Describe vs. Explain: Is there a difference?
Understanding command terms with REAL examples of exam answers

Travis Dixon Assessment (IB)

This post uses a real exam answer to help us see the difference (or lack thereof) between explain and describe in IB Psych SAQs.

Describe and Explain mean different things. Obviously. But when they’re used in short answer questions in IB Psychology, do they really require different answers? In this post I’ll put forward my argument for my the command terms in SAQs are irrelevant and how a generic structure can be used to score top marks.

I used to drill my students in the command terms until I realized that it was an utter waste of time for SAQs.

Those of you who have read my posts and watched my videos are probably sick of me arguing about command terms, but I am still amazed that we haven’t yet swept them under the assessment rug in favour of putting our energies in more productive places. Last week these pesky command terms had me embroiled in another online debate. We can talk about their abstract meanings all we want, but the only way to really understand IB Psychology assessments is to write example answers and see for yourself what examiners are expecting.

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I am simply trying to show people with examples (like these posted) that besides having abstract difference, the tangible reality is command terms (especially in SAQs) are of very little importance.

I decided to put my money where my mouth is and write an example response that follows my recommended SAR structure that can be used for any response (scroll down to see the video).


Can you see a difference? If you’re an examiner, would you mark one differently to another? Why? I don’t think you would.

The only reason the “Describe” response could get marked down would be for losing focus on the question by adding the rice theory. Everything else is completely accurate, relevant and detailed. But I don’t want to live in a world where a student gets penalized for showing too much understanding of a topic. And luckily, I don’t. My answers would score top marks. How do I know? Check out the real student answer below.

A “REAL” Exam Answer

Re-published with permission. A student’s answer from May 2019 exam. This answer scored 7/9.

Question: Explain one cultural dimension, with brief reference to one study. 

Cultural dimension is a set of cultural values typical to different cultures. One cultural dimension often includes two ends of a spectrum. One example of a cultural dimension is individualism and collectivism. The influence of cultural dimension on mate preference can be shown in Buss’s cross-cultural study. 

In collectivist culture, people tend to focus more on group harmony rather than the preference of an individual. They look out for their extended family, have tighter in-group bonds and put the benefit of their group first when completing a task. In individualistic culture, people tend to focus more on themselves rather than their group. They look out for their immediate families have looser in-group bonds and put the task before their group when facing a task. Such cultural dimension can have a large influence on human behavior such as mating. 

Collectivist and individualist people have different preferences when it comes to choosing their romantic partners, and it can be seen in Buss’s study. In the study, more than 10,000 participants from 37 cultures were sampled using a questionnaire. In the questionnaire, they were asked about their preferences in romantic partners. There were universal differences between males and females across cultures, such as males prefer younger females (females prefer older ales) male put more emphasis on domestic skills and females prefer males with higher social status and ambition. However, the results also show that collectivist females value ambition and social status in their partners more than individualistic females do. Males from individualistic culture also put less emphasis on domestic skills than collectivist males. 

The results showed significant differences between mate preference for individualist and collectivist people. The difference may be due to different cultural values when they were being brought up. Collectivist females puts more emphasis on social status because people from collectivist culture tend to look out for their extended family. Their partners would need stronger financial ability in order for them to do so. also, individualist males value domestic skills less may be due to the loose in-group bond between partners. Since people tend to put their own interest before their group’s interest, it may be normal them to divide housework and take care of themselves.

In conclusion, Bus’s study shows that cultural dimension can play an important role when it comes to choosing romantic partners. (385 words)

Points to Note

  • One critique of my posted examples was that no students write 400 words. You can see above that to get top marks it might be required. I also struggle to write exemplars less than 400 words. So does this explain why so few kids get 7s – we’re setting them tasks they cannot complete? I don’t think so. I think, as shown above, capable students can write excellent SARs in the time provided and get top marks.
  • What’s more, they can do this even if we simplify things by giving them straightforward instructions and ignore command terms. This lovely student followed my 7-point generic structure for an SAR and it reaped rewards (watch more).
  • It’s plain to see from this that my answers would score at least 7/9, probably an 8/9 regardless of the command term.
  • You’ll notice, however, the student’s answer never actually address the command term “explain” in regards to the cultural dimension. They describe it, but never give an account of why it exists. It doesn’t matter – they got in the top mark band in the real exam. How? I would say that my generic structure for SARs has helped keep them focused, write a detailed answer and include all elements that hit the rubric.

Final Thoughts

The reason I originally posted these to Facebook  was for allow the command term commandos a chance to explain how and why these answers would score differently. They didn’t. And I’d argue, they can’t, because they wouldn’t.

Why put my energy into this? For one, it gives us all an additional example SAR to add to our files. But more importantly I want to give everyone every chance to prove me wrong. Show me how these command terms are different since they’re still being referenced in subject reports, mark schemes and examination guides. And if you can’t, which you can’t, then please, please let’s move on.

But here’s my more diplomatic answer –  if you are one of those teachers who drinks the command term coolaid and genuinely believes in their importance and you think they add value to their course, increase engagement, exam scores, yadayadayada, I’m not in the market of trying to convince you of the contrary. But my experience in my early years was that command terms were a massive red herring and wasted a lot of time. Each year I’ve paid them less attention and each year my kids scores are better and they enjoy psych more – so I simply try to show people with examples (like these posted) that besides having abstract difference, the tangible reality is they (especially in SAQs) are of very little importance. We need to spend more time focusing on every other part of the answer which is often neglected.

Ten years from now I want my students to remember the concepts of neuroplasticity, epigenetics, confirmation bias, the importance of communication in relationships, appraisals and the stress response, etc, etc. I could not care less if they remember the difference between describe and explain in an IB Psych exam (especially since there isn’t one 😉 )

Having said that, I’m always open to being convinced otherwise and shown the error of my ways. So please, do feel free to leave your thoughts or responses in the comments.