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Extended Essay: Step 5. Draft a Research Question

A guide to the research and writing process required for students completing the IB Extended Essay.

Steps to Developing a Research Question

You've chosen a subject and topic that interests you, and carried out some preliminary reading.  What are the next steps?

Question mark sign - Britannica ImageQuestConsider the emerging questions. You should now begin posing open-ended questions about your topic.  These questions will usually be framed "how", "why", or "to what extent."

Evaluate the question.  Once you have posed possible research questions you should evaluate them.  This evaluation should be based on whether the question is clear, focused, and arguable.

  • Clear - Will the reader understand the nature of my research?  Will it direct the research being undertaken?
  • Focused - Will the research question be specific enough to allow for exploration within the scope of the task (that is, the number of words and time available)?
  • Arguable - Does the research question allow for analysis, evaluation and the development of a reasoned argument?

Consider research outcomes.  Once you have decided on a provisional research question you should start thinking about the direction your research might take.  You could do this by:

  • suggesting possible outcomes of your research
  • outlining the kind of argument you might make and how your research might support this
  • considering options if the research available is not sufficient to support a sustained argument

Sample Research Questions

The table below gives some examples showing the difference between unclear and unfocused research questions and those that are appropriately clear and focused, lending themselves to in-depth research.

Unclear, unfocused, and unarguable research questions
Clear, focused, narrow research questions lending themselves to in-depth research
What was the impact of Ho Chi Minh's allegiance to Lenin? To what extent was nationalism the guiding factor in Ho Chi Minh's adoption of Leninism in 1920?
What is the history of Chinese theatre? How does the legacy of Mei Lan Fang contribute to modern Jingju?
How important is chlorophyll to plant life? What is the effect of different concentrations of kinetin on leaves aging and the biosynthesis of chlorophyll?
How can the US government's spending policy be reformed? To what extent did the rising COE prices affect the demand for new and used cars by the consumer population and hence affect the revenue generated by the Singaporean economy for the period 2012-16?
An important note:
A question that is unclear or too broad will result in a narrative overview of the issue or event being discussed and provide little scope for analysis and reasoned argument.  The result of this is that IB examiners will not be able to apply the range of marks available in the assessment criteria, particularly in relation to criterion C (critical thinking).

Practice exercise: Formulating well-focused research questions

Developing a narrow, focused research question is an integral part of your extended essay process. A research question will provide a path to guide you through your research and writing.
Step 1. Choose your subject area

Which subject area is of most personal interest to you? Is there something you are especially curious about in one of your IB courses? Did one of your ERP's from an earlier grade spark an idea that can be researched?

Step 2. Choose a topic that interests you

Describe your work in one sentence.

I want to learn about __________________________.

Example: I want to learn about public funding for the arts.

Step 3. Suggest a question

Try to describe your research by developing a question that specifies something about your topic.

I am studying ______________________ because I want to find out (who, what, when, where, whether, why or how) ___________________________.

Example: I am studying public funding for the arts because I want to find out how accessible the arts are to those people who are on low incomes.

Direct question: To what extent are the arts accessible to people who belong to the class of the working poor?

Include a command term from your subject area to help form the research question.

Will you be able to argue a specific position? What are some possible issues or arguments?

Step 4. Evaluate your question

Answer the questions:

Is there a range of perspectives on this topic?

Does the research question allow for analysis, evaluation and the development of a reasoned argument?

I am studying __________________ because I want to find out ____________________________ in order to understand (how, why or whether) ________________________________________________.

Example: I am studying public funding for the arts because I want to find out how accessible the arts are to the working poor so I can determine whether tax dollars support cultural enrichment for all citizens regardless of their socio-economic status.

Step 5. Restate your question using a different command term

Asking the question in a different way might help you view your topic in a different way.

How does analyzing …

To what extent …

Step 6. Review with your supervisor

Is your supervisor able to understand the nature of your research?

Is it clear to your supervisor how and why your topic is relevant in your subject area?

Step 7. Reflection

If you can adequately respond to the “so what?” question, you may be on your way to a clear and focused research question using your initial topic idea.

You must now start some preliminary reading around the issue or topic. Remember that you will most likely need to revise your research question once you start to undertake your research. In this sense your research question should always be considered provisional until you have enough research data to make a reasoned argument.

Twelve-step Plan for Researching the Extended Essay - Step 5

5.  Formulate a preliminary research question.  Try to incorporate an IB command term in the research question if possible.

Research Question Formats for History Extended Essays

Students writing History Extended Essays can use these formats to help write research questions on their topics.


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