Using a timeline to teach synoptic thinking in psychology

A timeline of concepts/theories/observations/applications/innovations in psychology.
A timeline of concepts/theories/observations/applications/innovations in psychology.

We recently moved to a linear/terminal assesment curriculum with a heavy synoptic element (Edexcel A – Level; other brands are available).  As we experimented with different ways of teaching the synoptic elements it repeatedly struck me how much the last seventeen years of modularisation have militated against the kinds of ‘joined up’ thinking that is characteristic of good quality learning in Psychology (and, presumably, other subjects/disciplines).

One manifestation of this is that many of our students lack a coherent sense of how the curriculum fits together chronologically.  I initially wanted to address this so our students were prepared for questions about ‘how psychological understanding has developed over time’ (Edexcel 2015 specification) but as soon as the students got stuck in it became clear that the activity that emerged could potentially provoke a much deeper understanding of psychological ideas in context and the relationships between them.

On a long stretch of noticeboard I made six parallel timelines, each labelled with one of the topics/applications on the specification: cognitive psychology; social psychology; bio-psychology; learning theory; clinical psychology and criminological psychology.  The timeline was marked from 1850 to 2025.  Before the lesson I ‘seeded’ the timeline with a few significant events/innovations (e.g. Darwin publishes ‘Origin of Species’; Wundt opens the first psychology laboratory; Ramon y Cajal presents the neural theory etc.)

In the first phase of the lesson I simply invited the students to populate the timeline with as many concepts/theories/studies/applications/observations as they could.  For this, they worked in small groups, one to a topic.  I encouraged them to work from recall as far as possible but to supplement their memory with material from their notes and to look up additional things they decided were important.

In the second phase, once the timeline had a decent amount of material on it, each group was given a ball of wool, a different colour for each topic.  They were then invited to start connecting the concepts/theories/studies/applications/observations to show how earlier ideas influenced later ones.

As the students started linking things together, observations, insights and questioned emerged quite spontaneously.  It was consequently very easy to sustain a productive discussion using a handful of prompt questions like:

  • What do you notice?
  • Can you see any patterns?
  • Why do you think…?

From this discussion the whole group then distilled some important influences on the development of psychological knowledge and understanding (e.g. the use of the scientific method, refinements in methodology, the interplay between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ areas, new technologies, and social change).  In the following lesson the students developed their writing by selecting a few ‘strands’ from the timeline and using them as the basis for an essay.

I believe that this provided an opportunity for students to integrate the things they already knew into a more coherent and stable conceptual structure.  The students reported that it was engaging and thought provoking.  Time (and the examiner, of course) will be the judge of whether it really did have the intended effect.  But I was sufficiently impressed to regret not having thought of this before.  My intention for the coming academic year is to start the timeline very early on and add to it gradually over the year.  My hope is that I can thereby build that ‘joined up’ thinking right through the course.

psychlotron.org.uk has re-entered the building.

The original psychlotron.org.uk psychology resource website started in 2005 and was regularly updated until 2013.  At that point, fatigue, exam specification changes, cancer (my partner’s) and then open heart surgery (mine) collectively intervened to bring further updates to a halt.

As I now have material I’d like to share and a bit more time and motivation I’ve decided to pick up where I left off in 2013.  If you used the site before you’ll notice I’ve ditched the lovingly hand-crafted html of yore and will now be building psychlotron using WordPress.  I’m hoping that this will make managing the content a bit more straightforward and the addition of things like tags and a search box will make it easier to find what you’re looking for.

If you’re looking for links to resources posted on the old website, try the archive link on the right hand side.  I’ve combined all the old resource links on one big fat web page; you’ll have to scroll down until you find what you’re after.

New resources will be posted in the new ‘blog’ format and tagged to make them searchable.  Here’s an experimental one to see if the process works as intended: an application problem for teaching the multi-store model of memory.

psychlotron.org.uk is now powered by WordPress

You can reach the archive here.