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What did the extended essay do for you?

By Robin Julian

Writing a 4,000-word research essay in the last year of high school is a remarkable accomplishment for many reasons. But how valuable is it really? We completed some research of our own with almost 400 DP graduates to find out more.

The extended essay is highly regarded as a tool to help IB Diploma Programme (DP) students learn the critical thinking skills and processes associated with carrying out research, enabling them to move more comfortably into the realm of universities, colleges and careers. It can also be recognised as contributing to a person’s capacity to discover for themselves the answers to the enduring questions—big and small—encountered during their life.

But in a time where search engines can respond in an instant and with increasing credibility, to just about any question you can dream up, can the process of conducting research still be considered as something that really matters?

According to the Oxford Living Dictionary, research is defined as ‘the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.’ This implies that by digging deeper than just a quick question posed to Siri hints at an underlying thirst for new knowledge, and an enthusiasm to search for informed conclusions that can shape future decisions and actions. This aligns well with the IB’s description of the extended essay as an endeavour that is ‘intended to promote academic research and writing skills, providing students with an opportunity to engage in personal research in a topic of their own choice in which ideas and findings are communicated in a reasoned and coherent manner, appropriate to the subject chosen’ (extended essay guide 2016). Perhaps a dry description, but it gives context to the efforts of students and their supervisors, who then bring the extended essay to life.

Here are some of our research highlights, from respondents who have now experienced college/university life.

More than 72% of respondents either ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that the extended essay was ‘an academically significant part’ of their DP experience. While statistics can tell us an interesting story, giving them a personal context enhances their interpretation. Bearing in mind that the aims of the extended essay are for students to:

  • engage in independent research with intellectual initiative and rigour;
  • develop research, thinking, self-management and communication skills; and
  • reflect on what has been learned throughout the research and writing process.

“Simply completing it was rewarding”

Many respondents reflected on the enjoyment and benefits of independently researching a topic of their own choice, coming to an understanding of “what professional research looks like and the work required to do it”, while others enjoyed “working with a wonderful supervisor to learn about all the tools required for effective research”.

“Transferability of skills”

Respondents referred to how transferable their extended essay skills were to their university context. Some learned “how to commit to a long-lasting research project, and reaping the benefits came in the form of knowing that “my research papers have been much better than they would have been otherwise”.

“The ability to formulate arguments in a coherent manner and to be disciplined in writing

Drilling down into specific research and writing skills, respondents valued learning how to “elaborate on topics thoughtfully and articulately”, and “hone skills in analysis and synthesis”, while also appreciating the opportunity to find out “how to cite sources and write references in the correct academic style”.

The workplace, and “understanding how to organise a long piece of structured writing”

‘The process of refining the writing through editing drafts” was an important takeaway for one graduate and another said that her current job entails writing analytical reports and that ‘the skills I gained from doing the EE have strongly contributed to the quality of my work’.

Struggle with other DP workload?

In other forums, students have described their struggle with managing the extended essay in conjunction with their other DP responsibilities and requirements, but alumni who participated in this survey, and with the benefit of hindsight, expressed a positive experience.

Typical responses referred to the worth of ‘learning how to manage time in the context of a large project’, and ‘strengthening the skills of organisation and time management’. One respondent emphasised the importance of being supported in this endeavour by the presence of a well-designed extended essay schedule.

“Some years after leaving school, I still find myself citing my EE in conversations”

The long-lasting impact of the extended essay is captured in many reflections such as “the feeling of self-accomplishment remains to this day’. For some, the extended essay “sparked an ongoing passion for research”, but perhaps the most poignant remark shared was one former student’s reflection that researching and writing the extended essay had revealed ‘that I am capable of more than I had ever imagined’.

“I am capable of more than I had ever imagined”

So, what next? How will we use this research?

Of course, as pleasing as this data is, there is room for improvement. Indeed, 35% of alumni surveyed said they found formulating a research question “too challenging” or “far too challenging”, with approximately 20% having felt similarly challenged about the prospects of implementing a research and writing plan, constructing a reasoned argument, and synthesising information.

Overall feedback from our alumni affirms the view that the extended essay adds great value to the IB Diploma experience. The current curriculum review for the extended essay will, as always, seek to build on what is working well, find solutions for shortcomings, and explore innovative ways to enhance the achievement of outcomes, but it seems that there is already good reason to feel confident that the extended essay is doing its bit to bring a practical face to the IB mission to develop ‘inquiring, knowledgeable’ young people and encourage them to ‘become active, compassionate, lifelong learners’.

Robin Julian is IB Curriculum Manager for the Extended Essay.