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GCSE Psychology: Choosing an exam board

This article is for home educators wanting to take Psychology as a private candidate. It explains what is included in GCSE Psychology, and gives an exam board comparison explaining what the differences are between each of the boards that offers it.  

Why Psychology?

GCSE Psychology is a fascinating and useful subject to study. Usually not available until A level in schools, the GCSE gives an overview of key topics that will help anyone understand themselves and others better. It also gives an insight into how social science research takes place, how to interpret data, and what makes a good study – relevant to anyone reading the latest news reports who wants to understand more about the studies reports are based on. 

What boards are available?

Psychology is currently only available as a GCSE, graded based on two externally marked written papers. It is offered by AQA, OCR and Pearson Edexcel. There isn’t an International GCSE version by either CAIE or Edexcel, and it isn’t offered as a GCSE by WJEC in Wales or CCEA in Northern Ireland. There is a Scottish National 5 in Psychology, but like most of the Scottish qualifications it has a coursework component and so is very difficult for home educators to arrange. 

(The GCSE specifications changed a few years ago and what was offered changed around slightly; Eduqas used to offer a Psychology GCSE, but don’t any more.) 

As ever, the first priority is to choose a board that you can find an exam centre for. Exam centres need to have an active registration with the appropriate board to let you sit the exam through them – it’s fairly expensive to get started with, so they’re unlikely to take on a new registration just for a private candidate one-off. If it’s a school, they don’t need to have their own pupils taking the exam to offer it to private candidates – however it’s up to each individual centre to decide what they’re prepared to offer. 

Most private exam centres will offer any of these three boards, and most schools will also be registered with them all; however it is best to check before you get too set on one. If you don’t yet know what centre you’ll be using but want to get started, Edexcel is usually the safest bet for private candidates. 

If you want to use a course provider/distance learning provider (DLP) or a local tutor, then they will probably have a board and options that they have chosen to teach, and you will need to use that.  

What’s the difference between the boards?

The basics of what needs to be included in the GCSE is set out by the Department of Education (DfE). It includes some fixed topics and studies that all the boards need to include, and some options. So there is a significant overlap between the different boards, but they are not exactly the same and you can’t necessarily use resources designed for one board to prepare for a different one. 

The style of the exam papers and questions is also slightly different between the boards. They all have two written papers designed to assess the same skills, but they are slightly different lengths, and the content is split up in different ways. There isn’t any board that is easier or harder, but you may find one style suits your student better than another. We’ll look at this in more detail below.

What topics are included?

The DfE specifies the following content:

compulsory topics:

– Development

– Memory

– Psychological Problems

– Social Influence

– The Brain and Neuropsychology

2 optional topics chosen from:

– Criminal Psychology

– Language, Thought and Communciation

– Perception

– Sleep and Dreaming

– The Self

Students must also study research methods. They are encouraged to carry out their own research as part of the course, but this isn’t assessed. 

For some of the topics, there are required theories or models that are common across all boards. Two research studies are also required for each topic, but the boards are free to choose which ones. Each board produces a specification, available on their website, that includes the detail of what students are expected to have learnt and may be assessed on in the exams. Once you’ve chosen a board, this is what you need to work towards. 

The boards have chosen different approaches to the optional topics. 

AQAStudents will be assessed on Perception, and Language, Thought and Communication

OCR: Students will be assessed on Criminal Psychology, and Sleep and Dreaming

Edexcel: Students have a choice of any two of the optional topics. The exam will include a section of questions for each topic, and students need to choose two sections to answer, based on what they have studied. 

How are the exams structured?

Each board has two written exams, and the DfE specifies that the exams need to assess the following objectives:

– AO1: Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of psychological ideas, processes and procedures (35%)

– AO2: Apply knowledge and understanding of psychological ideas, -processes and procedures (35%)

– AO3: Analyse and evaluate psychological information, ideas, processes and procedures to make judgements and draw conclusions. (30%)

What this means is that every mark available in the exam is assigned to one of these categories, and has to split in the required percentages. So if there are 100 marks in the exam, 35 of them need to be for demonstrating knowledge and understanding, 35 of them need to be for applying, and 30 need to be for analysing and evaluating. Sometimes questions have marks for multiple objectives – for example a 6 mark “analyse” question might have 2 marks available for demonstrating, 2 marks for applying, and 2 marks for analysis. 

All the boards have to have this same basic split across both papers, but they can be split into question types differently. 

AQABoth papers are 1hr 45 minutes long, and have 100 marks, with the same weighting of assessment objectives on each paper. 

Each topic (including Research Methods) has a separate section worth 25 marks; 4 on each paper. 

Questions are a mix of multiple choice, short answer and extended writing answers.  The available past paper set had quite a few 5, 6 and 9 mark questions spread around the papers. 

OCR: Both papers are 1hr 30 minutes long, and have 90 marks, with the same weighting of assessment objectives on each paper. 

Each paper contains a section for each of 3 topics which is each worth 24 marks, and a section for Research Methods worth 18 marks. The Brain and Neuropsychology doesn’t have its own section and is included within the others. 

