Question practice: essays and longer-answer questions - Revision and exam skills

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Question practice: essays and longer-answer questions
Revision and exam skills

This type of question will generally require both descriptive and evaluative material (but could be just description or evaluation), with a maximum of 16 marks at A-level. Such questions can include application essays requiring description and/or evaluation with, additionally, use of information drawn from a scenario provided.


1 Discuss the nature—nurture debate.

[16 marks]

2 ’5-year-old Breagha has always liked sweet-tasting foods, such as honey and cakes, but has also always shown a dislike for bitter and sour-tasting foods, like broccoli and lemons.’

Outline and evaluate evolutionary explanations for food preferences. In your answer make reference to the experience of Breagha.

[16 marks]

Strategies for improvement

Image Identify command words before starting an answer.

Image Practise writing to the mark allocation — remember it is about 1 minute 15 seconds per mark (that is 7½ minutes of description and 7½ minutes of evaluation in a 12-mark question) or alternatively about 20 words per minute.

Image Structure answers so that they have a common ’theme’ running through them.

Image Shape material to specifically meet the requirements of a question.

Image Use methodological material only where it specifically fits the needs of a question.

Image Practise dividing answers into separate paragraphs.

Image Create (and practise using) lists of specialist terms that go with each topic area.

Image Practise building your evaluative material into elaborated commentaries that use several types of evaluation built upon each other.

Image Shape material as evaluation by signalling its usage as such — for example, by using phrases such as ’research support comes from…’ and ’these findings suggest that….’.

Image Practise assessments under exam conditions regularly.

Common pitfalls

Image Failure to address command words

Image Not writing to the mark allocation — often by producing too much description

Image Wandering off the question

Image Irrelevant use of methodological points

Image Lack of organisation into paragraphs

Image Lack of specialist terminology

Image Lack of elaboration/commentary

Image Not ’shaping’ material as evaluation — material intended as evaluation can often be phrased as descriptive material

Image Use of generic content (material that is not specifically focused on the question)

Answer 1

Psychologists who adopt a nativist perspective believe that the cause of behaviour is the result of nature in the form of innate factors, such as genes and hormones; on the other hand, psychologists who adopt an empirical perspective believe that behaviour is the result of the environment and develops through experience (nurture).

What is noticeable here from the start is the accurate use of specialist terminology, such as ’nativist’, ’innate’ and ’empirical’. This helps to show the candidate’s level of understanding, as well as summarising the debate.

Research into the debate has often focused on twin studies in which MZ twins who are 100 per cent identical are studied. The rationale behind such research is that if their behaviour is identical then nature/genetics could be concluded to be the cause; however, if their behaviour is not identical then the cause must be nurture and a result of the environment/experiences. Such an approach has been used to investigate schizophrenia and criminality; however, caution is required, as MZ twins are often raised in identical environments, being treated in identical ways, and therefore cause and effect is hard to establish as it could equally be concluded that the environment and nurture were the cause of behaviour, therefore it is hard to isolate nature/nurture factors.

The material on the rationale of studies (the thinking behind them) counts as AO1 description, though the final comment about cause and effect relationships is an evaluatory AO3 comment.

Geneticists suggest that they have developed a mathematical equation which can be used to calculate the influence of genetics and the environment on behaviour. This is known as the heritability equation and can be used to calculate the contribution of each factor on behaviour. This equation was used by Shakeshaft, who stated that IQ is influenced 64 per cent by genetics. However, caution again is needed in the interpretation of such findings, as again it is hard to isolate purely nature influences — for example, in the Shakeshaft study it was suggested that the figure of 64 per cent genetic influence on IQ was only relevant to middle-class children; for children from poorer backgrounds the influence was closer to 10 per cent, therefore suggesting socio-economic and environmental factors may be affecting educational achievement.

The first sentence is AO1 description, with after that some good evidence of combining evaluatory points into a structured ’commentary’, always a good route to gaining higher-level marks.

Perhaps a more suitable approach to explain behaviour would be to adopt an interactionist approach. This approach suggests that to obtain a true understanding of behaviour it is vital to understand the role of both nature and nurture. This would suggest that our genes may make us predisposed to behave in a certain way, but environmental circumstances must exist for it to do so. Therefore recent research has tended to acknowledge the potential influence of both nature and nurture by adopting an interactionist and less reductionist approach.

The material here on interactionism has been shaped as evaluation, that is to say commenting on its suitability as an explanation as opposed to both the nature and nurture points of view. There are more marks available for evaluation (10) than description (6), so it is a sensible strategy.


