The key to writing an excellent EE research question isn’t to begin with the perfect question in mind. Far from it. You have to begin broad and continually work on evolving your question so it gets more and more focused. In this post we look at three examples of how a broad topic can evolve into an excellent research question.
It breaks my heart when I see EE advice that gives students specific examples of research questions to ask. The research process for the EE should be a genuine chance for inquiry into a topic the students are interested in. Who cares if they start with a broad question? It’s only a problem if they still have that question at the end!
Here are three examples of how research questions have evolved over months of research from students.
Always a popular subject but I’m surprised to hear that some students are discouraged from writing about it. I’ve had two in the last two years write about psychopathy and both students have done excellent work. In fact, one student has gone on to study Criminal Psychology at university!
Asking “how” or “why” questions are perfectly acceptable in IB Psychology EEs. The reason “to what extent” is more popular is because the critical thinking is included in the question with that phrase “to what extent.” But you can still have critical thinking in a “why” essay. In this case, the student simply argued against their explanations of why there were more male psychopaths in prison compared to females. (By the way, they were 1 mark away from an A).
You can’t ask a question you know nothing about. This is why EE supervisors, I think, need to refrain from giving the questions to their students. In the below example, you can see that understandably the first question is broad. The student doesn’t know about the psychology of happiness yet because they haven’t researched it. But over weeks and months of research, they learn about things like social comparison theory and subjective well-being (the psychologist’s term for happiness).
Generally speaking, EEs in IB Psychology will about causes and/or effects. What causes a particular behaviour (or cognitive process)? What are the effects of particular factors (e.g. genes, environment, etc.) on behaviour? What are the effects of treatments or interventions on behaviour?
The key is to continually narrow the question so the causes and/or effects being asked about are increasingly specific. You can see this in the above example where it’s generally “what causes happiness?” Then when a specific cause is isolated after weeks of research (social comparison on social media) the final question can be more specific than the first. But it would have been impossible for the student to begin with this EE question because they didn’t know about social comparison or subjective well-being at that time.
These examples all have four steps, but this is done for the purposes of demonstration. It’s possible that a student might have lots and lots of variations of their RQ before they find the perfect one.
Hopefully by now I’ve made my point – it’s not important to start with a narrow and focused research question, but it is important to end with one.
Travis Dixon is an IB Psychology teacher, author, workshop leader, examiner and IA moderator.