5 Types of Exam Questions in IB Psychology

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

There are 5 types of exam questions in IB Psychology Papers 1 and 2. While you can answer all these questions with the same general structure, they do have their own differences that need to be understood.

There are 5 types of exam questions in IB Psychology, Papers One and Two. While the general structures that we recommend for exam answers can be applied to all of these types of questions, they do have their own sets of pitfalls that students should be aware of. And as with anything, there are some exceptions and special cases of questions that might not fall into this category, especially in some topics in Paper 2. But if you know how to address these five types of questions you’ll be really well prepared for the exams.

  1. Variables and behaviour

  2. Research related to…

  3. Models or theories

  4. The use of research methods in specific topics

  5. Ethical considerations relevant to specific topics

Below you can find a brief summary of these five types of questions.

  • Variables and behaviour

These questions require students to explain how one or more variables influence a behaviour. Sometimes the variable is stated in the question (e.g. hormones, neurotransmission, emotion, enculturation, etc.) and other times it is the behaviour that is specified in the question (e.g. prejudice and discrimination, origins of conflict, bystanderism, etc.)

In some rare cases both the variable and the behaviour are stated, as in the human relationships option you might get a question about how culture can influence relationships.

Usually in Paper One questions it is the variable that is stated and in Paper Two it is the behaviour.

  • Research related to…

In the new syllabus I can see this being a common question asked in the cognitive approach (e.g. in relation to thinking and decision making and models of memory) and in the options topics. These questions ask students to simply explain or discuss research (most often studies) related to a particular topic.

An example would be: Outline one study related to cultural influences on behaviour.

These types of questions are common where a variable-behaviour relationship hasn’t been clearly identified in the guide.

READ MORE: When the IB Asks the Wrong Question

  • Models or theories

In the cognitive and sociocultural approaches where the topic is a model or theory, students may be asked to describe or discuss the theory or model. Examples of these topics include the multi-store model, working memory model, social identity theory and social cognitive theory.

This type of question is the one exception to my instructions for students to cross out any command term that isn’t explain in a short-answer question. If the question is “Describe social cognitive theory,” then students really need to describe the theory!

  • Research methods and topics

These questions will ask students about the use of research methods in relation to specific topics (as outlined in the guide). These questions are requiring students to show an understanding of how and why particular research methods are used in particular topics.

In the old curriculum this was asked generally across an entire level of analysis, but now they will be asked in relation to specific topics (e.g. the brain and behaviour, emotion and memory, the individual and the group, etc.)

  • Ethical considerations and topics

Similar to research methods, these types of questions require students to show an understanding of common ethical considerations that are relevant to specific topics.

An example question would be: “Discuss one or more ethical considerations relevant to the study of genes and behaviour.”

A common mistake that I see in student responses to these questions is that they don’t provide a general explanation first (i.e. a central argument) that explains how or why the particular consideration is relevant. Instead, they jump straight into the evidence without it being fully contextualized.

I’ll be posting about these styles of questions in other posts and I will also be including detailed instructions in student workbooks about these types of questions, including common errors, things to remember, example questions and example answers.


There are arguably some exceptions and questions that might not be classified under these five styles.

For example, some questions address “explanations,” like evolutionary explanations of behaviour, or explanations for disorders or health problems. I would argue, however, that these are just a variation of the “variables and behaviour” styles of questions and the structures and instructions would be the same because the explanation for the behaviour is how the variable is causing or influencing it.

The Abnormal Psychology unit also has numerous exceptions, especially in the “Diagnosis of Disorders” topic. You might get a question here like “Discuss one or more classification systems of disorders.”

Here we see there are some exceptions, but if you understand the other five types of questions then these exceptions won’t prove much of a problem.

Trav’s Teaching Tip

I like to focus on one of these types of questions in each of my units, beginning with how variables influence behaviour in Criminology, since this type of question I feel is at the heart of psychology and makes for a nice transition from our focus in the introductory unit. In the teacher resource pack for this unit there’s a student workbook that has an example short-answer response (SAR) to this type of question and guidelines to help students in their first attempts at writing a short-answer response.

By spacing out the practice and instruction for each of these types of questions throughout the course, it makes it easier for students to gradually understand the requirements of these types of questions, including the common techniques they can apply across all of them.

Have I missed something? Do you see more exceptions? Feel free to post in the comments.