Describe vs outline

Two of the most difficult to distinguish command terms are "outline" and "describe."  According to the IB curriculum guide, outline means to "give a brief account or summary of something."  Describe means "give a detailed account." Often outline is used when referring to theories and describe is used when referring to research methods, concepts or studies.  That being said, there is no clear rule to distinguish between the two.  Rather than worry about what is meant by "brief" vs. "detailed" - it is important to understand what examiners are looking for. As we will see, it is often the case that students automatically describe a study, rather than what the question is really asking you to do.

Remember - these command terms are only used in SAQ's.

Decoding the question

First, it is important to learn how to decode questions. Here are a some of the questions that you could be asked:

  • Describe one cultural dimension with reference to one study.
  • Describe the use of one research method in one study of the role of genes on behaviour.
  • Outline one theory of how emotion may affect one cognitive process, with reference to one study.
  • Describe one study of localization of function.
  • Outline one model of one cognitive process.

Understanding the questions requires a bit of English grammar. It is important to understand that the question is asking you to describe the "object of the verb." So, describe "the dimension," or describe "the research method," or outline "the model." Although some of the questions ask you to also provide a study, the study is simply an illustration.

When SAQs are marked, if you describe a relevant study, then the maximum score is usually 4 marks out of 9. In order to get full marks, you need to:

  1. Focus on what the question is asking you to outline or describe.
  2. Be sure to include adequate detail in your description.
  3. Choose an appropriate study to illustrate the concept, model or theory.
  4. Link the study to the description.

The final step is what puts the response in the 7 - 9 mark range.

Outlining and describing

So, now what?

Let's start with the first question above: Describe one cultural dimension with reference to one study.

What do we need to do before we begin?

  • Understand that I need to describe -  a cultural dimension.
  • Choose a cultural dimension - for example, I-C (individualism/collectivism)
  • Think about how I can link a study to the description of the dimension.

When thinking about a description of I-C, here are some things to consider:

  • Individualistic cultures focus on personal achievement, independence and uniqueness.  They also stress self-actualization, privacy and freedom.
  • Collectivistic cultures focus on social harmony, interdependence and group membership.  They also stress modesty and tradition. Privacy is not a value.

Now that we have the basics down, it is possible to write the SAQ. If you were going to write this one, consider the following:

  • Define what is meant by a cultural dimension.
  • Describe the dimension, using the traits outlined above.
  • Choose a study - such as Berry et al or Chen et al.
  • Make the link - that is, which traits of the dimension that you described are also in the study you have chosen?

Task 1

Now it's your turn. Below are the other four questions listed above. For each question, think about what information is necessary to write your "description." After you have done that, it is time to practice writing your SAQs!

1.  Describe the use of one research method in one study of the role of genes on behaviour.

What are we going to describe?

A research method.  For example, you would describe what a quasi experiment is.

What do we need to know about this concept in order to describe it to someone else?

There is an IV that is not manipulated by the research; the method cannot control for extraneous variables, but it does establish a correlation.

How do we link this description to a study?

For example, Caspi et al.  The IV is not manipulated - the variation of the 5HTT gene is natural.  Although extraneous variables are not controlled, they are identified.  A correlation is established between the genetic variation and depression.

Task 2

2. Outline one theory of how emotion may affect one cognitive process, with reference to one study.

What are we going to outline?

A theory - for example, Flashbulb memory theory.

What do we need to know about this concept in order to describe it to someone else?

The role of the personal relevance of the experience and the element of surprise.  The vividness of the memories.

How do we link this description to a study?

For example, Brown & Kulik.  The African American participants had greater recall of details related to the death of Martin Luther King Jr as a result of the personal relevance of his assassination.  The assassination was also a surprise.

Task 3

3. Describe one study of localization of function

What are we going to describe?

A study.  In this case, the study is the focus - unlike the first three questions we have looked at. We described at HM.

What do we need to know about this concept in order to describe it to someone else?

It was a case study; there were several tests done - IQ testing, MRI, mirror drawing, interviews and observations. There is a lot of detail in this study with regard to the procedure and the results.

How do we link this description to the question?

We need to link the study to localization of function.  It is important to make sure that the description of the results clearly identifies the role of the hippocampus on specific behaviours/cognitive functioning.

Task 4

4. Outline one model or theory of one cognitive process with reference to one study.

What are we going to outline?

We have to outline a model or theory. In this case, the Multi Store Model.

What do we need to know about this concept in order to explain it to someone else?

We should be able to identify the components of the model and briefly indicate what they do.

How do we link this explanation to a study?

A link to HM would be appropriate here.  As the focus is on outlining the model, there would not need to be much detail about the study - just enough to make a link to the model.

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