How to go beyond “describing” and into “application” of studies

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Revision and Exam Preparation

It's important students can explain studies as they apply to particular topics and questions - the ideas and worksheet in this post might help.

One of the most common mistakes IB Psychology students make is they don’t explain studies, i.e. they don’t apply the study to show how the study is relevant to the question. Instead, students summarize aims, methods and results and that’s it. This is description.

What’s missing? An applied conclusion.

Describing a study = summarizing aims methods conclusions

Explaining a study = summary PLUS explanation of a relevant conclusion as it applies to the question

For example, on a question about schema theory, students will often write about Bransford and Johnson’s “laundry-schema” study. They’ll state the aim of the study, summarize the different conditions and may even give excellent detail in the results. But then they won’t actually say what the study hows about schema theory – they don’t draw a relevant conclusion as it applies to the question.

Not explaining conclusions of studies is an easy way to miss out on marks in the exam. 

It can be easy why some students get confused. In reality, application, explanation, analysis and writing conclusions all refer to the same thing – using the study to answer the question. This is one reason why I focus on structure of answers, instead of command terms.

What is a conclusion?

When using studies in IB exam answers, the conclusion is simply an explanation of how the study applies to the question. In other words, how does it support the central argument being put forward? It requires application – you have to use the study to demonstrate something relevant.

Teaching Tip

One way of practicing explaining and applying studies is to provide a description of a key study, one that you’re encourage students to use for multiple topics. Then provide the relevant topics and get students to write relevant conclusions about the study for each topic. It’s these few sentences that can really make the difference in student answers, especially in SARs (Paper 1, Part A).

Here’s an example worksheet you can download and use.

Redefining “Explain”

The ThemEd definition of explain is “…the explanation of significant relationships in response to a question or problem.” We think this is a better definition – description is summaries of individual units of information and explaining means showing how those units are related. (This is abstract, but it has to be since it covers all possible disciplines).

In IB Psychology exam answers, we want students to know the topics and the studies – this is description (which shows knowledge), but we also want them to be able to explain how the study is relevant to the topic (which shows understanding).

To give another example, we want them to know variables (e.g. hormones, culture, etc.) and we also want them to know behaviours (disorders, health problems, prosocial behaviour, etc.). To define and summarize these individually shows knowledge and to explain how the variable is related to the behaviour shows understanding – this is a simple way of differentiating levels of understanding in psychology.

The IB’s use of Bloom’s language of understanding, analysis, application, synthesis and then this mixed with the array of command terms does nothing to simplify or clarify expectations for students – hopefully ThemEd’s frameworks can.