Supervising a Group 4 Extended Essay

Following on from my article on how to structure a group 4 Internal Assessment (IA), I am putting down some thoughts on writing and supervising a group 4 extended essay (EE), and the differences between it and an IA. A comment from the 2018 examiners’ report on the EEs was that “…there are still many which resemble long lab reports, and even use former IA descriptors as titles for different sections of the EE”. Clearly, there is a difference between how one should present the IA and the EE.

Differences between the EE and IA

As discussed in the IA article, the structure provided there is suitable for all forms of scientific writing, including postgraduate theses or scientific journals. The distinguishing factors between these would be the level of detail and focus in each of the sections. For example, a scientific journal may often spend little time and space on describing the experimental apparatus, instead directing the reader to previous works with similar setups, and merely pointing out the salient differences of this experiment from previous iterations. It would then spend most of its time presenting its results, analysis, conclusions, and speculations, followed by directions for further research and extensions.

In the case of the extended essay, what would set it apart from an IA report are:

  • An IA usually would focus on content that is related to/within the syllabus, while it is encouraged that the EE involves research outside the syllabus.
  • The EE is not necessarily in a subject that the student is taking for the diploma, although this is recommended.
  • The IA must have experimental data, while the extended essay, while still requiring independent research, may be literature-based.
  • The EE must demonstrate greater understanding of the theoretical background/framework of the experiment.
  • The EE must demonstrate a greater ability to analyse and evaluate the arguments of the research.

This article will examine mainly the last three differences (the first two should be relatively obvious) and what the examiners are looking for, in order to demonstrate these skills. From this, it should also become clear which sections of the EE in the prescribed structure should be expanded in comparison to the IA. This piece is directed more towards educators, who might be interested in the difference in instruction for the two, although students would still find the points here useful when writing their own extended essays.

Experimental or Literature-based Extended Essay?

The grading criteria of the extended essay is set such that data from experimental work or drawn from literature sources can both be used for analysis. What they are looking for is:

  1. Justification of choice of source,
  2. Selecting/generating data that will support or refute the argument, and
  3. Correct analysis and evaluation

As such, it is possible to score the full marks with either choice, as long as one is careful. Historically, however, students have usually found it easier to unconsciously fulfill these criteria when using experimental data, as they would naturally design experiments around their research question. This leads to addressing point 1 (“I chose to do this particular experiment”), point 2 (“the experiment will produce the data relevant to the research question”), and point 3 (“analysing the data gives results which support or refute the hypothesis”).

A pitfall of following a literature-based EE is for a student to follow the argument of an article or textbook, losing sight of the original research question and what information might be useful to address it. In these cases, the three criteria would not be met. The key point to remember in selecting a literature-based essay is to ensure the focus remains on the research question, and to be able to select, examine, and analyse relevant data and literature to address the question.

Another potential problem, (although this could indeed be the case for both types of EE) is as noted in the EE subject guide: “topics may be unsuitable because the outcome is already well known and documented in standard textbooks”. This is where students may select and follow an idea which they have found in an post-IB level text (or texts), leading to similar issues in failing to meet the criteria.

The decision of data generation versus literature review is relevant to grading criteria A and C. Common criticisms relevant to these criteria in examiners reports are:

Criterion A: Focus and Method

  • Lack of justification or rationale for use of sources
  • Rationale for selection of one method over another
  • Quality of sources

Criterion C: Critical Thinking

  • Evaluation was weak and mainly based on practical aspects
  • Evaluation did not discuss reliability of method or sources chosen
  • These should be borne in mind when writing the introduction, methodology, analysis, and evaluation.

Theoretical Background and Framework

As the research in the EE is expected to be more complex than the IA, the relation of the background information to the experiments is generally more involved. As such, the theoretical background and framework is assesed in two parts:

  1. how well the student understands the surrounding theory and relevant principles, and
  2. how well the student relates the underlying theory behind the research question.

The difference between the two points is that the first assesses the student’s general understanding of the topic, while the second examines how well the student can apply it to their research question. Since the first uses the remember and understand levels of knowledge, while the second requires the higher apply, analyse, and evaluate skills, students tend to do better in demonstrating ability in the first strand than the second. This usually manifests as a general discussion on the topic in the introduction/background, without further application of the theory to the specific research question and the potential implications of the results.

The lack of deeper understanding may also become clear when the background knowledge, sometimes lifted from texts or online articles, is incorrectly applied to the particular case of the research question. This often leads to a confused or inconsistent hypothesis, and the terminology or notation may be incorrect. Finally, as per the IA,  for the sake of conciseness irrelevant theory should not be included.

The understanding and application of theory is relevant to grading Criteria A and B. In Criterion A, Focus and Method, students are generally able to frame the research within the academic context and state an appropriate research question, fulfilling the requirements. However, in Criteria B, Knowledge and Understanding, the issues just discussed tend to prevent students from scoring above the mid-level marks.

Analysis and Evaluation in the EE

An area many students struggle in for both IAs and EEs is in evaluation and analysis, producing purely descriptive writing of the methodologies and results obtained. I believe this to be what the “resemble long lab reports” comment mentioned at the start of this article is referring to. We must bear in mind that the concept of reflection is central to the whole IB syllabus, present not only in the EE, but also in the core material, CAS, and TOK. In the EE, the engagement criterion (E) is accordingly given 6 marks out of 34, more than ⅙ of the whole piece, and evaluation is an important part of criterion C, which holds 12 out of 34 marks.

At the start of the IB, students are often unused to considering the validity of their ideas, thinking, and processes, usually requiring constant prompting in each of these before it (hopefully) begins to become second nature. Useful questions in discussion include:

  • Why did you choose to use this process?
  • What does this result mean?
  • What are the implications of your hypothesis?
  • Are results in agreement with what you know?
  • Does this make sense?

Further questions in the reflection sessions could also include:

  • What new concepts did you learn? How did you learn them?
  • What ideas did you find out to be incorrect? How has your understanding changed?
  • Were there parts of the experiment that didn’t work and you had to redesign? Why?

Prompting students to consider and address these questions while writing their essay and their reflection will aid in fulfilling the criteria for analysis and evaluation.

Common comments in examiners’ reports for criteria C and E are:

Criteria C: Critical Thinking

  • Arguments are descriptive rather than critical
  • Implications of results not examined and considered
  • Relation of the hypothesis to the results in the conclusion

Criteria E: Engagement

  • Students only describing the process
  • Lack of critical evaluation of the process
  • Reflection sessions by supervisors should include questions which make students reflect on their progress

Summary

While a group 4 Extended Essay is often thought of as a longer group 4 IA, there are a few key differences which I have examined in this article. As supervisors or students, awareness of these differences will help in ensuring the criteria are met in these aspects. Of course, there are many similarities as well, and the general good practice in scientific writing used for an IA, such as consistency of notation, clear presentation, and coherency in arguments should definitely still be applied.