Parent-teacher consultation at Campbell

We had our first parent-teacher consultation with James’ teachers a couple of weeks back.

The first encounter with it was a few weeks earlier when he was issued with a timetable which he’d to have each of his teachers fill in a time between 3.45 and 6pm on the day of the consultation. Each slot was five minutes long and with over a dozen teachers, it sounded like a recipe for chaos.

In the end he missed out several of the teachers but we managed to pick up most of those he’d missed in the gaps that we had between the others. That meant for a very tiring afternoon as the first slot was just after 4pm and we were there right up t0 6pm with virtually no gaps to recuperate between teachers.

I say “teachers” but in reality they operate more like tutors since the classes are so small (just 17 in his) so it’s fairly easy for the teachers to pay individual attention to each pupil in their classes. They were pretty much all very upbeat and positive and the only area where he needs to up the ante is in French (which he should be quite good at). We came away really impressed at how much effort each teachers puts into each of the pupils and it’s confirmed our belief a year ago that it’s the right school for James. So far, he seems to be doing well in the subjects that really matter.

We thought we’d another couple of years to go before we needed to think about subject choices but it turns out that the first decision point is at the end of this year when he’s to choose between Spanish and German as his second language. At the moment, the front runner seems to be Spanish but that could change.

Copyright © 2004-2014 by Foreign Perspectives. All rights reserved.

The MSc Molecular Biology has become a possibility

Two years back when I went to the PG open day at Queen’s it seemed that I had found the masters I’d been looking for but unfortunately it seemed to only be a runner as a full-time degree and I couldn’t do that. So, I shelved the idea.

However, thanks to the voluntary redundancy scheme that the NI public sector is kicking off next week, it looks like the masters is a reasonable possibility. Normally, I guess most people would consider a redundancy programme as a bad thing, but in this case there appear to be a number of people including me who find that it’s actually a good thing. Surprisingly, Wendy has been all for me going for it and also thinks that using a year to do the masters would be a good thing too.

So, I find myself with the application typed up and off to Queen’s this morning.  It’s one of the all online ones and doesn’t really allow for us OU people so for my second referee, I’ve as the science SST are getting the two references sorted for me. Also doesn’t allow for those of us with more than one UG degree which I guess takes in a fair number of OU students too. Despite all the business of “personal statements” that degree courses seem to ask for, there was just an “additional information” box to complete so no flowery personal statement required. Thus the personal statement that I’d been mulling over for the last two years was quite short in the end and basically said that I got hooked on biology four years back, loved the way that just about every week over that time came up with something fascinating and I’d love to continue that with the masters.

On other fronts, I heard back from the psychology SST people and it appears that I can complete the psychology degree by doing just two more courses which is what I thought might be possible. Mind you, it does introduce the complication that those courses need to be completed by 2017 so, if I get to do the masters, it means running one of those courses alongside it.


Copyright © 2004-2014 by Foreign Perspectives. All rights reserved.

Exploring Psychology: Biological processes and psychological explanation

Chapter 4, on Biological processes and psychological explanation, runs to 60 pages and takes us into the depths of biology so for non-biologists there’s a lot of new terminology introduced very quickly with relatively little depth. As the second option in TMA2 is based on this chapter, the notes on the appropriate sections will probably be more detailed.

I’ve highlighted the key exam topics.

This chapter is very much a whistle-stop tour of how psychology depends on the underlying biology and was formerly covered in somewhat more detail in SD226 Biological Psychology. It’s broken into four basic sections: a brief introduction as to how biology supports psychology, some basic biology, how the nervous system and brain work, and how everything fits together.

We start off with Crick’s (1994) concept of reductionism i.e. that all psychology can ultimately be explained by processes going on within the biology of the brain which the chapter then goes on to knock down. For example, the effects of amphetamine on behaviour can only be understood by considering the position in the social hierarchy of the individual injected (Cacioppo and Berntson, 1992). Similarly, to treat depression one can go down the psychological therapy route or the medicinal route or a combination of the two. Likewise there is the split between the signal that the senses receive and how the brain perceives it: was it just a pattern of dots or was it an exit sign? Finally, the concept of the dualism, the idea that the mind can have an existence independent of the brain.

