How to study for Paper 1 in IB Psychology
7 Simple Steps to Prepare for Section A: SAQs

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Revision and Exam Preparation

Here are my 7 simple steps for studying for IB Psychology, Paper 1 Section A (SAQs)

One of the most common questions I get asked is, “How should I study for the IB Psychology exams?” Unfortunately, it’s also one of the hardest questions to answer. In this post, I’ll do my best to plan out some really simple steps that might help for Paper 1. We’ll start easy and get harder so no matter what your goals or your level, you’ll be able to prepare effectively. 

Remember there are two sections to Paper 1: Section A (SAQs) and Section B (Essays). The secret to a 7 in Paper 1 is to master the SAQs (read more and see the video here).  There are three compulsory SAQs so you must answer all three. There will be one based on each of the three approaches: biological, cognitive and sociocultural. In this post, we’ll focus on how to prepare for the SAQs (Section A). The next post will deal with how to prepare for the essay section (Section B).

Read more:

An example Section A SAQs from Nov 2019.

Step 1: List the exam topics

Find example answers and study materials for all of the “new terms” added by the IB after the guide was published.

The IB Psychology Guide lists the topics in the course that can be the basis of an exam question. Therefore, the first thing you should do is to make a list of every possible topic that might be an exam question. Use one page for the biological approach topics, another for cognitive and another for sociocultural. This has already been done for you in our IB Psychology Revision Guide (available here) or you can check out the topics in our Exam Question Banks (example).

Note:  The IB added some topics after the guide was published which is why our first edition textbook (here) does not include all topics.


Step 2: Find one example for each topic

Now you know the topics, you should be able to find a relevant example for nearly all topics. For example, in the biological approach you should have written down topics like genes, hormones, agonists, ethical considerations, etc. You need one example of each of these. Some examples for these topics could be the MAOA gene, testosterone, pramipexole, and anonymity in case studies, respectively.

Similarly, in the cognitive approach you have topics like reconstructive memory and the effect of emotion on cognition. You need to have one specific example for each of these. For instance, the misinformation effect for reconstructive memory and the effect of fear (and the stress response) on memory.

Tip: This does not apply to questions about theories or models. For these topics, (e.g. SIT, SCT, MSM, WMM, schema theory, dual process model etc.) the topics are the examples.

Step 3: Match one study to each example

You now need the evidence to demonstrate the example you have chosen for each topic. In psychology, evidence means studies. Therefore, you need to make sure you find one relevant study for each example. This step is really important because if you have the wrong example and/or the wrong study for a topic, you will score low marks.

The easiest way to bomb the IB Psych Paper 1 is to write about the wrong topic or wrong study for the question. Our revision textbook comes with a 10 page workbook that makes it easy to check you have the right answers. This is easy to make for yourself as well and get it checked by your teacher or tutor.

If you are aiming for an IB 4, you can stop here. If you’re aiming for a 5 or higher, keep going. 

Step 4: Find one key term and definition for each topic

An important way to show your knowledge of psychology is to write clear and concise definitions of the key terms. For each topic or example you have selected, choose one key terms to write a definition of. I also recommend making physical flashcards for each key terms, too (check out our store as we are soon releasing a flashcard series for IB Psychology).

Choose the one term you think is most important. Sometimes it might be the topic itself. For example, the topics of neuroplasticity and localization are important key terms you should be able to define. For the working memory model, the concept of working memory is important to define. When it comes to questions about research methods, I would recommend being able to define the specific method you are writing about. In general, choose the term that you are going to explain.

Tip: Avoid having lots of definitions of key terms. One is enough, maybe two. A good rule of thumb to use when trying to decide if you should write the definition of a term in your answer is to ask this question: Would a non-psychology student know this word? If the answer is probably yes, then don’t worry about defining it. For example, genes, hormones, emotion, technology – these are all terms non-psychologists already know, so don’t worry about defining them. Neuroplasticity, localization of function, MAOA gene, testosterone, serotonin, working memory, etc., are terms they probably wouldn’t know.

If you are aiming for an IB 5, you can stop here. If you’re aiming for a 6 or higher, keep going. 

Step 5: Write one key question for each topic

75% of IB Psychology students focus on key terms and studies and don’t go any further. This is why so few get 6s and 7s. However, if you want to show you are an excellent psychologist it’s not enough just to memorize definitions and studies. You must be able to explain the core concept relevant to each and every topic in the course.

Ideally, the IB Psychology guide would give us the key concepts and/or key questions for every topic. However, this is not the case and we have to write them ourselves. It’s quite easy to do and the process of writing one key question for every topic really helps you to understand the topics. (Again, they’re done for you in our revision guide).

Here are some examples:

  • Hormones: How does one hormone influence behaviour? (Or you could be specific: e.g. How does cortisol influence memory?)
  • Social identity theory: How does SIT explain intergroup conflicts like prejudice and discrimination?
  • Dual processing model: How does the dual process model explain thinking and decision making?

If you need help figuring out the key questions, ask your teacher or consult the resources linked on this page.

Step 6: Answer your key question

Now we’re getting in to the territory for scoring the elusive IB Psych 7 (which only around 3-5% of students ever achieve). After you have written a clear and concise key question for each topic in the three approaches, it’s now time to answer that question. This should be done in around 100 words or so – about 3-5 sentences approx.

For example, if you’ve chosen the example of cortisol and memory as your example for the hormones topic and your question is: How does cortisol influence memory? You need to be able to answer this question. You might include things like cortisol’s effect on the hippocampus, and/or how acute stress and its positive effect on memory can be explained by evolution.

This is where you’re showing you really understand the psychological concepts relevant to each topic.

Step 7: Organize your notes

I would recommend that the above steps should be carried out in the order I gave. However, once you’ve done this and if you still have time before the exams, an excellent idea would be to re-write your notes so that the follow a more logical order. You could actually structure your notes in a way that is similar to how the information would appear in an SAQ:

  1. The topic
  2. Specific example
  3. The central question
  4. The answer
  5. The study

I would love to see photos of your notes page if you follow these revision steps. Feel free to post your pics to our Facebook group for IB Psychology students (join here).

Extract page from revision guide

All this is done for you in our revision book. However, it’s actually best for your revision if you do it yourself.