This post is adapted from an earlier post.

If you’re adopting a thematic approach to the IB Psychology course, you might be wondering: “won’t students get confused about what studies go with each topic?”

It’s easy to think this since at first glance the thematic approach appears to be jumbled. But in this post I’ll outline a couple of very basic and effective strategies for ensuring that students develop the appropriate conceptual understandings necessary for exam success.


Tip #1: Ignore the Approaches (to start with)

In my course for the new syllabus I have no plans at the start of the course to even mention anything about the IB’s three approaches to understanding human behaviour (i.e. biological, cognitive and sociocultural approaches).

Why? Because before students have studied a range of concepts and research related to these three approaches, there’s nothing to build on. If I stood in front of the class in the first couple of weeks and explained what the three approaches were, it would be less effective than giving that exact same explanation after we’re a couple of units deep into the course and they have some real examples to connect with.

This is similar thinking to why I switched years ago from teaching “the principles of each level of analysis” at the beginning of a unit to teaching it at the end. 


Tip #2: Introducing the Approaches

The first time we’ll discuss the three approaches is after criminology and social influence but before we start quantitative methods. Up until this point in the course it’s not necessary for students to know about the three approaches. But I want them to be mindful of them during the quantitative methods unit because one aim this chapter is to get students to begin understanding how and why the use of research methods is similar (and different) depending on the context (i.e. the approach).


Activity Idea

To introduce the idea of the three approaches I do a very simple activity which involves:

  1. Students write down all of the studies they can remember from criminology (chapter 2) and social influence (chapter 3).
  2. They then group these studies into those that involve biology, cognition or social/cultural variables (IVs and/or DVs).
  3. Now I explain that there are three approaches to understanding human behaviour.

By laying this broader concept of the three approaches on already existing foundations of knowledge from prior learning, students find it easier to grasp the rather abstract idea of the three approaches (a.k.a the levels of analysis).

What they’ll also be able to see when doing this activity is that some studies fit into more than one approach. This makes it pretty easy to help students to see that while there are three distinct approaches, these are not independent of one another and often researchers take multiple approaches into consideration in their research. This is an essential concept that helps with developing critical thinking, but I never was able to get this across when I was following a linear approach.

The themantic approach to curriculum design is about laying the foundations of knowledge first in order to develop broader conceptual understanding later.


Textbook Help

If you’d prefer to be making connections to the specific IB Psychology syllabus requirements more regularly, you’ll see in the student’s guide that at the end of each topic there is a summary of notes divided into four sections:

  1. Relevant topics
  2. Practice exam questions
  3. Research methods
  4. Ethical considerations 

One and two are there to help students understand what topics are applicable to which aspects of the IB Psychology curriculum and exam questions.

Three and four are to help students see how to apply an understanding of methods and ethics to specific topics in the curriculum. This is an essential skill, but a tricky one in the new course as the content and exam requirements in this area have increased drastically from the previous syllabus.


One mindset change I made last year was to stop thinking that every lesson was geared towards teaching stuff that students would use in the exams. My thinking now is not about what today’s learning means for the exam, it’s about what today’s learning means for tomorrow’s learning. What I mean to say is that we have a lot of hours to get students to the point where they’re ready to show their full depth of knowledge, understanding and critical thinking skills in response to psychology problems (i.e. exam questions). It’s not essential that they can do this from the beginning of the course, only that they get their by the end.

My thinking now is not about what today’s learning means for the exam, it’s about what today’s learning means for tomorrow’s learning.

For example, there are heaps of studies that I teach with no intention of including them in my exam revision materials (and some I actively discourage students from using in exams), including good ol’ Phineas Gage, Bartlett’s “War of the Ghosts” and the Stanford Marshmallow Experiments.

So why do I use them at all? Because they are valuable building blocks that help lay the foundation for understanding more abstract concepts and comprehending more relevant and complex research in latter lessons. And sometimes it’s because, well, they’re just fascinating!

This approach might seem bonkers, but it definitely works for me and my students.

Comments welcome.