As you prepare your Extended Essay, one particular skillset you will need is RESEARCH SKILLS. The ability to identify an issue or a research question, develop a hypothesis or a tentative argument, conduct scholarly research and answer your own research question through an informed consideration of reliable evidence – lie at the core of a well-structured, insightful essay.

The essay is one of the most common forms of assessment at university. The Extended Essay assessment completed during your IB Diploma Programme effectively prepares you for conducting independent research and university demands for autonomous learning. This is evident in the size of the Extended Essay: while 4000 words may indeed seem challenging, it gives you the space to really delve into a topic, explore it in depth and articulate original insights.

But what is research exactly? The Cambridge English Dictionary defines research as “a detailed study of a subject, especially in order to discover (new) information or reach a (new) understanding”. This short definition encapsulates the essence of research which is discovery. By conducting research, you are systematically learning and acquiring knowledge through a range of resources in order to discover something new. This is the most exciting part of your journey with the Extended Essay as you will be able to choose a topic which interests you and study it in depth.

Research is premised upon our own motivation, and interests, allowing us to expand our knowledge and contribute to the field with original insights into a topic. Research also develops our critical and analytical skills along with our self-reflection: we gain the ability to examine our own role as researchers, who we are, and why we have certain views and perspectives on a topic. The more we learn about a topic or a field of study, the better we are equipped to make informed, nuanced judgements and produce logical, well-developed arguments supported by evidence. Let us examine some of the most important elements of research you will need in order to build your skills as a researcher.


1. Understand your EE topic: reading widely

The first step is to decide on a topic you will be researching. This can be closely related to your own interests and passions, which will inspire your writing and motivate further study.

Determine your research topic and consider the preliminary steps:

  • What will you be writing about?
  • What burning question needs answering?
  • How will your extended essay answer this question?

There are several useful ways to approach this stage of your research process.

Firstly, read broadly and widely on your topic. These can be encyclopaedia entries, scholarly articles and posts from reliable websites and expert authors. Your EE Supervisor and your teachers can also help you locate a variety of sources. The more you read on a topic, the more you will be able to identify an interesting angle which you can focus on. Reading broadly and widely expands your horizons and facilitates your critical thinking about the topic.

Take careful notes as you read using a method that suits your learning style. You may prefer reading online, digitally highlighting information and storing resources in a folder, or you may prefer reading physical copies of books and articles. The most important thing is to archive your sources in a way that allows you to easily access them and accurately record the authors so you can reference them in your essay.


2. Narrow the scope: Formulate your research question

As you read, start brainstorming about the topic. This is a process, and the more you work on your essay, the clearer your ideas will be. Your initial research question does not have to be perfect, but it can help guide and refine your writing and argumentation – as well as your readings!



Think about the following: is there anything about the topic which you found particularly interesting? Is there any aspect of this topic which requires further research? Once you have a sense of your topic and some interesting ideas about it, brainstorm potential questions starting with ‘why, what, how’?

The literature that you have read will help you decide on the most important question which your essay will respond to. Your question needs to be clear, focused, and inspire answers which cannot be summed up with a simple yes/ no response. Once you have a draft of the question, you can begin thinking how your essay will address that question.


3. Extended Essay impact and methodology

Think about your research question and the topic you have selected.

  • Why does your topic matter?
  • Why should your readers care about the topic you have chosen?
  • If someone were to ask you why this topic matters, how would you respond to them?

You do not need to know the answer to these questions right away, but thinking through the impact of your research topic will help you to improve your arguments.

Another consideration in this context is your methodology.

  • How will you get your information?
  • Will you be reading various texts or scholarly books?
  • Will you be conducting interviews or surveys?
  • Will you be obtaining data from different databases?
Research methods are strategies which you will use to respond to your research question through a process of learning, selecting material relevant to your topic. Each discipline has a particular set of methods which can be used to explore a topic – you may be examining scholarly texts, viewing visual texts and resources, or conducting archival research.


4. Finding connections: the importance of theory


After you have a general idea of your topic, a possible question you want to answer, and the methods you might use to obtain your information, you can choose your theoretical lens to enhance your writing.

What does this mean?

Theory helps us make connections between different concepts, ideas and themes which we encounter. A theory can bring disparate, seemingly random concepts together in a logical way which increases our understanding of an issue we aim to examine. Theory is all around us- it has been a part of sciences and philosophy for centuries and has helped to illuminate the complex world around us. For example, Copernicus’ heliocentric model and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection represent instances in history where theoretical models were developed to explain the phenomena around us.

You may be thinking at this point: What theory will I use? How do I find it?

We return to the first step which is the importance of reading broadly and widely. For example, if your essay is about a literary work and you are focusing on specific issues within the text, you may be using structuralism, semiotics or eco-criticism. Similarly, if your essay is on society and political issues, then social constructionist theory or postcolonial theory may benefit your research and help you understand your project – the choice will depend on your topic and your main arguments.

Many scholarly works that you read will contain elaborate theories developed by the author or other scholars – and you will be able to see how these theories are used to support and inform arguments. You may also want to develop your own original theory based on your scholarly research – there is a wealth of possibilities and a world of ideas awaiting!


5. Remember: draw on your interests and passions

This final step takes us back to where we started when discussing the importance of reading widely on your topic. When choosing topics for your IB Diploma Extended Essay or any other assessments where a choice is possible –it is beneficial to follow your interests and passions.

  • What do you want to learn more about?
  • What are you motivated to discover? 
  • You may also be practical: what is the most useful topic for your future studies at university?
Choosing a topic which interests you and which you find valuable will allow you to stay highly motivated– and obtain invaluable skills which you will use beyond the Diploma Program as you pursue university studies.


Good luck!

Discover more about the IB Diploma at Westbourne College Sydney and Westbourne School UK.