How to explain a psychological study

Travis DixonRevision and Exam Preparation, Studies and Theories

Writing about psychological studies can be difficult for novice psychologists. Follow these tips then practice, practice, practice.

Whether it’s for an extended essay, a test or an exam, writing about psychological studies can be a challenging task. This post is designed to help you focus your attention and efforts so you can write the best explanations possible. We’ll begin by breaking down the studies and then look at some examples. 

The Short Answer

  • Unless you’re talking about research methods or ethics, the methods are the least important part of a study. Get to the good stuff – the results and conclusions.

    100-200 words

  • Focus on the results and conclusions
  • Don’t overdo the aims and methods
  • Use the study to make a point

Start with the why

What’s the most important part of any study? The results (aka findings). Studies are important in psychology because they provide us with data. This data becomes the evidence to support psychological theories and explanations. That’s why the results are the most important part of any study and should be your primary focus when reading, researching and writing. When I’m reading a study on google scholar I (almost) always read the results in the abstract first to see if it’s a useful study or not.

When summarising results, generally speaking the more specific you are the better. This is where you should focus your revision efforts. For exam revision, make sure you know the results of all the studies you want to use in the exams first and then go back and review the methods. You can’t be too specific or detailed when it comes to results. The more detailed your summary of results, the deeper your analysis can be and the better you’ll be able to apply these to the question.

If you find statistical data like this “(χ2 = 4.6; P = .03)” leave it out unless you can explain what it means. Only ever include information in your writing that you can explain. The only stats like this I’d expect first or second year Psychology students to understand are p values and correlation coefficients.

Speaking of application, that’s where you need to write your conclusions. This is a simple 1-2 sentence explanation that comments on the significance of the results. You can write several different conclusions for the same study, depending on how you’re using that study.

That brings us to the methods. Most new psychologists make the mistake of spending too much time summarising methods and procedures of studies. You need to remember why we’re describing the methods – so the results make sense. Therefore, you only need to describe the methods so that we can comprehend the results. This is especially true for essays.

In IB Psych, there’s an exception for SAQs that begin with “Describe one study related to…” or an essay “Evaluate one study on…” In these cases, the more details you have the better since the focus of the question is on the study.

Notice how we haven’t mentioned the aim of the studies yet. It’s not always necessary to state the researcher’s aim of their study in your writing. That’s because their aim might be unrelated to how you’re using their study. For example, in Bransford and Johnson’s classic study on schema theory, they actually never mention the word schema once in their entire article. They refer to “prior knowledge.” They don’t even state an aim. Their purpose was to “…assess (prior knowledge’s) influence on (subjects) ability to comprehend and remember linguistic materials.” Perhaps more relevant than starting with the aim would be a clear topic sentence that highlights how your study is relevant to your central thesis.

Example: Detailed Summary in a Research Paper 

The following is an example from a detailed research paper on the cognitive causes of depression.

…Rumination has been clearly linked with depression in adults, but is the same true for adolescents?  Muris et al. (2009) conducted a study to see if rumination correlated with depression in a “non-clinical” sample of 231 boys and girls (aged 12-18 years old) recruited from a secondary school in the Netherlands. The students filled out questionnaires used to measure how much the students use rumination in response to feeling depressed. The questionnaires were the Children’s Response Style Scale (CRSS) and the Response Style Questionnaire (RSQ). Symptoms of depression were measured using the Revised Children’s Anxiety and Depression Scale (RCADS). Rumination was positively correlated with symptoms of depression (RSQ & RCADS = 0.49 and CRSS and RCADS = 0.54). These are moderate to strong correlation coefficients. The results also showed gender differences in levels of depression with the girls scoring an average of 6.35/10 on the RCADS scale compared to the boys 4.43/10. Similar gender differences were shown in rumination levels as the girls scored higher on the CRSS (17.8 compared to 12.1) and the RSQ (6.2 compared to 4.3). This suggests that rumination is linked with depression in adolescents and it might be a stronger risk factor for girls compared to boys. 

The above summary is 200 words long. This is the level of detail that might be included in an extended research essay. If you’re studying for an exam, you might find it difficult to remember all that detail, especially if you’re having to study lots and lots of studies.

Example: Detailed Summary – Exam Version

…Rumination has been clearly linked with depression in adults, but is the same true for adolescents?  Researchers in the Netherlands conducted a study to see if rumination correlated with depression in boys and girls aged 12-18 years old. The students filled out questionnaires on their use of rumination and their symptoms of anxiety and depression. The results showed a positive correlation between symptoms of depression and rumination with a moderate-strong correlation coefficient of about 0.5.  The girls had higher levels of depression and also used rumination more than the boys. This suggests that rumination is linked with depression in adolescents and it might be a stronger risk factor for girls compared to boys. 

This summary is about 100 words. The same message is conveyed with clear and accurate knowledge shown of the study and it’s used to make a point relevant to the question it’s addressing. It’s important to note the value of adding the correlation coefficient in the above study. That one piece of specific data helps strength the entire summary and it avoids it from becoming too simplistic and generic.

IB Psych Study Tip

You’ll be choosing one approach (Paper 1) or one topic (Paper 2) to specialise in for the exams. This reduces the amount of studies you’ll be reviewing for the essays. Choose 3-5 key studies to become an expert in so you’re prepared for the “describe/evaluate one study related to…” questions. Put these in your “exam wish list” basket so you’re hoping they come up in the exams. The reality is most students lose easy marks in their exams not from lacking details in methods of studies, but in using the wrong studies or examples for each question. Therefore, revision time is better spend for >90% of students revising the results of all key studies first, then going back and reviewing methods. After all, if you can remember the results it’s pretty easy to figure out the methods.

I hope that helps.