Questions are a mix of multiple choice, short answer and extended writing answers. The available sample and past papers had most questions up to 4 marks, a couple of 5 or 6 mark longer questions, and one 13 mark question per paper. 

EdexcelPaper 1 is 1hr 45 minutes long, with 98 marks, focused more towards the demonstrating (AO1) and analysing (AO2) assessment objectives. This has a section on each of the five compulsory topics and then another section with two extended questions which may draw across multiple areas. 

The mark distribution isn’t specified, but in the sample papers each compulsory topic has 16 marks, consisting of multiple choice and short answer questions (up to 4 marks, usually split into two parts worth 2 marks each – eg a for and against, or ‘give two examples’). The extended questions each have 9 marks available. 

Paper 2 is 1hr 20 minutes long, with 79 marks, focused more towards the applying (AO2) assessment objective. This has a section on research methods (which may also draw on the compulsory topics), which has multiple choice and short answer questions and one extended question. It also has a section for each of the optional topics – students choose two of the sections to answer. These sections each have multiple choice and short answer questions, and one extended question. 

The mark distribution isn’t specified, but in the sample papers the research methods section is worth 37 marks. It is mostly short questions (up to 4 marks, usually split into two parts worth 2 marks each), including relevant maths skills such as graphs, charts and averages. The longer question in this section is worth 12 marks. The optional topic sections each have 21 marks, consisting of mostly short questions (up to 4 marks), with one 9 mark extended question.  

What resources are available? 

GCSE Psychology isn’t offered by many schools (there were about 15,500 entries in 2020, compared to around 750,000 entries for Maths and English, and 276,000 entries for History), so there aren’t as many resources available as for some of the more common subjects. AQA is taken more often (7,000 entries compared to around 4,000 entries for each of OCR and Edexcel), so there are slightly more third-party resources, but there’s not much in it. 

If you are looking at resources, make sure they’re for the current spec (a publishing date of after 2016, or a reference to 9-1 grading, are good signs). There are some quite significant changes between specifications, so while some topics in the old resources are still useful, there are completely new topics that will also need to be studied. 

 Textbooks and courses

AQA: there is one main AQA textbook, and a linked revision guide; also one textbook published by Oxford University Press; and a Collins Revision and Practice book. The AQA textbook usually gets good reviews. 

AQA GCSE Psychology courses are available from some distance learning providers such as NEC, Oxford Open Learning, and ICSLearn. 

OCR: there is a Hodder textbook, revision guide and workbook. Some teacher’s guides to the core concepts and studies are available on the website. This article on the OCR website has some (school-based) teaching ideas and links. 

Pearson Edexcel: there is one main Pearson textbook, and one revision book. There are also teaching guides for each topic available on the Pearson website. Some families have found the Pearson textbook hard to follow.   

Edexcel GCSE Psychology courses are available from some distance learning providers such as Home Made Education and Wolsey Hall, with a fixed option choice. 

 General resources

There is nothing specifically for GCSE Psychology on BBC Bitesize, Seneca Learning or GCSEPod. 

There are a few resources available on TES, across different specifications and applying to all.

Massolit has videos focused on A level topic which may have some crossover to GCSE. 

Crash Course Psychology and Simply Psychology are useful for general concepts. 

YouTube has videos and playlists for some GCSE Psychology topics, including all of the AQA topics, and some for OCR. 

Useful links

AQA: Specification and past papers.

OCR: Specification and past papers.

Edexcel: Specification and past papers.

Which will you choose? 

There really is no clear winner here. 

Some will be tied in by local exam centre options or a course provider they want to use. Others will go on the textbooks available, where AQA is often favoured, though I also find the Hodder textbooks (available for OCR) generally good. The options available to study might swing it, with Edexcel offering the most choice. Different exam formats could be a factor – the extended questions in AQA carry fewer marks, but there are more of them; Edexcel seem to have a very clearly defined format which may be easier for students to understand what they need to include in their answers. 

We haven’t decided yet! I’ll update when we do and do a follow-up post on how we found self-studying for the course over a year. 


  1. Sally Sally

    Such helpful and thorough information. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this! Most helpful!

  2. Yasmina Yasmina

    Thank you Katie, this has been really helpful.

  3. Umm Abd Umm Abd

    Thank you for posting this! How has the year been? Any further thoughts on the various board options?

    • gingerkatiesparkles gingerkatiesparkles

      We chose OCR. My daughter really enjoyed the course; she worked mainly from the Hodder textbook, using the OCR Scheme of Work – available on the website – for pacing and to provide additional links to appropriate videos, websites and activities (we found one set of links was no longer working but most of them were still current and helpful). OCR also provide a good set of additional resources, with descriptions of all the key studies and theories. The only thing to look out for is that there aren’t usually as many exam centres that support private candidates for OCR, so you need to check it’s an option to sit locally before committing.

      We used Mark My Papers to mark one set of past papers near to the exam to check on exam technique and style.

      She sat the exams this week so fingers crossed it has all gone well! It has definitely given her a taste for Psychology and she plans to study it at A level too.

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