Welcome back to our step-by-step guide to the Extended Essay! So far in this series we’ve covered how to choose your topic and get on with your research. Here in Part 3 I want to talk all about how to make sure you have the perfect question.
I know. I’ve mentioned the question before. Some of you might have had a version of a question before you even started the research phase. But I want to go into more depth now because I think the research question is something that a lot of IB students underestimate.
It’s tempting to get excited at this point and to dive straight from the high, high ladder of research and into the pool of planning the essay. But how do you know you’re going to hit the water smoothly? How do you know you won’t end up like this:
So let’s take this opportunity to pause, reassess, and make sure you’re absolutely, ABSOLUTELY certain your question will help you to sail all the way through to Extended Essay success.
1. To start: draft your question
“The title should provide a clear indication of the focus of the essay. It should be precise and not necessarily phrased in the form of a question” – Extended Essay Guide
The only way to work out if your question is good enough is to have a question to begin with. So if you haven’t yet tried to formulate your topic into a research question, do this now. Don’t worry about writing the perfect question down yet. Just think of it as a draft.
If you aren’t sure what a research question should look like, use the Guide and past examples of titles to help you. We can see from the way that the EE Guide defines the question that the important things to consider are:
Examples of essay titles include:
How are the distribution and growth of lichens affected by sulfur dioxide and ozone levels in the atmosphere?
Will the recent policy of cutting bakery prices lead to increased revenue for the Safeway supermarket in Ryde, Sydney?
Themes and stylistic devices from Dante in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Four Quartets.
All of these are very specific, very detailed and very concise. In other words, clear and precise.
Exercise 1: draft three different versions of your question. If there are different angles you could take in the question and different words you could use to express it, write each option down. Keep these three options to hand throughout the rest of the process, but for now just pick the one which you think is clearest and the most precise.
2. What is your question actually about?
“A good research question is one that asks something worth asking” – Extended Essay Guide
It can be easy, after digging through mountains of research and writing an elegantly worded question, to forget what the original point of your topic was. It’s also easy to let the research and information take you far away from your original intention. This is absolutely fine, and even to be expected; often in-depth research and thinking takes us to a more interesting place than we ever could have reached originally. Except that it’s important to take a step back from all of that work and really question whether the place you have ended up is what you want to be writing about.
The first step is to know what your question is really about, beneath the fancy words and clever ideas.
The second step is to ask yourself if your question is truly interesting. Does it present a possibility that intrigues you?
If you either can’t pin down the point of your question, or you admit to yourself that actually that point is rather boring, it’s time to reassess. A good way to refine your question in a way that will solve this, without throwing away all the work that you have done, is to start picking the question apart. Work out the different elements being addressed in the question so that you will be able to dig as deeply as you can into the situation being examined. If this feels like effort, the thing to remember is that a good question will make it a lot easier to score points when you are answering the question in your essay.
Exercise 2: take your draft question and pick out the keywords. Combined, do they make a good summary of your topic? More importantly, do they point towards just one topic? The keywords of your question should encompass all the main things you will address in your essay, so keep these to-hand throughout the writing process and use them as a guide for what you should and shouldn’t include in your plan.
3. Is your question specific enough?
“The Extended Essay is an in-depth study of a focused topic” – Extended Essay Guide
Your question should define its own limits. In other words it should be specific enough that you can answer it in 4,000 words. And any IB graduate will tell you that 4,000 words is not a lot. It’s okay if some aspects of your question need further explanation, and in fact the Guide itself recommends that you analyse your title during the essay. However the key is to choose which variables you leave open. There is no point wasting time explaining a phrase or word in your essay when a simple change of word would solve everything. And if every word could mean two different things, this means there are two different essays you could be writing and the essay will feel unfocused as a result.
Different types of words that create ambiguities include:
Subjective words such as: success, failure, influence, significant
Words that could refer to multiple things such as: novels, lichens, lower-middle class
Words that you’ll need to define such as: themes, soul, tradition
A good Extended Essay question should contain just a few of these ambiguities.
Exercise 3: Identify all the possible variables in your question, and write down all of the possible things that it could mean. Then, write down ways that you could eliminate some of the variables. For example, an analysis of reduced prices in a supermarket can be narrowed down to the reduced prices of bakery items only.
4. Can you answer your question?
“Structure a reasoned argument in response to the research question on the basis of the material gathered” – Extended Essay Guide
When writing the essay you’ll need to make sure that every idea you include links back to the question. You’ll need to show over and over again how each paragraph digs that little bit deeper into the question you laid out at the beginning. With that in mind, it’s a good idea, now you’ve done your research, to really make sure that the material, ideas and information you will be using is still answering the question that you set out to answer.
For example, imagine that you’d originally wanted to compare the pH levels of rainwater in London and in Spain. Perhaps during your background research phase you realised that there is very little second-hand information that could help you answer this question, but there is a ten year-old study about the pH levels of rainwater in London compared with Scotland. A possible option could be that you change your investigation to look at whether the pH levels of rainwater throughout the UK has changed in the past ten years. Alternatively, maybe you have already begun your first-hand research, but couldn’t collect any rainwater during your trip to Spain. In this scenario a ‘plan B’ might be to compare the pH levels of rainwater in different parts of London.
Exercise 4: Write down a super rough plan for what you will cover in your answer to the question. This isn’t the outline (I’ll go into way more depth on this in a later post) but just a way to make sure you know how the question will work. Write one sentence, or better yet one word, for every paragraph in your essay. Don’t worry about the order of the paragraphs yet, but do make sure that you have enough to talk about that relates directly to the question.
5. Will the IB examiner approve?
Your question can score up to 2 marks out of the total 36 points. This might sound like a lot, but consider that this is over 5% of your total score which you can earn before you write a single word of your essay. With this in mind it’s important to go back to the Extended Essay Guide to check that your question is doing everything that they want it to.
Exercise 5: Double-check that your question is fulfilling every criteria that it can. And to make this as easy as it can possibly be for you, we’ve made a handy checklist right here:
- Is it specific?
- Can you answer it?
- Can you address any variables?
- Can you justify any assumptions that it makes?
- Do you have enough research to back up your investigation?
- Is it interesting?
Once you’ve made certain your question is as brilliant as it can be, the next step is to start planning the essay itself! Watch this space for our next post in the series all about creating the perfect plan and structure.
Read Part 4: Structure and Planning
The IB encourages students to reflect throughout the research process - not just at the end after your paper is finished!
You will meet with your supervisor a number of times while you are working on your EE, for a total of 3 to 5 hours. Three of those sessions will be "reflection sessions", meaning that following these meetings you will be required to submit a 150-175 word reflection on the research and writing process of your EE to the EE Coordinator. Your reflections will be submitted to IB by WSA's IB Coordinator, using the Reflections on Planning and Progress Form (RPPF).
The 'Initial Session' in the spring of your junior year. The remaining reflection session take place in your senior year: one 'Interim Session' in September, and one 'Final Session' (also know as 'Viva Voce') in December.
Your three reflections will count for 19% of your final EE grade from the IB examiner.