Writing about a Research Study

A significant part of your Short Answer or Essay responses should be devoted to describing relevant research studies.  For a short answer question, you are generally required to discuss one research study, while for an essay, you should be discussing (and evaluating) two or three research studies.  

But it isn't enough to merely describe a research study.  The challenge is to apply the research study to help answer the question.  This lesson will help you do that effectively.
Think Critically

On a Psychology exam, a short answer question appeared as follows:

"Discuss localization of brain function"

Two students, Joseph and Marie, both decided to discuss the case study of Phineas Gage in response to this question.  Read the beginning of Joseph's and Marie's answer, and decide which answer is better and why.

Joseph's answer:

"Phineas Gage was a railroad worker who was involved in a tragic accident.  A metal rod passed through his skull, causing extensive damage to his left frontal lobe.  Afterwards, Harlow conducted a case study to observe how Phineas' behavior changed after the accident"

Marie's answer

"Some of the earliest evidence for brain localization came from the case study of Phineas Gage, who suffered extensive damage to his left frontal lobe in a tragic accident.  After the accident, Harlow conducted a case study to observe how Phineas' behavior changed as a result of frontal lobe damage"

Research to Support Answer

If you said that Marie's answer was better, you were correct!  What's the difference between the two answers, and how can you avoid Joseph's mistake?  The key point is that you should be using research evidence to help answer the question.  

In the example shown above, the question is about brain localization, the theory that different parts of the brain are responsible for different functions.  The case study on Phineas Gage is relevant to this question, because the case demonstrates how damage to the frontal lobes can cause changes in ability to control impulses, manage  emotions, and follow through on long term plans.  But Joseph hasn't really explained that - he's just launched into a description of the case study.  Someone reading Joseph's answer would probably wonder, "Why is he writing about Phineas Gage?  This answer is supposed to be about brain localization!"  In contrast, Marie made a clear link between the question and the study, so it is clear to the reader why she has chosen to discuss Phineas Gage in support of her answer.

Fortunately, there is a simple step-by-step rule for writing about a research study effectively.  Whenever you are describing a research study, whether it be in an SAQ or an essay, follow the steps below:

1Link from the question to the study.  (1 sentence)  Using the key terms from the question, explain why this particular research study will provide useful and relevant information.  For instance, in the example above, Marie has stated that the case study on Phineas Gage has provided some of the earliest evidence of brain localization.

2.  Aim of the study. (1 sentence)  Explain the purpose of the research study.  What were the researchers trying to find out?  What research question was being investigated?

3.  Procedure (2-3+ sentences)  Explain the research method utilized in the study, identifying whether the study was an experiment, a correlational study, a case study, etc.  Give some details that demonstrate your understanding of research - for instance, if it was an experiment, identify independent and dependent variables.

4.  Findings (2-3+ sentences)  Summarize the data or observations that researchers collected from the study.

5.  Conclusion (1 sentence)  Based on the findings, what can be concluded from this study?

6.  Link the study back to the question (1 sentence)  Finally, the last step - perhaps the most important - is to explain the relevance of this study with regards to the question.  What does this study tell us?  Why is it important?  For instance, in the example above, Marie should discuss how the case study on Phineas Gage demonstrates brain localization by illustrating the importance of the front lobe in regulating emotion, planning for the future, and controlling impulsive behavior.

There you have it - if you follow the steps above, you will have written a very solid, 8-10 sentence paragraph that not only describes a research study in detail, but uses that research to support your answer to the question.  The steps described above can be summarized in this diagram:

Assessment Criteria 

It is always a good idea to be familiar with the assessment criteria - that is how teachers (and the IB examiners!) will be grading your answers.  Here is the assessment criteria for Criterion C - Use of Research to Support Answer, which is the focus of this lesson.  Read the criteria carefully - what are the key words?
As you can see, to get the top mark band for this criteria it isn't enough just to describe a study in detail.  You also need to use the research effectively to develop the argument.  For instance, using the Phineas Gage example once again, you would need to explain how the case study provides evidence of brain localization.  Although research studies are often interesting in their own right, remember the ultimate aim of research - to tell us something important about human behavior.
Try it Out

Now it is time to practice what you've been learning.  For each of the questions below, write a one paragraph description of the research study using the steps described above.  Pay particular attention to the first and last sentence of the paragraph - in which you link the study to the question.  If you are working with other students, you might want to each work on one question, and then give feedback on each other's answers.

Writing Task #1

Question: Discuss the role of one or more hormones in human behavior

Study: Dabbs

Writing Task #2

Question: Explain the use of brain imaging technology in investigating behavior

Study: Raine

Writing Task #3

Question: Explain one effect of the environment on physiological processes

Study: Macguire