ADVANCED SUBSIDIARY PSYCHOLOGY: approaches and methods. By Christine Brain. Nelson Thornes pound;15.50. ACTIVE PSYCHOLOGY. By Irene Taylor et al. Longman pound;23.50.
The fact that there are 10 new or revised ASA-level psychology textbooks to be reviewed suggests the emergence of a new psychiatric condition - let us call it "psychobibliomania". This disorder is unique to the publishing industry, which, when confronted by a booming A-level subject and a restructuring of the post-16 curriculum, hurls itself into a frenzy of activity, resulting in an excessive supply of textbooks.
Many of the symptoms are listed above. The list is incomplete as new symptoms continue to appear, many of which have been announced in advance.
A-level psychology is certainly a booming subject - 19,528 candidates sat the examination in 1995, and 30,187 in 2000, placing psychology 11th in rank order of candidate numbers for A-level subjects. Year-on-year growth from 1999 to 2000 was just over 5 per cent, compared with a decline of 1.5 per cent in total A-level entries. Then along comes Curriculum 2000 and the ASA2 structure for A-levels, with new specifications from every awarding body.
Everyone was going to need a new textbook. But should it be a blockbuster, covering the whole A-level? Or separate books for AS and for A2? Or maybe topic books? Or an AS book, an A2 book, the two bound up as a blockbuster, and a series of topic books? Should a book aim to cover all four A-level specifications, or be aimed at a particular specification, preferably with the chief examiner as the author and endorsement from the awarding body? Every solution is being tried, often by the same publisher.
Collins has published a new edition of Mike Cardwell's best-selling book, together with separate AS and A2 books which have exactly the same content, page designs, and so on, as the blockbuster, though the A2 book has an additional section on "synoptic issues". There is also a CD-Rom and a resource pack. The books retain the look and feel and all the editorial features of the 1996 edition (chapter previews, activities, chapter summaries, exam summaries, websites). They are aimed very precisely at AQA specification A (the old AEB syllabus), for which Cardwell is chief examiner and which has, by far, the largest market share.
Richard Gross's new edition of Psychology: a new introduction for A-level, together with its AS stablemate, competes directly with Cardwell. It is written for the same AQA specification and has a variety of editorial features, including photographs, diagrams, summaries of key studies and issues, chapter summaries, essay questions and websites.
How do these two compare? Very closely. Both are printed in a two-column format and in two colours. The chapter titles, subsections and sequencing are near-identical. As we have seen, they have similar editorial features (though where Cardwell has an "activity", Gross has a "pause for thought" - spot the difference). Each covers every inch of the specification. Each is well-written. Almost the only area where they don't overlap is in the members of the author teams. Causeway's book for the full AQA A-level specification A is appearing later this year, with a teacher's guide.
In the meantime, we can probably anticipate its style and approach from looking at Psychology in Focus: AS level. The material is organised in chapters, subdivided into units. It is written by five authors and edited by David Rice and Mike Haralambos. Predictably, it has chapter summaries, boxes that identify key issues and key terms, lively page layouts, and a wealth of learning activities. There is an accompanying answer book.
Erika Cox's PSYCHOLOGY for AS-level is another contribution to the groaning shelf of textbooks for the AQA A specification. Cox is an experienced teacher and examiner, and her book benefits from this. The clearly-written text includes many summaries of key research studies, and a range of activities, with notes at the end of each chapter.
Given that these books are so similar, how can you choose the one for your course? I suggest that you focus on the quality of the learning activities. If these have been properly thought out, they should consolidate what has just been learned andor open up the questions and issues about to be addressed. They should be clear about what the student is supposed to do ("Think aboutI"; "DiscussI"; "ReadI"; "WriteI").
They should vary in size, but never be so small as not to be worth doing, or so big as not to be worth spending so much time on. Some should be for individual use and some for groups. They should, where possible, engage the student with interesting topics rather than rehash the classic studies. Some should be for self-assessment (with answers) and others for work which a teacher will assess or comment on. On these criteria, the Causeway book probably has an edge on the others.
Nelson Thornes has brought out two AS psychology textbooks, both for the new Edexcel specification. Matt Jarvis's Angles on Psychology covers the Edexcel AS in seven chapters written by four authors, including a chapter by Cara Flanagan on conducting your own research, which would be useful for candidates following any specification. There is a range of editorial features, including summaries of classic and recent research, summaries of "for and against" debates, suggestions for further reading, and short self-tests.
Christine Brain is chief examiner for the new Edexcel specification, and her book, written precisely for that specification, is endorsed by Edexcel. It has chapter aims and summaries, together with a wealth of activities, self-tests, summary boxes and coursework suggestions. The book is carefully structured, with each chapter having the same six sections: key assumptions; research methods; in-depth areas of study; studies in detail; key application; and contemporary issue. The body of the text identifies and explains opportunities to practise key skills. The companion volume for A2 is promised for September 2001.
There are serious questions to be asked about chief examiners as authors (Cardwell and Brain, for example) and about awarding-body endorsement. Just as good teachers don't necessarily make good examiners (and vice versa), the converse is true. While it is obviously true that the chief examiner knows what the examiner is looking for, this information is now so comprehensively available from the awarding bodies that it is less of an advantage than it used to be. It is much more important that the chief examiner is a good author, as both Cardwell and Brain are.
Awarding body endorsement is clearly a potential advantage to publisher and awarding body, but it is no measure of quality. Tutors should choose a book to suit their students. If it is endorsed, that's a bonus.
Of the two EdexcelNelson Thornes books, Jarvis's is probably better designed, whereas Brain's is more thorough. The chapters have near-identical titles but each book has them in a different order. If, in your course, you work through a textbook in order, this gives you a choice about which order you prefer. But there are as many opinions on the "right order" for teaching psychology as there are psychology teachers.
Irene Taylor's Active Psychology claims to cover the requirements of all the new ASA2 specifications, based on a study of the core criteria available when the book was published in 1999. It is in a more traditional mould, with 1,100 pages of closely-written text and incredibly thorough coverage. There are summaries and some activities (though of widely varying quality - I don't see the learning pay-off for a psychology student of "Try to obtain an inexpensive compass and use it to determine direction"). But there are no chapters on applied psychology, so it does not cover the A2 half of the OCR and the Edexcel specifications, which offer a range of options in applied psychology.
So there we have it - so far. There are still more textbooks in the pipeline from the publishers. Maybe there is a psycho-statistician who could open a book on which of them will survive?
Patrick McNeill is an independent education and publishing consultant