How do you “explain the problem/issue” in essay introductions?

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Revision and Exam Preparation

You can earn 2 marks in your essay answers pretty easily by following the advice in this post on how to explain the issue/problem in the essay question.

In the new IB Psychology curriculum, students have to “explain the problem/issue raised in the question” to get 2 marks for their essays (Paper 1, Part B and Paper 2). But what does this mean and how do you do it? In this post, I’ll explain what I think it means and will show a simple framework for how students can write excellent introductions and how I think they can get full marks in this criterion.

The Rubric

You can see the criterion descriptions below for Criterion A: Focus on the Question. The guide also says that students could get one mark by simply restating the question, but in order to get full marks they need to “explain the problem/issue”


This is the first criterion in the IB Psychology essay rubric.

What will the problem or issue be about?

Before we can know how to explain the problem, we need to figure out what the problems/issues are going to be about. Remember that generally speaking the IB exams will ask questions about five different types of topics in the course:

  • Variables and behaviour
  • Models or theories
  • Research related to a topic
  • Research methods
  • Ethical considerations

So the problem/issue will be in regards to one of these topics in the question.

This post on the five types of IB Psychology exam questions will help you understand what sorts of problems/issues you’ll need to explain in essays.

How to explain a problem/issue

Remember that excellent IB Psychology essays will contain three core elements:

  • Central argument/s
  • Evidence (studies and/or theories)
  • Counter argument/s

Therefore, an introduction should state all these elements so that the reader knows the direction the essay intends to take. After all, this is the core purpose of an introduction: to give your reader some context so they know what they’re reading about. If this is done well, the problem/issue will be explained.

Example #1: Research related to…

The following example has been taken from the files in the Social Influence Teacher Support Pack (available here).

The question is: Discuss research related to cultural influences on behaviour.

Example introduction:

One example of how culture can influence behaviour can be seen in research related to the cultural dimension of individualism and collectivism. More specifically, people from different cultures might have different rates of conformity because of the values they have. This can be shown in both Bond and Smith’s meta-analysis and Berry’s cross-cultural comparison of the Temne and Inuit people. However, while these studies provide evidence for cultural influences on behaviour, they could be questioned based on their generalizability.

This introduction does the following:

  • States the central argument: cultural values influences conformity which can be shown in studies on individualism and collectivism.
  • States the supporting evidence: Bond and Smith’s meta-analysis and Berry’s cross-cultural study.
  • States the counter argument: the studies may be limited due to issues of generalizability.

So what is the problem/issue here? That research can show us how culture can influence behaviour but we have to consider the limitations of this research: it is the statement of the counter-argument at the end of the introduction that helps explain the issue in the question,

Tip: To clearly explain a problem/issue, when stating the counter-argument be sure to summarize the central argument + evidence first, and then the counter-argument. You can see this in the above example and in the example below. 

Example #2: Research methods…

Let’s look at a second example that’s been taken from our Quantitative Methods Support Pack (available here).

In this example, I’ve kept in my editing so you can see how I’m trying to choose my words carefully based on the question. This question is about research methods, but the approach can follow the same structure, regardless of the question.

  1. Central argument
  2. Evidence
  3. Counter-argument

The question is: Discuss one research method used to study social responsibility. 

This is a possible exam question for Paper 2 and the Human Relationships option.

Example Introduction: Correlational Studies and Social Responsibility

Studies on social responsibility often look at relationships between social and cultural factors and the likelihood that someone with help another person. That is to say, how With this aim of studying possible reasons why people may or may not help rates of prosocial behaviour, correlational studies are a valuable research method because the strength of relationships between variables related to sociocultural influences (e.g. GDP and cultural values) and helping prosocial behaviour can be measured. While benefits of a correlational method can be seen in Levine’s cross-cultural research on helping behaviour, this method is limited may have limitations because “correlation does not mean causation.”

Once again, we can see that the final sentence of the introduction is where (I think) the full 2 marks will be awarded. This final sentence is the core thesis statement of the essay because it includes the argument, evidence and counter-argument; it summarizes the core focus of the essay and shows how the question will be answered.

As with the first example, this introduction does the following:

  • States the central argument: correlational studies can show strength between variables in studies on social responsibility.
  • States the supporting evidence: Levine’s study.
  • States the counter argument: correlation does not mean causation.

Even if the command term was evaluate or to what extent, the exact same style of introductions (and complete essays) would still score high marks.

Final tips:

  • Don’t worry so much about different essay command terms – essays can follow a similar structure
  • Put your revision energy into:
    • Developing good central arguments
    • Revising the supporting evidence (especially being able to explain it!)
    • Developing a range of counter-arguments
  • Practice writing introductions (and whole essays) with all three elements and getting feedback

Revision Idea: Use a practice exam question and write an introduction to that question. Then show your introduction to someone else and see if they can state the question that you’re answering. This will help you develop the skill of clearly staying “focused on the question.”

Feel free to leave any questions or comments.