How to make your own exam questions

Annoyingly, one of the most important factors in doing well on the IB Psych is exams is your knowledge of the command terms. These will begin all your exam questions and they are used by examiners when measuring your work against the rubrics (see an example of a Paper 1 SAQ rubric. I say annoyingly because knowing the difference between these command terms isn’t really going to help students in life, it’s just an important way for examiners to distinguish those students who have a deep understanding of Psychological research, as opposed to those who have just tried to memorise it.

The only verbs students need to understand, in my opinion, are describe, explain, discuss, evaluate and to what extent.

Notes about command terms:

  • The command terms are in three levels.
  • Levels 1 and 2 are asked in SAQs (Paper 1, Part A)
  • Levels, 1, 2 and 3 are asked in ERs (Paper 1, Part B and Paper 2 and Paper 3)

LEVEL ONE (these are assessing your basic knowledge)

  • describe
  • state
  • define
  • outline

LEVEL TWO (these are slightly more complex, and assess knowledge and your ability to apply that knowledge with critical thinking)

  • explain
  • analyse
  • distinguish
  • apply

LEVEL THREE (these are the most demanding and require you to apply critical thinking skills to your knowledge. It’s basically requiring you to go beyond straightforward explanations).

  • discuss
  • evaluate
  • compare and contrast
  • to what extent
  • examine

So, here’s how you make your own exam questions…

SAQs (Paper 1, Part B)

For a SAQ, take one of the learning outcomes and adapt it by using a level one or two command term. You may want to make some specifications in the question as well, so it can be answered in about 300 words.


Learning outcome: “Discuss research methods used at the biological level of analysis”.

This outcome uses a level 3 command term, which wouldn’t be asked in a SAQ, so that needs to change. It also is quite general, which would make an answer “focused on the question” quite challenging.

So it could be changed to an SAQ like so…

Explain the use of one research method at the biological level of analysis.

This could easily be answered, provided a student could give a “reason and/or cause” for the particular research method being used (which is what an explanation requires).

Remember that the learning outcome’s command term can be lowered in levels, but never raised. So for instance, “Explain one study related to localization of function” could never become “Discuss one study…” because this would take a Level 2 command term (Explain) and make it a level three (Discuss). This would never happen. However, “Explain one study…” could become “Describe one study…”

Essays (Extended Responses)

The same can easily be done for extended responses. Sometimes the ER prompts are exact copies of the learning outcomes, other times the command term has been changed and/or the question has been modified slightly.

For example:

Original Learning Outcome: Evaluate schema theory with reference to research studies.

This could be modified to: Outline schema theory. Evaluate two relevant studies.

This is common in ER prompts, where a level 1 or 2 command term is used in conjunction with a level 3.

If you’re a teacher and you are trying to create your own exam questions, I strongly suggest trying to write your own answers as well, before asking students to write theirs. Doing assessment tasks yourself can be a really valuable learning experience. Here is one that I have written.