Planning an IB Psychology course can be stressful, even for the most experienced teachers. It’s not surprise then that it can also be incredibly daunting for new teachers. One of your sources of stress may be thinking about which approach to take: do I teach linear or thematic? In this post I’ll outline five reasons why I think the linear approach is a bad idea.

In a later post I’ll write about why adopting a thematic (or themantic) approach may be far easier than you think.

READ MORE: WHAT DOES THEMATIC TEACHING MEAN?


#1: Encourages reductionism

This is the biggest reason why I think the linear approach to teaching IB Psychology is a bad idea. A reductionist approach is one that tries to explain a behaviour by focusing on one particular variable. But if we think about it, this is exactly what the core approaches are doing. For example, when teaching hormones and behaviour in the biological approach in a linear course structure, teachers will only focus on how the hormone influences a particular behaviour. They might, for instance, look at how testosterone influences aggression. But if students don’t look at how social, cultural and internal cognitive factors are also related, they’ll have an overly simplified (i.e. reductionist) understanding of aggression.

In order for students to fully appreciate the complexities of human behaviour, we need to be looking at the interaction of variables, not variables in isolation.


#2: Lack of continuity for students

In a linear approach you’ll find yourself focusing on the variables in the core approaches of biological and sociocultural approaches to understanding human behaviour. For instance, some of those variables are hormones, brain function, genetics, social influences, acculturation and cultural dimensions. With these approaches the IB has prescribed the variables and the teacher is free to choose the behaviours. What therefore tends to happen is that these linear units have different behaviours for each topic.

For example, my old linear course I used to have:

  • neurotransmitters (serotonin) and memory
  • hormones (melatonin) and SAD
  • genetics and intelligence
  • hormones (testosterone) and aggression
  • evolution and attraction

You can see just from these five examples that not only do I have five different variables, I also have five different behaviours. By teaching such diverse behaviours in the same unit I was not only adding more content for students, I was also depriving them of any sort of continuity in the unit. As we raced from one behaviour to the next, they were given little chance to recap and reflect on these behaviours. And really, we shouldn’t be assuming that all students fully comprehend what these are. I mean, what is “aggression” really? How can students provide informed explanations of causes of these behaviours if they don’t really understand what they are? This will also make critical thinking much more difficult.

Now in my themantic unit on criminology I teach all the prescribe biological variables, plus some cognitive, social and cultural ones whilst focusing on only one or two behaviours: aggression and violence. And even then we’re looking specifically at impulsive aggression and violence. Now every lesson we’re recapping these behaviours and building on their knowledge of them, which helps them raise interesting critical thinking questions.

In a nutshell, in criminology I can do all the things of a linear unit with less content and deeper understanding. 


#3 Too much content, too little overlap

If you are following a linear approach you’ll find when you get to the options you’ll be thinking like I used to, “Oh man, I taught this in year one. I wish I didn’t have to teach it again.” For example, when I taught about the influence of cortisol on memory, I’d get to teaching PTSD and I’d be teaching it over again. You might say, “well that’s good revision.” And this is true, but if you combine the core and options you’ll still get that revision time at the end of the course, and even all the way through it, too.

READ MORE: HL PSYCHOLOGY IN LESS THAN 180 HOURS

#4: Too much content, too little time

In IB Psychology the biological and socio-cultural approaches provide you with the variables, while the cognitive approach and the options give you the behaviours. Mixing and matching through a thematic approach means you’ll find yourself teaching the same content in more depth, in less time.

For example, I don’t need to teach pheromones and behaviour in a biological approach unit and then again when we look at biological factors influencing the formation of relationships in the human relationships option: I can put the pheromones in my “love and marriage” unit and save my self some time. The more you do this, the more time you’ll buy yourself.

If we look at the options, 20 hours is nowhere near enough time to do these options justice. But if you combine core with options, suddenly you’ve bought yourself a lot more time. 

#5: Poor exam prep’

To write effective essays in IB Psychology exams students need to be able to offer counter arguments. If you teach in a linear structure this could be quite difficult and will only add to the content you need to teach. However, by integrating core and options topics, you’ll find you’re naturally preparing students to be able to offer well-developed and insightful counter-arguments.

For example, by teaching genetic explanations of PTSD, my students can apply this learning to a paper one or paper two question, cutting their revision immensely. But because we’ve also taught other biological, cognitive and sociocultural explanations of PTSD, they have some potential counter-arguments already.

For instance, if an exam question asked “To what extent does genetic inheritance influence one behaviour,” students can explain how genetics might influence PTSD, but then they could also explain that it’s not just genetics, but socioeconomic environment, gender issues related to socialization and cognitive appraisals should also be considered. The could essentially write the same essay for paper two if the question was: “To what extent can the biological approach explain one disorder.”

If you’re using a linear approach your students won’t be this prepared for exams and only a tiny percentage will be able to construct the arguments and counter-arguments they’re capable of.

While studying psychology in a themantic approach makes sense, revising in a linear fashion for the exams is a better strategy. This is why we’re also producing our revision guide, which will have all the same topics and studies from the student’s guide, but laid out in a linear approach for ease of exam revision.


I don’t think the thematic approach to IB Psychology is a hard sell. In fact, most teachers I talk to can see the sense in this and are moving their courses in this direction, if they haven’t already. But you might be thinking that it’s too complex, especially if you’re new. So in my next post I’ll give you two really simple ways you can start teaching thematically straight away.