From here, we dive into some basic biology with quite a lot of terminology introduced along the way. The body is made up of billions of cells which themselves consist of a membrane enclosing a number of organelles e.g. the nucleus, the mitochondria, vesicles, etc. Collectively the cells in the body aim to maintain the levels of a number of key parameters such as temperature and sugar level within acceptable levels (homeostasis) through the regulation of various controls e.g. using sweating to cool down. Cells come in a number of different types but for the purposes of psychology it is the neuron that is the most important as that is the type of cell that transmits information around the body and collectively these form the nervous system. Neurons consist of a cell body which has a number of dendrites and a long tail (process). The brain and spinal cord form the central nervous system with the neurons outside that core forming the peripheral nervous system. Detectors in, for example, the skin relay sensations via the peripheral nervous system to the central nervous system where they are interpreted by the brain whilst motor neurons work in the other direction and cause muscles to move. In addition to neurons, hormones also transmit information and commands around the body by way of the blood and can also affect behaviour. Cells reproduced by replicating the chromosomes within the nucleus, the process of sexual reproduction occuring by the mixing of the chromosomes within the egg and those within the sperm (referred to as the gametes) with the fertilised ovum subsequently reproducing and differentiating billions of times, ultimately forming a new individual. The collection of genes within the original fertilized egg are the genotype with the expression of that genotype within the environment called the phenotype. This is where the nature vs nurture argument originates: even with an identical starting point (e.g. in identical twins), you wouldn’t necessarily get two identical individuals as they would be very unlikely to experience the same environment.

So, how does the nervous system actually work? If you stick a pin in your finger, one or more of the sensory neurons will generate an action potential (i.e. a change in its electrical activity). This electrical activity is transmitted along the neuron (a higher frequency of pulses represents a higher intensity of stimulation) until it reaches the end of the neuron where neurotransmitters in the neuron are passed out of the neuron into the synaptic gap and taken up by receptors in the next neuron in the chain to be passed along by it in turn (the two adjacent neurons are called the synapse, hence the synaptic gap between them). Once sufficient neurotransmitters are taken up by the next neuron in the sequence, this causes excitation; note that inhibition can also occur, depending on the nature of the stimulus. Defects in this transmission process can lead to a range of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia (caused by some sections of the brain being abnormally active). The eye consists of a network of receptor cells called cones (colour sensitive) and rods (sensitive to the light level) which are collectively called the optic nerve (SD329 covers this in lots more detail). A whole range of things can interfere with this information transmission process such as diseases (e.g. Parkinson’s results from a loss of dopamine), prescription medication (e.g. Prozac) and various drugs (e.g. alcohol, heroine, etc.) and these processes can be deliberately modified by reducing the reuptake of the neurotransmitters (e.g. Prozac) but can cause problems (e.g. cocaine by rapidly blocking reuptake means that the production of dopamine can’t keep up which in turn leads to the down).

Moving up from the extreme detail of cells, we look next at how the brain is built and how it functions. It consists of two hemispheres joined by the corpus callosum. The outer creased layer is the cerebral cortex and overall it’s considered to consist of a number of lobes which perform specific activities. Thus, the eyes are wired through the brain to the lateral genuculate nucleus at the back. We know this courtesy of a range of accidents that have happened over the years and, more recently, some techniques that have been developed. Thus, epilepsy which arises from one hemisphere tended to roll over to the other one so Sperry (1969) looked at cutting the connection which in turn permitted a range of quite interesting experiments to be done addressing a single hemisphere. Damage caused by accidents or strokes (brain lesions) also revealed what some sections of the brain got up to (e.g. Phineas Gage lost the sections related to emotional control). Animals have controversially had bits of their brain cut out but these days brain imaging techniques are, of course, preferred. In terms of imaging, there is a wide range of options including positron emission tomography (PET) which looks at the blood flow indicated by the amount of a radioactive tracer injected.

This is all controlled by the somatic nervous system which acts on the skeletal muscles that operate our voluntary behaviour all under control of the motor cortex. The autonomic nervous system runs the involuntary systems (e.g. control of the cardiac muscle in the heart and smooth muscle in the throat etc.). Finally, a couple of areas are largely glossed over including language development and depression.

For the exam, the key topics for this chapter are highlighted above and are:

Action potential
Brain lesions

Copyright © 2004-2014 by Foreign Perspectives. All rights reserved.

