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
How to Write Your Extended Essay (Getting Started)
Starting your Extended Essay is a big challenge.
The best advice I can give you is start early and choose your research question carefully. Starting early is a time-management aspect you'll have to figure out on your own. But I can help you a lot on the second part.
Coming up with an appropriate question is about 25% of the whole battle. Your supervisor can help you with this, but often they'll leave it to you.
And you’ll want to be very careful here. With the right question almost anything is possible. With the wrong question, you're setting yourself up to fail. Most students brainstorm possible ideas, ask for suggestions and read successful EE samples (which are often available in your high school library). But I want to help you to do better than the average student. The following 4 tests will help you make sure your RQ is top notch.
The Four Tests
A good research question (RQ) passes the following 4 tests:
#1 Is it the right scope?
Of course the question needs to be one that is answerable within the 4000 word limit. You should be asking one relatively simple question. 4000 words seems like a lot right now, but (after a few months of research and writing) it won’t.
Try to make your question as focused (small) as possible. A question like, "Has the Singapore government's approach to health care improved economic growth" is WAY too broad. That's crazy talk. Why? Because the government has a lot of approaches to health care (thousands of them for all we know) and it's would be pretty hard to show a causal link between any of these strategies and economic growth. A question like, "Is Singapore's grocery store industry an oligopoly?" is much better. It's not too broad; however, that one's also probably too obvious. Singapore only has 2 or 3 grocery store chains, so you can pretty much answer this question on the first page. You need something that fits between these two extremes. In Singapore, it's much less clear (to me anyway) whether the movie theatre industry is an oligopoly, so you could ask, "What market structure would best characterise Singapore's movie theatre industry."
#2 Can you see which course concepts (tools) you'll use?
Are you able to identify several course concepts (analytical models) that you can use to analyse your question? In Business you'll need 4 or 5 of these. In Economics you'll need one main one and then one or two smaller ones to touch on. Obviously, if you can’t tackle the question using ideas from the course than it’s not appropriate.
As I explain here, your mission is to show off how much you understand the ideas taught in class. A common mistake (which happens slightly more in Business EE's) is to research every possible aspect of a business (maybe because your dad works there) and then expect that sharing that information will impress the marker so much that you'll get a 7. Every year there's a student who does this (normally without realising it). They think that knowing as much about the company as an insider does is enough. It is not. We just want to see that you understand course concepts and can use those to prove or disprove a thesis using course concepts.
#3 Will you have the information?
Will you actually have access to the secondary information you'll need to answer your question and will you actually be able to do the primary research required? This is a tricky one, which you won’t always be able to answer right away. However you do need to answer it really soon.
If your RQ fails test 3 you won't be able to use it.
Try to think about the concepts you'll be using (Test 2). For the economics example above (the theatre one), you might want to determine whether there is price competition, so you'd want to compare prices over time (from different theatres, in different locations, at different times, etc). That information won't be easy to get.
Test 3 is about access. EE research normally requires that someone on the inside trusts you. For a business student, if you're doing to do a SWOT analysis and some kind of investment appraisal, what data will you need to fill in those tools? Consider, what information you would need to answer those questions. Data that you expect is probably available (i.e. online) often isn't. So you’ll have to do your homework here. And the earlier the better.
If you're going to be relying on someone (i.e. that your uncle turn over a copy of his company's balance sheet) get what you need from them as soon as possible. If they don't give you the numbers or the interview that you need within a month, it's probably time to change your RQ.
This stuff isn't personal, people are busy, information is sometimes confidential.Get as much of your data as you can in the first month and show this to your supervisor. Every year there are students who don't problems related to lack of information until there are only a few months left and that's too late.
#4 Will this topic help you?
Ideally the research you do here will help you get into your preferred university program. If you're applying to an Econ program at university next year, than it would be great to have a letter from your Econ teacher explaining what a great job you did on your recent Econ EE. Or, perhaps you aren't sure if you want to pursue Business in university or not, the EE might be a great opportunity to experience what university study is like. Or maybe you're simply genuinely interested in the research question. The point here is that it's great if you have some other kind of motivation other than just finishing the EE. That will help you do better work and get ahead of the pack.
You should ask yourself whether you feel your question has passed each of these tests. Take your time and be sure. It’s okay to ask other people if they think your question passes these tests as well. And of course you can ask your teacher or your supervisor (as soon as you’ve been assigned one) if they think the RQ passes these tests.
When you meet with your supervisor
By the time you meet with your supervisor for your first real meeting you would ideally have chosen a question that you think passes the 4 Tests. And you will ideally have started to organize yourself.
Your supervisor will be interested to hear about (and see evidence of):
- Your research findings so far. Hopefully you’ve found a number of secondary sources, beyond just your text book. (Magazine and newspaper articles, annual reports from the internet, etc) and you have an idea of your primary research plans.
- And also try to be ready to explain what you think you will be able to show in your essay. You should be ready to explain how your question relates to course concepts. Forward planning. Begin to chart-out your timeline of the coming months, your to-do list.