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Extended Essay: Conducting Primary Research

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

Primary Research - a Definition

Primary research is the collecting of original data.

Not all subjects permit the use of primary methods as part of the research process for the EE, so it is important to carefully check your subject guidelines before starting.

On this page, you can find information on:

Primary Research - What is Its Purpose?
Primary Research - Preparation Before You Begin
Quantitative vs. Qualitative Research
Research Methods
Considerations for Primary Research
Ways That Primary Research Can Fail
Video Tutorials

Primary Research - Purpose

Scientist using microscope - Britannica ImageQuest

After the literature review or secondary research is completed, you must analyze your findings and: 

  • determine to what extent they answer your research question
  • find agreement between authors
  • find disagreement, where the evidence reveals differences in points of view or findings.

At this point you may decide to investigate further by carrying out your own primary research, in other words by collecting your own data

You will have to choose a method or methods that are appropriate to the research question and commonly used in the particular Diploma Programme subject. NOTE:  although the method may be appropriate for the subject, in the instance of the EE it may not be permitted, so check the subject guide!

Possible data collection methods include:

  • experiments 
  • investigations 
  • interviews 
  • surveys

The details of how the data was collected are crucial to the validity of any argument based on the findings. You must put in the main body of your essay the details of any primary research you carry out. These include: 

  • the methods used
  • the persons involved
  • how and why these were selected
  • the relevant results
  • any limitations and biases that may have influenced the results
Caution from the IB
Examiners will not refer to, and are not required to read, information presented in an appendix, therefore any information relevant to the argument of the essay, or justification of the findings presented, must be included in the main body. The assessment of the essay will be affected if students put this information in an appendix. However, students may need to put some supplementary material into an appendix—for example, the transcript of an interview or a list of survey questions.

Primary Research - Preparation Before You Begin

Students must follow the accepted process for carrying out their chosen method of research—how the data is recorded, analysed and presented. Otherwise, their data will have little value. 

Students need to plan carefully how to carry out their research. In most cases, there will be only one opportunity to collect primary data from a particular source. 

It is extremely important that students approach their research in an ethical and legal manner. See: 

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Research

Double pan balance,weighing one mole of pre-1987 (100% copper) pennies - Britannica ImageQuestPrimary research involves either quantitative or qualitative research methods. 

Quantitative research follows a well-defined process that yields data that can be analyzed statistically. For example:

  • outcomes from experiments
  • data collected from surveys where responses involve closed or multiple-choice responses

Qualitative research collects information that may reflect opinions or personal perspectives on a particular situation. The data that is collected gives an overall impression and generally cannot be analyzed statistically. For example:

  • responses in interviews
  • open-ended questions in surveys

Videos: Primary Data, Conducting Surveys, Primary Research Methods

B2Bwhiteboard. What is primary data? 3 January 2012. YouTube, Accessed January 2017. 

Learn how to conduct an online survey. Topics include: Developing research questions; designing a good questionnaire; choosing the right online survey tool (Google Forms, Sosci Survey, Survey Monkey).

Ebster, Claus. How to conduct an online survey. 5 August 2014. YouTube, Accessed January 2017. 

​This video from Ivory Research provides information on the top 3 primary research methods for graduate students writing a dissertation - including questionnaires, interviews and focus groups: how to collect research and use it for maximum effectiveness.

IvoryResearch. Dissertation tutorial: Top 3 primary research methods. 12 August 2013. YouTube., Accessed May 2015.

Research Methods

Plant growth experiment - Britannica ImageQuestExperiments

Experiments can be conducted and their data collected using systematic methods and well-defined processes. For example:

  • using the scientific method in conducting science experiments
  • simulating an experiment on using mobile phone technology to determine the location of a person. 

Experiments usually involve quantitative processes to collect and analyze the resulting data. 


Types of investigation include:

  • Examining original sources, for example:
    • maps
    • photographs
    • historical documents
    • company policies
    • laws
    • original art.

Investigations of original source material can reveal whether a particular situation exists or to what extent it does. Investigations can also extract and analyze data from original sources to demonstrate that a particular outcome does occur. 

'Interview', 2007, by John Holcroft - Britannica ImageQuestInterviews

  • Interviews may be conducted:

    Interviews can be with one person or a small group, also called a focus group. Face-to-face interviews have the advantage of allowing the interviewer to ask follow-up questions during the interview.  

    • face-to-face
    • by email
    • by phone
    • by online chat
  • Successful interviews require careful preparation including:
    • developing questions related to the research question and the findings from secondary research 
    • doing a trial or test of the questions before the actual interview
    • deciding on the best methodology for conducting and recording the interview
    • making the purpose and use of the data collected well known in advance
    • in some cases, providing the interviewee with the questions in advance
    • assuring the anonymity of the interviewee if requested

Question design 

Questions should be designed to elicit the responses required to help answer the overall research question. 

Recording the interview 

Another consideration is how to record the response. You must ask the permission of the interviewee if you wish to use any audio-visual equipment during an interview.  Please note that electronic submissions are not acceptable, and so an example of a transcript will need to be attached in the appendix. Refer to the section of this guide on appendices for further information. 


Surveys can be carried out:  

  • using a printed form distributed to a defined group of people under controlled conditions
  • online

The researcher is better able to control who is responding to the questions when using paper surveys than online. 

Successful surveys require:

  • knowing from the secondary research what areas need to be investigated
  • forming well-stated questions that yield data that can be analyzed
  • ttesting the questions before conducting the survey—this is called a pilot study
  • assuring anonymity as requested by the participants
  • conducting the survey and collecting the data in a well-defined manner

Quantitative vs qualitative data 

To collect quantitative data the survey must ask closed or multiple-choice questions. These: 

  • have a limited number of responses or
  • have scale choices or
  • require the respondent to prioritize items

To collect qualitative data, the survey must ask open-ended questions, which allow the respondents to write their own answer. 

Sample size and selection 

When collecting data from groups of people, you must make certain that:

  • the sample is large enough to generate meaningful data
  • it is clear how and why she or he selected the participants

Considerations for Primary Research

Whichever method is used, your primary research must be well structured and collect data relating to people, events or objects. 

The data collected must be:

  • measurable or observable
  • relevant
  • reliable
  • replicable

Questions for you to consider are:

  • What do you want to find out from your primary research?
  • How will this relate to the findings from your secondary research?
  • How will the data collected relate to the research question you have posed?
  • What is the best method to collect relevant and reliable data and from where?
  • Are there any ethical or legal considerations to using a primary method that must be taken into account? 

The analysis of primary research includes:

  • the analysis of the data collected
  • the connections you will make between the different sources of information used—for example, your secondary and primary research

You time should be spent researching:

  • what the different primary data collection methods are
  • how to use the different methods to obtain reliable results
  • how to use the results as evidence to support your essay’s argument.

Ways That Primary Research Can Fail

A badly designed or implemented experiment or investigation will lead to flawed results. The following list indicates some ways that primary research can fail. 

  • The survey sample is too small or badly controlled so you cannot reach any conclusions relevant to the research question. 
  • The survey/interview questions do not take proper account of the secondary research findings or the research question, and so do not lead to relevant conclusions. 
  • Unacceptable methods were used to collect information, for example: 
    • using a recording device without the interviewee being aware that the interview was being recorded 
    • taking photos in prohibited areas
    • downloading copyrighted music to demonstrate how it is done.
  • A student has used a research method that is not permitted or not appropriate for the subject in which they are submitting their EE.


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