Do you struggle with figuring out your EE research question? It is the backbone of your essay, after all. This one question will dictate everything else you will write. So, there is a lot of pressure to get it right!
Like most other IB students, I struggled to articulate my research question. Finding the right question was a long, tedious process of trial and error. I simply did not know which mistakes to look out for.
Consequently, I had to rewrite my research questions many times until I got one that worked. In this article, I will show you how my research question evolved as I applied the tips below until I settled my final EE research question, which got me an A.
My EE was in chemistry, but the advice is universal and valid for all subjects. These 5 tips can help with the conception and perfection of your research question.
Tip 1: The Research Question should make the process enjoyable
It is easy to think of the extended essay as a chore. Be careful with that mindset! If you think of writing the EE as a chore, it will feel like one, too. Canadian writer Robin Sharma has said:
“A problem is only a problem when viewed as a problem. “
Writing the EE does not have to be a problem; as corny as it sounds, it can genuinely be fun! The key to making the writing process enjoyable is a research question you want to answer.
Being interested shows
Beyond making the hours fly by, being interested shows in the final grade of your EE.
One of the grading criteria is Engagement. The IB EE Grade Descriptor Document states that you must reflect to get the highest marks in that criterion. Furthermore, “These reflections communicate a high degree of intellectual and personal engagement [...] in the student voice.”
If you're struggling to stay motivated
Sometimes, you can be interested in a topic but not motivated to research it. In my time in the IB, I learned that motivation comes and goes. If you want more advice on staying motivated when you are not feeling up to the task, read this post.
How I found my first research question
In my case, I learned about this new material called transparent wood through a YouTube Video. I found it super exciting that we could replace glass and plastic with something organic, so I investigated the process and allowed myself to be excited about it. And just like that, I drafted my first EE research question:
- Draft 1: “How is transparent wood made?”
Resources for finding a fun topic
If you struggle with finding a topic that excites you, try exercise #2 in our free EE guide, which you can find here.
Alternatively, we also have a blog post on unique EE ideas that can kickstart your imagination!
Tip 2: Have a narrow EE Research Question
The extended essay famously, perhaps infamously, has a word limit of 4000 words. Now, 4000 words might sound overwhelming, but trust me; it is not a lot once you start. Many students will actually have to cut down on words before handing in their final draft.
The lesson here is that the research question should be more specific than you think.
For example, a psychology student drafts this EE research question:
“Why do only some people act aggressively?”
This research question is extremely broad and would require a 90,000-word book to answer. A better question for an EE could be: “To what extent does the MAOA gene code for violence?”
Narrowing down requires research
The only way you would know to ask about the MAOA gene in the above example is if you had researched violence. Researching can be difficult. After googling an entire afternoon, you have so many tabs open that they are all squished and impossible to read.
If you identify with the scenario I described above and need help managing your research, this post could be your saving grace.
The goal is to eliminate ambiguity
When narrowing down your research question, you must define every single term. If you are writing about the philosophy in Albert Camus’ writing, you must specify that you are investigating absurdist philosophy and what that means. Try this exercise from our guide:
"Exercise 11: Identify all variables in your question and write down everything it could mean. Then, think of ways to could eliminate some of the variables. For example, you can narrow down an analysis of reduced prices in a supermarket to the reduced prices of bakery items only."
How I narrowed down my question
Making transparent wood is a complex process, which was way beyond what I could do in the school lab. Instead, I found out, thanks to intense research, that papers seemingly disagreed on the role of hydrogen peroxide in the process. Hence, the second draft of my research question was born:
- Draft 2: "Through what mechanism does hydrogen peroxide delignify balsa wood in the preparation of transparent wood?"
Notice the new, fancy term “delignification” that I only knew to include thanks to researching. I also specified the type of wood I wanted to work with. The research question is much better now, focusing on a small step of an extensive process instead of trying to cover all of it.
Tip 3: Don’t work with a Research Question you cannot answer
A student of mine, let us call her Hannah, made a mistake that meant she had to restart the entire process of writing her bio EE. She was investigating the uptake of nutrition of aquatic plants. After hours of researching and experimenting, her results just would not add up.
Hannah realised her mistake when she learned that this plant species do not take up nutrition through the roots but through the leaves! Once she found that out, she saw that there was not enough research on this type of nutritional uptake to write an EE about it.
Mistakes like these are common and illustrate an important point. Do your research to know whether there is enough background information to answer your question.
Mechanisms are hard
For my EE research question, I soon found that there simply was not enough information on the mechanism. If I had followed through with my previous draft, the paper would have become too theoretical. To avoid that, I rephrased the question to one I knew I could answer:
- Draft 3: "How significant is the role of hydrogen peroxide in the delignification of balsa wood in the preparation of transparent wood?"
Tip 4: You should not assume anything
This next tip mainly applies to humanistic subjects (history students, listen up!).
A history student might want to write an EE on Italy during World War 2. Thanks to the previous tips, they have learned to make it a specific and answerable question. They come up with the following question:
"How did Mussolini’s unethical policies weaken Italian morale during the second world war?"
This research question sounds nice and specific. The problem is that words such as unethical and weaken already assume that his policies were cruel and had a poor effect.
Avoiding those words to keep the question more academic would be much better. Asking whether or not Mussionili’s policies did weaken morale would be a much better place to start.
The assumption in my EE research question draft was less noticeable. Nonetheless, it was vital that I addressed it. The previous draft asked how significant the role of hydrogen peroxide is. This phrasing assumes that hydrogen peroxide plays a role, leaving no room for the possibility that it does not. To avoid this assumption, I phrased my question as follows:
- Draft 4: "Does hydrogen peroxide contribute to the delignification of balsa wood during the preperation of transparent wood?"
Tip 5: Get someone else proofread your work
Did you notice the typo in the drafted research question above? Chances are that you did, demonstrating the power of having a second set of eyes look over your research question. If you missed it, I had written “preperation” instead of “preparation.”
Letting other people proofread your EE research question goes beyond just fixing typos, of course. They could catch some hidden assumptions that you, yourself, had missed.
Whom should you ask to proofread your research question?
To get the best feedback on everything related to your EE, ask someone with experience. Your peers are always an option, but it would be even better to ask someone who knows what it takes to get an A. Your teacher and ex-students from your school are a good bet!
Alternatively, you could also be paired with one of our tutors, who have a grade average of 42.3 (i.e., they know their stuff). Get in touch today by following this link.
In my case, it was my mum who caught the mistake! And so, after some crucial adjustments, we have arrived at the final research question that got me an A:
- Final draft: Does hydrogen peroxide contribute to the delignification of balsa wood during the preparation of transparent wood?
Now you know how to write a killer research question! I hope you try these tips and get the EE grade you deserve.