Exam Tips: How to write a research methods essay

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Writing essays about research methods is very difficult. Two things can help: read this blog (with the example essay) and then try writing your own (and get feedback from your teacher).

One of the most difficult of the five types of exam questions to write about in IB Psychology is research methods. Like most other essay questions, students tend to focus on studies and miss other important aspects of the essay. In this post, I offer my best tips for how to write an excellent essay on research methods.

Top tips for research methods essays

This is a quick overview of the tips in this blog post…

  • Define the method
  • Make sure it’s a method
  • Explain how and why the method is used
  • Apply your explanation to the topic
  • Explain how the study demonstrates the use of that method
  • Evaluate limitations of the method, not just of the study!

DOWNLOAD Example Research Methods Essay

What is a “method”?

One of the biggest mistakes a student can make in a research method essay is writing about a method that actually isn’t a “research method.” For example, if a student wrote about animal studies, twin studies, or brain imaging technology as a research method they would score very low marks because these are not research methods (according to the IB).

To quote the official IB FAQs document, “…the different research methods for the study of psychology at this level: case studies, naturalistic observations, interviews, experiments, field experiments, quasi-experiments, natural experiments, correlations studies.” Therefore, make sure the method/s you are writing about is from this list.

Tip: Prepare to write about true experiments and/or correlational studies for Paper 1 and 2. These are used in every topic and it simplifies the preparation for this tricky question. Our IB Psychology Revision Textbook follows this approach.

Research Methods from the IB Guide

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This screen shot of the online IB Psychology guide shows the list of “research methods” that you have to choose from.


What needs explaining?

Every essay answer should have a central argument that shows knowledge and understanding of the topic in the question (watch this video for more essay advice). In the case of research methods questions, the central argument should be an explanation of how and why the particular method is used in that particular topic. This is a key part of the answer that many students miss.

The first thing to get right is the definition. It’s really important to have a clear, precise and accurate definition of the research method/s you’re writing about. This could be either in the introduction or in the first body paragraph of the essay (i.e. the central argument). After defining the method, the explanation of how and why should begin.

For example, if you’re explaining the use of a true experiment the “how” would include the nature of the independent variables and perhaps common ways the dependent variable is measured. For instance, in true experiments on the brain the IV is commonly a factor hypothesized to affect brain activity like chemical messengers such as serotonin and the effects of the manipulation of this IV on the brain is measured using fMRI.

Tip: A detailed central argument explaining how and why the method is used is the key to scoring top marks in the “knowledge and understanding” section of the essay rubric. Your explanation of the method would be identical in an SAR and an essay.

Link to the topic!

A common weakness in research methods essays is they do not fully address the question by explaining the use of the method in relation to the approach or the topic in the question. A good way to check if the answer has applied the explanation to the topic is to read the explanation and see if it could also be true of any topic in IB Psychology. If it’s generic enough so it could be used across multiple topics, then the application needs to be clearer. Another even easier way to check is to see if the topic or approach is even mentioned at all in the explanation!

Explain studies, don’t just describe them!

Examiner’s reports always complain that “there’s too much description in essays”. This is actually the wrong complaint. A lot of description is great, but it needs to be matched with explanation. So the real critique should be “there’s not enough explanation in essays.”

So how do you go beyond describing so you’re explaining a study? The key is in the final 1-3 sentences after the results when you make it clear what the results show about the question, i.e. what conclusions are we drawing from those results?

In research methods essays, however, it’s a little different. Many students make the mistake of explaining what the results show about behaviour, whereas in research methods essays you need to explain how the study shows the use of the method. For example, if using a study that’s a true experiment you explain how the manipulation of the IV in a controlled environment enabled causal conclusions to be drawn, or why it was useful in a correlational study to show the strength of a relationship between the two variables in the study, etc.

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Remember: In ThemEd’s three levels of learning, describing means to summarize individual things and explaining means to show how they’re related. In this type of essay, this means explaining how the procedures of a research method are applied in a particular topic (see the example essay for a demonstration of this being done).

Evaluate the method, not the studies

To show critical thinking in a research methods essay, it’s important you can explain strengths and limitations of the research method you are writing about. So when you’re evaluating the studies, it’s not a good idea to explain the limitations of the study (e.g. lacking generalizability) without focusing on how the methods are limited in some way.

