“Is this a good EE question?”

Travis DixonAssessment (IB), Extended Essay

I strongly feel that we should and must be allowing students to have broad and vague EE questions from the beginning. (image from bigstockphoto.com).

There’s only way way we should be answering this question, in my opinion. And the answer should always be… “Well, it depends.”

Let’s first assume that the question in question addresses some kind of relationship between one or more variables and individual human behaviour (or mental processes). If it does this, it’s suitable for psychology. If not, it needs amending. About 10% of “Is this a good EE question” questions are based on a blurring of boundaries between subjects, like psychology, sociology or anthropology. I’m always seeing excellent feedback and guidance given to these sorts of questions.

In this post, however, I’d like to focus on the >90% of the questions that are asked because there’s a concern that the student’s question is too broad or vague.

Whenever someone asks me, “is this is a good research question,” my reply is always, “Well, it depends. Where are they in the research process?

The core argument I’m going to put forward in this post is that in the early stages of a student’s EE research, we should absolutely be allowing broad, vague and general questions. If they are still broad and vague by the end of the process, well that’s a different story. But I’d hazard a guess that nearly every “is this a good EE question” question is being asked when the student is just starting out, hence the supervisor (or student) is seeking feedback before approving the question (or starting the process).

And I’m not saying don’t ask the question or seek help from colleagues. Teachers asking about EE questions are doing so because they’re conscientious and want what’s best for their students, and this is commendable. And I’m not trying to belittle the feedback given. We all thrive off of the support from one another, and I think the IB Psychology community is very supportive and we should keep this up. But what I’m hoping is that after hearing my thought-processes and rationales behind green-lighting vague and general research questions for students (at the beginning of their research), our collective feedback and guidance can become much better. Better for fellow teachers, and thus better for our students. Because I feel as a community we’re expending too much effort worrying about the research question, and not enough time talking about the research process, or even the final product.


The EE process is about sculpting – taking a chunky topic and refining it into a well-written and focused question that encompasses the core arguments put forward in the essay. But this is an evolutionary process that takes time and effort by the student. The essay itself is also a process of sculpture, from taking big chunks of research and turning them into a refined, carefully crafted and dare I say, even beautiful piece of work. (image from bigstockphoto.com)

Is it a good question? It always depends on where they’re at in the research process!

Let’s remember that when students select their EE topic they’re in their first year of studying psychology and they’re novices. They haven’t been through the rigorous and academically demanding IB Psychology course and they’re only starting out. So they don’t have  a wealth of subject knowledge upon which to draw in order to ask focused and specific questions about the relationship/s between specific variables and specific behaviours. All they have is a general area of interest.

Couple this with the fact that they are encouraged to pursue research topics that extend well-beyond what they’re doing in the course, and we can see that students are somewhat out of their depth. How can we realistically expect them to ask questions about the way specific variables influence specific human behaviours if they don’t know what these variables or behaviours are in the first place!?

An Example

Let’s look at an example of a question that was asked recently:

“To what extent is IQ (testing) a reliable way of measuring intelligence?”

Now the well-meaning feedback from supportive teachers was along the same lines that it always is, “it’s too broad and needs to be focused.”

The response should have been, I think… “Well, it depends. Where are they at in the research process?” If the answer to that question is, “they’ve done all their research and now they’re doing the write-up,” then yes, perhaps it’s too broad to be effective. But then again, they would only be able to narrow it down to a specific type of test or a specific type of intelligence if they discovered that and knew about it from their research! If they haven’t got detailed knowledge, they can’t ask detailed questions.

What’s more likely is that this question is from a student who is just starting out in their research. And in that case, let’s put ourselves in their shoes for a moment and see the world from their perspective. They’ve asked this question because they’re interested in the topic, but they’ve probably got no idea about different types of intelligence, or that there are multiple ways of testing it. All they know is that IQ tests are used to test intelligence and they’re not sure that’s reliable, so they want to investigate it. That to me, is commendable and they should be allowed to go for it.

If they haven’t got detailed knowledge, they can’t ask detailed questions.

So I’d give this kid the green light! And if there is a concern that it’s too broad, the green light can come with this proviso. Perhaps some feedback along the lines of, “Sounds like an interesting topic. As you’re doing your research, though, be mindful of ways you can focus your question a little bit. Maybe by finding a particular type of intelligence that’s measured, or a particular type of test. But for now, go and get stuck in and see what you come up with.” We might even prompt them with some possible things to look at, but we definitely shouldn’t be messing with their question, I don’t think. That’s up to them.