A tiny psychology tutorial

The numbers were well down with the tutorial on Saturday with only two of us there at the start and one arriving later.

The focus on this tutorial was mainly on the types of psychology experiments that can be done and the broad statistical analysis that you can do once the data is in. It probably surprises a lot of people but there is a considerable emphasis on statistical analysis in psychology and one of the texts that we have is quite a chunky one on SPSS which is used in at least one assignment and also in the summer school.

What I’m wondering is whether the drop-off in numbers is due to the recent assignment or if it’s just down to the Christmas season.

Copyright © 2004-2014 by Foreign Perspectives. All rights reserved.

DSE212 Exploring Psychology: Three approaches to learning

Chapter 3, on Three approaches to learning, runs to 46 pages is back to proper psychology. This is the first of the part 2 exam chapters so isn’t tested in any TMA which means that my notes will initially be less fleshed out on this but will improve as the exam approaches.

I’ve highlighted the key exam topics.

This chapter looks at three basic approaches to learning starting with conditioning which is essentially the basis for rote learning, moving on to category learning and finally looking at social and cultural aspects to learning. Quite a fundamental thing and a topic that is covered in some depth in the Child Development module as you would expect.

The comparative approach looks at how different species and generally does this through the methods of behaviourism which look at actual behaviours and ignore the possibility of any internal mental states that may exist.

Classical conditioning introduces a whole raft of terminology, taking up around 1/3rd of the chapter along the way i.e. it’s a pretty important topic. It all started with the physiologist Pavlov who was interested in reflexes. He began by creating a contingency by pairing a neutral stimulus (e.g. a bell) with a natural one (e.g. salivating when food is in the mouth) and found that after a number of repetitions, the neutral stimulus was sufficient to create the salivation (the conditional response) i.e. it had become a conditioned stimulus (or conditioned stimulus), this process being called classical conditioning with the reflex linking the bell to the salivation being the conditional reflex; the food itself is the unconditional stimulus and its salivation is the unconditional response. Watson went on to screw up little Albert by banging a lump of metal behind him whenever he saw a rat which he initially wasn’t scared of.

Instrumental conditioning is where the subject taking a particular action is either rewarded for doing this (positive reinforcement) or something undesirable for them is stopped by their action (negative reinforcement). If the subject is required to so something specific to obtain their reward this is operant conditioning e.g. rats pressing a lever to gain food pellets. Punishment is the initiation of something as a consequence of their actions that would cause negative reinforcement. These techniques have been used in behaviour modification. Experiments based on instrumental conditioning include Tolman with the fan of maze routes showing that there they develop a mental model rather than just having their behaviour modified and variations on this based on room layout.

Category learning arises when we realise that things are generally not unique but rather fall into specific categories which can aid application of knowledge acquired in one context in an entirely different one e.g. we can identify a creature with scales as a “fish” which in turn means that we know it can swim even if we don’t know the specific species. However, that begs the question: how do we build these categories in the first place and a plethora of experiments have looked at that e.g. Bruner and his stimulus cards revealed a number of different strategies used to identify categories (eliminating categories by focusing on one property rather than just randomly scanning works best). Criticisms include that these are artificial categories and that natural categories are quite different e.g. birds need wings to fly and aren’t just things with wings. There’s the issue of whether we can learn new categories and how we do so: is it by hypothesis testing as Bruner would argue, or are the categories innate as Chomsky and Fodor would say? Quite a complex area and these notes don’t really cover it properly yet (see p196-200 of the book).

The sociocultural perspective considers the use of tools and how it depends on interpersonal relationships and is embedded in the society and culture in which it takes place. For example, you could learn to do calculations on paper, on a calculator or perhaps with an abacus. This moves on to the issue of the use of language in problem solving and the differences between cumulative talk (that merely sums up what has gone before) and exploratory talk (that moves the conversation onwards). Finally there is the business of enculturation or indoctrination into the school system: making sense of how school works or learning how to learn in a school context.

For the exam, the key topics for this chapter are highlighted above and are:

Sociocultural perspective
Operant conditioning
Classical conditioning
Category learning

Copyright © 2004-2014 by Foreign Perspectives. All rights reserved.