How to study for Paper 2 in IB Psychology

Travis DixonAssessment (IB)

Revising or Paper 2 in IB Psych can be challenging because it’s not always clear what the questions will be. Unlike the Paper 1 topics, Paper 2 topics are bit more ambiguous. However, the same requirements as Paper 1 essays are still needed. This means we can approach studying for Paper 2 in a similar way as Paper 1, we just need to tweak the order a bit. 

IB Psych revision guide available now.

Studying for Paper 2 in IB Psychology is simple, but it’s not easy. Make sure you start your revision a few months before your exam dates. Bear in mind also the following is just a suggestion – it’s how I would study for the exam if I were you.

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1. Choose your Option(s) and Topic(s)

Standard level (SL) students need to choose one option, whereas Higher level (HL) students choose two. There are four options:

  • Human relationships
  • Abnormal psychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • Health psychology

The first task is easy – simple figure out which one (SL) or two (HL) options you’re preparing for the exams.

The next task is to choose one or two topics from each option you’re preparing. Each option has three topics. The Paper 2 exam questions will definitely have one question based on each topic. This means you don’t have to study all three. This is really important to remember because it saves you hours of revision time.

IB Psych Guide, pg 35

I recommend choosing one topic and becoming an expert in that topic ready for any possible question. You could study a second as a back-up. Studying all three would be wasted effort. Having said that, I teach all three topics to my students but one or two are usually done for interest purposes only and to develop their understanding of psychology. When it comes to exam time the focus is on the one topic they want to master.

My recommendations?

  • Abnormal psychology – Etiologies of disorders
  • Human relationships – Personal relationships
  • Developmental psychology – Developing as a learner
  • Health psychology – Explanations of health problems

I’ll write more later about why I recommend these topics, but if you compare them to the other options you can probably figure it out for yourself.

The four options and their topics. Taken from the IB Psych guide.

2. List the exam question topics 

Just like in Paper 1 and the approaches, in the Paper 2 Options topics there are a list of supporting “content” points for each topic. Any of the topic/content points (hereafter just called topics) could be the basis of an exam question. This means it’s important you know the topics that could be asked in the exam.

For example, in Abnormal Psychology one of the topics is “Etiologies of disorders.” This has two sub-content topics: (i) Explanations of disorders and (ii) Prevalence of disorders. I then need to write out all three topics as any could be the basis of the exam question.

The exam question will be based on the topic title, the sub-content topics, research methods or ethics.

Furthermore, the broader topic heading (e.g. Etiologies of disorders) could be asked about in relation to the three approaches (biological, cognitive, sociocultural). They might also ask about research methods used to study this topic or ethical considerations relevant to research on this topic. Therefore, I will have a list of topics about 7-10 items long. Here’s what it might look like for Etiologies of disorders in Abnormal Psychology (which is the topic I recommend for students to write about in this option):

  • Etiologies of disorders
  • Explanations of disorders
  • Prevalence of disorders
  • Biological approach to understanding etiologies of disorders
  • Cognitive approach to understanding etiologies of disorders
  • Sociocultural approach to understanding etiologies of disorders
  • Research methods used to study etiologies of disorders
  • Ethical considerations relevant to studies on etiologies of disorders

Exam Tip: You might find in writing out your list of topics that there are some overlaps. This is important to look for because it might help you simplify your list. For example, Etiologies of disorders is simply another way of saying Explanations of disorders. Therefore, I would simplify this topic by writing it like this: Etiologies/explanations of disorders. It’s important to keep all the exam topic key terms in my notes because either might appear in the exam question. Imagine crossing out etiologies and only studying explanations of disorders, only to forget what the word “etiology” means on exam day!

3. Find one example (or explanation) for each topic

You can see example exam answers in this pack.

This is the same process as you learned when studying for the SAQs in Paper One. You want to be able to write about one relevant example for every topic. Therefore, you need to find the specific topic you are going to write about.

For my example using Etiologies/explanations of disorders, I would first need to choose the disorder I’ve studied (e.g. PTSD) and the one etiology/explanation for PTSD. So my example for this topic could be: “Brain abnormalities is an explanation/etiology of PTSD.”

Go down the list and write the specific examples for every topic you plan on writing about.

If you have a topic that doesn’t have a clear “example” per se, then come up with a good explanation of the topic. For example, there’s a topic just titled “Bystanderism” in the Human Relationships option. Coming up with an example of bystanderism (e.g. Kitty Genovese case) is not a good idea because this is anecdotal. You are better off to come up with an explanation of bystanderism (e.g. diffusion of responsibility). If you’re not sure if you need an example or explanation, ask your teacher or pop a comment below.