12/16 marks. The descriptive material is accurate and has clarity, while the evaluative content is well shaped to the question. However, there is probably a need for more evaluation in the form of research evidence and for more detailed development of evaluative material to show a higher level of understanding.

Exam tip

Only 6 marks are available for the description, in this particular instance the nature—nurture debate, so don’t over-describe it, as the majority of the marks, 10 of them, are available for the evaluation. In terms of time that is about 7½ minutes to describe the debate and 12½ minutes to evaluate it. Also, effective evaluation will be created by forming evaluative points together into a structured commentary rather than being a series of unconnected evaluative points.

Answer 2

In the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptiveness (EEA), food was often only periodically available, so it made sense for humans to evolve, through natural selection, the ability to not only find food, but to identify which foods were highly nutritious and energy-rich and which ones were potentially harmful and toxic and so should be avoided. Evolutionary explanations see a preference for sweet-tasting foodstuffs becoming widespread in the population because sweetness in a foodstuff suggests that it is energy-rich and also non-poisonous. Breagha therefore has a preference for sugary foods like honey and cakes because she has inherited the evolutionary ability to prefer sweet-tasting foods.

An accurate description of the evolutionary explanation for sweet-taste preferences is provided that shows a good level of understanding. This is then well linked to the experience of Breagha.

Desor et al. (1973) and Steiner (1977), using choice preferences and facial expressions, found neonates prefer sweet foods to bitter ones, which implies the preference to be innate. This was backed up by Meiselman (1977), who found people of all ages prefer sweet foods to other tastes, and further supported by Capaldi et al. (1989), who found this was also true for other species, such as horses, bears and ants. However, some doubt is thrown onto the idea of a universal preference for sweet tastes, as Stefansson (1960) reported that Copper Eskimos were disgusted by the first ever taste of sugar, which lowers the validity of the evolutionary explanation, as if it was valid, then the preference should have been universal. A practical application of a sweet-tasting preference is the idea of placing a tax on sugar, to reduce consumption, as over-indulgence is associated with becoming obese.

The candidate moves on to providing research support for an evolved sweet-taste preference, joining several pieces of research into a reasonable commentary. Especially good is the inclusion of content that throws doubt on the explanations, which brings a good sense of balance to the answer. The inclusion of a valid practical application is also commendable.

Breagha also demonstrates a dislike of bitter-tasting foods, and evolutionary theory would explain this as being sensible, as bitter and sour tastes are often indicative of the presence of toxins. This means Breagha not eating bitter and sour foods might help her not to get ill, or even die, from food poisoning. Plants often produce toxins, which taste bitter, to discourage people and animals from eating them. Herbaceous animals, like cows, will eat bitter plants, as they have evolved high tolerance levels to toxins contained in plant foods.

The candidate here successfully joins the experience of Breagha into outlining the evolutionary explanation concerning bitter and sour tastes. This is done in an informative, relevant and accurate fashion.

Go et al. (2005) looked at the prevalence of the bitter-taste receptor genes TR2 in humans and 12 other primate species and found humans have accumulated more pseudo-genes (dead genes) than other primates. This suggests that humans’ bitter-tasting abilities have deteriorated more rapidly. Perhaps natural selection is now acting to reduce humans’ ability to detect bitter tastes. Additionally, Merrit et al. (2008) found that people with the PTC bitter-taste gene have an ability to detect and reject a wider range of bitter, toxic compounds than those without the gene, which gives them an evolutionary survival advantage.

Research evidence concerning bitter tastes is given, but the studies quoted do not really join together to form any sort of commentary. This takes away from any sense of deeper understanding being conveyed.

The fact that there are only two taste receptors for sweet tastes but 27 for bitter tastes suggests that the need to detect potentially bitter tastes is more important than the need to detect sweet tastes. A practical application is to sweeten children’s bitter-tasting medicines so they can swallow it.

The answer concludes with a couple of relevant evaluative points, but again they seem a little disjointed, which takes away somewhat from their effectiveness.


14/16 marks. Focus is on the two food preferences mentioned in the question, which for the time available, 20 minutes, is probably a sensible decision. There is a good balance between the degree of descriptive and evaluative material, though the evaluation is not always used completely effectively. An attempt is also made, as the question requires, to include reference to the experience of Breagha.

Exam tip

6 marks would be available here for descriptive content and 6 marks for evaluative content, with a further 4 marks for the application of Breagha’s experience to the answer. Therefore care should be taken to generate sufficient material, and no more, that permits access to all of the different types of marks available.