Paper 1 clarifications

There have been several clarifications given by the IB over the past year.  Many have said that these clarifications are difficult to follow.  I am organizing these clarifications below, based on the relevant aspects of the curriculum. These clarifications are from the assessment clarification (June 27, 2018), the FAQ document (June 2018) and clarifications sent to all workshop leaders (Sept 19, 2018). The most recent update is the updated version of the guide, released on December 16, 2019.

This page shows where we are with clarifications as of January 1, 2020. This page will continue to be updated as further clarifications are made available.

Assessment clarifications

The following questions are often asked about Paper 1.  We have received the clarifications below.  For specifics about how questions are set, please see the " Assessment clarifications" page.

1. Are theories also considered" research?

This is a change in assessment practice.  Research now means only "studies."  Theory is considered part of Criterion B - knowledge and understanding which is assessed separately from "use of research."

2.  May students use older research?

Teachers need to make a judgment call about the use of older studies.  Studies such as Bartlett and Ebbinghaus may be seen as still valid.  However, other studies may be considered too old to be of value.  No further guidance is given on this.  My own experience is that universities tend to have limits on the age of studies.  Many would not accept research from the 19th century accept for historical context. I would recommend sticking to research from 1960 to the present.

3.  How many studies are required?

With regard to how much research is necessary in an SAQ or ERQ, the response is still a bit unclear.  All responses require research. Therefore, all SAQs will require a study. The clarification reads:

As Psychology is evidence-based, it is expected that students will use their knowledge of research to support their argument. There is no prescription as to which or how many pieces of research are appropriate for their response. As such it is important that the research selected is relevant, appropriate and useful in supporting the argument they are making. One piece of research that is clearly relevant, appropriate and used well is better than several pieces that repeat the same point over and over.

4.  May students use animal research on Paper 1?

The official response is as follows:

Questions that specifically ask for one study related to human behaviour should focus on a human study in the student response. Animal research may be used as supplementary support, but students must clearly and explicitly show how it is linked to human behaviour. If this link is not made relevant then the inclusion of the study cannot be awarded marks. Students who are unable to make this explicit link will not be able to achieve in the highest markband.

My takeaway from this is that for an essay, they could use animal research.  For an SAQ, they should not.

Content clarifications

The most recent clarification is with regard to how many examples must be taught.  The answer is one or more. The requirement for teaching the course is one neurotransmitter, one hormone, one gene, one theory of evolution, etc.

You will also see in the guide that there has been a clarification that heuristics may be used as cognitive biases.

The most important clarification regards the use of "and".  There are several places in the guide where "and" is used. The IB has sent a clarification that "and" may be "and/or" and the terms will not be separated on paper 1. (This is different on Paper 2). Examples of content that uses "and" is as follows:

Content using "and"

  • Hormones and/or pheromones (topic level only)
  • Thinking and/or decision making
  • Positive and/or negative effects of modern technology on cognitive processes (HL)
  • Cultural origins of behaviour and/or cognition
  • Cultural influences on individual attitudes, identity and/or behaviour
  • The effect of the interaction of local and/or global influences on behaviour

Please note that the IB may use only the word "and" for these questions.  So, it would be possible to ask about the effect of local and global influences, or they may ask it as "and/or" which would give students a choice.  They will never, however, ask a question on research methods in the study of pheromones. The question would have to be "Discuss research methods in the study of hormones and/or pheromones."

The drop-down menus

Another significant clarification regards the addition of words that may be used in the setting of a question. These terms may be used to set SAQs only, not essay questions. A summary of these terms is listed below.

Biological additional terms



Neural networks

Neural pruning


Synapses (excitatory and inhibitory)

Twin and kinship studies*

NB:  Kinship studies should be understood as "family" or "pedigree" studies. 

Cognitive drop down content

Cognitive schema

Intuitive thinking (aka System I thinking)

The Multi-Store Model of memory (Atkinson and Shiffrin)

Rational thinking (aka System II thinking)

The Working Memory Model (Baddeley and Hitch)

Sociocultural drop down content


Cultural groups


Social groups

Sample exam questions for paper 1, section A

Outline how neural networks are formed, with reference to one study. [9 marks]

Describe one research study related to schema theory. [9 marks]

Research methods

As was stated in the Assessment clarification page, when asked about research methods, students should write about experiments, observations, correlations, interviews, or case studies.  The clarification reads: Twin, adoption, and longitudinal studies are examples of research designs. Meta-analyses are a quantitative statistical analysis of several similar experiments or studies for which the pooled data is tested for statistical significance.  To clarify further, twin, adoption, longitudinal studies and meta-analyses are not considered research methods and will not be accepted on IB exams as valid responses. This also applies to Paper 2.

When studying the brain, fMRI, MRI, EEG, CAT, PET are the most frequent techniques used to study the brain; however, they are not research methods.

How many examples to teach?

The following clarification was made by the IB:

If, under a content heading, students are instructed to study one or more of an optional list, questions will be general in nature (i.e., not formulated using the named options). For example, the list of cultural dimensions associated with the topic-cultural origins of behaviour and cognition, within the sociocultural approach. 

This means that they may not ask a specific cultural dimension or cognitive bias on the exam. Where the guide says "one or more," one is enough.

How will the extension questions be asked?

The extension questions may be asked in combination with the topics.  This means that they may students to Discuss the ethical considerations in animal research on the brain and behaviour. They may also be asked as a stand-alone question which would allow students to use any content in the unit to address the question.

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