Getting started with an ESS extended essay

This section covers guidance to help the teacher and the student get started with an ESS EE


Guidance for supervisors

Many teachers are apprehensive about taking on the responsibility of guiding a student through the EE. It can be a stressful process but this can be minimized by following a few steps which I have outlined below. 

Know the student

I feel it is really beneficial to you and your student if you actually teach them! Sounds obvious but daily contact and a good working relationship based on mutual respect does take away some of the pain of research, honing the RQ, maintainig deadlines and conducting the vive voce. I have read many essays in which it is fairly obvious the student doesn't actually take ESS. 

Picking a research question

The most important advice I would give to students and supervisors alike is to really spend time considering the topic and research question. ESS is interdisciplinary but some ESS essays submitted have unfortunately only tenuous links with the subject. If an ESS is judged by an examiner to be inappropriate for the subject it is severely penalised with only a maximum of 4 being awarded for criteria A and B and a maximum of 3 being awarded for criteria C. 

The standard and quality of ESS EE’s varies remarkably. The best essays are distinguishable by their concise wording, clarity and understanding, focus and precise referencing. The worst to read are unstructured, rambling, poorly referenced and difficult to understand.

Initial meetings

It is quite tempting to give too much help in the initial stages of the EE. If a student doesn't work through a process that enables them to fully take ownership of their own research question, they may struggle to fully engage in the process and lose focus when writing. Although It is a good idea to discuss the RQ at length in the initital meeting between the supervisor and student it is better that this is a shorter meeting,  followed  up a short time later to ascertain if the student is going to be able to follow through with the intital RQ. This avoids wasting time if there really isn't the research available to underpin the essay. It is really important that the essay is clear in its intention and follows a logical order throughout.

Pay particular attention to page 96-101 of the EE guide (the assessment criteria)

Academic Honesty

Students need to pay great attention to referencing in all their work. There is good detailed advice in the EE guide -  “Elements to be included in the reference” (a summarised table accessed by a link in EE Guide [p85] for “Effective citing and referencing”)

One aspect that is not found in the “Effective citing and referencing” table is the issue of referencing interviews. Any references to interviews should state the name of the interviewer, the name of the interviewee, the date and the place of the interview (p86 of EE Guide).

Experiment-based Essays

•       The selection of overall method and data to be collected should be assessed as part of criterion A (the third strand).

•       Understanding the subject-related implications of the materials used and data collected is assessed under criterion B (first strand).

•       The rest of the experimental account can be assessed under criterion C. The effective design/control of variables/replication etc can be assessed under the first strand; the graphical analysis/interpretation, etc under the second strand; discussion/evaluation etc under the third strand.

Engagement (Criterion E)

Examiners will be looking for their responses to new developments and supervisor inputs along with an ability to evaluate, not the outcomes or success of the research itself (that should be in the body of the essay), but their own personal development in the process. 

Word Count

Essays over the word limit will be self-penalising for the most part, in that examiners should not read or assess any material beyond 4000 words. This may mean that a significant portion or the entire conclusion is ignored, severely affecting the assessment of criterion C, for example. Other than that, keeping the essay within the limit, will be just one aspect of the several indicators regarding layout under criterion D.

External institutions

Any research carried out by a candidate at some external institution should include a letter from their external supervisor/mentor in an appendix. If it is not there, an exception should be raised.

Summary of Criteria for ESS use

Criterion A:

Focus and Method

Topic: clearly stated on title page/introductory passages? sufficiently explained? appropriate to subject?

RQ: clear? scope? focus maintained throughout the EE? justified worthy of investigation? posed as a question? invites academic argument (not descriptive response)?

Sources/methods: range ok? relevant to RQ? appropriate for RQ?

Criterion B:

Knowledge and Understanding

Source materials: sources/methods/data used effectively with understanding? appropriate to subject?

Terminology/concepts: topic understood? relevant concepts/principles recognised? concepts clear? terminology correctly used? subject-appropriate conventions/units?

Criterion C:

Critical Thinking

Research: approach relevant/appropriate to RQ? experimental methods well designed?

Analysis: relevant to RQ? valid methods of graphical/quantitative/qualitative analysis? formative conclusions/data interpretation consistent with/supported by evidence?

Discussion: argument or just descriptive? argument coherent/complete? overall/summative conclusion clear/well-supported?

Evaluation: of research/sources/argument/evidence? Evaluation superficial/rigorous?

Criterion D:


Structure: appropriate sub-titles/sections? use of appendices?

Layout: referencing system meets minimum standards in guide? word count? title page with topic + RQ? contents? page nos? fig nos/titles/refs for illustrations/graphs/tables? 

Criterion E:


Engagement with process: reflecting on/refining RQ and approach? engagement with/response to supervisor? response to new material? insights into student’s thinking/initiative/creativity?

Evaluative engagement: reflections evaluative, or just narrative? evaluation of decisions/plans? working practices? time-management? lines of exploration? approaches rejected? skills developed?

Guidance for students

Getting started

Writing a good EE is one of the main challenges faces by IB students. If you decide to go with ESS, well done! Although it's not too common to write an essay in a standard subject , many students find that choosing ESS allows them to write about something they are truly passionate about.

Essays topics that have been popular recently are ones that investigate elements of climate change including coral bleaching, effects on industries and health and biodivesrtiy changes. Other ESS essays I've read consider aspects of veganism, water pollution and renewable energy. Once you get going you will find you may actually enjoy it but getting started is where most of the problems lie. It is really good to get a supervisor who knows you and who you have a good working relationship with. If you have a choice of who to ask, think about 

When is an ESS essay not an ESS essay?

When it's probably more suited to one of the other sciences. I've seen essays that are far more suitable as a Biology or Chemistry essay. In the ESS EE guide it states that a true ESS essay  "focuses upon the interaction and integration of “natural” environmental systems and human societies. An EE in this subject should give significant (though not necessarily equal) weight to both these dimensions" 

Where to get advice?

Your supervisor is the first person you should contact when you have questions about the writing process but they are not the only person in the school who can help you. Consider going to the library where the librarians (if you have them) will be able to help you sources some good tools to help you research your RQ. You can also use experts in the field you are investigating but if you interview them and use them as a source remember to give them full credit in your EE. 

Getting started

Identify a topic that you think you might like to spend around 4o hours of your life researching, experimenting and writing about! An ESS essay doesn't have to have an experiment built in but it helps if it does as it is much easier to evaluate your own experiment than someone elses! Think about what you've been reading in the news or what topic in ESS you really enjoy. Also look at what's happening around you locally; has there been a recent pollution problem? Are residents in your area worried about some aspect of air pollution? Has the government introduced new environmental legislation which is impacting you or your family? There are so many options but it is important you can find a wide and appropriate array of sources to support your research.

The topic has be focused enough to allow you to develop strong arguments and analysis in 4000 words but not a simplistic yes/no  question. Starting a RQ with "to what extent" helps with this as you can present analysis - try not to follow one line of argument and justify your positin the whole way through; the best essays will give some counterarguments and criticial reflection of teh resources used.

Keep a log

Reflection is an important part of the IB EE. You are required to write 500 words to explain your engagement and decision making in the RPPF. The RPPF is split into three parts

  1. first reflection
  2. Interim reflection and
  3. final reflection - the viva voce

Even if you experiment data doesn't turn out the way you would have liked or you interview didn't go to plan, you should reflect on the challenges and write them up here. It helps the examiner understand your engagement of the process and how you've overcome these challenges you've faced. 

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