Tips for writing “Discuss research related to…” essays

Travis DixonRevision and Exam Preparation, Teaching Ideas

These easy to remember tips should help improve the quality of your essays.

In the new IB Psychology syllabus it’s fair to anticipate numerous questions that will require students to discuss research related to particular topics. This will be especially true in the options.

Here are some possible questions:

  • Discuss research related to neuroplasticity.
  • Discuss research related to attachment.
  • Discuss research related to bystanderism.

You can find an example essay here: Sample Essay from Social Influence Part II. This has been taken from the Teacher Support Pack for Social Influence (available here).

I’ll give a few tips on how to make sure you are writing excellent discussions by focusing specifically on:

  • Introductions
  • Topic sentences
  • Counter-arguments 
  • Exam Preparation 

While there could also be questions like, Discuss (or Evaluate) one study related to…, in this post we’ll focus on the broad questions that allow for research to be approached more generally.


It is important that your introduction clearly outlines what your essay is going to discuss. This requires doing the following:

  • Clearly stating the research you’ll be writing about
  • Outlining how it’s related to the topic
  • A statement of the counter-arguments

The following sample introduction comes from an essay in response to the question: Discuss research related to cultural influences on behaviour.

Example Essay Intro

You can see that the introduction focuses on the question by clearly stating what the research is related to and how it’s related. The studies are stated and the counter-argument is also included (because this is needed to meet the requirements of a discussion).

Topic Sentence (especially for explaining studies)

A topic sentence (or sentences) gives the reader an idea of what a paragraph will be about. When discussing research related to a particular topic, it’s important that when you are explaining studies that you include in your topic sentence how the study is related to the topic. This will help your reader follow your argument and understand why the study is relevant.

In the screenshot below, you can see how the last sentence of one paragraph explaining conformity is directly linked to the next paragraph that provides the evidence. The topic sentence is also linked to the study back to the question.

Example topic sentence

If you want to have effective structure in your essays, your paragraphs need to be clearly related to one another. This is why your planning is very important.

Counter-arguments – READ CAREFULLY – this is important!

In order to show critical thinking in your essays, you need to have counter-arguments. This is what separates a “discussion” or “evaluation” from an “explanation” or “description.” Your counter-argument needs to be focused on whatever the subject of the question is. Let’s take the following two questions from the same topic as an example:

  1. Discuss research related to hormones and behaviour.
  2. Discuss one or more effects of hormones on behaviour.

These are similar questions, but #1 is asking for a discussion of the research, whereas #2 is asking for a discussion of the effects. You can use the exact same arguments, evidence and similar counter-arguments for both, but the focus of your answer has to be adapted slightly; this will make sure you’re answering the question.

For #2, your counter-arguments can (and should) primarily focus on the effects. So, for example, you would be wise to talk about how maybe other factors could explain the effect (e.g. genes, social environment, etc.) A secondary focus should be the limitations of the supporting evidence. This is because the verb “discuss” is acting on the effects.

For #1, on the other hand, in the types of questions we’re focusing on in this blog, the verb “discuss” is acting on the research and so discussing the research (i.e. studies or theories) needs to be your primary focus. That is to say, you should be explaining possible limitations of the research (e.g. issues of generalizability). This should be your primary focus for counter-arguments when asked to discuss (or evaluate) research related to a particular topic. If you’re offering alternative explanations, this is fine, but you should relate it to the question. For example, you might say, “While this research shows….there are other factors…” Just by mentioning the research in the topic sentence, you can have more focus on the question.

The following extract is from the same essay about cultural influences on behaviour. You can see that the focus is on discussing (i.e. evaluating) the methodology.


The above paragraph is a well-developed critique of the research used in the answer. This is the level of detail that is needed to show high levels of critical thinking, and thus to meet the command term “discuss.”

Exam Preparation

When you’re getting ready for your exams, I strongly suggest preparing one excellent central argument and studying one supporting study in heaps of detail, including doing a thorough independent evaluation of the study. The reason I suggest preparing to write about one study or example, is because there’s always a chance in the new syllabus that you might be asked a question like:

  • Discuss (or Evaluate) one study related to bystanderism. 

If you’ve prepared 8 studies, there’s no way you’ll be able to write about all of these in the exam and so you’ll find that your ability to write a well-developed essay will be limited. Therefore, having one study that can support your central argument and one that can be used to support a counter-argument can be an effective strategy.

For example, when writing about bystanderism (in an essay asking you to discuss research related to bystanderism) you might critique Darley and Latane’s smoky room study like so:

  • There might be issues with generalizability in this study because having a smoky room as a measure of bystanderism doesn’t involve helping anyone – in most cases of bystanderism there is a person that needs help, whereas in this study there isn’t a person that needs help. This could affect the ability to generalize these results to situations where it’s a person who needs assistance, especially since according to Batson’s empathy-altruism hypothesis, people are more likely to help others if we feel empathy for them. In their experiment, for example, they showed that….

And so following from here is a brief summary of Batson et al.’s study that focused on the effects of empathy on helping others. It makes for a good use of supporting evidence for the critique of the study. It’s relevant even if the question asks about one study or allows you to talk about more.