, issues and debates meaningfully.

Here are 2 examples that I might use as a tool to discuss with students how they might go about writing analytically.

Unit 3 AO2 examples

Essay titleDiscuss genetic factors in aggressive behaviour. (Aggression)

AO2 extract…

A weakness of attempting to explain aggressive behaviour in terms of genetic factors is that these explanations are highly deterministic. If an individual inherits a particular gene that predisposes them to act aggressively the assumption is that they will inevitably be more likely to be more aggressive or violent as a result, ignoring the role of free will. Even explanations that consider the role of environmental triggers where there is a genetic predisposition are limited in this way. In the case of genetic low MAOA combined with childhood mistreatment for example, the assumption is that aggression is inevitable when both the genetic and environmental conditions are set in place for aggression. As both the genetic and environmental factors have exerted their influence well before adulthood, there appears to be little an individual can do to avoid being aggressive where they have been dealt this hand.

The determinism also seems to suggest that violence is a behaviour that cannot be helped and perhaps in some way excuses or even “medicalises” aggressive behaviour that is the result genetic factors. For example, lawyers have used the presence of low MAOA and childhood mistreatment as a defence for murder in a few cases. As the validity and reliability of the evidence to support this idea is flawed this is a potentially dangerous practice.

This would lead nicely into an evaluative paragraph focussing on issues the quality of the research studies in this area.

Essay title: Describe and evaluate Kohlberg’s theory of moral understanding. (Cognition and Development).

AO2 extract…

A weakness of Kohlberg’s theory is that it is derived from research that is androcentric. The gender bias limits the generalisability of the theory beyond the young male sample used to female populations. Kohlberg interviewed only American males in order to identify the stages we go through in our development of moral reasoning and as such it is possible that females do not develop in the same way. Kohlberg later suggested that females do not reach as high levels of moral understanding as males. Not only is this a socially sensitive suggestion, as it seems to suggest females are less capable of making high level moral decisions, it may not actually be a valid suggestion due to the gender bias of the original research studies. Other researchers, e.g. Gilligan, have suggested that females and males may reason about moral issues in completely different ways, an idea overlooked by Kohlberg.



  1. tombssimon

    I find the advice here really clear and coherent: thank you. It’s the sort of writing I have been trying to promote for years. What I find alarming is that AQA may not agree. A couple of weeks ago, I took part in a “webinar” with AQA on stretch and challenge. We were presented with a piece of writing which was presented as a model of excellence in understanding how science works and thinking like a psychologist. I thought it was anything but. It had elliptical references to research which were not explained, references to theory for which there was no evidence of understanding, conclusions about research methods which really made little sense. It’s the sort of thing people try and learn off by heart but usually get wrong. That’s why you get “key word bing” as you say and why two thirds marks get an A*. There’s something very wrong here.

    • crrigby

      Thank you for your comment.
      I have always found the comments I have made in response to marking tasks on exam board INSET to be in line with the views of the course providers (including examiners). I do tend, however, to take an aspirational approach to writing with students as it is always my hope that if they strive for the highest quality of writing, that will serve them well beyond A Level, some of this will emerge in an exam. My aim is always to stretch students thinking and guide students in how they can best convey their ideas on paper. I think the reality is often that students revert to a less developed writing style when under pressure in an exam and this is perhaps reflected in the exam standards and the awarding of the A* where objectively it may not seem deserved. Perhaps something for the exam board to consider for the redevelopment of Psychology A Level.

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