Command Terms and Definitions

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Revision and Exam Preparation

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The "command terms" in exam question are supposed to help guide the construction of your answers, but often they make things more confusing than necessary. This post will help give you the basics and some tips on what you need to know (Updated March 2019).

Updated Aug, 2020

The command terms are the verbs at the start of IB exam questions. While they be important, they are actually far less important than many people think. 

Command terms in SAQs

Get more exam tips, example SAQs and study resources for the “additional terms” with this downloadable PDF.

Short-answer questions (SAQs) may use one of three command terms in IB Psychology exams: outline, describe and explain. However, you don’t need to worry about the differences in these terms. This video I made helps you to understand how to answer any SAQ, regardless of the command term.

Command terms in Essays

There are four possible command terms that might be used in essays: discuss, evaluate, to what extent and contrast (see definitions below). What’s far more important than knowing the command terms, however, is knowing the expectations of essay answer. All essays need to show knowledge and understanding, use of evidence (studies) and critical thinking. The links below will help students understand how to score high marks on their essays by meeting all of these requirements.

Critical Thinking: The biggest difference between essay command terms and SAQs is that they require critical thinking, which includes alternative explanations, evaluating studies, areas of uncertainty, etc.


Discuss/Evaluate: What’s the difference between “discuss” and “evaluate?” In this blog post, I argue that there is no actual difference between discuss and evaluate and this can be demonstrated quite easily.

To what extent: This is most commonly asked about a variable (e.g. hormone/gene/emotion) affecting a behaviour. For example, “to what extent do pheromones influence human behaviour?”

Contrast: This is asking for an explanation of differences between two things. For example, contrasting two explanations for a psychological disorder or two models of memory.

Fun Fact: The command term “comment” was originally in the IB Psychology guide but it was taken out because it never actually appeared in any assessments – this just goes to show how irrelevant the command terms are to IB assessments. 

Command terms in Paper 3 (HL Only)

The command terms used in Paper 3 are identity, outline, describe, explain and discuss. However, like SAQs and essays, what’s far more important than knowing command terms is understanding the requirements of the question. Our textbooks (available here) have all the tips and advice you need to know for Paper 3 questions. There are also lots of videos and blog posts for Paper Three.


Command Term Definitions

(From the IB Psychology Guide)

Contrast Give an account of the differences between two (or more) items or situations,referring to both (all) of them throughout.

Define Give the precise meaning of a word, phrase, concept or physical quantity.

Describe Give a detailed account.

Discuss Offer a considered and balanced review that includes a range of arguments, factors or hypotheses. Opinions or conclusions should be presented clearly and supported by appropriate evidence.

Evaluate Make an appraisal by weighing up the strengths and limitations.

Explain Give a detailed account including reasons or causes.

Outline Give a brief account or summary.

State Give a specific name, value or other brief answer without explanation or calculation.

To what extent Consider the merits or otherwise of an argument or concept. Opinions and conclusions should be presented clearly and supported with appropriate evidence and sound argument.

Suggest: Propose a solution, hypothesis or other possible answer.

Identify: Provide an answer from a number of possibilities.

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