Small steps towards final goal

21st February 1997 at 00:00
Elaine Carlton finds out how one teacher used the psychology of learning to improve psychology A-level results dramatically.

When his students ran into trouble learning for their psychology A-level, Geoff Hinton turned towards the psychology of learning for inspiration. The head of department at The Sixth Form College, Farnborough, believed his students were drowning in a mass of information and decided to work out a clearer way to teach the subject.

Disappointed by his students A-level results, he focused on the psychological theory of goal-setting, credited to Edwin Locke, in a bid to improve the situation.

"Goal-setting is a theory of motivation," Mr Hinton says. "I felt my students needed a series of short-term real goals rather than the false targets which are used in traditional A-level."

The theory argues that workers need clear, specific goals to work towards and telling people to "do their best" without setting clear targets is unlikely to have any effect.

"I felt students didn't have a clear idea of what they were expected to achieve," he says. "The syllabus was already broken down because we were doing the modular A-level but I deconstructed it further into manageable chunks, called learning outcomes." He first picked up on the idea while reading some documents produced by the Further Education Development Agency, which had already explored learning outcomes.

According to the FEDA: "A learning outcome is used to describe that which a learner is able to do after a process of learning." It can also be called a learning objective.

Mr Hinton and his colleagues typed the syllabus on to a computer disc and then split each of its modules into about 40 smaller parts.

For example, the subject of schizophrenia, which appears on the syllabus as part of a module, was split into four learning outcomes, one of which is: "Describe and evaluate the effectiveness of a range of treatments for schizophrenia". Each learning outcome is in the form of a question, just like one the student would encounter in the short answer section of the A-level exam.

The college's psychology students - there are now 260 in the department, making it the most popular A-level - receive a list of these learning outcomes in the subject's handbook. But this is not the only way Mr Hinton has used the goal-setting theory. The handbook also has gaps where students have to fill in the results of their mock A-level examinations and coursework. The tutor then shows the students how far they are off the next grade and gives them a target for future results.

Students are allowed to resit each module and at Farnborough they are encouraged to do so.

If students are on the borderline and could move up a grade they are pushed to retake a module to improve their results.

The first year psychology was taught at Farnborough just 71 per cent of the students passed their A-level. The following year the college moved towards a modular system and 93 per cent passed. In 1996 after the introduction of learning outcomes, that rate hit 97 per cent.

"I came to Farnborough College from an institution which followed the traditional A-level system and at first I was sceptical about learning outcomes," psychology teacher Halit Hulusi says. "But now I've realised that we're helping the students with the learning process rather than the learning itself.

"The students can use the learning outcomes to structure an essay plan as they mirror the questions you need to answer in the exam. The outcomes also help to keep my files in order."

Andy Jackson, 17, a student in his second year of psychology A-level, supports the way the course is taught. "When it comes to revision you know what to revise and if there are gaps in your knowledge you can work out what they are just by looking at the sheets of learning outcomes," he says.

When psychology student Sarah Le Duc, 18, started studying for her A-level, learning outcomes had not yet been introduced at the college. "In the past, we were told to read 20 pages of our textbook and we had no idea which parts were particularly important," she says. "Now with 40 learning outcomes for each module, I can say I'll do one and two today and three and four tomorrow. "

Mr Hinton believes that these new smaller tasks allow his students to feel a sense of achieve-ment more quickly, which encourages them to work harder.

At the beginning of each lesson, that day's learning outcome is revealed and students are given hand-outs which show what they need to know about the subject to answer a question on it.

"This helps students to organise their notes, so if they miss a lesson they can just pick up a sheet and find out instantly what went on," says Mr Hinton. "One of the biggest problems for A-level students is organisation because nobody shows them how to get organised."

A further problem is class sizes at A-level. "When I studied A-level, there were just 10 in the class, but the popularity of psychology means there are now 24 and students must be getting less individual attention than before, so they need a structured framework," Mr Hinton says.

The idea of using learning outcomes to break down the syllabus is spreading. Mr Hinton has been contacted by about 10 heads of psychology who hope to bring the programme to their institutions.

Within his college, however, there has been some resistance to the proposal of using learning outcomes to teach other A-levels.

"I have talked to the history and music teachers about it. But they believe that the skills needed to achieve the exam are developed over a two-year period and students cannot be expected to have these at the start," he says.

"On the contrary, I believe that with the traditional course students leave all their work until the end whereas with this course you have to work right the way through.

"It is a see-saw effect. Maybe they don't start off so well, but by the end they'll do better than they would have done if they'd just worked their way through the traditional course."

Details: Geoff Hinton at The Sixth Form College, Prospect Avenue, Farnborough, Hants GU14 8JX

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