For example, if I was writing about Loftus and Palmer’s car crash study to show the use of a true experiment to study cognitive processes, it would not be that relevant to the question to explain a limitation of the study based on the characteristics of the participants (e.g. they had limited driving experience) because this isn’t really linked to the true experimental method. A far better evaluative point to make is to explain that maybe these results in a controlled environment might not be reflective of what happens in real life, possibly due to the fact that in this scenario there were no consequences for a wrong answer and the level of emotion is much lower than when witnessing real crimes. These are better points to make because they are focused on a key aspect of the true experiment – the controlled environment.

When explaining limitations of correlational studies, don’t just say “correlational doesn’t mean causation” but actually provide examples. For example, how could the relationship work in both directions, or what are some other factors that might explain the relationship? For example, if I was critiquing the use of correlational studies to study personal relationships, I might say that correlational studies (e.g. Gottman and Levenson) that show a correlational between marital satisfaction and communication could be explained in either direction (what we call bidirectional ambiguity): it could be that poor communication is leading to decreased marital satisfaction (being unhappy in a marriage), or that being unhappy in the marriage is causing more poor communication.

Tip: Go beyond one sentence explanations of limitations like “ecological validity.” This post explains exactly how to explain limitations of ecological in detail.

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Often a third variable can explain the connection between two variables in a correlational study, like in this example of crime and ice-cream. Explaining possible links like this is an excellent way of highlighting the limitations in correlational studies.

Study one method in depth

My advice to students is to prep true experiments and correlational studies, but for every topic they should choose one of these to prep in depth. This is because there is a good chance you might be asked to write an essay about just one method. For example, if the question was “Evaluate the use of one method to study emotion and cognition.” If you revised two or more methods for this topic, then that would have been a wasted effort. By preparing to write about one in-depth (and perhaps having a second with just one study as an example), you are best-prepared to write an excellent essay.

This post about why depth is better than breadth in IB Psychology might help clarify this point.

Tip: Use one method to critique the other. This is another reason why I like true experiments and correlational studies – their strengths and limitations can be used to evaluate one-anothers.

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Twitter: I’m posting daily exam tips on twitter: @themantic_trav 

Discuss vs evaluate – what’s the difference?

There is none. While some teachers will argue that these command terms require different content, I argue (and can demonstrate) that this is simply not the case, especially when it comes to research methods. You can read more about this on this blog post. 

One method or two?

A common question is “do quasi and true experiments count as one method or two?” The truth is no-one yet knows how the IB is going to mark this in the exams. It appears from the IB materials that they are considered two (see quote and image above). However, this is another reason why prepping correlational studies and true experiments is a good idea because they are clearly two separate methods.

Example Essay

You can read an example essay that (I hope) follows the advice given in this blog pots. This essay has been taken from the resources in the Quantitative Methods Teacher Support Pack. Even if you’re not teaching using our textbooks, this TSP would still be useful.

DOWNLOAD Example Research Methods Essay

Note to students: This has been submitted to turnitin and will be known by your teachers, so it would be very unwise to try to submit this as your own work.

Example Questions

You might be asked about research methods in relation to any of the topics in the IB Psychology curriculum. For example, you might be asked to evaluate the use of one research method used in the study of the brain and behaviour. However, you would not be asked to discuss the method used to study neuroplasticity, since this is a sub-content point related to the broader topic. It’s possible that the question might be linked to the approach as well.

Remember that essay questions will be either discuss, evaluate, to what extent or contrast. It is unlikely that the “to what extent” command term will be used for a research methods essay (but not impossible) and it’s also unlikely that “contrast” will be used as well because it is more likely you’ll be asked to write about “one or more” methods. So here are some example essay questions:

  • Paper One
    • Evaluate the use of one research method used to study cognitive processes. 
    • Discuss how and why one research method is used to study cultural origins of behaviour. 
    • Discuss the use of one or more research methods used to study genes and behaviour.
    • Evaluate the use of one or more research methods used in the biological approach to understanding human behaviour.
  • Paper Two
    • Evaluate the use of one or more research methods used to study etiologies of psychological disorders. 
    • Discuss the use of one research method used to study personal relationships. 

Check the IB Guide or your textbooks for a list of the topics in the course.

Good luck and I hope this post was helpful. Remember to check out our store to find the latest revision materials and resources.

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