Research question

The research question is the cornerstone of the Extended Essay. The words 'research question' appear in Criteria A-C. What are the characteristics of a good research question? Compare the poor research questions with the good questions in the table below. What improvements have been made? Discuss these improvements with a classmate or colleague and make a list of the characteristics of a good research question, before revealing the word cloud below.

Subject Poor RQ Good RQ
English A, Cat. 3 How racist are Disney's animated films from the 20th century? To what extent does Disney successfully address its racist history from 'Song of the South' with 'The Princess and the Frog'?
English B, Cat. 1 What kinds of words gained new meaning during the 2020 Corona crisis? To what extent does the language of Donald Trump during his Corona briefings in 2020 resemble the language of a political campaign?
Business Management How has Uber disrupted the taxi industry? To what extent has the introduction of Uber in Amsterdam challenged employment laws in the taxi sector?
Physics How do dimple patterns on golf balls affect ball flight? To what extent are hexagon dimple patterns on golf balls effective for high-handicap golfers?  
Music How are modern-day musicals inspired by operas?  To what extent does the musical language of Andrew Lloyd Weber take inspiration from classical opera of the eighteenth century?

Have you made a list of characteristics of a good research question? Which characteristics are most important? Compare your list of characteristics with those that appear in the word cloud below? Click on the cloud to make it appear larger in a new window. Responsive image

Phrasing your research question

Which phrases and words often appear in good research questions? Here are some phrases to consider and some phrases to avoid when articulating your research question. Discuss how the useful phrases can help you demonstrate the characteristics of a good research question (see word cloud above). 

Useful phrases Phrases to avoid
  • To what extent / degree...
  • How effective is...
  • How have the decisions of... affected...
  • What is the role and significance of...
  • What is the best / cheapest / quickest method for....
  • In light of... how can one understand...
  • What has been the influence of... on...
  • Can you prove...
  • Is... to blame for...
  • Are we better off without...
  • What if everyone were to...
  • Could....possibly be the most....
  • Is it true that...
  • What is the history of...

Some teachers advise against using the phrase 'to what extent', because it is so popular. It is popular, however, for good reason. It inserts an element of 'why' into a 'how' question, which helps make your essay more evaluative. Watch out for closed questions (which can be answered with a 'yes' or 'no', weasel words (such as 'some people say') or sweeping generalisations (such as 'true artists do not care about financial success.'

Over to you

Below are several mediocre research questions that could be improved. Read each mediocre question (a) and discuss how you would improve it, before revealing the improved version (b). The improved versions are only suggestions, as there are many ways to improve them.

How are the novels Mort and The Book Thief similar and different with regards to death?

For what reasons and to what effects do Terry Pratchet and Markus Zusak employ characterization and narration in Mort and The Book Thief respectively?

Notice how this improved version is more focused on the stylistic features of the primary sources and 'why' ("for what reasons") the authors wrote these works. The phrase "to what effects" also allows the essays to be more evaluative than descriptive.

How are American views on infidelity expressed through language?

Category 2b: How does the use of English by Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton in their confessional speeches reveal America’s attitudes toward marriage and infidelity in the 1990s?

Notice how this question has been moved from Category 2a to 2b and now refers to cultural artefacts, namely the speeches of two men. While the original question meets the 2a requirements, 2b essays are generally more focused because they require primary sources (cultural artefacts). Primary sources are a key ingredient in any Group 1,2 or 6 essay because Criterion C: Critical thinking refers to analysis and evaluation of primary sources. In the subject-specific guidance on Group 2 Extended Essays, the word 'analysis' appears, even though this word does not appear anywhere in the subject guide for Language Acquisition. Students are not allowed to write a Language B essay (Group 2) in a language that they are taking as a Language A (Group 1). The above-mentioned research question would also be very appropriate as an English A, Cat. 3 essay on 'language', which is IB-speak for 'non-literary text(s)'.

How were the 'killing fields' in Cambodia similar to or different from the holocaust?

To what extent were foreign influences the main cause in the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power in Cambodia in 1975?

Notice how this question cuts out the Holocaust and focuses on foreign influences as the main cause of the Khemer Rouge's rise to power in 1975. Most History essays receive a 'C' (see Statistical Bulletin), because they tend to be too descriptive and not evaluative or argumentative. Good History essay try to identify a causal relationship and persuade the reader (examiner) of the significance of these causes.

What are the effects of temperature on fruit that is ripening by ethylene?

What is the optimal amount of ethylene and the optimal temperature for bananas that ripen in sea containers?

Ethylene makes fruit ripen faster. This process is affected by temperature. These variables are already known and tested. But why do they matter? Every day bananas are transported in sea containers around the world. For grocery stores and their customers, it is important that bananas are not too ripe or unripe upon arrival. What data are available from shipping companies? How can experiments with bananas, ethylene various temperatures and spaces generate useful data for shipping companies? The improved research question puts a much greater emphasis on the significance of the research. Generally speaking, students who conduct experiments do better than students who only analyse other researchers' data.

How do Runs Batted In (RBIs) predict a baseball team's success?

How can the kinds of batting strageties described in the movie Money Ball be used to recruit players and create the optimal batting order?

Students are often told not to write their Extended Essay in Maths, because it is too difficult. Check out the Statistical Bulletin to see that many students do very well in Maths. Applied mathematics is popular for good reason. It addresses the relevance of maths to real-world problems. The 'mediocre' question could be too descriptive, exploring correlations between RBIs and wins in baseball. The 'improved' question does something with an already-proven batting strategy, which is explored in the movie Money Ball). It shows its relevance to the recruitment of players and a team's batting order, which are important responsibilities of baseball managers and coaches.

Why is M.C. Escher an underappreciated artist in his country of origin, the Netherlands?

To what extent and for what reasons have the works of M.C. Escher been received differently in the United States and the Netherlands?

The 'mediocre' question has built-in assumptions that the artist is underappreciated in the Netherlands. The 'improved' question explores how his works have been received differently in two countries. This exploration will require a broad range of secondary sources that review Escher's works, possibly in both English and Dutch. Cross-cultural comparisons are relevant for those who are interested in the artist, the commercialisation of art and what makes art 'art'.


How do you know what you think you know? This is a guiding question for Theory of Knowledge (TOK), which also has relevance to your Extended Essay. Research questions should go beyond 'what is known' and explore 'how much can be known' about your topic.

Last modified: Sunday, 24 May 2020, 1:47 PM