Experiment Results: Is an evaluation distinguishable from a discussion?

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Curriculum, Revision and Exam Preparation, Teaching Ideas

While we can find differences if we look hard enough, I contend that life's easier if we treat discuss and evaluate the same.

After writing and sharing a recent post, I got some questions regarding the validity of my claim that a good evaluation and discussion are indistinguishable. So I decided to put it to the test by writing an example essay following the essay structure I advise for students and seeing if it was obvious which command term was being used. I gathered some data and I’m not surprised by the findings.

But I have a confession to make…

When I posted this essay in the FB group “IB Psychology Teachers Support Group” and asked if it was an evaluate or a discussion, it wasn’t the first time I had posted the essay to a group of teachers and posed this question. A week earlier I had posted an almost identical version of the essay (this one) in our other group (“ThemEd’s IB Psych Teachers”) and asked the same question.

My Hypothesis

I was predicting a fairly even split of votes between evaluate and discuss with essay version 1.0. But I must admit I thought discussion would have more votes, as the words “strengths and limitations” are not explicitly stated (although the essay definitely explains strengths and limitations).

The changes I made in version 2.0 to share with the larger group were to simply use the terms strengths and limitations explicitly. I thought this would result in a higher % of votes for evaluation. I was wrong.

First Results: (ThemEd’s FB Group)

In this first trial it was a pretty even split.

  • Evaluate = 6
  • Discussion = 5

NB: There were a few teachers who were on the fence and couldn’t decide.

Second Results: (IB Psych Support Group)

There was some awesome discussion generated and a few people were willing to wager a guess:

  • Evaluate = 2
  • Discuss = 3


So one of my original hypotheses was clearly wrong: even when modifying the essay to explicitly state the terms “strengths and limitations,” still there was no common trend in distinguishing which command term was adhered to.

Similarly, when we total the votes from both groups we have:

  • Discussion = 8 votes
  • Evaluation = 8 votes

It seems (to me at least) that there isn’t an objectively observable difference between an discuss and an evaluate essay.

In the discussion it was obvious that there were teachers who argued strongly that these were clearly different terms and should be treated differently. However, when it came to identifying the command term the essay followed they were on opposite sides of the fence. This suggests to me that we can find differences if we want to, but these will be subjective. And then I’d argue, why bother at all if it’s just going to add more confusion to students?

Why does this even matter?

The lack of difference between evaluate and discussion was an important discovery for me because understanding nuances between command terms is not a transferable life skill – it’s an IB exam preparation strategy. Therefore, I don’t want to teach it because I want to reduce the time and effort I spend in class focusing on things that students will never use beyond exam day.

My biggest goal for my teaching is that its impact is long-lasting and meaningful. This is why I want to reduce time and effort spent on teaching things that can only be used in the IB exam.

Here are the three things I want my students to be able to do in any essay in an IB Psych’ exam:

  1. Explain a central argument in response to the question

  2. Use evidence to support that argument 

  3. Critically reflect on their argument and/or evidence

That’s it. Simple. Whether this is a discuss, evaluate, to what extent, or contrast, I want my students to reach these three levels in their essays. Personally, I think it’s more important that students understand this basic framework so they can highlight their psychology knowledge, understanding and critical thinking skills the best they can in the limited time they have available in an exam. Time and energy spent on splitting hairs between command terms is detracting from valuable time we could be spend developing more important skills (like how to do the three things listed above), in my opinion.

I think my three level structure for essays can also be applied to other subjects and even beyond the IB. Thus, it’s worthwhile developing these transferable writing and thinking skills.

I’m not saying there can’t be a difference between evaluating and discussing. As I mentioned earlier, if we focus on nuanced connotations of the terms and write our own subjective interpretations then sure we can find differences. What I’m saying is that there doesn’t need to be a difference.

If this doesn’t ring true with you, that’s fine, of course. I’m not concerned with trying to change IB definitions of command terms or to get all IB Psych’ teachers to agree with my point-of-view. All I’ve done is share an observation I’ve made about assessment that I think has practical applications in my teaching and can reduce my stress and workload and also have a positive impact on kids’ learning and exam performance. I’m sure it will make sense and be helpful to some teachers, which is great. Likewise, I’m sure most people will think I’m full of sh*t and will ignore it. That’s fine, too.

I will continue to teach my students to treat these command terms as the same, just like I teach them to cross out “outline” and “describe” in SAQs and write “explain” before they write their answer (with one notable exception!)

I also wanted to share because, well, I just love discussing anything assessment related!

READ MORE: Download an introduction to psychology workbook for students here!

One reason why I decided to write my own indistinguishable discuss/evaluate essay in the first place is because I wanted to test my own theory. Often when I’ve thought I understand something about assessment I’ve completed the task myself then I realized I was wrong. I’ve found that it’s easy to make these mistakes when we talk about assessment in the abstract. After writing the essay, I was convinced of my original theory (and the data was reassuring).

Like I say, I hope this is helpful to some people, as it definitely makes sense to me.

I’d welcome any thoughts, critiques or questions in the comments.

Later this week I’ll post an annotated version of the essay comments to highlight points I think students should take note of when writing essays.

Once again, thanks to Christos for sewing the seed of this idea about discuss/evaluate many years ago. It took a long time for the seed to take hold, but it was worth it. Cheers.