IB Stress case study

The following is a sample Paper 3 that looks at a case study of a single school. Below you will first find the stimulus piece, followed by the static questions.  A copy of the mock paper is included to give students as an in-class assessment.

Potential answers are included in the hidden boxes below.

Student copy

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 a normal part of adolescence. Suldo et al (2008) carried out a case study of one school’s IB program to see how students cope with stress.  The school responded to an advertisement by the researcher, looking for an IB school that had been teaching the program for at least five years but fewer than ten years. The school was a state-run school but with a rigorous testing program in order to be accepted.

Forty-eight students from the school’s International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma program were randomly selected to participate in eight focus groups, in which participants were grouped by level of anxiety. In addition, several students carried out one on one interviews with the researchers. 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 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) Anxiety Problems scale. Participants ranged in age from 15 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).

A single researcher facilitated each 45- to 75-minute focus group while another member of the research team recorded the interviews as well as took field notes. The researcher 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 behaviours 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 the students’ classes to see how they 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 that corresponded to 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.


1a. Identify the method used and outline two characteristics of the method.

A case study is a long-term study of an individual or group that is carried out by a combination of research methods. It is also usually long-term in nature. Unlike an experiment which may give an example of a single response to stress, this study allows the researchers to observe how the students respond to stress over a period of time. Any particular day may be more stressful than another, so it is important that a longer period is observed. In addition, case studies have high ecological validity. This study is done in the school under day-to-day conditions. This means that there are no variables which are controlled and the situation is not artificial.
Finally, case studies use method triangulation. In this case, the researchers carried out participant observations, one-on-one interviews and a focus group. Each of these methods has its own strengths and limitations. By using several research methods to gather data, the researcher can see if the behaviour of the students is consistent across all the methods - in other words, the researchers want to know that it was not the method alone that resulted in the findings that they obtained.

1b. Describe the sampling method used in the study.

The sampling method for this study is a bit complex.  First, it is a self-selected sample. The researchers put out an ad looking for a school that had certain characteristics.  Thus, it was also a purposive sample.  Once the school was chosen, then the sample used from the population was randomly selected.  The text does not explain how.  This could have been done by a random number generator, for example. 

1c. Suggest an alternative or additional research method giving one reason for your choice.

A questionnaire could be used that would ask the participants about how they deal with stress.  This could be useful as it allows the participant to reflect more than in a one-on-one interview situation.  If the questionnaires were coded so that the researcher could know which group the individual belonged to (high or low anxiety) without knowing who it actually was, it could also then control for demand characteristics and perhaps allow for a more "honest" response.  Finally, questionnaires allow the researchers to efficiently collect data without then having to transcribe the responses, as would have to be done after an interview.

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

The researchers would have had to obtain informed consent from the school, the parents and the students. As part of that, they would have to know that they had the right to pull out of the study at any time, and that their data would be anonymized. The researchers did not deceive the students; they were told that this was a study of stress. There was no undue stress or harm in the study.  Students were observed in their natural environment, so they did not experience any more stress than they usually would on a normal day of school. Finally, the researchers would have to debrief the students.  In the debriefing they would have to explain the findings of the study and also give them the chance to withdraw their data. They should also provide advice to the students on how to manage their stress.

3. To what extent could you generalize the findings of this study?

There are three ways in which the findings of this study can be generalized. First, the findings can be generalized to the population from which the sample was taken. It can be assumed that the trend that was seen in the forty-eight participants in this sample represent to some extent the other members of the school community as the students were chosen randomly from the IB student population. The second way is what is called "transferability." The findings of this study could be generalized to a school that is similar. It would have to be, for example, an IB school of similar size with a similar student population. It would not be appropriate to generalize the findings to a large urban public school, a non-IB school or an international school. Finally, the findings could be generalized to support a theory. In this case, it could be used to support the theory that one's coping strategies are based on one's normal level of anxiety. If there are several case studies that all come up with the same interpretation, this helps to support a theory.
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