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A Level Philosophy and Psychology

Croydon Tutorial College is adding A Level Philosophy and Psychology to the range of courses it offers so as to satisfy a wish for some students interested in studying Maths and Computing for a third subjects that address social or moral issues that are of interest or concern to them, and, that are not directly addressed in other A Level subjects, and that, also, can count as a "third A Level" when applying for a University Place.

The motivation for introducing these subjects arose from a "preliminary tutorial" with a young man who was leading a rather secluded life, much to the concern of his parents. It transpired that he was "greatly concerned with the great questions of existence", and might, in times past have become a recluse and a mystic. This prompted a post on LinkedIn which I quote here:

"Enriching "conventional" STEAM teaching by including Psychology and Philsophy modules. Recently, whilst working with students who "refuse to settle for canned explanations" and are also searching for "essential meaning" [ well phrased in the juxtapostion "existentialism" vs. "essentialism" ], yet who are, also, passionate about science, computing maths .. but feel that "there is something missing" it occurred to me that there is something to be said for a combination of A Level courses, taught using a cross-disciplinary approach, that covers a combination of Psychology, Philosophy, Maths and Computer Science.

An example of cross disciplinary teaching might include teaching modules that explore topics such as "computational argumentation", the relationship between AI and "models of the mind", two give just two examples.

This fits in well with our ethos about the importance of integrating the teaching of subjects. It is our belief that subjects should not stand alone in isolation, but should be considered alongside other disciplines. They should be blended, interwoven with each other so as to form a greater, a more uplifting result. We hod that this to be essential for the future well-being of society, our way of thinking about "the world, and most importantly - the way we think about each other."

Philosophy and Psychology are potentially very interesting A Levels that are not widely taught in schools or 6th form colleges. For students that might be interested in studying them using our tutoring approach here are overviews of what is involved in studying these subjects, as well as the the format of the Exams that need to be sat for each subject.

A Level Psychology:

Psychology is the 'scientific study of the mind and behaviour'. It is a vast subject area, and the A Level syllabus provides an introduction to six 'key' areas of the subject.

  • Social Psychology - is concerned with the social interactions between people. This includes consideration of why people conform and why people are likely to obey authority figures.
  • Cognitive Psychology - is concerned with how the world is perceived and interpreted. Cognitive psychologists are interested in studying internal mental processes, and how such processes are involved in the development of memory, perception and intelligence.
  • Developmental Psychology - is concerned with how people develop and change from the embryo through to the adult. At A Level the development of an infant’s attachment to a primary care giver, and the problems that occur when this does not happen forms the major area of study.
  • Psychopathology - and the development of various mental disorders, such as OCD, Phobias and Schizophrenia and approaches to the treatment of such disorders. This includes use of therapies such as behavioural therapy and analytical psychotherapy.
  • Biological Psychology - explores the role that evolutionary forces and genetics play in behaviour, as well neurophysiological and neuroendocrine aspects of behaviour and cognition.
  • Research Methods - This is an important part of the syllabus and covers the practical and theoretical aspects of the design and analysis of experiments.

Additionally, some of the A Level Psychology syllabi include various options for deeper study. For example in the AQA syllabus the following options are present

  • 1 option from Relationships or Gender or Cognition and development
  • 1 option from Schizophrenia or Eating behaviour or Stress
  • 1 option from Aggression or Forensic psychology or Addiction

No prior knowledge of Psychology is needed in order to study A Level Psychology. However, good GCSE grades (C or better) are required, including Maths and English. Maths (being comfortable with numbers is important for coping with the statistical analysis of experimental data topics, and English is important as an ability to write essays in which you present arguments for and against particular issues is important. A science GCSE is also important (especially Biology, or combined science which includes Biology).

A degree in Psychology does not require study of A Level Psychology. However, many courses will ask for a science subject at A Level. It is possible to complete an A Level Psychology course in one year, however there is a lot of material to cover and you will need time to develop your data analysis skills and essay writing and argumentation skills.

Exam papers and exam format

A Level Psychology is a linear subject which is,typically, assessed in one set of exams at the end of two years of study. The AQA examination board has three exams which will contain a number of short questions, essay questions and scenarios to analyse and discus.

  • Paper 1: Introductory Topics in Psychology (Social Influence, Memory, Attachment, and Psychopathology).
  • Paper 2: Psychology in Context (Approaches in Psychology, Research Methods and Biopsychology).
  • Paper 3: Issues and Options in Psychology (Section A is a compulsory section on Issues and Debates in Psychology. Sections B, C, D each contain questions on the in-depth option topics studied.


The study of A Level Philosophy should provide an introduction to philosophical thinking, at about the same level as a first year undergraduate course in Philsophy, though at a much gentler pace. A Level Philosophy take a problem oriented approach as opposed to a historical approach. AQA is the only exam board that offers an A-level in Philosophy.

The three main aspects of Philosophy that are considered are:

  • Metaphysics—the study of what exists
  • Moral Philosophy—the study of ethics
  • Epistemology—the study of knowledge.

