Psychology Exam

Year 12 Psychology Exam Complaints (2003)

The VCE – year 12 – external Psychology Written Examination I was sat on Tuesday, 10 June by thousands of Victorians and contained an embarrassingly bad question about “mind over matter“.

  1. Response from Lynne Kelly, Physics Teacher
  2. Response from Ken Greatorex, Victorian Skeptics Secretary

Lynne Kelly

12th June 2003

Dear VCAA,

As a physics teacher of long standing, I was given a copy of this semester’s psychology exam by a very embarrassed psychology teacher. I was shocked to read Question 14.

Question 14, Page 19 reads:

Consider the amazing examples of mind over matter that you might have heard about or seen on television. For example, people lying on beds of nails, piercing themselves with spikes or walking on hot coals. How might an altered state of consciousness explain the resistance to pain in these situations?

For many years I have used the distribution of weight over the 1000 or so nails as an example of distributed pressure and a simple calculation by junior secondary students to show that the resultant pressure from each nail is far too low to cause pain. I have lain upon a Bed of Nails and can verify the lack of pain.

For many years I have used the pit of hot coals as an example of the difference between heat and temperature, and the importance of considering heat capacity and transfer in the calculation. My students know you can walk across a pit of hot coals without pain due to physics, not mind over matter – whatever that might be. I have walked across a pit of hot coals and can verify there is no pain involved.

What would well educated physics students do when confronted with Question 14? Will they be disadvantaged in the marking because they have studied physics?

What would poorly educated physics students take home from Question 14 except even worse physics?

The spike piercing bit is also explainable by simple science with no hint of this mysterious mind-over-matter but it is not within my physics repertoire.

I sincerely hope this question will not be included in the marking. I request some message be sent to ALL psychology teachers in the state asking that they clarify the situation with ALL psychology students. The aim is to educate students in science, not pseudoscience.

I do realise what a difficult and demanding task setting exams is, and what a highly respected subject Psychology has become within the VCE curriculum. I am sure this hiccup can be managed without losing too much validity.


Lynne Kelly

Physics teacher and Author

Ken Greatorex

It was with some surprise and disappointment that I saw a Victorian Semester 1 Psychology VCE question which contained as a preamble:

Consider the amazing examples of mind over matter that you might have heard about or seen on television. For example, people lying on beds of nails“… and so on.

The question clearly presupposes that some powerful psychological or even paranormal agency is at work.

I feel for the students sitting this exam who have been among hundreds of ordinary Victorian school children who have lain without discomfort on our “SkepticsBed of Nails at various venues in recent years. These kids know that year 9 physics can adequately explain their survival in this situation. Mind over matter is not even an issue.

I also feel for the academic battlers in the Third world, such as Dr Narendra Nayak who have risked their careers to expose the fraud associated with some of the (for them) bread-and-butter phenomena alluded to in the question. How their hearts must sink when they look at the gullibility of this Victorian Examination Panel.

Please review this embarrassing oversight.

Australian Skeptics gave out hundreds of Bed of Nails certificates at last years Great Australian Science Show, and expect to do so again in 2003. Please indicate if you would like further details on the constructon and testing involved.

Yours truly,

Ken Greatorex

Secretary, Australian Skeptics (Victorian Branch)

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