Writing ERQs

Essays - or what the IB calls ERQ's (extended response questions) - are important for both Papers 1 and 2.

On Paper 1, you have three essay prompts - one from each of the approaches.  You have to choose one.  The prompts are not the same for SL and HL.  On the HL paper, at least one of the prompts will be from one of the HL extensions.  It is possible that all three of the questions will come from the extensions.

Paper 2 focuses on the options.  SL will have to answer one essay in the one hour of their exam; HL will have to answer two essays - each from a different option - and will have two hours to do so.  You will have to choose from three questions from each option. One question will be taken from each of the components of the option.

Sample ERQ

ERQs can use the command terms contrast, discuss, evaluate and to what extent.

So for the cognitive approach, you could be asked the following questions about the reliability of a cognitive process

Cognitive approach

Discuss the reliability of a cognitive process.

Evaluate research on the reliability of a cognitive process.

To what extent is one cognitive process reliable.

Remember, on Paper 1, you get three essays to choose from - one from each approach.

For Paper 2, you get three essays to choose from for each of the options.  You choose one.

If you have prepared the abnormal option, the following is an example of what you might see on exam day.

Abnormal psychology

1. To what extent is diagnosis reliable?

2. Evaluate a cognitive approach to explaining the etiology of one disorder.

3. Discuss the effectiveness of one treatment of one disorder.

Notice that question 1 comes from "factors influencing diagnosis"; question 2 comes from "aetiology of abnormal behaviours" and question 3 comes from "treatments of disorders."

You choose only one of these questions to answer. If you are HL, you would answer one of these questions and then a second question which has to come from one of the other options - developmental, health or human relationships.

Writing an essay is a more complex task than writing an SAQ.  First, you are expected to write on a topic for an hour - not just for twenty minutes.  Secondly, the command terms go beyond description, asking you to argue a position and demonstrate a higher level of critical thinking.  Finally, you are expected to use more than one piece of research to support your argument. 

In the box below, you will find the assessment rubric for the essay questions.  Below the box you will find each of the criteria "unpacked" and a bit more clearly explained.

The ERQ assessment rubric

Criterion A. Focus on the question (2 marks)

MarkbandLevel descriptor
0Does not reach the standard described by the descriptors below.
1Identifies the problem/issue raised in the question.
2Explains the problem/issue raised in the question.

Criterion B.  Knowledge and understanding (6 marks)

MarkbandLevel descriptor
0Does not reach the standard described by the descriptors below.
1 - 2The response demonstrates limited relevant knowledge and understanding.
Psychological terminology is used but with errors that hamper understanding.
3 - 4The response demonstrates relevant knowledge and understanding but lacks detail.
Psychological terminology is used but with errors that do not hamper understanding.
5 - 6The response demonstrates relevant, detailed knowledge and understanding.
Psychological terminology is used appropriately.

Criterion C. Use of research to support answer (6 marks)

MarkbandLevel descriptor
0Does not reach the standard described by the descriptors below.
1 - 2Limited relevant psychological research is used in the response.
Research selected serves to repeat points already made.
3 - 4Relevant psychological research is used in support of the response and is partly explained.
Research selected partially develops the argument.
5 - 6Relevant psychological research is used in support of the response and is thoroughly explained.
Research selected is effectively used to develop the argument.

Criterion D.  Critical thinking (6 marks)

MarkbandLevel descriptor
0Does not reach the standard described by the descriptors below.
1 - 2There is limited critical thinking and the response is mainly descriptive.
Evaluation or discussion, if present, is superficial.
3 - 4The response contains critical thinking, but lacks development.
Evaluation or discussion of most relevant areas is attempted but is not developed.
5 - 6The response consistently demonstrates well-developed critical thinking.
Evaluation or discussion of relevant areas is consistently well developed.

Criterion E. Clarity and organization (2 marks)

MarkbandLevel descriptor
0Does not reach the standard described by the descriptors below.
1The answer demonstrates some organization and clarity, but this is not sustained throughout the response.
2The answer demonstrates organization and clarity throughout the response.

The criteria unpacked

The following section unpacks the criteria. 

In order to do this, we are going to use the question "Discuss stereotypes" from the sociocultural approach.

Criterion A. Focus on the question

In the introduction to your essay, it is important that you accomplish a few key objectives. First, you need to explain the question.  The IB gives you a very general question, so you have to then focus the question in the introduction.  In the case of our question, you may choose to write about "the effect of stereotypes on behaviour." This should be stated in the introduction.

In addition, you should outline your argument and define any important terms relevant this question.  You may want to say that stereotypes affect both the person who has the stereotype about a group - and those who are "stereotyped."  You would then say that the essay will look at how stereotyping can lead to memory distortion and to stereotype threat. As stereotyping and stereotype threat are terms particular to this question, you should define the term.

Criterion B. Knowledge and understanding

In assessing your essay, examiners are separating out your knowledge of theory from your knowledge of studies. This criterion looks at your understanding of the content for this question and your ability to use psychological terminology to explain your ideas and to use the terminology correctly.

With regard to our question, knowledge and understanding would focus on your understanding of stereotype threat and how it works - and why memory is actually distorted. The theories would be clearly outlined and vocabulary - such as schema, spotlight anxiety or cognitive dissonance - would be used correctly in your explanation. 

It is also important that vocabulary relevant to critical thinking is correctly applied.  Be careful of words like control, reliability, internal validity, credibility, demand characteristics and ecological validity.  These are terms that are often incorrectly used in psychology essays.

