Updated Jan 25th, 2021
I’ve spent over ten years trying to devise good advice for students about how to write exam answers. You’ll see below an original post I wrote a few years ago (in 2017) with an attached “SAQ Writing Guide” as a word.doc that I thought would revolutionize teaching of SAQs. I was wrong.
I’ve learned that specific frameworks are more important than abstract concepts. This is why I’ve developed things like “The 7 Steps to Perfect SAQs” and the “Three Rules of Three for Essay Writing.” Perhaps in a few years I’ll look back on these ideas and as critical of these as I am of my word.doc below. But that’s how progress happens.
In the very odd chance you’re wondering, I’ve gone back to calling them SAQs (and not SARs), because despite SAR being a more accurate descriptor, I don’t really want to hear more about SARs any more than is necessary in these coronavirus days.
The Original Post
I’ve had some good feedback for this short answer response writing guide so I thought I would post it here.
This was one of my first resources I created after “cracking the code” of the IB Psychology assessments and it was in the midst of my creation of the themantic model of curriculum design.
Just quickly, I want to offer two alternative definitions of describing and explaining that we use:
Describing: providing accurate summaries of individual units of information. A description might include definitions, identifications, statements and outlines.
Explaining: communicating understanding of significant relationships in response to a question or problem. An explanation will require description to provide context, but will clearly show how two or more individual units of information are related.
For example, many students describe studies in great detail. But they fail to explain them; that is to say, they fail to convey the significant relationship that they demonstrate.
I’ve found that students’ lack of explanation isn’t out of laziness, it stems from a lack of understanding of significant relationships in the first place. I think we’ve drastically underestimated how much processing time students require in order to grasp significant relationships (e.g. between particular variables and behaviours) and we’re doing them a disservice by burdening them with too many building blocks and not enough time to understand relationship chains. Our themantic units attempt to remedy this.
Travis Dixon is an IB Psychology teacher, author, workshop leader, examiner and IA moderator.