How to Answer SAQ's

In your final IB Psychology examinations, there will be three types of questions that you will need to answer:

  • Short Answer Questions (SAQ) - These will appear on the Paper 1 exam (Core syllabus)

  • Essays - Essay questions will appear on both Paper 1 (Core syllabus) and Paper 2 (Options)

  • Research Method Questions (HL only) - These will appear on your Paper 3 exam 

This page will explain the first type of question, the Short Answer Questions that will appear on your Paper 1.  After reading through this page, you should have a good idea of how to obtain a top score on all of your SAQ's.

SAQ: Key Facts

First, let's begin by looking at some key facts about Short Answer Questions:

  • There are three short answer questions on Paper 1.  You must answer all of them.

  • There will be one SAQ from each level of analysis: Biological, Cognitive, and Sociocultural

  • The maximum score per SAQ is 9 marks, for a total of 27 marks for all three.

  • You will have approximately 20 minutes to write each SAQ (one hour to answer all three SAQ's)

  • Short answer questions are not exactly short.  One answer should be about 300 words, or about the length of 1 - 1.5 handwritten pages

  • A SAQ should contain a detailed description of one research study

Exam Tip

Here is an example of what the three SAQ's will look like on your Paper 1 Exam:

SAQ: Assessment Criteria​I

For any examination or assignment, its very important to pay close attention to the assessment criteria.  After all, this is what the examiners will be using to determine your grade!  Once you have a good understanding of how a SAQ is assessed, you can tailor your answer to make sure you meet all of the criteria.

Here is the assessment criteria for a SAQ:

If you compare the criteria for a mid-range answer (4-6 points) with an excellent answer (7-9 points), you will notice that there are three key differences:

  • Focusing on the question, and meeting the command term requirements.  Your response has to clearly answer the question, without straying off topic.  In addition, your answer has to meet the requirements of the command term.  The command terms will be discussed in more detail below.

  • Accuracy, relevance and depth of knowledge.  Your answer has to be accurate (no making thing up!), and contain knowledge that actually answers the question.  Moreover, you need to demonstrate a certain depth of knowledge to get a top score.  

  • Explicitly linking research to the question.  Every SAQ should discuss one research study.  But its not enough just to describe the research.  You need to explain why this research study is relevant.  In other words, what does this study tell us that is important or worthy of discussion?  How do the results of this study help to answer the question?

SAQ Command Terms

The command term is the first word that appears in the question.  Depending on the command term, your answer needs to be written in a different way.  Meeting the requirements of the command term is necessary in order to reach the top mark band of 7-9 points for your SAQ.

Here are the command terms you will come across for SAQ's:
The command terms may seem quite vague, and that is because the same command terms are used across all of the IB subjects.  Nonetheless, there are a few points to notice:

  • Breaking ideas down into parts:  For the AO2 command terms (Comment, Explain, and Suggest), you are required to break ideas down into parts.  That means that you should identify complex ideas, and see how these ideas can be broken down into smaller pieces.  For instance, the idea of Social Learning is quite a complex idea; it occurs in a number of steps, and each step should be explained further.

  • Describe vs. Explain:  Both of these command terms require you to give a detailed account, but Explain also requires that you give reasons or causes - in other words, to explain Why?  To give a simple example, imagine you are asked to describe a bride's wedding dress.  You would answer by focusing on the fabric, the color, the cut and the design of the dress.  But if you were asked to explain the bride's dress, you would also need to articulate why the bride is wearing such attire.  You could do so by explaining why brides, in this culture, wear this particular style of clothing.

Structuring your SAQ Answer

There are many possible ways of answering a SAQ.  However, one format that works well is to write an answer consisting of two well developed paragraphs.  Each paragraph should be around half a page in length, or around 150 words, for a total of 300 words.  The first paragraph involves general knowledge of the topic, while the second paragraph applies a research study to support your answer.

Paragraph 1 - General Knowledge

  • Define any key words / concepts in the question
  • ​Provide as much general knowledge on the topic as you can 
  • Explain concepts in detail, breaking down each big idea into smaller ideas or steps

Paragraph 2 - Supporting your knowledge with research

  • Identify a research study, explaining its significance in answering the question (Link into the study)
  • Describe the research study in detail, including the aim, procedure, findings, and conclusion
  • Explain why the results of this study matter.  What does this study tell us? (Link back​ to the question)
Exam Tip

When you are writing a SAQ, imagine that are writing for an audience who has never studied the subject before.  A person with no knowledge of Psychology should be able to read your answer and clearly understand it.  So every time you use a Psychology-related term such as schema, stereotype, or attribution, make sure you explain the meaning of these terms, in as much detail as you can.

It may seem silly to explain these terms when you know that the examiner is likely to already be familiar with them, but this is a great way to demonstrate detailed and accurate knowledge to the examiner, and get the best possible results.
Sample SAQ Outline

The best way to prepare for an exam is to write detailed outlines in advance for all of the possible questions.  Of course, you won't know exactly what questions will be asked, but the syllabus will give you a pretty good idea of what to expect.  There shouldn't be any surprises on exam day.  

You will need to adapt your answer for different command terms, however, so be prepared to "tweak" your outlines to meet the requirements of the command term.

