What is a psychological theory?

Travis DixonUncategorized

In the IB Psychology course there are a range of theories that students need to be familiar with. But it’s easy to dive straight into the complex assignments like evaluating these theories, and to overlook asking the simple questions.

Here are just some of the theories that may be relevant* to the IB Psych’ course:

  • Social Learning Theory
  • Social Identity Theory
  • Levels of Processing Model of Memory
  • Multi-store Model of Memory
  • Flashbulb Memory Theory
  • Schema Theory

So what is a theory in psychology?

This is an important concept to understand because it will improve the quality and clarity of student descriptions of theories in exam answers.

Psychology is the scientific study of behaviour and mental processes. It’s primary focus, therefore, is to explain, understand and even predict these behaviours and mental processes. So a theory in psychology is a hypothesis that attempts to meet this objective. That is to say, a psychological theory is one that attempts to provide a description and/or an explanation for particular behaviour and/or mental processes.

Let’s summarise the examples above:

  • FBM Theory attempts to describe a particular type of memory and explain how that memory is formed.
  • Social Learning Theory attempts to explain how people can learning from the observation of others.
  • Schema Theory attempts to describe what schema are and to explain why they’re formed
  • Social Identity Theory attempts to explain underlying causes of intergroup conflict.

When students are learning about and writing about psychological theories, it is important that they can develop a conceptual understanding of what exactly the theory is attempting to explain and/or describe. In my opinion, this is the most important thing for students to understand regarding psychological theories. Everything else stems from this conceptual understanding.

A good exit ticket strategy after learning about a new theory (or revising one already studied) is to ask students to write a one sentence essay on the theory.

*I say may because not all theories need to be taught: it might change from teacher to teacher.