“How many studies do I need?”

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Curriculum, Themantics

Students need to use studies to show upon what they're basing their understanding, but too many studies may impede deep understanding.

By far the two most common questions IB Psychology teachers (and students) ask are:

  • Is this a good EE question?


  • How many studies do I need?

You can read my answer to the first question about EEs here. In this post I want to address the second question in two ways. First the short answer, that I know many people are looking for, and secondly, the longer answer, which only the truly conscientious will care to read.

The Short Answer (You Don’t Want to Hear)

Don’t worry about it. Put conceptual understanding ahead of the studies and think about those first. And there’s no official IB guidance or “rules” about how many studies – it’s up to you.

The Short Answer (You Do Want to Hear)

For exam preparation for all topics in IB Psychology students should be able to show understanding of at least two studies: one for a core argument (SARs and Essays), and an additional one either to support the core argument or in a counter-argument (Essays only).

Example #1: Models or Theories

The course prescribes a few models and theories that students need to understand, including the multi-store and working memory models, as well as schema theory, social identity theory, and social cognitive theory. For each of these model/theory based topics, it’s imperative that students can do the following:

  1. Summarize (i.e. describe) the model or theory
  2. Explain how one or more of its key claims can be demonstrated by at least one study (Strength).
  3. Explain at least one limitation of the model or theory (maybe using evidence to support this critique).

In planning (or reviewing) these topics, try to ensure that you’ve got one supporting study and one study that could bolster the supporting evidence or be used to demonstrate a critique. This also prepares students to address the common questions that ask about “research related to…” a particular theory or model.

Example #2: Variables and Behaviour 

The other types of topics in IB Psychology involve understand how variables influence human cognition and/or behaviour. Some of these topics specify the variable and leave the teacher to choose the behaviour, e.g:

  • Hormones
  • Genetics
  • Cultural Dimensions
  • Enculturation
  • Acculturation

Other topics specify the behaviour, and leave it up to the teacher to decide the variable/s. This is most common in the options. e.g:

  • Brain development
  • Interpersonal relationships (e.g. attraction)
  • Bystanderism
  • Origins of Conflict
  • Prejudice and Discrimination
  • Disorders

For these topics, students should be able to:

  • Explain how the variable/s influences the behaviour
  • Use at least one study to support their explanation
  • Provide at least one counter-argument (maybe using supporting evidence).

So you see, if you focus on preparing to have at least two studies per topic (at least one to support a core argument and an additional one, you should be fine).

The Long Answer

For all topics in IB Psychology, I try to make sure that students understand a core concept and can use at least one study to show where their understanding of that concept came from. I also try to make sure that they can think critically (i.e. provide counter-arguments) about what they think they understand.

However, I often teach more than two studies per topic. For example, when teaching schema theory over four lessons in my Social Influence unit, I use a new study every lesson (four in total). This is because schema can be abstract, so instead of using only anecdotal examples to help students grasp this tricky concept, I’d prefer to use research-based ones. This has the added benefit of also giving them more choices of studies to choose from when it comes time to prepare for exams.

Moreover, the studies we learn about during our schema theory topic can be applied to other topics. For example, by using Cohen’s Waitress/Librarian study they can learn how schema’s influence our processing of new information and could lead to confirmation bias, which is an example of how stereotypes can influence behaviour. So they can now apply this one study to three different topics:

  • Schema Theory
  • Biases in Thinking and Decision Making
  • Stereotypes

In the planning of this topic, I wasn’t concerned with “how many studies.” Instead, during my course design I identified the core concepts I want my students to understand and put these first. I then selected the relevant studies that demonstrate these concepts.

I also don’t think about the exams when I’m designing my lessons and topics. To do so is actually detrimental. For example, I include many studies that I never expect students to use in an exam, including good ol’ Phineas Gage, the marshmallow paradigm studies and Milgram’s experiments on obedience to authority. These studies serve two other main purposes: they help to engage and interest students, and they also facilitate the comprehension of more abstract concepts and relationships.

One of the most common mistakes students make during revision is to focus only on memorizing details of studies, without carefully considering their relevance and possible applications to particular topics.

For example, Phineas is used to introduce the idea of localization, impulsiveness and the frontal lobe, while the marshmallow paradigm is a good one to get students thinking about the differences between processing, judgement and decision making. These are just the beginning of further and deeper exploration into these topics, including far better evidence to use to show concepts.


Teaching Tip: Work smarter, not harder

Many teachers are understandably worried about now having to teach all topics to essay level. However, with careful curriculum design you can juxtapose and combine topics to make this less daunting.

The crux of the themantic approach when applied to IB Psychology is to find the conceptual overlaps and exploit these. This allows topics to be explored in more depth and in less time.

For example, it’s easy to see how topics that are based on variables (e.g. in the core) can be combined with those based on behaviours (e.g. in the options). So to cover the topic: Genetics and Behaviour (Biological Approach), why not make the behaviour a disorder (Abnormal Psychology)?

This simple change in curriculum design (by overlapping options and core) means that you can now have more time to teach how genetics influences a psychological disorder, because you can combine the hours you would have spent on both different topics into one topic.

Moreover, for both topics (Genetics and Explanations of Disorders) students need to be prepared to write an essay, which involves offering a counter-argument. The counter-argument could be that perhaps it’s not genetics that’s the only possible influence, and maybe there are alternative explanations.

In the student guide, for example, we look at how PTSD could be explained genetically as case-control twin studies have shown that low volume in the hippocampus is a pre-existing risk factor for the development of PTSD. This provides a core argument (with evidence from the study) of how genetics could explain memory-related symptoms of PTSD. But is that all?

Actually, earlier in the PTSD unit we looked at how emotion (stress) could influence the hippocampus as elevated levels of stress (and subsequent secretion of cortisol) over long periods of time leads to dendritic atrophy in the hippocampus. So the low volume in the hippocampus might be genetic, or it could be a result of prolonged stress. In other words, there’s an area of uncertainty here whether or not it’s an etiology or a symptom.

Now students have counter-arguments for the genetics topic in the core and the biological explanation of PTSD in abnormal. Moreover, the stress effects on the hippocampus can also be applied as a core argument to show how emotion may affect cognition. So while it’s a counter-argument for one topic, it’s a core argument for another. Make sense?

Final Thought

So you see, thinking about “how many studies” is a counter-productive approach. If you worry about this like I used to, you’ll end up with a course like mine used to be – filled with disjointed topics that never connected and didn’t really build on one another, nor did they develop any deep conceptual understanding of the complex interactions between variables in behaviour. This lead to “descriptive answers” and students lacking an ability to show understanding. 

But by switching the focus on the concepts and relationships first, and using the studies merely as supporting evidence, you can build a far more interesting course. And use the topics in relation to one another so they build and can provide counter-arguments for each another. This is another way to deepen understanding in the limited time we have with our kids.

Well done if you made it this far 🙂