Because research is a journey of academic discovery and intellectual enlightenment. If we’re the ones as supervisors who cut down on the possible paths a student might explore, sure they’ll get to their end goal faster and probably more efficiently, but will they be richer for having done so? Conducting research is about staring into a dense jungle of clusters of information, varying sources, and different resources. It’s about the frustration of getting lost in a tangle of abstracts, abstract terms and rabbit holes of conflicting facts and nearly drowning in swamps of information. It’s about taking copious notes and wrangling with the questions “Where the hell am I going with this?” and “What am I doing?” “What does this mean?” But it’s also about the thrill and excitement that comes with slowly striking one’s way through this tangle, being able to find the connecting paths and coming through the other side battered, but more knowledgeable. But this joy and excitement that accompanies academic exploration and discovery will only come if it’s been an organic process that the student has taken control of.

We simply cannot expect students to have focused questions about topics they haven’t yet researched!

The extended essay is the best opportunity the IB provides for DP students to conduct extensive inquiry-based investigations on topics of their choice. To eliminate the possible paths they may go on too early in their process because we can see that the question is too broad, is to deprive them of a potentially enriching experience, personally, academically and intellectually.

My point here is that let’s encourage students to ask interesting questions and present interesting answers. And we simply cannot expect them to have focused questions about topics they haven’t yet researched! We should also be focusing more on their process and the product, rather than their question.

Some Examples

Here are some initial EE questions that I would green light if a student came to me and asked for approval before they start their research:

  • Why do people become serial killers?
  • What causes depression?
  • Why do some people become addicted to alcohol?
  • What is Alzheimer’s disease and can it be cured?
  • Why does child abuse lead to violence in adulthood?

As a 17 year old, these are the questions that I would have been asking because these are the types of questions that I would have wanted to find the answers to. Remember that the students don’t know about these topics at the start of the research, so they must be broad.

After all, how can we expect students to write focused questions on topics they know little about? And don’t we want them to be asking questions on topics they don’t know much about? Surely we do. We should not be the ones doing the critical thinking for the students. Let them ask the broad and interesting questions that have sparked their imagination, and let them loose into the jungle of information. They will have to work hard, to show grit, determination and put in a lot of effort to hone and craft their research into something presentable, and that’s exactly what we should be encouraging. If we are the ones who refine their questions and topics, we’re ploughing a path through that jungle and letting students walk freely down a paved path that we created and they didn’t choose. And I don’t think that’s at all the point of the EE process.

The EE can be a beautiful process when a student brings a topic that they’re inherently interested in because it has personal relevance. Let’s foster that, and nurture it, as opposed to cutting them down too early.

And let’s be honest, no question worth asking in psychology can be suitably addressed in 4,000 words. I’d like to think this is why the IB have wisely updated the assessment criteria to reflect this. Instead of this old criterion, we’re now expecting students to have a research question that is “clearly stated and focused,” which means that it’s “…clear and addresses an issue of research that is appropriately connected to the discussion in the essay.” (Extended Essay Guide, EE Website, OCC).

The alteration of phrasing to the word “clear” is quite important, I think. Let’s take my example earlier about people who are abused as children grow up to become violent adults.

Imagination this interchange:

Student: Mr Dixon, you know how me learned in class about Caspi’s study and how people with the warrior gene who are abused as kids are more likely to grow up to become violent?”

Me: Yes Timmy, I remember.

S: I want to do my EE on that. I want to know why child abuse can lead to violence in adulthood.

M: Awesome. That’s a fascinating topic. Go and do some wide reading and come back in a couple of months and then let’s see what you’ve got. And let me know if you need help on where to find information.


Now, in my mind, that’s how an early EE interview should go. But the feedback I’m seeing time and again is that I’ve done the wrong thing here and I should have told Timmy how to focus his incredibly broad topic. But I see it this way: Timmy’s only just learned about this in class. We didn’t have time to explore how the MAOA-L variants affect the brain, or epigenetic processes like the neurological changes that happen as a result of abuse and affect stress reactions later in life. I know all this, but he doesn’t. And if I were to direct him down a specific path he’d be following the journey I took when I first learned about the topic, and it would not longer be his investigation. There’s an awful lot for Timmy to learn from the research process and it’s not just about creating the product. I would sincerely love for us as a community to keep this in mind, or for someone to show me how my logic is flawed.

