#8 Best Study Tip for IB Psych: Set Goals

Travis DixonRevision and Exam Preparation

Setting goals sounds cliche, but it's vital for success in IB Psychology.

You’ve heard it all before but trust me setting goals for the IB Psych exams leads to higher marks. This is because it helps you prioritise your revision helping you to focus on the right things. 

Every IB Psychology student is capable of achieving at least a 5, so all you need to do is decide if you’re aiming for a 5, 6 or 7. 

Made a decision? Good. Now here’s how to achieve each goal. The most important things to know for Paper One and Two are the topics, key terms, studies, the central arguments and the counter-arguments. You’ll choose what to study depending on your goals: 

  • IB5: At minimum, revise the key terms, studies and topics 
  • IB6: At minimum, revise the key terms, studies, topics and central arguments. 
  • IB7: Revise everything, including key terms, studies, topics, central and counter-arguments. 

A systematic approach will work for all students. So even if you’re aiming for a 7, make sure you’re confident at IB5 level first and then add the central arguments. Review those first and it will help you prepare your counter-arguments. 

The Topics 

The IB has told us the topic headings in the IB Psychology Guide. These topic headings are what the questions are based on. You can read the complete topic lists here: 

It’s important you are familiar with these topics. 

Key Term Definitions

For each exam topic, you should be able to define the most important key term. Most of the time this will be the topic itself. For example, neuroplasticity, neurotransmission, enculturation, acculturation, etc. However, for other topics it might not be exactly the same. For example, the working memory model you’ll need to know “working memory” or for the social cognitive theory there might be three key terms to summarise the theory – triadic reciprocal determinism, self-efficacy and observational learning. 

Not sure which terms need defining in your answer? A good rule of thumb is to think, “would a non-psychologist know this word?” If the answer is yes, then you don’t need to define it. If the answer is no, then it would be good to define. For example, in an essay on the multi-store model of memory, it would be unnecessary to define the term “memory” since everyone knows what this means. However, most non-psychologists don’t know what “working memory” is and so it would be a good term to define in your answer. It pays to choose the most important key term for every topic and make sure you can write a good definition of it. This is an easy way of showing your knowledge of the topic. 


For every exam topic in Paper One and Two, you need to know at least one study. You should be able to summarise it in about 100-150 words, including the methods, results and conclusions.

This doesn’t, however, mean you need a different study for each topic. One way of cutting down your revision workload is to use some studies for multiple topics. For example, I like the study by Buchanan and Lovallo on cortisol’s effects on memory because it can be used for the hormones topic in the biological approach as well as the effects of emotion on cognition in the cognitive approach. Similarly, Buss’s cross-cultural study on mate preferences around the world can be used for evolutionary explanations of behaviour (bio approach) and the influence of cultural dimensions (sociocultural approach). 

Central Arguments 

Always remember that the IB Psych exams are designed to measure your abilities as a psychologist. As examiners, we’re trying to see if you’re an excellent psychologist or a mediocre one. Knowing the meanings of psychological terminology and key studies are just the beginning. Truly able psychologists can explain and even predict human behaviour. This is where your ability to understand and explain central arguments for each topic becomes important. For each topic you need to use your knowledge of each topic to construct a logical and empirically supported argument (i.e. it’s supported with studies). 

For example, when writing about neurotransmitters and behaviour, you’ll need to know one neurotransmitter but hopefully you’ll be able to write at least 3-5 sentences explaining how and why that chemical can affect behaviour. For instance, you might write about Passamonti’s study on serotonin and explain how reduced levels of serotonin impact the functioning of the prefrontal cortex when we’re threatened, which increases the chances of an impulsive reaction to the threat. This could explain why correlational studies have linked low serotonin levels with antisocial and aggressive behaviour. Including such details shows you really understand the psychological explanations for behaviour based on each topic, proving your capabilities as a psychologist. 

Counter Arguments

Psychology is anything but simple and the arguments are anything but settled. There’s always room for doubt. Understanding and tolerating this doubt is a key part of critical thinking in Psychology. If you’re aiming for top marks, you’ll need to show your critical thinking in the essays. I call these paragraphs your “counter-arguments” because you’re finding the flaws in your central arguments and the evidence that supports them. Simply put, it boils down to one word: but…?

For each topic, aim for 1-3 counter-arguments. A range is good, as well. For instance, you don’t want to rely on three limitations of one study. Instead, you could have a limitation of a study, an alternative explanation and even some contradictory evidence. 

Take the serotonin example from above. You could find a limitation with the study, such as they’re using an fMRI and reactions to static images, which is hardly reflective of a real-life situation. There’s also evidence from Radke’s study to show that other factors, like testosterone have similar effects on the PFC and other brain areas like the amygdala, so serotonin is not the only factor involved in aggression. Also, “…several contradictory results have been found and there have even been reports of a positive relationship between 5-HT and aggression,” meaning higher serotonin leads to more aggression (Olivier, 2010)

By including these counter-arguments your showing your awareness of the potential limitations in all psychological arguments – a key skill for any adept psychologist. 

The above explanations can be summarised in three simple words: what, how, but.