Psychology isn’t as easy as degree results would suggest


The time one spends at college is often referred to as ‘the best years of your life’, a sentiment brought up in many a parent’s longing tales of student days gone by. But in reality, for many students, it is a life filled by relentless study and hard work. Imagine what it must feel like labouring your way through three to four years of a degree only to be told that it was all ‘too easy’.

In a recent article, The Irish Times posed the question ‘What’s the easiest course in which to get a first?’, and followed with the claim that it was a course at Trinity; none other than psychology.

My particular issue here is not with the supposed grade inflation that has been a source of much recent debate. Nor do I even care if psychology is in fact ‘easier’ than other degree courses or not. (Though, having just begun a psychology degree, I do hope that it lies somewhere in between.) What mostly concerns me is that, whenever a group of people excel at an examined course at either second- or third-level, the first thing to be commented on is whether or not their success was achieved as a result of genuine merit or popularisation. The whole idea of congratulating students’ achievements seems to hold little sway.

Last year, a total of 41% of psychology students were awarded a first-class honours in their final exams. The Irish Times did not state whether or not this was an increase on previous results, though the article did mention that 97% of psychology students have achieved a 2.1 or higher since 2004. While this is a considerably large percentage of students, to use these figures to infer that psychology is therefore an ‘easy degree’ is wrong and unfair.

It would seem that conformity is the only way to ensure irrefutable results. However, a typical bell curve allows only 10% of students to achieve a top grade. Here, the same distribution principles are applied as in the case of the general population. The problem, however, is that the two groups are simply inequitable. This argument has been recently backed by the Vox, who noted that “at elite colleges, students are selected precisely because they have above-average abilities”.

When I asked the head of the School of Psychology, Ian Robertson, to comment on the issue, he said:  “We get very high calibre students and our external examiners from outside and inside the country confirm this.” Students, he said, “do a full four years of psychology, which few other universities do, and our students also do a very demanding final year empirical dissertation. Combine this with the very high points – 560 plus – then it is not surprising that we get very good results – which are vetted and controlled by external examiners.”

On reviewing recent Leaving Cert trends, it becomes apparent that it is not only university results that are going up. Earlier in the year, The Irish Examiner noted that there had been an increase of 2.4% in the number of Leaving Certificate applicants and an equally notable increase in the amount of students opting for higher-level papers in many subjects. These figures imply that there is a greater degree of competition for available college places. Indeed, very high demand has made psychology a course with consistently high entrance points year after year, consequently attracting students with top Leaving Cert marks. Is it really remarkable, therefore, that these very students then go on to achieve the same top marks after spending four years at an esteemed university? Perhaps better results simply means better students?

Personally, I find it rather hard to comprehend how a degree requiring over 560 Leaving Certificate points can be labelled ‘easy’.  If, by some chance, I were to find myself achieving a first, I can only hope that my hard work and achievement would not be put down or questioned, but rather congratulated.