How to explain the use of a research method

Travis DixonBiological Psychology, Revision and Exam Preparation, Teaching Ideas

Most students only summarize studies, they forget to answer the rest of the question. This post will help show you how to fully explain the use of research methods and the use of technology.

In both the “old” and “new” IB Psychology syllabi, students have to be able to discuss the use of research methods (and brain imaging techniques).

Before we see how to do this, it’s important to make one clarification first: the IB considers the following to be research methods:

  • Experiments (including true, natural, quasi and field experiments)
  • Case studies
  • Correlational studies
  • Interviews
  • Observations

The following are not considered research methods:

  • Brain imaging techniques (e.g. MRI and fMRI)
  • Animal studies
  • Twin/adoption studies

The following are in a bit of a grey area:

  • Surveys
  • Questionnaires
  • Meta analyses
  • Longitudinal studies

Therefore, I would encourage that you focus on experiments, case studies and correlational studies for any question that uses the phrase “research methods.” If you are asked about “brain imaging technology” or “techniques to study the brain,” you can focus on MRI, fMRI, PET, etc, but note that these are not “methods” according to the IB.

The Big Mistake (Nearly) All Students Make

A vast majority of students when asked about research methods only answer part of the question. That is, they usually state a research method and then describe a study that uses that method. They are missing out on the central question that they’re supposed to be answering: how and why is the method used? 

This means that top marks are almost impossible to receive.

Explaining “How”

The first thing you need to be able to do is explain “how” a research method is used. This includes being able to define the research method and summarizing the typical procedures. For example, an explanation of how a natural experiment is used could be as follows:

Natural experiments are when the researchers investigate the effects of a naturally occurring independent variable on a dependent variable. They find a naturally occurring variable that they want to study and they gather data on the effects of this variable.

But so far I’ve only really defined the method. I need to go further and explain it. This means that I have to relate the use of the method to the particular context in the question. For example, in the “old” syllabus the question might be asking to explain the method used at a particular level of analysis  (biological, cognitive or sociocultural). For the new syllabus it will be in relation to a topic (e.g. the brain and behaviour, hormones, emotion and cognition, etc.) A central part of your explanation, therefore, should be making it clear how that method is used in that particular context. This involves relating a key characteristic of the method to a key characteristic in the research context (e.g. topic).

For example, to explain how a natural experiment is conducted on the brain and behaviour, my full explanation might look like this:

Natural experiments are when the researchers investigate the effects of a naturally occurring independent variable on a dependent variable. They take advantage of some naturally occurring variable and they gather data on the effects of that variable. When studying the brain and behaviour, the naturally occurring variable could be damage to particular areas of the brain. The researchers gather participants who have similar damage and thus they create different “conditions” that they haven’t actually created themselves. For instance, they might compare people with PFC damage, to damage in other areas of the brain and those who have no damage. The effects of this damage on their cognition and/or behaviour can then be measured. 

You can see that now my explanation of “how” the method is used is complete because I’ve explicitly linked it to the context (in this case, studying the brain and behaviour).

This is half of my central argument complete and it’s showing good understanding of the methodology.

Explaining “Why”

Now I can develop my explanation and include the “why.” I could do this by beginning with a generic explanation that could apply to any context. For example:

Natural experiments are useful methods when the researchers can’t manipulate the variable they are studying themselves, perhaps because of ethical and/or practical reasons. 

This could be applied to any context, so I now need to elaborate and apply it specifically to what the question is asking. To continue the example above in relation to “the brain and behaviour,” my full explanation might look like this:

Natural experiments are useful methods when the researchers can’t manipulate the variable they are studying themselves, perhaps because of ethical and/or practical reasons. For example, psychologists can manipulate brain damage to animals in the laboratory but they cannot do this to humans for ethical and practical reasons (imagine trying to get someone to volunteer to have brain damage for an experiment!). So after studying animals, they might want to see if there are similar effects in damage to particular areas of the brain in humans, so by gathering people who have existing, naturally occurring damage they  can still ethically study the effects of this damage on behaviour. 

Now in about 200 words I have a fully developed central argument that shows I know what the method is and I understand how and why it’s used in a particular context.

