The unseen passage: Paper 3

Paper 3, much like the "unseen passage" in English, is a bit of a surprise every year.  You will get a piece of research that you have never seen before - and then you are asked to answer a series of questions about the research.

The focus of the paper is research methodology - both quantitative and qualitative.  The stimulus piece that you will receive on exam day will be followed by a series of questions to test your understanding of how and why the research method was used - as well as your ability to evaluate the use of the method.

The paper is a one-hour exam. The total mark for Paper 3 is 24 marks. Paper 3 accounts for 20 per cent of the overall mark in psychology.

Strategies for answering the questions

Read the stimulus material carefully. This will give you an idea of what to expect in the questions. Once you have understood what the research is about, read the questions carefully, one by one, so that you get an overall idea of what you are being asked to do.

Look for command terms - what exactly are you supposed to do?

Make an outline before you start writing - just a few hints as to what to answer in order to help you remember the facts you need and to structure your answer.

Answer the questions in a focused way. There is no reason to write more than is necessary.

Make sure you refer to the stimulus material in your response, but do not use long quotations from this material. You are supposed to demonstrate your knowledge of research methodology and that you can use this knowledge in relation to the stimulus material.

Static questions

Paper 3 makes use of static questions - that is, all of the questions are decided in advance.  Although the exam setters have some choice in what they can ask, it is limited.  Below you are going to see each of the questions that may be used and a bit of explanation of what is expected in a response.

Question 1

Question 1 is actually not, in fact, one question - but three.  You are always asked the same three questions.  These questions are:

Identify the method used and outline two characteristics of the method.

Describe the sampling method used in the study.

Suggest an alternative or additional research method giving one reason for your choice.

Each question is worth three marks.

Question 2

For question 2 the focus is ethics. You will be asked one of the following questions:

Describe the ethical considerations that were applied in the study and explain if further ethical considerations could be applied.

Describe the ethical considerations in reporting the results and explain ethical considerations that could be taken into account when applying the findings of the study.

The question is worth six marks.

Question 3

Question 3 is the question that involves a higher level of thinking.  Notice that all of the command terms used so far are rather "low level" command terms.  Question 3 asks you to discuss one question with regard to the stimulus piece. The question will be one of the following:

Discuss the possibility of generalizing the findings of the study.

Discuss how a researcher could ensure that the results of the study are credible.

Discuss how the researcher in the study could avoid bias.

Question three is assessed using the following assessment rubric.

MarkbandLevel descriptor
0The answer does not reach a standard described by the descriptors below
1 - 3The question is misunderstood and the central issue is not identified correctly, resulting in a mostly irrelevant argument.
The response contains mostly inaccurate references to the approaches to research or these are irrelevant to the question.
The reference to the stimulus material relies heavily on direct quotations from the text.
4 - 6The question is understood, but only partially answered resulting in an argument of limited scope.
The response contains mostly accurate references to approaches to research which are linked explicitly to the question.
The response makes appropriate but limited use of the stimulus material.
7 - 9The question is understood and answered in a focused and effective manner with an accurate argument that addresses the requirements of the question.
The response contains accurate references to approaches to research with regard to the question, describing their strengths and limitations.
The response makes effective use of the stimulus material.

Looking at the rubric, you can see that you are assessed on three key criteria: the response is well organized and focused on the question; there is accurate understanding of research methodology with regard to the question; there are explicit links to the stimulus piece.

To help illustrate how this is assessed, below you will see a sample stimulus piece with model answers.

Sample stimulus piece

Students who are enrolled in academically challenging schools face a multitude of stressors related to increased academic demands in addition to the developmental and biological challenges that are normative to adolescence. The researchers carried out a case study of one school’s IB program to see how students cope with stress. The school responded to a request in an IB publication to take part in a study. Both parental and student consent was obtained prior to the study.

The school had a long established IB program. The total number of IB candidates was roughly 100 in each year group. Forty-eight students from an International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program participated in eight focus groups, in which participants were grouped by level of anxiety. In addition, the researchers carried out one on one interviews with several of the students. The researchers also observed several IB HL classes in order to see how students dealt with stress in the classroom.

