The Research Question and How To Formulate One
Things to do and consider

Pick a topic that INTERESTS you!!!!!

What drew you to this topic area? What is it about it that matters to you? Listen to yourself and start formulating your research question (RQ) by  following your own interests. Remember, you will spend a lot of time researching and writing your EE.  If it does not interest you in the beginning, it will certainly become very difficult to write about it in the end!!

What is it you would like to know about your topic area or what issue or question would you like to answer through your research?

Choose an area that is capable of research.  For example, there is a lot of  information available on World War One.  However, even the historian Alison Weir found it difficult to find information for her biography of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster.

What sort of information will I need to answer my RQ and is this information easily available in the library – books, magazines, the internet, encyclopedia, almanacs, interviews, societies etc?

The RQ should be short and clear.  It should be jargon free.  These very simple ‘power questions’ are very effective.

Who – who did it?

What – what happened? What did s/he do that was noteworthy?

Where – where did it happen? Could it have happened elsewhere?

Why – why did it happen or why did s/he do it?

When – when did it happen?

Things to avoid

Examiners’ reports mention these things to be avoided at all costs.

Students should not work with a research question that is too broad or too vague, too narrow, too difficult or inappropriate. For example ‘What is the Japanese Style of Management?’ is far too broad and vague.

Limit your variables.  “Was the decline of population growth in Brazil  the result of government policies?” is much easier RQ to understand and for you  to answer than “Was the decline in population growth in Brazil related more to sex education, the distribution of birth control, or resource depletion?”

A good research question is one that asks something worth asking and that is answerable within 40 hours/4,000 words.

It should be clear what would count as evidence in relation to the question, and it must be possible to acquire such evidence in the course of the investigation. If a student does not know what evidence is needed, or cannot collect such evidence, it will not be possible to answer the research question.

In addition, students should not (amongst other things):

· forget to analyse the research question

· collect material that is irrelevant to the research question

One further piece of advice – the more background a student has in the subject, the better chance he or she has of writing a good extended essay. Choosing  to write the extended essay in a subject that is not being studied as part of  the Diploma Programme often leads to lower marks. 

(IBO Handbook)


The following is an example of a poorly constructed History RQ

To What Extent Was Peron’s First Presidency in 1946 a Turning Point For Late 20th  Century Argentinian History?


The time period is open ended – what is meant by ‘late 20th century’?   Remember, you cannot write an IB History essay past 1999 as events occurring in the past ten years would be considered politics.

The language is vague – what is meant by ‘a turning point’?

Here is another example of a poorly constructed researh question

‘Does the United States have a good foreign policy?


It’s subjective.  What aspect of foreign policy will you research?

From whose perspective should the RQ be answered eg which political party?

Which other country will you compare/contrast with the United States?

Here’s a final example.

Should older people be allowed to drive?

The question is phrased in such a way that asks for your opinion rather than facts.

It is subjective.  An answer from an elderly group is likely to be very different from the young.  Also, what response do you think you will get from someone who knows someone who has been killed or injured by an old person?

What is meant by ‘older’ ? Over 50 or over 65 years of age?


Have a look at the questions below.  Why do you think they are successful RQs?

How and why have Sylvia Plath in the “Bell Jar” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” used inanimate objects as motifs for female madness?

In what way are the themes and style of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” by Tom Stoppard related to “Waiting For Godot” by Samuel Becket?

A Comparative Evaluation of Two Therapy Theories, Specifically the Transference Focused Psychotherapy (TFP) Theory and the Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) Theory, Focused on the Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder

These RQs are interesting and challenging. They are narrow in scope  yet allow you to collect information for analysis and evaluation.  An effective RQ asks a question that can be answered with verifiable facts.

It avoids subjective responses  or opinions.  Be aware of the difference between opinions and judgments.  A judgment is supported by facts and verifiable data, whereas opinion is not.

Please note that you are not expected to produce new findings/results.  What is expected is that you can identify research/information that allows you to answer a RQ in depth.

A topic which requires no research and is a narrative or descriptive essay is not a suitable topic for an Extended Essay.