How focused is focused?

At this point, I hope I’ve made a good case for green lighting interesting yet broad and vague research questions early in the EE process. The role of the supervisor should be there to support the crafting of the question and the development of the final essay as the process evolves – I strongly believe that it should not be to craft the question for the student from the beginning.

The second point I’d like to make is that I think we should even be allowing a bit more freedom in the final research questions that are being asked and we should be putting more emphasis on their answers, not on their questions.

For example, which of these research questions do you think is more “clear” and “focused”?

1. Why are abused children more likely to become antisocial adults?

2. To what extent does prolonged early life physical abuse affect antisocial adult behaviour through the interaction of epigenetic processes, serotonergic mechanisms, neuroplastic changes in the amygdala and the corresponding secretion of cortisol and activity in the prefrontal cortex in response to social stressors in adulthood?


Some might argue that Timmy’s first question is too “vague” or it’s too “broad.” What do you mean “abuse?” What do you mean “antisocial?” But remember he has 4,000 words to operationally define these variables and to contextual his answer and give it scope in the introduction. Personally, I’d be far more interested in reading essay #1, than #2. And bear in mind that essay #1 can still include a thorough exploration of all those specific variables outlined in the #2, but Timmy doesn’t need to be jam-pack them all in the question, I don’t think. To do so reduces its clarity. Why not encourage clear questions, and focused answers.

Because in order to have a focused question on this topic Timmy would need to include the complex relationships between cognitive, social, cultural, and biological factors. But is he really expected to put all of that in one question? Why? Why can’t he show that in the answer? It would only take a few hundred words in the introduction of his essay for him to suitably focus his topic and provide some context for the essay and the question, and show the reader how he intends to answer the interesting question. And shouldn’t that be OK?

Perhaps you might say that his question #1 is making an assumption that abuse will lead to violence, and this is an oversimplification. But he’s done the research and he can (and will) present a very strong case for the existence of this phenomenon all within the introduction of his essay.

If you write an EE on a topic you know little about, you’ll see that it’s absolutely impossible to start the process with the same question that you’ll have by the end. If we’re going to help students become better scholars and thinkers, I think we have to remember this.

So, At What Point Do They Finalize Their Research Question?

The advice I give my students is that they should treat their research question like an evolving and living thing, always open to being adapted and amended, because it should reflect their knowledge, which is always growing and changing throughout the research process. But at some point, this process needs to end. When is that point? Well, it depends.

By looking at the wording of the new EE assessment criteria, “The research question is clear and addresses an issue of research that is appropriately connected to the discussion in the essay,” we can see that actually their final research question would be better thought of as the title of their essay, as opposed to a single driving force that directs their research from the beginning. Sure they have a question to start, but we’ve already seen how and why that question must begin broad and general and evolve and change continually. And remember that students won’t just be asking one question when they’re doing research – if they’re learning they’ll be asking and answering many. And with each answer they’ll only have more questions. So the process absolutely involves amassing a big chunk of research that is all related to an overarching question/topic, that evolves along with the research that they gather. And then when they feel they have enough material to craft into a 4,000 word essay, they will most probably re-write their question in a way that suitably ties together their findings and allows them to connect the question to the discussion in their essay. And that’s when they’ll come again and ask about how good their research question is. So if someone’s asking “Is this a good EE question?” This is why I’d always reply with, “Well, that depends. Where are they at in the process?”

In summary, I feel it’s essential we remember that in order to ask a focused question one must have in-depth knowledge and understanding of a particular topic. It’s impossible for students to possess this knowledge and understanding at the beginning of their research, so their questions and topics by their very nature must be broad to reflect their lack of knowledge. This is why we green light broad topics and questions at the start of the process, and encourage them to evolve and develop the topic and question along the way so by the end it’s clear and focused. To give them a specific question without having any knowledge is putting the cart before the horse.

So is it a good EE question? Hopefully you can see that, well, it depends.


If my ideas here make sense, please feel free to share this post with others who ask the “Is this a good EE question” question if you think it would help them. It might even be helpful for students who ask this question. I love the IB Psychology community spirit and our desire to help one another, and I only hope that my thoughts here can in some way contribute. But as always, I’m always up for learning and being shown the follies in my thinking.