Top 5 Mistakes in SAQs (and how to fix them)

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Revision and Exam Preparation

Writing excellent short answer responses is easy, but many students make some basic and avoidable errors.

Updated, July 2020

The secret to scoring top marks in Paper 1 in IB Psychology is in the short answer responses (SAQs) (watch how in this video). It should be very simple to write excellent SAQs, but most students make one or more of the following mistakes which costs them dearly. In this post, we look at the Top 5 Mistakes and I’ll give some tips on how to avoid them.

  1. Wrong topic

    • For example, the question asks about “hormones and behaviour” and a student writes about serotonin (a neurotransmitter*). Or there’s a question on a theory of thinking and decision making and a student writes about schema theory. Doing this is the easiest way to score a zero (or close to it).
    • How to avoid: Create an exam review “cheat sheet” that has every topic and the example for each topic you are planning to write about. Get it checked by your teacher and study, study, study those on the list so you know which example goes with which topic. Flashcards are great for this!


  1. Wrong study

    • Similar to #1, sometimes students use the wrong supporting study. For example, the question is about social identity theory and then they write about Bandura’s Bobo Doll study (which is for social cognitive theory).
    • How to avoid: Same as #1 – add to your cheat sheet the study you’re going to use for each topic and get this checked by your teacher so you know you’re planning for the right examples. Then test yourself using the cheat sheet, or better yet have someone else test you. Using flashcards is useful, too.


  1. Poor definition of key term/s

    • Students often write vague, unclear or imprecise definitions of important terms, which suggests they don’t really know what they mean.
    • How to avoid: Use flashcards to make sure that for every topic you can memorize (and understand) the 1-2 sentence definitions of the most important key terms and write these word-perfect. For example, you should be able to give precise definitions of terms like working memory, neuroplasticity, cultural dimensions, stereotypes, etc.

 Which terms should be defined? Sometimes students just write a list of terms and definitions and there’s no coherent explanation of the topic. So what terms should be defined? Here’s my rule of thumb: (1) If it’s in the topic title from the curriculum, then define it. (2) For all other terms you’re not sure of, if someone who is not studying Psychology would know what the word means, it does not need defining. If you think a non-Psychologists would not know the term, then define it. For example, someone who has never studied Psych might not know what a schema is, or a cognitive bias, a cultural dimension or working memory so these are good terms to define.

  1. Irrelevant Information

    • Students often have lengthy introductions, evaluate studies or introduce other irrelevant details that lower their marks. You have about 300-400 words to make your argument and explain a study, so get to the point.
    • How to avoid? Practice, practice, practice. Train your brain to know exactly the best structure for SAQs so you’re prepared no matter what.


  1. No explanation of study

    • Students often end their answers with the description of the results of the study and there is no explanation of what those results suggest about the topic.
    • How to avoid: Use flashcards to revise studies and practice being able to explain why those results are significant.


Bottom Line: Revise & Practice, then Repeat!

There’s no substitute for hard work and practice. You can search this blog for other advice on how to write excellent short answer responses, or see more tips in our revision books and materials (available here).

*Some people may consider serotonin a hormone, but in IB Psychology it is mostly considered a neurotransmitter so it’s best to use it this way.