Explaining the use of a research method involves relating the specific aspect of methodology with the specific aspect of the context. In this case, it is the naturally occurring part that is key to the explanation. In a true experiment, it could be the controlling of variables, in a correlational study it would be calculating the correlational co-coefficients between variables, or a case study the ability to gather data using a range of techniques.

Adding the supporting evidence (the study)

It is now that I could then add my study as supporting evidence to support the explanation I’ve just made.

For example, I might choose to explain Bechara et al’s Iowa Gambling Task study on participants with vmPFC damage (Summary can be found here). The next paragraph in my answer might look something like this:

The benefits of using a natural experiment method can be demonstrated in Bechara et al.’s Iowa Gambling Study. In this study the researchers compared 8 participants with naturally occurring lesions in their vmPFC with a control group of 17 participants who had no brain damage. The aim of the experiment was to see if damage to the vmPFC would have an effect on the decision making of the participants during the Iowa Gambling task. This task involves participants choosing from a deck of four cards and two decks have high rewards but high long-term punishments, while the other two decks have low short-term rewards but less long-term punishments. The results showed that the healthy participants were able to find the pattern and they opted for the decks with better long-term rewards. The vmPFC patients, however, continually opted for the high-reward, high-punishment deck, which ultimately left them with less money. 

This study is a good example of the benefits of using a natural experiment because the researchers were able to draw conclusions about the functions of the vmPFC in decision making by comparing the behaviour of the controls with the lesion patients. From the study, for instance, we are able to conclude that the vmPFC plays a role in system 2 processing in judgement and decision making and it enables us to consider long-term consequences of our actions. This finding is made possible by the use of a natural experiment on people with naturally occurring brain damage.

It’s important to note how the above explanation of the study begins and ends with a reference to the research method. This is how you can apply an explanation to the question – the topic sentence shows hows it’s relevant and the explanation elaborates on that point. Many answers simply summarize the study and miss out the vital one or two sentences of explanation that are needed to apply the study to support the argument and answer the question.

Putting it all together

So now when I put it all together in a short-answer response, it looks something like this:

Natural Experiment Example SAR

Note: this is 500 words, so it is very much on the long side of an example SAR. To turn this into an essay, I would just have to add a counter-argument or two (and another study) stating limitations and it would be an excellent essay.

Explaining technological techniques

If you are asked about technological techniques, you can follow the exact same structure as I’ve done above:

  • Explain how the technique is used in that context
  • Explain why 
  • Explain how this can be shown in a study

This will be explained in more detail in a later post.

Exam Tip: Cut down your revision by learning how the same study (or studies) can be used to show how and why a research method is used, as well as how and why a particular technology is used. 

Teaching Tip

I always teach research methods in this level of depth when we’re well into the course, well after students have lots of examples of studies to draw from. A good time to do this is in a Quantitative Methods Unit that prepares SL & HL students for the IA, as well as preparing HL students for Paper 3. I do this after Criminology and Social Influence in Year One.

How I teach research methods is I select a particular topic (or level of analysis) and I get students to write down as many relevant studies as they can think of. Then they group them by common methods. Then they choose the most common method and start looking for similarities in methodology. This is where they develop the conceptual understanding of “how” the method is used. After they have got 3-5 sentences summarizing the “how,” they move into the “why.” Then they choose the best study that supports the argument.

By following this inductive approach it makes it easier for students to comprehend the general concept. The reason why my students could never explain research methods in the past and they just summarized related studies was because I didn’t give them the chance to abstract these conceptual ideas out of the concrete examples – and that’s exactly how conceptual understanding develops, by comparing and relating concrete examples and finding the common concept that unites them.

As an aside: MYP and other curricula that aim to be “concept-driven” are missing the point because they too often advocate for concepts instead of content. They’re missing something fundamental: it is from the content knowledge that the conceptual understanding must be drawn; you can’t have a concept without content. So in IB Psychology, my advice is to build the content knowledge first and gradually teach towards the more abstract concepts. It will set your students’ work apart from the rest. 


I hope this post was helpful. Feel free to leave questions or comments.