The Command Term Conundrum

Travis DixonCurriculum, Revision and Exam Preparation

Command terms freaking you out? You're not alone, but help is here!

Allow me to explain the IB Psychology command terms:

 Explain means explain if it’s in Paper 1, but not if it’s in Paper 2, unless of course it’s coupled with another level three command term (e.g. discuss), then it does mean explain. And outline doesn’t really mean outline, it means describe, unless the question (or mark scheme) is actually asking for analysis and/or application, in which case it really means explain, but that can also change if it’s coupled with another command term, in which case it can mean outline. And there’s no critical thinking in Paper 1 short answers, except for analysis and application, which are considered critical thinking in essay rubrics, but not considered critical thinking if the command term is level one, but they are if it’s level two (e.g. explain), and so sometimes students have to show “critical thinking” in short answers to gain full marks but if they show the wrong kind of critical thinking (e.g. by evaluating) they can lose marks because they’re not focusing on the question by going beyond the requirements of the command term.

Simple, right? Wrong. The above paragraph shows how absurd and illogical the IB command terms in assessment are when put into practice.

These command terms aren’t as important as many people think because they do not guide students to writing better answers. As shown above, they make things worse. Let’s keep it simple. There are four “command terms” that are used for IB Psychology essays.

  • Discuss: Offer a considered and balanced review that includes a range of arguments, factors or hypotheses.
  • Evaluate: Make an appraisal by weighing up the strengths and limitations.
  • To what extent: Consider the merits or otherwise of an argument or concept.
  • Contrast: Give an account of the differences between two (or more) items or situations, referring to both (all) of them throughout.

Discuss, evaluate, and to what extent questions can be answered with a similar structure and content. The only command term that has a unique application is “contrast” which simply means highlight the differences of two items.

Contrast is the rarest exam term in IB Psychology. In fact, it’s only been asked once between May 2019-2021 (“Contrast two theories of cognitive development”).

Regardless of the command term, you must:

  • Address all parts of the question (Criterion A)
  • Explain the topic (to show knowledge and understanding – Criterion B)
  • Use studies to support your arguments (to show a good use of research – Criterion C)
  • Present relevant and well-developed counter-arguments and evaluations of studies (to show critical thinking – Criterion D).
  • Structure your essay using an introduction, conclusion, and a logical order of ideas and paragraphs (Criterion E)

Mr. Dixon’s Advice: Focus on the rest of the question first and the command term second.

This post is taken from our example essays for IB Health Psych, available now. This downloadable PDF shows you how the same essay could cover four topics!

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