Before participating in the focus group, anxiety level was determined by participants’ self-report on the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) Anxiety Problems Scale. Participants ranged in age from 16 to 18 years. The low anxiety group consisted of 25 students, 52% of whom were female. The above-average anxiety group consisted of 23 students (83% female). Students from both year 1 and 2 of the program were represented similarly in the anxiety groups.

A single researcher moderated each 45- to 75-minute focus group while another member of the research team managed the audio recorder and took field notes. The moderator explained the purpose of the meeting and then posed discussion questions about stress and coping. Participants were asked to describe what they did in response to stress, including behaviors that were effective in helping to cope with the stress. Then, participants were asked to identify reactions to stress that were not effective in helping them cope.

Observations were carried out during class time to see how students coped with stress. In particular, it was observed how students used time in order to make progress on IA’s or other assessments.

Researchers identified different coping strategies based on one’s normal level of anxiety. Active problem-solving and avoidance of demands were reported most often among all IB students in this investigation. Students with above-average levels of anxiety discussed seeking social support more often, whereas students with low anxiety more frequently discussed avoiding demands, reducing one’s workload, and seeking positive emotions. Students with low anxiety tended to be more productive with their use of time in the classroom. As part of the debriefing, the researchers discussed coping strategies with the participants.

Sample questions and responses

Question 1

A. Identify the method used and outline two characteristics of the method.

The method used in this study was a case study. A case study often focuses on a single group - in this a single school - over a period of time in order to gather a large amount of rich data. In addition, case studies use method triangulation - that is, more than one research method is used as part of the investigation.  In this study, both focus groups and observations were used.

B. Describe the sampling method used in the study.

The sampling method used was a voluntary or self-selected sample. This was done mostly likely to find a school who would be willing to have the disruption of the researchers during the school day. The sample may have also been purposive in that the researchers may have specified in the ad how big the school should be, how long the IB program has existed at the school and whether the school is public or private.

C. Suggest an alternative or additional research method giving one reason for your choice.

The researchers could also carry out an experiment with the students to see if their perceptions of their own stress are accurate. The experiment could be a natural experiment around mock exam time.  The researchers could measure the students' level of cortisol and white blood cell count.  This would measure both the level of stress and its effect on their immune system.  The measurements would be taken both before and after the mock exams. This additional method would not establish a cause and effect relationship, but it could confirm the self-reports of the students' level of stress.

Question 2

Describe the ethical considerations that were applied in the study and explain if further ethical considerations could be applied.

The researchers had to obtain consent in order to carry out the study.  Parental consent was obtained, perhaps in line with the school's policy. As part of the consent, the researchers would have to explain the aim of their research and how they would gather their data as well as explain to the participants their rights.  In addition, the researchers debriefed the participants.  This would be a chance to explain what they had learned from their research, give the participants the right to withdraw their data and remind them of their rights.  In the study, the researchers also provided information about coping with stress in order to assist those that experienced high levels of anxiety.

In addition, the researchers would have kept all information anonymous.  This includes not only the participants' comments in the focus groups and interviews but also the individual students' anxiety ratings.  It is also important that any descriptions of students do not make it possible for them to be identified. Another concern is the audio recording of the focus groups.  These recordings should not be used in a public forum which might allow the participants to be recognized.

Question 3

Discuss the possibility of generalizing the findings of the study.

Often a case study has the goal of helping the population that is being studied.  One goal of the researcher is then representational generalizability. This means that the students chosen for this study would be representative of the population that they were taken from and the findings made by the researchers can be then generalized to the larger school population. In this case, we may be able to generalize the findings to other students in the program.  The sample was quite diverse, so this may help to generalize the findings, but it is also not clear from the study how these particular students were chosen. If they were all taken from the same class - e.g. HL English - then they may not be representative of the population and so representational generalizability would be low.

When discussing the generalizability of a case study, psychologists also refer to its inferential generalizability or transferability. This is when the findings can be applied to another setting. To do this, the researchers would have to determine which variables would be important in the context of this study.  For example, it would have to be another IB school, with a similar population (socioeconomic, culturally) and would have to have a similar IB program.

Finally, a case study can be generalized to existing theory - that is, theoretical generalizability. This is when a theory is generated from the study which is then supported by carrying out other case studies and getting similar results.  If the researchers found that students in other IB schools had the same type of coping strategies, then the findings could be more credibly generalized.

