Essay Writing Tips: Three Rules of Three

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Revision and Exam Preparation

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

If you’re learning how to write essays in IB Psychology or looking for good tips to pass on to your students, I would suggest the following “Three Rules of Threes.”

#1: Three Parts to an Essay

Every good essay has three parts (excluding the introductions and conclusions):

  1. Central argument/s
  2. Supporting Evidence
  3. Counter argument/s

The central argument is where you address the core part of the question. This will involve explaining one of the following:

  • …a behaviour, or how a variable affects a behaviour
  • … a theory or model
  • … a key topic (e.g. neuroplasticity)
  • … the use of a research method (or technological technique)
  • … ethical considerations

The central argument is where you show your understanding of the topic. It’s an important part of a good essay and one that many students miss. It might only be a few sentences, but they are key in showing your knowledge and understanding of the topic.

After you’ve shown your understanding, you need evidence to support that explanation. This is where you explain one (or two) studies to support your argument. You should describe the studies fully and have at least 1-2 sentences applying them to the question.

After the studies you’ll have your counter-arguments, which is your critical reflection on what you’ve just written. This will involve evaluation of your explanation and/or the evidence that supports it. As I’ve written below, you may not wait until the end of your essay to add your critical thinking points – you’ll need to add them where is logical. For example, if you are evaluating two models of memory, it would make sense to evaluate each one after you explain it, not waiting until the very end.

Remember that these tips are frameworks and are free to be adapted and amended based on context, including the specific question you are answering.

In this video on our youtube channel I explain how I interpret the new essay rubric. 

#2: Three Studies

The general wisdom has always been that you should have at least one study in an SAR and two in an essay. However, after marking for Paper Two this past May, I would say that if possible, you should aim for three studies.

Of course, the more studies you have the more knowledge you can show, but you have to balance this with how much you are revising. A good strategy is to see how you can use studies that overlap in other areas.

For example, if I was a HL student and I was preparing to write my Paper 1 essay on the biological approach, I would prepare Radke’s study for hormones to support my central argument about how testosterone affects aggression, as well as Albert et al.’s rat study, and then use Bandura’s social cognitive theory as a counter-argument. I would also plan to use Albert’s study for a possible HL animal extension question, Radke for a question on the use of technological techniques, Albert and Radke for research methods, Bandura for SCT in the sociocultural approach and one or two of these when discussing “Origins of Conflict” in Paper 2.

By studying smarter by planning my supporting evidence and counter-arguments carefully, you can still have three studies per topic without adding to your revision load.

It is possible to score top marks with two studies, but it would require excellent arguments and critical thinking at a level beyond the reach of many students. So, in order to maximize potential for high marks for all students, I suggest aiming for three studies if possible.

#3: Three Critical Thinking Points

After you’ve addressed the key part of the question by explaining the topic in your central argument and then used studies to support that argument, it’s time to show your critical thinking. My advice here is to aim for at least three critical thinking points in your counter-arguments.

Your counter-arguments may come at the end of an essay, or they could be spread throughout – it will depend on the question and your preference. 

These could be three similar-types of points. e.g. evaluating the three studies you have used, or they could be three diverse points. The IB outlines the following as guidance as to types of critical thinking points (and these are explained in the textbook in the introduction).

The reason I would recommend at least three different points is that it can fully showcase your range of critical thinking skills. Previously, I would have said to make sure your “critical thinking” is relevant to the question, but in the latest exams I saw an example answer given credit for explaining limitations of a study based on ethical considerations in a question ask the student to “explain etiologies” of a disorder. How this is a relevant counter-argument to the question, I do not know, but it suggests that the relevance of the critical thinking point a student makes in their answer is of secondary importance to the making of the point. So my advice would be to aim for well-developed, relevant points, and also aim for at least three.

The following posts might help you with evaluating studies and include examples of well-developed evaluations:

  • Ecological validity (link)
  • Population validity (link)

I hope this helps improve the quality of your essays.

Here’s the video of me explaining these tips…