3 things all essays should have…

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Revision and Exam Preparation

If we keep our essay writing frameworks simple, we can spend more time on figuring out how to fill those frameworks in our actual answers!

I’m a simple man. This is why I love the motto: “keep it simple, stupid!”

I especially love keeping it simple when it comes to exam preparation. The more complex, intricate and nuanced we make our instructions on how to do well in exams, the less time there is to spend on developing the skills necessary for success in the first place.

So with this in mind, I like to tell my students that there essays are simply devised of three central components:

  1. An argument 

  2. Evidence 

  3. A critical reflection

This three level approach to essay writing has been developed with IB Psychology in mind. But could it apply to other subjects? Finding transferable frameworks like this could really help with exam preparation.

In IB Psychology: A Student’s Guide I go into more detail and with more examples on this framework. One difference is here I have added explicitly the “evidence” part. Originally I made it even more simple – Point + Counter Point. I also like this simple two-step approach as students should learn to include evidence as second nature without being prompted.

All questions essays can include these three components in this order. As t’s quite logical and would make for an effective structure.

Central Argument

The central argument should be in response to the question, which is always going to be based on a relationship between two things:

  • How a variable influences a behaviour
  • How and why a research method is used in a particular context (i.e. topic)
  • How and/or why ethical considerations are relevant to a particular research context
  • How a theory explains (or model describes) a behaviour 

The key to writing a good argument that is “focused on the question” is to identify the central relationship that the question is addressing and then explain how the two things are related. This is why ThemEd’s definition of explanation is: the communication of understanding of significant relationships in response to a question or problem. 

Evidence (to support argument)

Psychological knowledge needs to be based on the evidence, so while in a well-developed argument a student can show their understanding of a core concept in psychology, we need the evidence to see upon what they’ve based that understanding. This is why I always like to have studies playing a supporting role in my course, while the core concepts (i.e. arguments) are the stars of the show.


Critical Reflection (on argument and/or evidence)

We want to be producing students who can reflect on their own understanding and question themselves. This also means questioning evidence the evidence upon which they’ve based their own understanding. This is what “critical thinking” means – it’s about looking at a relationship in the abstract:

  • Is there another factor influencing this relationship? (e.g. alternative explanations)
  • Do one or more of the aspects of the relationship even exist? (e.g. construct validity)
  • Can this apply to other contexts? (e.g. external validity)

We need to be sending students into the world with a healthy skepticism and the ability to think critically about information and their own thinking. 

Command Terms

I have mentioned this three leveled approach before when I was explaining how there’s no difference between an evaluation and a discussion. Regardless of the command term used in the question (to what extent, discuss, evaluate or contrast), this three leveled structure can apply.



But that’s not to say that it necessary has to happen in that order, or that you can’t break this model. For example, students might have two central arguments and evidence to support these, with a piece of critical thinking at the end. This would be absolutely fine. I use this framework, however, as I really want my students to value depth over breadth. There are a few reason for this, which I explain here.

I use frameworks like this like I do a lot of other scaffolds in my course. They’re like training wheels. My son needs them while he’s starting to learn how to ride his bike. I’m not going to get rid of them before he’s ready. But the end goal is that after heaps of practice he doesn’t need the training wheels anymore and I can remove them and he wouldn’t even notice – this is also my approach with providing writing scaffolds.

What is important in IB Psychology exams is that students can show their full range of learning across all three levels:

  1. knowledge
  2. understanding
  3. critical thinking skills

Simple frameworks like this one can reduce the time spent on teaching IB exam specific requirements and frees up our time and mental energy on focusing on creating better psychologists.


Due out in 2018 is ThemEd’s “IB Psychology: A Student’s guide to exam success.” This book will contain frameworks like this and many others, as well as annotated examples and practice activities to develop exam writing skills.