Discussing discuss

Some of the most common essay questions are those that start with the command term “discuss”. According to the IB curriculum guides, discuss means to “Offer a considered and balanced review that includes a range of arguments, factors or hypotheses.” For my students and me, this language is pretty wordy. So, instead, I recommend that they “present an argument.” In doing so, they should think globally with regard to the question and not simply evaluate the studies that they use to support their position. I also tell them to think about “what are the issues when we discuss this question?”

The key to a good discussion is that goes beyond description and addresses the complexities of the question.

Decoding the question

First, it is important to learn how to decode questions. Here are a few of the more tricky discuss questions in the curriculum:

  • Discuss ethical considerations related to research studies in the sociocultural approach to studying behaviour.
  • Discuss how social or cultural factors affect one cognitive process.
  • Discuss validity and reliability of diagnosis
  • Discuss research on resilience.
  • Discuss sociocultural factors in one health problem. 
  • Discuss the role of communication in maintaining relationships.

As always, understanding the questions requires a bit of English grammar. It is important to understand that the question is asking you to discuss the “object of the verb.” So, discuss “ethical considerations” or discuss “validity and reliability”, or discuss “the role.”

In order to get top marks for a discussion question, you should

  • Take a position in the introduction and clearly identify which research you will use to support it.
  • Provide empirical evidence to support your position.
  • Evaluate the studies in light of your position.
  • Give a global assessment of your position – what are the general problems with researching your question? What areas still need to be investigated?


Let’s start with the first question above: Discuss ethical considerations related to research studies at the sociocultural to studying behaviour.

What do we need to do before we begin?

  • Understand that you need to discuss ethical consideration.
  • Choose which ethical considerations you will discuss (eg. Informed consent & deception).
  • Take a position with regard to the question: for example, in order to carry out research on groups, the sociocultural approach has often used observational studies, which have concerns with informed consent, and experimental designs which often rely heavily on deception in order to study group behavior. Although there were ethical concerns, the research was important in our understanding of human social behavior.

When discussing ethical considerations, here are some things to consider:

  • What are the rules for consent when carrying out observations in public?
  • Why is deception a concern in psychology? How can it be justified?
  • How does research in social psychology differ from research in other levels of analysis with regard to ethical considerations: for example, the tendency to do field studies (e.g. Pavilian), the use of confederates (e.g. Asch) or the use of simulations (Zimbardo).

Notice that this question is not a general retelling of unethical studies or evaluating studies for their level of ethics.

Task 1

Now it’s your turn. Below are the other five questions listed above. For each question, think about what information is necessary to write your “discussion.” After you have done that, it is time to practice writing your ERQs!

1. Discuss how social or cultural factors affect one cognitive process.

What are we going to discuss?

The goal of this question is to look at how specific environmental/cultural factors may have an affect on a cognitive process, like memory. Sociocultural factors include poverty, diet, education, or deprivation.

The key to this question is to discuss how this happens. If I am looking at education, for example, and discussing Cole & Scribner's research, I can talk about developing schemas for learning though direct teaching. If I am looking at deprivation or poverty, I can look at the role of cortisol on hippocampal development.

How can we holistically discuss this question?

One of the key issues with this question is how psychologists isolate variables.  It is difficult to determine whether diet alone has a major effect on cognitive development.  There is also the question of individual differences.  Not all children who grow up poor have the same cognitive deficits. Also, it is very difficult to carry out ethical experimentation to try to determine a cause and effect relationship.

Task 2

2. Discuss validity and reliability of diagnosis

What are we going to discuss?

The goal here is to discuss both the level of validity of diagnosis - that is, the success of a diagnosis in leading to an effective treatment - and the reliability of diagnosis, or that different practitioners get the same diagnosis by carrying out the same tests. You shouldn't just show studies that indicate that reliability or validity may not always be strong, but discuss the factors that may play a role in the level of validity/reliability. One position that you may take is that research has shown that several factors may affect the validity and reliability of diagnosis - for example, the schema of the practitioner, cultural and/or gender biases and the problem of self-reported data from the "patient."

How can we holistically discuss this question?

There are several "global problems" with research on this question.  First, there is the problem of "rediagnosis." In the case of Lipton & Simon, although their level of reliability was low, it has to be acknowledged that the level of symptoms changes over time.  If a person has been treated then the symptoms may be different than when the first diagnosis was given.  It is difficult then to determine whether the same situation is being assessed - and thus claims about the lack of reliability are questionable.  In addition, there are several studies in which artificial situations are set up - for example, Li-Repac's study on cultural bias. When creating artificial/hypothetical situations, these are low in ecological validity and thus do not reflect how diagnoses are actually made. Finally, placebo effects in treatment may actually lead to improvement, even if the diagnosis was not actually correct. It is very difficult, therefore, to actually determine the level of reliability and validity.

Task 3

3. Discuss research on resilience.

What are we going to discuss?

The question is asking you to discuss research - so describing and explaining research that investigates the nature of resilience or even strategies for building resilience.  An essential part of this question would be a clear definition of resilience and then clearly linking each study to that definition.

How can we holistically discuss this question?

Most of the research is based on case studies or animal research  - both of which are difficult to generalize.  Also, resilience is difficult to measure. It is difficult to isolate variables in the research as there are so many factors - both dispositional and situational - which may influence an individual's behaviour.

Task 4

4. Discuss social aspects of stress.

What are we going to discuss?

First you have to identify what the social aspects will be - for example, social hierarchies and poverty. Then you have to make the link between these factors and stress.  Why do social hierarchies have this effect? How do we know what we know?

How can we holistically discuss this question?

Much of the research on this topic is longitudinal and prospective.  The benefits of this type of research should be discussed.  In addition, Sapolsky has done most of his research on animals (baboons); the question of the extent to which we can generalize from animal research would also be an important topic for this essay. Finally, the interaction of biological, cognitive and social aspects of stress should be addressed.  It is very difficult to isolate only one set of factors.  Focusing only on social aspects does not explain the differences that we see within each level of a hierarchy or in poor communities. Finally, you could discuss the implications of the research.

Task 5

5. Discuss the role of communication in maintaining relationships.

What are we going to discuss?

The discussion should be on how communication helps or hurts a relationship. Research by John Gottman, Bradbury & Fincham or Altman & Taylor would be appropriate to show the role of communication, but it is important to show why communication styles may have the effect they do.

How can we holistically discuss this question?

Much of the research has focused on how relationships end, rather than on positive communication styles.  The research has also been taken from couples who are in the period of break-up, which means that we have difficulty determining when and why these communication styles began, unless we are reliant on the memories of the couple. It is also difficult to set up experimental testing for the theories as they are hypothetical and lack ecological validity. Finally, there is the question of culture and the extent to which it plays a role in communication styles.

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