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Comments 20

Victoria Domone 19 January 2018 - 11:04

John, this is very useful to see how Paper 3 can be set and marked - Thank you. Please could you advise whether the stimulus material can include a study which employs quantitative methods? It is my understanding that this is possible? For example could there be a field experiment study which is described which used convenience sampling. Then in q1, students could perhaps refer to a lab experiment as an 'additional research method'. Then for the final question if for example the 'generalisation' question was selected, then students would talk more about external validity in the context of quantitative research? The stimulus exam paper for paper 3 also outlines a qualitative study. I wonder if it would be possible to see what a 'quantitative version' would look like? Are there any resources on this? Many thanks.

John Crane 19 January 2018 - 15:42

Dear Victoria,

Yes, the new exam structure may have a quantitative study. Your suggestions as to how to approach it are totally appropriate. I hope to have more samples up soon - including a quantitative sample.

Beth Wasylyk 25 April 2018 - 14:07

Hi John, Do the students have to state a method that is listed in the syllabus? Different sources and study guides have different research methods and sampling methods included.


John Crane 26 April 2018 - 12:04

Dear Beth

This is a bit difficult to answer because it sort of depends on what the research methods are. As far as I know, the accepted research methods are: experiments, observations and interviews (and all their variations), as well as case studies, questionnaires and surveys. In addition, there are simple "correlational" studies.

What I know is not accepted as a research method is twin studies or animal research (both are examples of samples used in experiments, observations, correlational studies), content analysis or meta-analysis (both forms of data analysis) or MRIs (a technique, not a research method).

As for sampling methods, the list is pretty definitive. What is it that you would like to add? I also teach haphazard sampling and cluster sampling.

Michael Harnish 24 May 2018 - 12:30

Do you have any feel for how experimental studies will be handled on paper 3? For example, any idea if an animal study could be used? Obviously inclusion of animal studies could radically alter the types of answers that are appropriate for ethical considerations, sampling methods, generalization, and alternative methods. I'm also at a loss of how they could provide a stimulus study that uses random sampling.

John Crane 25 May 2018 - 05:13

Dear Michael

I am not clear how experiment studies will be used - as the questions that are being asked do not invite students to write much about the study. I also do not see how they could provide a stimulus piece that uses random sampling. I do think, however, that they could use animal research. But that will make the questions difficult to answer. Paper 3, IMHO, is poorly considered. Sorry that I don't have a better answer for you. My hope is that they will not use an experiment on the first year and that they will eventually clarify what such a question would look like. I may be overly optimistic.

Michael Harnish 25 May 2018 - 07:27

Thanks. Your answer is oddly comforting because it means I'm not confused in being confused by the syllabus as written. I'm trying to prep my HL students for any possibility but the possible inclusion of animal research complicates things because so many of the standard questions either don't make a lot of sense or they require a different set of knowledge and approach to answer appropriately.

Michael Harnish 5 June 2018 - 13:59

I have another question about something I'm indecisive about: For question 1c, when it says "an alternative or additional research method" are they expecting something from a different category or is a choice within the same category acceptable. For example, in the specimen paper, they used a semi-structured interview; does the alternative method need to be something like a non-participant observation or would a narrative interview be an acceptable choice? The mark scheme seems to suggest the latter, but I don't trust anything associated with the specimen papers given the problems with the other ones. What are you advising? To me coming up with an alternative within the same category is pretty easy (in many cases almost too easy) but coming up with alternatives from another category is potentially very difficult depending on the original study - for example, if they give you a case study as your example, there aren't a lot of actual method alternatives, just alternative ways of collecting data.

John Crane 5 June 2018 - 17:37

Dear Michael

I am going with the specimen paper on this one. You are right that it is a bit too easy to just use a different type of interview or observation. I think that it is too much to ask students to come up with a completely different method - and for so few marks! As for case study, that is a good question. How would an alternative method be possible? Does that mean that they will never use a case study? I will write and ask about this one. We will see if I get a response.

Michael Harnish 6 June 2018 - 07:46

Thanks. I know I sometimes think to hard about these things but these days all I teach is DP Psych and so 75% of my work day is spent neck deep in the syllabus.

Michael Harnish 6 June 2018 - 07:56

Yet another question: Are we expected to cover surveys (i.e., can they be used as a method tested in paper 3)? They're not in the content list (page 37-38) but are mentioned under interviews in the clarification text as a quantitative method and are also mentioned in the specimen paper mark scheme.

John Crane 7 June 2018 - 04:31

As far as I understand, no. But they need to clean up the guide for the methodology section. I tis very unclear and there are many errors.

Lindsay Mould 25 August 2018 - 05:05

Hi John,
This example is really helpful thanks. I saw in the comments above that you are working on another exemplar and I wondered if you have anything for:
"Describe the ethical considerations in reporting the results and explain ethical considerations that could be taken into account when applying the findings of the study.'?

I know we want to focus on things like protection of harm, confidentiality within handling of information and maybe sensitive consideration of the social implications, but we don't know how deep we need to go here. The command terms are really throwing us.
Describe= detail. ConsiderationS= more than one. This in itself seems like enough for a 6 mark question and then they double it by asking them to Explain (with reasons) two more! By my maths that is 4 separate considerations that this question is asking for with detail all for 6 marks. I've emailed the Ib about this and spoken to Cory multiple times about this question (first time at the seminar back in March 2017 before the new specification was published) and I've basically just been dismissed and there is surely no problem with this question...

How do you plan to approach this? Have you seen any clarifications on this anywhere?

Lindsay Mould 25 August 2018 - 10:28

They asked this for the specimen paper and honestly their markscheme for this Q makes no sense-

Lindsay Mould 25 August 2018 - 05:10

Also, I'm assuming they just wouldn't ask the credibility question for a quantitative study seeing as it's a qualitative term? Generalizability and bias should still work.

John Crane 26 August 2018 - 06:07

Dear Lindsay

There are several examples now under "Practicing paper 3" under new curriculum resources. This one has an attempt at that question:

I agree with you about the nature of the questions. I was also dismissed for my concerns. I also agree that the specimen paper makes no sense, so I have attempted to answer the question in the sample above. But I find it very difficult to find research where such a question could be applied. And I agree with you about the credibility question, although I don't know how students are going to be able to write very much on a generalization question from an experimental study..... Sorry, not very optimistic about this one.

Lindsay Mould 27 August 2018 - 12:06

That's great- thanks John. I'm glad I'm not the only one who sees issues with this paper. I'm really unimpressed with the lack of credence given to the seemingly large number of objections being raised by the people who actually teach this. They say that the specification was made with consultation with teachers but they certainly didn't actually listen/act on the concerns we raised in the march seminar, pre-publication. One response I had on the course was essentially insinuating that I am a bad teacher for trying to teach to the test and trying to work out structures for how to answer questions well. I get that they want to avoid formulaic answers but they don't seem to understand that we can't teach in any style effectively without a firm understanding of what students should be aiming at. I also think they don't really understand what it means to teach EAL students essay skills.
Anyway, sorry for the rant. I do take some comfort in knowing that this frustration is a shared one and that grade boundaries are a relative thing!

John Crane 28 August 2018 - 04:52

I hear you, Lindsay. I have also written many, many emails....

Lindsay Mould 23 September 2018 - 10:31

Hi John,
I was just looking at this again and I'm wondering what the IB would make of ethical considerations that are from that grey area in terms of whether they apply to the conducting/ reporting of a study.
The question used in the sample above is on the 'ethics applied in the study' question but one of the elements of your sample answer could arguably be more related to the other ethics question about reporting the results:
"Another concern is the audio recording of the focus groups. These recordings should not be used in a public forum which might allow the participants to be recognized."

I don't see a problem with it as the wording of the questions to me reads that the first question is about ethics within the study (any aspect before/during/after) whereas the second question is specifically about the reporting and use of the results (after). Do you think that the IB will consider the first question to be specifically about ethical considerations related to the conducting of the study? It seems from the seminar we went on before the course came out that they were trying to distinguish between ethics during/after a study. I think there is just more overlap than they were considering when they decided this and the first question is worded in a way that makes it really general.

What do you think? Do you see any issues in teaching that the first question is fairly free rein but that question 2 has to relate to the reporting/implications of research?

John Crane 24 September 2018 - 05:35

Dear Lindsay,

I totally agree.