4. Match one (or two) key studies to each example

Just like with Paper 1, key studies are important to know because they are the building blocks of your psychological knowledge. Therefore, for every example you need to find a relevant study. For example, I would need to find a study that shows abnormalities of the brain are an etiology of PTSD (you can read about some here).

Because Paper 2 is about essays, I would recommend having at least two relevant studies for each topic. Perhaps a good strategy would be to go through your list and find one study per topic. Once you’ve done that, go back through the list and add a second. Be sure to find as many overlaps as possible. For example, you might find a study that links biological and cognitive etiologies and this can be used for both topics (e.g. Urry et al.’s study on cognitive appraisal and the vmPFC-amygdala connection).

5. Identify one (or two) key terms for each topic

It’s a good idea to revise your key studies first because these are the easiest way to score marks in the exam. However, another equally easy way to score marks is to revise and memorize really concise and clear definitions of one or two relevant key terms for every topic you’re planning.

For example, if you’re studying a disorder for Abnormal it’s obvious you’d want to have a really good definition of that disorder (e.g. PTSD). For example, “PTSD is a psychological disorder that occurs after experiencing a traumatic event and has symptoms characterized by arousal, avoidance and re-experiencing the trauma.”) If you started off your essay on etiologies of PTSD with that definition you’re going to win instant points with your examiner.

So this 5th step is key – go through your topics and find one or two key terms you want to define for each topic. Don’t repeat yourself, either. For example, PTSD might be relevant to every topic so I don’t need to write it down 8 times.

Remember also your key term might be the topic title itself (e.g. etiology) and/or a specific example (e.g. cognitive appraisal). Some topic titles you won’t need to define (e.g. research method) but the specific example is more appropriate (e.g. correlational study).

Exam tip: Make flashcards of key terms (or keep your eyes on our store to see when our new key studies, theories and flashcard series will be released).

6. Write a key question for each topic

Now you’ve got your topics, your studies and your key terms, it’s time to add what nearly every IB Psychology student forgets – the central argument. In order to show you understand a topic deeply, you have to figure out what it is about each topic you need to know. For the above example, Etiologies of disorders, it’s pretty straightforward. This is one reason I recommend choosing this topic. However, if we look at some examples from the “Group dynamics” topic in the Human Relationships option, it’s a bit trickier:

  • Group dynamics
  • Prejudice/discrimination
  • Bystanderism
  • Co-operation and competition

If you were choosing this topic for Human Relationships, in order to study effectively and score top marks you’d need to figure out what exactly it is you need to know. This is where it’s disappointing the IB guide doesn’t give us more clarity about this in Paper 2 topics. If you’re not sure, ask your teacher for help or again, pop a question in the comments. Even better, buy your very own copy of our Revision Guide and find all this done for you 🙂

Tip: Avoid mentioning studies or research in your key questions. Focus on the psychological explanations of the topic instead and use the studies as supporting evidence. “How and why” are good ways to start your key questions (but it might not always work).

7. Answer your key question 

Have you noticed how I’ve never mentioned the command terms yet, nor do I rarely ever in my exam revision tips? That’s because so much attention has been placed on command terms that I think the most important aspect of any IB psych exam answer has been ignored – the central argument.

A good psychologist has a strong conceptual understanding of a range of psychological phenomena. They can expain psychological terms and concepts and offer explanations of complex cognition, behaviour, research methodology and ethics. This is why every good SAQ and essay should contain a clear central argument in response to the question that clearly shows you understand the topic being asked about.

For example, why do we learn about etiologies of disorders? It’s not so you can remember studies, it’s so you can explain how and why people develop disorders like PTSD and depression. Therefore, in order to score top marks you need to be able to answer the key questions you put forward in number 6.

8. Add your butts! buts!

Woops. I meant to say “Buts.” This is your critical thinking. Critical thinking in psychology can be summarized in one simple word – BUT….(read more here). If you’re aiming for a 7, you have to show in your essays that you’re able to pick holes in your central argument and see its weaknesses. Nothing in psychology is straightforward and to understand any topic requires careful, nuanced thinking. Offering a central argument for a top

ic is great, but you also need to show you’re not blindly regurgitating what you’ve been taught and you can independently evaluate said argument. The same goes for the evidence – you have to show that through the course of your IB Psych’ career you’ve developed a great bullsh*t detector and you’re able to find flaws or limitations in some of the studies andhow they might be used to support arguments.


I hope that was helpful.