I realize that critiquing the inconsistent use of command terms in IB Psychology assessments is like shooting very confused fish in a very small barrel, but I just can’t help myself.

Was anyone else surprised to see the command term “Explain” in Paper 2 this year for the Abnormal Option? Here’s the question in question:

Explain, with reference to psychological research, two etiologies of one anxiety, affective or eating disorder. 

Explain is an A02 command term, which according to the IB requires “application” and “analysis”, but does not require “synthesis” or “evaluation.” So how are students going to be graded for this essay? Where do they score marks for “critical thinking?”

I suppose they couldn’t ask “Discuss”, since they wrote themselves in a hole in the guide by using “Analyse” for the Learning Outcome, which is also AO2 so couldn’t be raised to AO3 (e.g. Discuss). But for me this just highlights the complete irrelevance of command terms when it comes to essays.

The IB does consider application and analysis to be critical thinking (or at least they do in this old curriculum but they no longer do in the new one), so there is some opportunity for students’ work to be scored as critical thinking. But I’ve asked the question for years, “how do you show knowledge and understanding without analysis or application?” 

So I come back to my original question – what is “critical thinking” going to look like in a student response to this question?

Can they evaluate the studies? Well, I’d say that actually this seems pretty irrelevant to the question since the focus is on explaining the etiologies. If the command term were to “discuss” the etiologies, I would think that evaluating studies would be more relevant because it helps to provide the “balanced review” and the question requires “reference to psychological research.”

The only way I can see for students to show relevant critical thinking in this response is for them to do one or both of the following:

(a) Explain etiologies from two differences approaches (e.g. biological, cognitive or socio-cultural)

(b) Explain how the etiologies are not isolated factors, but rather they interact with other factors to cause symptoms of the disorder.


So this is why I’m pleased I didn’t teach the command terms, but rather I just taught how to structure an effective essay:

  1. Introduction
  2. Central argument
  3. Evidence
  4. Counter-argument
    1. (optional + evidence)
  5. Conclusion

If my students followed my advice, when writing about PTSD for this question they would have identified a core etiology (perhaps low volume in the vmPFC which affects abilities to cognitively reappraise stimuli) and they used this to explain symptoms associated with arousal and memory. They could have then used Urry et al’s research to support this explanation. I would also hope that in this explanation they’d make it clear that it’s not just one isolated factor, but the brain and cognition are inextricably linked.

And then they would know they had to have a counter-argument, which I encouraged them to use details from different approaches to their central argument (i..e if you use biology or cognitive as a central argument, then counter with socio-cultural). So if they followed this advice, they would have gone on to use the socio-cultural differences in prevalence of PTSD that we prepared for that question to explain social and cultural factors and how they may affect symptoms. For example, why people from lower socio-economic groups are more at risk of developing PTSD after traumatic events because of increased post-trauma stress causing incidents, and then they could have used a study we looked at about a Hurricane in Florida (Garrison et al. 1995).

So even though the IB has for some unknown reason thrown an “Explain” curveball in Paper Two, and I don’t know what will be considered under Criterion B or C in the rubric, I am confident that my students were well-prepare to write excellent answers because throughout the two years of the course we focused on structure and content of the essays, not the silly, little, untrustworthy command terms.

I’ll hasten to add here that my purpose in this post is not to boast or do anything of that sort, but to encourage other teachers to stop worrying so much about the command terms, especially for essays. I do this because the CTs were the bane of my teaching for about 6 years in IB Psych’ and that’s time, effort and wasted potential from students that I can’t get back, so I want to help others from falling into the same trap.

Examining season starts soon, so the proof will be in the pudding. I’ll be sure to report back later how they did.


Can anyone else see where am I coming from on this one, or is this just me wearing a tin-foil hat, yelling into the wind?