7 exam tips for evaluating studies

Travis DixonRevision and Exam Preparation

Evaluating studies is simple, but it's not easy, so be ready to do some careful thinking.

When you’re preparing for your exams and you’re aiming for a 7, here are some tips that will help you study smarter, not harder.

Tip #1: Ignore internal validity, including…

  • Hawthorne effect
  • Screw you effect
  • Demand characteristics
  • Participant expectancy effect

I think you should avoid focusing on internal validity factors when you’re trying to explain limitations. Why? Here are a couple of reasons

#1. The studies you are revising are peer-reviewed and well controlled – it would be very difficult for you to find a genuine limitation in the experimental design, unless you were just regurgitating someone else’s evaluation (which is comprehension – not critical thinking).

#2. Assessing internal validity requires in-depth scrutiny of the methodology, which would require access to the full original article and hours upon hours of time to do for more than one study, even if you could find the original. You could be doing this throughout the course, but for independent exam revision, your time is better spent elsewhere.

Asking a high school student to independently find limitations in the internal validity of a peer-reviewed study would be like asking them to find limitations in Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter. Whether its research methodology or literary techniques, we want you to comprehend strengths (how and why) because they’re examples of the masters at work, we don’t expect you to find limitations.

So what should you focus on?

Tip #2: Use controls for explaining strengths

If you’re evaluating a study you can explain strengths as well as limitations. The studies you will be using are well-controlled and carefully designed, so it should be easy to show you understand research methodology to explain how the use of one or more controls or other design choices are a strength in the study. However, this may also require finding original publications, depending on how detailed your review resources are.


Studies are really carefully designed, so focus on internal validity for strengths and external validity for limitations.

  • A good example is Bandura’s use of matched-pairs in the Bobo Doll study; they matched the kids on aggressiveness to control for participant variability as a confounding variable.
  • Another example is in Maguire’s Bus v. Taxi driver study where in their statistical analyses they controlled for age, education, driving experience and even handedness (left/right).

An excellent explanation of a control as a strength of a study would include how the factor being controlled for might affect the results.

Tip #3: Focus on generalizability (external validity) for limitations

Generalizability refers to whether or not the same results of the study can be applied to other contexts, including:

  • Other people (e.g. population validity)
  • Other places (e.g. ecological validity)
  • Other situations (e.g. mundane realism)

Therefore, in order to evaluate a study based on generalizability, you don’t need to remember any more details of the study than you would normally. Just make sure you know something about either the participants (e.g. gender, culture, age, nationality, etc.), and/or the basic procedures (where, when, how, etc.).

If you know these basics, you can explain why the study may not apply to other people, places, or situations.

These other posts might help:

Tip #4: Use your existing knowledge

A good way of assessing generalizability is to look at the nature of the participants and ask questions about whether we’d expect those same results on other groups of people. For example, most studies are done on middle-class, American, college students. If this is the case in the study you’re evaluating (you need to know the specifics!), you can use your knowledge to explain why the results might not apply to a different group.

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Generalizability refers to the extent to which results would apply to other contexts, including cultural groups. You can use your knowledge of different cultural groups to help your evaluation.

For example, what’s different about high school students compared with college students that might lead us to suspect we wouldn’t get the same results? Or if you’re not American, what’s different about people from your country that might change the results if they were to do the study in your country?

You can also draw on things you’ve learned in the course to evaluate studies. For example, if you’ve learned about individualism and collectivism, you may hypothesize why a study’s results might not apply to one of these groups or the other, using specific characteristics of these cultural groups to support your explanation.

Tip #5: Pick your battles

To properly evaluate a study’s generalizability takes a lot of time. After all, it’s critical thinking – if you want to get in the top 3-4% of students who get 7s, you’ll take the time. But you may not have time to do this for every study. If you don’t have the time (e.g. you’re reading this the day before the exam and you haven’t started revising yet), then choose a few of the key studies in the course that you plan on using in both Paper 1 and 2, or other studies that you’re planning on using across multiple possible questions.

For example, you may plan on using Wedekind’s sweaty t-shirt study for evolutionary explanations of behaviour (Paper 1) and attraction (Paper 2). If you are, this would be a good study to take the time to evaluate – for what reasons might we expect results might not be generalizable? A well-developed argument here could be used in multiple questions.

Tip #6: Focus on application more than evaluation!

This should really be a whole post on its own and I think it’s perhaps the best advice I can give: you need to place more importance on application than evaluation.


Application means you can explain conclusions from the study as they relate to the question you’re answering. A lot of students don’t do this and it’s a massive mistake that’s easily avoided. They just describe aims, methods and results and then forget to explain how the study is relevant to the question. This shows lack of understanding and makes it hard to get in the top markbands for SARs and essays.

One reason application is more important than evaluation is because you need to explain (i.e. apply) studies in all questions in Paper 1 and Paper 2 – evaluation only happens in the essay sections.

It’s theoretically possible to get a 7 without any evaluation of a single study in your exam. Therefore, focus first on understanding the study and how it can be used to support arguments before going further and finding limitations.

Tip #7: Make sure your evaluation is relevant to the question.

You may not even have to evaluate a single study in your final exam. For example, if the question is about research methods or ethical considerations, explaining how the use of a control was a strength but the results may not be generalizable would be irrelevant to the question and could actually cost you marks, rather than earning you marks.

If you’re evaluating research methods, you should use the study to highlight the strengths and limitations of the method. For example, how Bandura’s experiment demonstrates the strengths and limitations of the experimental method.

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