Programme innovation in Psychology: challenging students, enriching graduate skills and creating a greater consistency of experience

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The four-year Psychology degree at Edinburgh has undergone substantial revisions. The changes are aimed at enabling students to engage actively in psychological research, rather than being passive consumers of psychological knowledge.  Students will have more face-to-face tuition with academic staff; they will have more interactive tuition in labs and tutorials; there will be a clearer rationale for course content and assessments; they will find it easier to engage with staff about the degree, and their role in it, through a deliberate policy of improving formal and informal feedback channels. As well as being positively received by students, the revised Edinburgh degree is joint winner of the British Psychological Society (BPS) Award for Innovation in Psychology programmes for 2016.

The most important aspect of the redesign has been the integration of course structure, linking knowledge and practice​. Teachers from each of the core areas of Psychology collaborate to design four-year curricula for their topics and discuss thematic linkages across the programme. The restructure has been consistently singled out for praise​, by students in course evaluations and during an internal Teaching Programme Review in 2015.

“The structure of the course was helpful in a way that concepts given previously were useful to understanding concepts in topics taught after.” – Y1 student

“Its focus on linking areas of psychology together, particularly to abnormal and cognitive neuroscience, was fantastic and I feel it has really stimulated my interest in the subject.” – Y2 student

Labs and tutorials in the first two years are designed by the topic lecturers to foster transferable skills and support lecture material respectively.  Each semester is punctuated by an activity week​ during which there are no regular lectures, and students instead focus on skill-building using directed activities with peer assessment. Activity weeks in 2016-17 have focused on presentation and writing skills​, and on career opportunities​.  Also, as part of the curriculum redesign, we have invested in a bespoke platform for online handbooks, allowing us to communicate formal course information much more effectively.

In 2015 we became the first Psychology department in the UK to exclusively use R to teach quantitative methods. We have built a new 20-credit course into the Y2 curriculum, and made substantial changes to Y3.  The new courses are heavily supported by hands-on lab sessions, and by frequent homeworks and self-guided learning.  The R courses provide an intensive teaching-lab experience for students, in addition to the labs run in Y1 and Y2.  With the aid of excellent tutors this is helping us build a sense of community; teaching R also has the consequence of giving students exposure to additional desirable skills such as IT literacy, data visualisation, and computer programming.

“I like the mix of independent work like the homework and problem sets and the group stuff like in the labs”- Y2 student

These arrangements go a long way towards effecting consistency of experience for our students. Throughout the programme, students have more face-to-face tuition with academic staff, and more interactive tuition in labs and tutorials. They find it easier to engage with staff about the degree, and their role in it, through a deliberate policy of improving formal and informal feedback channels.

Years three and four are currently under review, with an aim to further improve the coherence of the degree​ with emphasis on graduate skills​. In 2016-17, we are piloting an outreach course​ in a unique collaboration with the School of Geosciences at Edinburgh. In this course, students work in collaboration with local organisations (e.g., schools or charities) and create psychology-related Open Educational Resources, which can then be used in the work of the particular organisation. In collaboration with colleagues in Linguistics and English Language, we have started a writing skills course​, currently targeted at Y3 students but destined to be rolled out further next year.

Students from 2016 onwards won’t find the degree easier than did previous students: If anything, it is more difficult. However, the reasons for the difficulty are carefully explained; there is tangible coherence in the plan, and in its delivery and assessment; and the expectation is that students will rise to the challenge, and leave Edinburgh equipped with the skills to take psychological practice into their next ventures.

“It has been challenging, but it has been positive in actually having a lot more confidence in having a go at understanding the material.” – Y2 Student

Martin Corley

Martin Corley is a former Teaching Director and the current Head of Psychology in the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences.

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