What is the Extended Essay?
The Extended Essay (known as the ‘EE’), together with CAS and TOK, is a core component of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, and is mandatory for all students, regardless of the subjects they are taking. The aim of the EE is to provide students with the opportunity to research a topic of their interest, and showcase their knowledge and reading beyond the classroom syllabus. The essay also enables students to acquire some of the skills that are essential for researching and writing university Bachelor and Master theses.
Students usually start working on their essay in the second term of the first year of their IB Diploma Programme, around January time. They will need a supervisor (one of the teachers at their school), who will meet regularly with them to help structure their research questions and guide them in writing the paper. The programme allows for one draft to be handed in to the supervisor for feedback, and then the second version is the final version. The Essay should be no longer than 4000 words, with a short viva voce at the end. The process takes around a year.
Approaching the IB Extended Essay
How to choose a topic for the Extended Essay
The topic must be related to one of the six topics that the student is taking for their Diploma, or they can take an interdisciplinary ‘world studies’ issue that relates to two of their subjects. This requires that a global issue to be looked at through a local lens, for example how wider climate change, cultural, terrorism, technology or health trends are manifested in a specific context or place.
It is generally best for students to choose a topic that they are passionate about, not least because they will have to work on it for a year! One way to choose is to take something that they recently questioned. For example, a Physics student watching the film ‘The Martian’, which was filmed in the Namibia desert, might have found it very surprising that Earth bears such a resemblance to Mars, and they could set about researching certain communalities and differences between these two planets. An English student might want to take a couple of poems and compare how the writers use a particular literary style. In Economics, a student might analyse the dynamics of a specific market (such as shoes, cars, finance, a food-type), against a particular theory. A History student might look at how the rules of two different dictators can be viewed through a certain ideology.
It is normal to be overwhelmed by having too much choice for the topic. Brainstorming about the subject they most enjoy or are good at, and thinking more specifically about why they enjoy it can help generate ideas. Taking two related things they are interested in (historic events, technologies, inventions, books, poems, geographies, markets, planets, experiments and so on) and comparing them against a related concept can also be a good model to start with.
The topic needs to be approved by the IBO, which the school will help with.
How to choose a research question for the Extended Essay
Once students have chosen their topic, they need to decide on a research question. A wrongly formulated research question will turn this learning experience into a stressful one. It is essential that the question is relevant, focused, that the answer is not a simple yes or no, but also that it is actually answerable. It is not necessary to prove the research question right – disagreeing with the initial hypothesis is perfectly fine. Questions will fall broadly into two categories: either they will be aimed at solving a problem, for example, through conducting an experiment; or they will lead to a research or study around the topic.
The question should not necessarily start with words like, ‘Does’, ‘Will’ or ‘Is’. To come to a meaningful conclusion, simply stating that ‘yes, it is true’ or ‘no, it is not true’ is insufficient. For this reason the highest scoring essays usually have a research question that start with, ‘To what extent’, ‘A study of’, ‘An analysis of’, or ‘How far’, or could even just be a statement to analyse.
Students often set a question without contemplating if they are capable of answering it. It is important to evaluate how the relevant data can be collected, as an essay that includes both primary and secondary research will be well supported. However, it should be noted that in some cases it is only possible to use secondary data, which is fine, but it is good to state why. If thinking around the question has started early enough, if there are too many barriers to collecting the data, it may be best to alter the question with the supervisor’s help before getting stuck in.
The body of the essay: investigating, analysing and writing
Once the research question has been set and tested, it’s time to start collecting primary and secondary data. Keeping a log of the data is a good idea. The results of the research can be put in an appendix and, where appropriate, referred to in the text. In the essay itself the data can be summarised in charts and tables.
Once all the data has been collected, it can be analysed. The outcomes of this should be evaluated against relevant concepts and reading in the chosen subject.
It’s a good idea to write out the arguments, structure, and headings before beginning writing so the essay is presented clearly and logically, using any terminology correctly.
The introduction and conclusion
A rough draft of the introduction can be written at an early stage. After having collected, analysed and evaluated the data, the introduction can be adjusted to fit the essay. The introduction should explain why the research question is worth investigating, and how it relates to the subject, in other words, it should set the academic context for the essay.
The conclusion should be written at the end, and should not include any additional research or analysis. It should summarise what has already been stated. Examiners carefully look at this.
The abstract and final sections of the Extended Essay
Abstracts were invented so that people who wanted to further research the topic could quickly learn if this essay would be valuable for their research. At the end of writing, the student needs to write the abstract, which is a 300-word summary of the essay. It should include the research question, a very short summary of the analysis and the answer to the research question.
Students also need a title page, contents page, references and bibliography, and any appendices (for example, containing any data). All of these things must be included in the word limit.
Deadlines for the essay
The official IB deadline is different for every school, and schools will let students know. 4000 words cannot all be written the weekend before the deadline, so careful planning is needed to avoid a last minute crunch. After all, it would be a shame to waste the amazing research and ideas by running out of writing time. Schools tend to set their own internal deadlines for their students to have completed different sections of the project, so it is good to be in constant communication with supervisors and relevant subject teachers to make sure each section is completed along the way.
The viva voce interview
The viva voce is essentially a short interview with the supervisor, in which they ask students to reflect on the strengths and successes of their findings, as well as looking at any areas that caused unexpected problems, and what can be learned from the research report. It’s nothing to worry about – it’s just something that can be greatly enhanced with preparation and thinking beforehand. They are also making sure that the report hasn’t been plagiarised!
A word of advice
Students often make the mistake of deciding on an easier, less interesting field of research, rather than taking on a more complex topic that fascinates them. If there is a subject that they are considering studying at university, now is a good time to really get into that subject – the finished product could help with the university application and interview. As long as the question can be tested with data and the student and supervisor think it is plausible, it is best to go for the more exciting option. The disciplines learnt during the EE are useful for approaching real-life problems, and knowing this can help keep motivation up. Learning to ask, “Do I have enough data about a given situation?”, or “What does this data allow me to conclude for the moment?” is never a bad thing!
Barbara Macario, Founder of Calla International.
Umberto Cannella, PhD, Manager of the Swiss Space Centre at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.
Calla International is an organisation that creates educational events for IB students to enhance their learning outside the classroom. Calla International also offers free opportunities for students to discuss their Extended Essay research question, proposed topic and research methodology with professional academics, such as Umberto Cannella.
Official IBO assessment criteria for the IB EE can be found here.