The biggest mistake students make in IB Psychology exams

Travis Dixon Revision and Exam Preparation 1 Comment

Get ready to shock your examiners with these simple tips.

I still can’t figure it out. After teaching IB Psych for over a decade, marking thousands of essays and short answers, writing hundreds of blogs and recording heaps of video tutorials about this topic, there’s still one mistake that students continue to make in their IB Psych exams. Read on to find out what it is and how you can avoid that same mistake. 

Let’s start with a simple question: what’s the most important aspect of any study? Let’s say your brain could only remember one of the following:

  • Aim
  • Methods
  • Results

What would you want your brain to remember?

I’m sure you said results, right? That’s correct. The most important part of a study are the results. So then let’s ask another question: why are the results important? SO WE CAN DO SOMETHING WITH THEM.

Sorry for yelling, but I want to get this message across. You’re only using the results so you can draw a conclusion. And that’s the mistake that over 90% of students continue to make – they write about a study and end at the results. They don’t go further and say how that study supports their argument, or how that study links back to the topic they’re writing about. So actually, the most important part of a study is the conclusion. You could use the same study to draw multiple different conclusions – it depends on the point you’re making (which depends on the question you’re answering!)

For example, Buchanan and Lovallo’s study on cortisol’s effects on memory could have a conclusion like this:

…These results show that hormones like cortisol can have an effect on our behaviour.

That would be if the question were on hormones and behaviour. But if it were about the reliability of memory, the conclusion might be:

…These results show that the reliability of our memory could be influenced by biological factors, such as hormones (e.g. cortisol). Cortisol could boost the reliability of some memories, especially those containing negative emotional information. 

Same study, different conclusions. But the key is that there is a conclusion. That’s the biggest mistake students make: they forget to draw a conclusion.

Activating Schema: What have you learned in English class?

Maybe this habit persists because students are new in Psychology. So let’s think about a subject you’ve got lots more experience in writing essays: English. When you’re writing a literary analysis essay, what do you use as evidence? Think. Close your eyes. Say it….

Quotes and details from the novel, right? That’s your supporting evidence. I love teaching English* because you say whatever you want about a novel, if you can back up your claims with evidence from the text. Analysing a novel always felt like detective work for me – I would scour the book for the evidence that backed up what I knew the themes of the novel to be.

And that’s what we’re doing in Psychology – the studies are the supporting evidence. But you must explain clearly what they are supporting. Ending a paragraph with the results of a study is like ending a paragraph with a quote from the novel or a description of the character. Where’s the analysis? Where’s the application?

Think about History. What’s supporting evidence in History? Did imperialism cause World War I? Did nationalism cause WWII? What are the facts and details that support such an argument? You can’t just list off a bunch of facts, though, you have to explain how they support your argument. Same goes in Psych.

PEEL

Keeping my English teacher hat on, what acronym have you learned for paragraph structure? PEEL? PETAL? SEX? PEE? SEE? Let’s stick with PEEL.

  • Point
  • Explanation /
  • Example (EE in either order)
  • Link

It’s the LINK back to the topic or thesis that is missing when you end with the results and don’t explain them. A simple strategy is to remind yourself at the end of each paragraph, “have I linked back to my main point?” You can also do this in the final editing stages.

EXAMPLE

Here’s a common example of what Loftus and Palmer’s summary looks like…

In Loftus and Palmer’s, 45 college participants were divided into five groups and watched a video of a traffic accident. The participants were asked “…about how fast were the cars going when they … each other”. The five groups were given five different verbs. I.e. one group was asked “hit”, one was asked, smashed, etc. The results showed that the group asked smashed had the highest speed estimates, whereas the group asked contacted had the lowest. 

Another study on memory reliability was done by….

2 Car Crashed

This comes from our summary of L&Ps study found here.

Two problems in this essay. First is the one we’ve spoken about – there’s no L. There’s no Link. So what about the results? What point are they making. There’s also a second mistake , just as common as the first one. It’s corrected in the following example. Can you spot it?

One study that demonstrates the effects of language on memory reliability was done by Loftus and Palmer. In this study, 45 college participants were divided into five groups and watched a video of a traffic accident. The participants were asked “…about how fast were the cars going when they … each other”. The five groups were given five different verbs. I.e. one group was asked “hit”, one was asked, smashed, etc. The results showed that the group asked smashed had the highest speed estimates, whereas the group asked contacted had the lowest. These results show how language (e.g. leading questions) can influence the reliability of memory because the different verbs caused differences in how the participants remembered the crash. 

But did they remember differently, or did they just write different answers? This was further studied in their second experiment…. 

Did you notice the two mistakes the second answer corrected? Hopefully you see the basic one-sentence conclusion. This shows an examiner you understand the study. Secondly, the studies is introduced with a topic sentence, or a Point, to go back to our PEEL acronym. Most students just start writing about a study without first introducing the reason why they’re writing about it in a topic sentence.

Lesson Idea for Teachers

Download this word document. Adapt it for your own purposes and give it as a class activity. It will help students practiOne Study Multiple Topics #2 Application Practicece the above two

One Study Multiple Topics #2 Application Practice

Summary

  • Always add a conclusion to your results.
  • Always introduce the point of a study before summarising it.

*(I started as an English & History teacher btw, my degree is in History and my teaching diploma is for English. I luckily came into Psychology teaching “later in life” (at 26)). 

Comments 1

  1. Nailed it! That is SO true. And like you, I am also not sure why my students seem to have so much trouble remembering to do this. The tendency seems to be “drop some knowledge & run” instead of “make a point, then back it up with research, then reinforce that point.”

    I’ve been considering telling students that writing an essay answer is like being a lawyer in court. You’ve got opening statements to the jury, then you present evidence (and maybe refute opposing evidence), then you sum up at the end. And in all the great courtroom dramas, which part is most important, at the climax of the film? The dramatic summation at the end! Don’t leave the audience hanging…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.