Criterion C. Use of research to support answer

This section of the rubric is both about our choice of research and how you use it in your essay. Notice that the low markband says "limited relevant research" - limited in this case means one.  Although you will want more than one piece of research in your essay, you can earn full marks by having only two pieces of research.

In this case, I would have one study that demonstrates how stereotyping can lead to memory distortion - and then another study that looks at stereotype threat. It is important that you link the studies directly to the question.  In this case, each study used should directly show the role of stereotypes.  If that is missing, then your research is not well explained.

It is also important that the research you use develops an argument.  Do not use two studies that are essentially the same.  If you are writing an essay on localization of function, using both HM and the case of Clive Wearing is not very helpful to developing an argument. Instead, maybe using Maguire to show another aspect of the role of the hippocampus would be better.

Criterion D. Critical thinking

Critical thinking has at least two layers in an essay.  First, there is the evaluation of the research that you are using to support your argument.  Secondly, there is the more holistic approach to answering the question. It is important to remember that you are not simply assessed on critical thinking; you are assessed on critical thinking that is relevant to the question. 

When evaluating research, remember that you should be doing this in the context of "how well does this answer the question?" When using a study to show evidence of stereotyping, how good is this evidence?  You might want to discuss the artificiality of the task and how it does not allow us to predict what will happen in a natural environment.  You could also discuss how extraneous variables may have affected the findings.  You could even talk about how the study may be dated, difficult to replicate or culturally biased.  However, commenting on whether ethical considerations were addressed is not highly relevant to the question.  If your evaluation point is "no consent was obtained for this study," that is considered of marginal relevance to the question.

Secondly, there is the more holistic approach to critical thinking. If the command term is "discuss", then a holistic paragraph is in order.  This paragraph would discuss the general issues of the question.  In the case of stereotyping, it might be about the difficulties of studying stereotyping in a naturalistic setting.  It could also be about the importance of research on stereotype threat - or even some of the limitations of the theory of stereotype threat.  In an "evaluate" question - for example, Evaluate schema theory -  it is important to have a section of the essay that goes beyond evaluating research and looks more holistically at an evaluation of the theory itself.  This is where TEACUP is in order.

Criterion E. Clarity and organization

Finally, although there are no clear rules for exactly how the essay must be written, it must be written in a way that is readable, well organized and clearly makes an argument. 

Writing your essay

The best approach to starting your essay is to first make an outline in order to organize your thinking and to plan on how you are going to make your argument. An outline will help you to structure your argument. If your answer does not have a main point, it cannot be arguing for anything. Asking yourself what your point is can help you to avoid writing the first thing that happens to come into your head or engaging in disorganized “information dump”. This is true both for the SAQs and the essays. Information dump - that is, telling the examiner everything you have memorized -  will not earn you high marks.

When you write a paper in psychology, you write for what is called “an audience”. The audience in this case is your teacher or an examiner. Think of your audience as someone you are supposed to convince, who is reasonably knowledgeable, but not necessarily an expert. You should also consider that your audience may not necessarily agree with you. It is your job to convince the audience by presenting good solid arguments and providing evidence. In psychology, empirical research and psychological theories count as evidence. It is not enough to express your opinion or feel very strongly about something in order to make your audience accept your claims.

Finally, you must be aware that your audience cannot read your mind. It is up to you to inform the reader through your explanation and interpretation of the evidence you present in support of your claim. This explicit explanation of your thinking and linking that thinking back to the question is the key to good grades.

Five steps towards a successful essay

Let's look at a different question from Paper 1: Evaluate the use of one research method in the study of the individual and the group.

1. Identify command terms

Evaluate, which means you have to discuss both the strengths and limitations of the research method.

2. Identify content

What are you supposed to evaluate?  One research method.

3. Identify relevant research studies

You should find two studies that are somehow different in order to develop an argument.

4. Evaluate your evidence

Identify the strengths and limitations of the studies you will use.

5. Directly answer the question

Remember, simply evaluating research is usually not enough.  What do you need to do to answer the question?

A possible outline

The following is a sample of a possible outline based on the five points above.

Evaluate the use of one research method in the study of the individual and the group.

Introduction:  Definition of an experiment.  Use Asch (lab experiment) and Piliavin's metro study (field experiment).

Paragraph 1: Outline characteristics of an experiment. Distinguish between a lab and field experiment.

Paragraph 2: Explain the Asch study - link it to the method - evaluate.

Paragraph 3: Explain the Piliavin study - link it to the method - evaluate.

Paragraph 4: Evaluate the use of experiments in general. Advantages and disadvantages of lab and field experiments.


Key things to remember when writing your essay

Your introduction should define terms and outline theories.

In your introduction, identify how you are going to answer the question.

You need at least two pieces of research.  All research must be described in terms of its aim, procedure and results.

All critical thinking must be relevant to the demands of the question.

Do not just identify strengths and limitations of research - explain them.

Keep looking back at your question to make sure that you are answering it and meeting the command term.

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Comments 4

Donald Pippin 21 April 2018 - 16:46

John, when you say 'two' pieces of research, does that mean: a) two total for the whole essay; or b) two per theory, which could end up to as many as four studies.

John Crane 22 April 2018 - 10:32

Two for the entire essay.

Reva George 17 September 2018 - 07:01

Dear John
Your resources here are of such great help to me as I am just starting out. A question I want to ask is..... Is there an approx word limit for ERQs? I know for SAQs, it is around 250-200 words.

John Crane 18 September 2018 - 05:25

Dear Reva

There is no word limit for either SAQs or ERQs. There is only an average length. I would say that most essays are 750 - 850 words.