The two main topics of metaphysics studied are

  • The Metaphysics of Mind and
  • The Metaphysics of God (i.e, the nature of a possible Absolute being)

The topics studied in Epistemology are

  • How to identify knowledge
  • By what possible routes might knowledge be obtained, and
  • Whether there is anything that can truly be called knowledge at all.

Moral Philosophy examines the main approaches to ethical decision-making and whether any of them is satisfactory.

The Philosophy of Mind is concerned with the question of the relation between the mind and the body (including the brain).

Philosophy of Religion is more diverse, and involves considering the various arguments that try to prove, and the arguments try to disprove, the existence of a God, and also asks whether traditional language about God is philosophically consistent or meaningful.

In each of the areas it looks at, the objectives of the syllabus are to get students to identify a few questions of major importance and consider what answers there might be to them. Major theories and subsidiary questions are considered, but, only as a natural outgrowth of the main thread of the investigation.

The syllabus espouses the analytic approach to philosophy. The aim is to find out what is true (to the extent that something can be known to be true) rather than simply using ideas to transform lives. The necessary skills are characterised by clarity and precision of the kind that can be achieved in detailed analysis as opposed to broad sweeps of theory. This approach the best kind of philosophical training for beginners.

What sort of work is involved?

An A Level Philosophy course works mainly by getting you, the philosophy student, to do a lot of thinking. Of course there is the learning of material, but in a manner in which new ideas are learned. Learning, in this context, is more than simply becoming acquainted with a new idea. Rather it involves deep and sustained thinking about an idea so as to truly understand it, and to be able to employ it.

This goal-driven thinking will typically occur in a variety of ways.

  • Getting a grasp on what the ideas are at all and their place in the debate e.g. through listening to an explanation, perhaps as part of a dialogue, and through reading.
  • Discussion and debate to help clarify and evaluate your grasp of concepts and of arguments (on both sides).
  • Extended periods of thinking on your own, going over and over an idea to try and attain some sort of complete and lucid insight into that idea, so as to be able to make effective use of it.
  • Writing about an idea in order to clarify your thinking about the idea,as well as becomiong better at expressing it.

What background is needed in order to study Philosohy ?

Philosophy is enjoyable, and people come to it from different backgrounds and with different mental approaches which include arts, maths, humanities and sciences. In studying Philosophy you may find your own strengths and preferences such as love of precision, love of opening up your mind to see something in a different way, love of constructive arguing, love of refusing to accept things just because someone tells you on authority, or,just because others do. Any of these can be your entry point into the subject. The abilities and capacities which will serve you best in your studies are things like tenacity and clarity of thought, a willingness to listen and to try to understand, concentration and focus.

Because philosophy is not a GCSE subject, and because it is quite unique, everyone starts from scratch. Hence there is no need for any particular GCSEs. Clear expression is essential to Philosophy, so having done well in an essay subject helps. An ability to be precise is necessary, so doing well in subjects that require exact learning is a good preparation.

Where can studying A Level Philosophy lead to ?

No degree courses—including Philosophy—specifically require Philosophy A Level. This is partly because not all schools offer it, partly because it provides little specific knowledge that might be required for something else. Philosophy is however a very good preparation and training for many other subjects (such as Law), which is why it is on the ‘preferred’ subject lists for many universities. If you are going to read Philosophy, having done the A Level you might have about a three month advantage over those who have not.

Similarly, as is true for most Arts subjects, Philosophy at university will not lead straight into some particular career (few people are paid to do philosophy!). It is however a very good signal to employers that you can think well about almost anything. As such it can help provide entry into a particularly wide range of occupations.

One year course?

Can A level Philosophy be done in one year? Yes and no. Under normal circumstances, no, because it is about development of a rather unusual, non-intuitive skill: thinking very precisely and without bias. For almost everyone this takes time and philosophical interaction and is difficult to speed up. On the other hand, there are relatively few ‘facts’ to learn in Philosophy and the sections are not prerequisites for one another. Thus if you have the dedication and the willingness to commit a substantial fraction of your weeks to thinking things through again and again, and you have the ability and natural inclination, then there is nothing structural preventing you from doing well in Philosophy in one year. Assessment

The assessment is purely by examination. There are two papers of three hours each (the AS assessment is merely like the first of these papers, with minor adjustments in the weighting of the questions). Within each paper there are two non-overlapping sections, each one covering one of the four areas of the syllabus (Paper 1, Epistemology and Moral Philosophy; Paper 2, The Metaphysics of God and The Metaphysics of Mind). Each section has five questions with no choice (so you need to know the whole syllabus), and is a graded series of essay questions. The first four examine knowledge and understanding, building up from mere definitions (which must however be philosophically precise) to longer explanations of ideas and standard arguments. Finally there is a major argument and evaluation question, where you must debate and decide a philosophical problem, such as ‘Is there anything that we know for certain?’

The wording of questions in the Philosophy exam is generally straightforward. If you know and understand the terminology and the concepts you should have no trouble understanding the thrust of a particular question. Philosophy examiners do not need resort to tricky questions in order to make the exam hard enough.

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