Here's an example of what a SAQ outline could look like.  

Question: Explain how one hormone may influence one human behavior

Paragraph 1 - General knowledge on testosterone

  • Explain what a hormone is, and how it affects behavior
  • Identify testosterone as a hormone, explaining how it functions in the body
  • List some of the behavioral effects of testosterone
  • Discuss how testosterone may play a role in status-seeking and aggression

Paragraph 2 - Research study: Dabbs

  • Link into the study - explain why Dabbs' research aim is relevant to the question
  • Aim, procedure, findings, conclusion of Dabbs
  • Link back to the question - explain what Dabbs' findings tell us about how testestrone influences behavior

Sample SAQ Answer

The following sample answer is based on the outline above.  Try to "match" each bullet point on the outline with the corresponding sentence(s) in the answer below.

Question: Explain how one hormone may influence one human behavior

Hormones are a particular class of chemical that affect human behavior.  Hormones are produced in the human body by glands that make up the endocrine system.  Hormones are then released into the blood stream, where they can influence behavior.  One such hormone is testosterone.  Testosterone is a sex hormone, produced in the male testes and the female ovaries.  Although both males and females produce testosterone, the quantity in males is approximately ten times that of females.  Testosterone has been linked to status-seeking and aggressiveness.  People with higher levels of testosterone may be more competitive, more likely to take risks, seek higher positions within a social hierarchy, and are more likely to respond with aggression in order to secure their place in the social pecking order.  This may be both advantageous or destructive, depending on the context.  For some people, high levels of testosterone can boost healthy competitiveness in fields such as sports, law, and the banking industry, where success often involves dominating and outwitting your rivals.  On the other hand, high levels of testosterone, expressed in the wrong contexts, could also lead to aggressive behavior and violence, including criminality.

A research study on the role of testosterone in aggression and criminality was carried out by Dabbs.  The aim of the study was to investigate whether testosterone levels may influence the type of criminal activity committed by prison inmates.  The study involved a large sample of 692 inmates in a prison population.   Saliva samples were taken of the inmates, which were used to measure testosterone levels.  The criminals record of each inmate was also analyzed, and inmates were categorized according to whether they had committed violent or non-violent offences.  Results of the research indicated that prisoners with higher levels of testosterone in their saliva were more likely to have committed violent crimes, such as rape, assault or murder, while prisoners with lower levels of testosterone were more likely to have committed non-violent crimes, such as fraud or income tax evasion.  Based on these results, Dabbs concluded that testosterone may influence the types of criminal acts that people are likely to commit.  This study supports the link between testosterone and violent aggression.  Higher levels of testosterone may have been a factor that led some criminals to act violently when their status or social position is threatened.

Exam Tip

Many students lose marks on SAQ's because they don't read the question carefully, discuss irrelevent knowledge, or fail to understand what is required for an SAQ answer.

Here are the top tips to make sure you don't fall into some of the common SAQ traps!

  • Don't evaluate research in an SAQ.  The mark scheme for an SAQ does not include any points for critical thinking, so don't bother evaluating research.  The examiner will ignore any evaluation in your answer, and you will have wasted precious exam time.

  • Stick to answering the question - no more, no less.  Suppose that, for the SAQ previously answered on hormones, you actually know two hormones very well - testosterone and oxytocin.  Surely, giving detailed knowledge of two hormones will give you more points than just one?  Actually, nope.  Since the question asks you to discuss just ONE hormone, the examiner is only allowed to give you points for the first hormone you discuss.  Anything you write on a second hormone will be ignored.  Worse still, if you mentioned testosterone first, but then spent the rest of you SAQ discussing oxytocin, you will score very low, since anything you've written on oxytocin will not be graded

  • Stay focused on the question (writing a quick outline helps!)  On your exam, its normal to be very nervous, and to feel like your brain is exploding with all of the knowledge you've studied.  One of the biggest mistakes to make on an exam is to lose focus on the question, and write pages and pages of knowledge - that has nothing at all to do with the question!  To make sure this doesn't happen to you, its a great idea to spend a minute or two to write down a quick outline of your answer before you get started.
Quiz Yourself

1.  Approximately how long should an SAQ answer be?

(a) About half a page, or 200 words

(b) About one full page, or 300 words

(c) About two full pages, or 600 words

(d) About three full pages, or 900 words

2.  How many research studies should you discuss in an SAQ?

(a) Its not necessary to discuss research

(b) A minimum of one research study

(c) A minimum of two research studies

(d) A minimum of three research studies

3.  Which command term will NOT appear for a SAQ?

(a) Evaluate

(b) Describe

(c) Explain

(d) Suggest

4.  "Give a brief account or summary". Which command term is this?

(a) Describe

(b) Explain

(c) Comment

(d) Outline

5.  "Give a detailed accout, including reasons and causes". What command term is this?

(a) Describe

(b) Explain

(c) Comment

(d) Outline

6.  Which is NOT necessary to obtain full marks in a SAQ?

(a) Explicitly linking research to the question

(b) Meeting the command term requirements

(c) Supporting the answer with appropriate research

(d) Evaluating strengths and limitations of research


1 - B, 2 - B, 3 - A, 4 - D, 5 - B, 6 - D