If you have a child doing the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) and they’re casting their eye forward to the IB Extended Essay with trepidation, help is at hand! We chat with two mentors tutoring in Hong Kong through consultancy BartyED about nailing this crucial component of the programme and how to improve writing skills.
About Jess Chan
“While my family is originally from Hong Kong, I grew up in Essex and studied Biological Sciences at Durham before working as a teacher in London. I relocated to HK in 2022. At BartyED, I teach Biology, Chemistry and Maths to all ages. I had an enjoyable secondment last academic year teaching IB MYP Science at Carmel School. The fact that BartyED works with international schools as well as one-to-one with our private clients means that my work is never dull.”
About Sabina Shahi
“I grew up in the UK – home was the cathedral city of Salisbury. I joined BartyED in the 2022-2023 academic year and am delighted to be in Hong Kong. It’s a full circle as this is where my Dad started his career in the 1980s. I teach English and History to all ages; I took a First at Durham in History but have always had a passion for languages. I enjoy the mentoring aspect of tutoring in Hong Kong and particularly the rigour of getting students ready for university level writing through the Extended Essay.”
Give us an overview of the IB Extended Essay (EE).
The IB Extended Essay is one of the most challenging parts of the whole Diploma Programme. It’s essentially a university level essay that final year IB students complete. In Science, this means completing a methodologically sound research project and writing up and reflecting rigorously on the significance of your findings.
It’s even more demanding than some first- or second-year university essays. The EE is 4,000 words in length and entirely independently directed. So, students have to develop their own research questions, amass their own readings, and construct an argument. It’s a core component of the IBDP, which, along with TOK, provide the three core points that count towards students’ final score.
What are some interesting topics you’ve seen previous students choose while tutoring in Hong Kong?
That’s the great thing about the EE: students can choose to research and write about something that really interests them. Recent history projects we’ve supervised include a project on the contribution of Chinese migration in the 19th century to the evolution of Thai cuisine and an examination of the role of court eunuchs in the collapse of the Ming Dynasty. In English, we’ve had students conduct a close analysis of Baldwin’s narrative voice in Giovanni’s Room (1956); they were very well prepared for undergraduate English at NYU this year!
As a Math and Sciences tutor, I’ve had students investigate the effectiveness of hygiene regimens in their schools (Biology), which was particularly relevant during the anti-COVID measures. This year, I’ve got a student investigating the antimicrobial impacts of traditional Chinese medicine. Students often select topics that open up new avenues of thought for me.
What are some important points when it comes to choosing a topic?
Choose a topic that lends itself to the marking criteria. A really interesting research question might be difficult to explore with a sound method in the context of a school laboratory. Hence, it will fail at the first hurdle on Criterion A (Focus and Method). This in turn will limit the student’s ability to show adequate analytical skills for Criterion E (Critical Thinking). Together, these Criteria are worth 18 marks (approximately 53 percent of those available for the essay). Talking to potential supervisors early on and deciding what methods can reasonably be followed in your school laboratory is absolutely essential.
In English and History, the two most popular subjects for EEs, it’s important that there is sufficient secondary, academic literature on the topic that the student chooses. To score highly, students should aim to demonstrate that they can produce competent first-year level undergraduate work. That means citing relevant literary or historiographical debates and ensuring that their essay is evaluative.
What are common pitfalls with the IB Extended Essay?
One consistent issue is that students aren’t aware what the EE is all about. They all know it’s an intimidating piece of coursework but not what is expected of them. The IB publishes the Extended Essay Guide, a syllabus which includes subject specific guidance for every major discipline students might write in. It amazes me the number of students who have not read this when they first reach out for help.
The subject-specific criteria are of course essential. What’s necessary for a solid Maths EE isn’t what’s required for History or Geography. In History, if your research question is “Did X cause Y” then you’re not going to produce an argument that evaluates different historical perspectives and gets marks for Critical Engagement (Criterion E). If we reframe the question to “To what extent did X cause Y”, suddenly we are evaluating different factors and historians’ perspectives within the debate – and on our way to a higher mark. Some students also devote far too many words to their introduction. For a 4,000 word paper, the introduction should constitute around 400 words or 10 percent. If it’s 800 words, something has gone wrong.
What are some tips for timelines and planning?
Planning is essential. A project of this length cannot be completed for a high score in a week or two. Students should start thinking about their EE as early as possible – in their first year of IB rather than their final year. The ideal scenario is that in the summer months between their first and second IBDP years, students complete an initial draft of their Extended Essay.
It might seem a bit miserable to spend the summer months working on a 4,000 word essay for school but it’s well worth it. For Science EEs, I would recommend starting even earlier. Ideally, students will have written their methodology and collected their data in the summer term of Year 1, leaving the middle summer for the write-up. The final year of the IBDP is extremely difficult so using that time to get work completed is crucial.
Where can students pick up some easy points?
The essay is graded out of 34, of which 6 marks are gained or lost through something called the Reflections on Planning and Progress Form (RPPF). This 500-word document tracks each student’s reflections on the research process. The examiner assigns these marks based on three reflections the student writes, ostensibly at the start, middle and end of the project. While 6 marks may not seem too much, it’s about 18 percent of the overall score. Unfortunately, students don’t consider the importance of the RPPF and come to regret not giving it the required attention. It’s the difference between an A and B on the final result.
Why is the IB Extended Essay beneficial for students?
It sets students up for what’s to come at university level. Doing research, constructing a bibliography, writing an essay with a long form argument – all of this is what is expected of university students. The EE gives IB students the opportunity to hone these skills well before they set foot on a university campus.
Although it’s a challenging piece of coursework, the EE is a huge benefit and will set up IB students nicely for their tertiary education. My former students report finding first year at university significantly easier as a result of having completed the EE to a high standard.
Keen to improve writing skills for the IB Extended Essay? Contact BartyED at 2882 1017 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss tutoring in Hong Kong.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2023/2024 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue!