Forming the research question

Writing an EE is an academic exercise where students get the chance to show that they can be “a researcher”. Of course, it is expected that they will write at a level which is appropriate for their level of education. The purpose of the EE is to demonstrate that they can come up with a focused research question, investigate it using appropriate resources and then present the results of the investigation in the proper format. They should also be able to construct an argument based on psychological knowledge, including psychological theories, empirical studies, psychological terminology and key concepts.

Students will probably start by having an interest in some area but it is not possible to formulate a research question without having carried out some research. It is important to read what psychologists have written on the topic. Only then will they have some idea of what the focus should be. It is very important for supervisors to understand that it is not the supervisor's responsibility to find the research. Students should be able to show research to their supervisors prior to getting their research question approved.

The thesis statement

The research that they find helps them to gradually formulate a research question. After the initial research, they will also have an idea of what could be the thesis statement - that is, the position they are going to make in relation to the research question. The thesis statement should be a direct answer in response to the research question. It is a good idea to combine research question and thesis statement because they must construct the argument based on the thesis statement. If they find that their research doesn't support their thesis statement, then they may change this as they become more informed about the topic.

Examples of thesis statements

Research question: Does prejudice have evolutionary roots?

Thesis: Evolutionary psychologists argue that prejudice is a hard-wired survival mechanism that has been advantageous to the human species.

Research question: Is Prozac effective in the treatment of depression?

Thesis: Prozac is effective in the treatment of Major Depressive Disorder in certain clients - but is not overall effective in the treatment of the disorder.

Research question: To what extent can ‘optimism’ influence one's physical health?

Thesis: Optimism has a limited influence on one's physical health.

Sample research questions

The research question must be clear and focused so that the reader knows exactly what is being investigated. It must be present in the introduction of the EE. Students are supposed to justify the choice of RQ with reference to real problems and former research done in the area. The following list is a set of good EE questions that are well defined.


  • To what extent is child testimony reliable in court?
  • Does long-term computer use have an effect on memory?
  • Is computer use in the classroom actually enhancing learning?


  • To what extent does genetics play a role in OCD?
  • To what extent is the theory of biological preparedness of phobias supported?
  • Is anorexia a cultural phenomenon?


  • To what extent do attachment patterns in early childhood determine later interpersonal relationships?
  • To what extent are gender differences biologically based?


  • To what extent does psychological stress affect one's ability to cope with a chronic illness?
  • Are government-imposed bans on trans-fats a feasible strategy for reducing obesity?
  • Is mindfulness an effective means of coping with stress?

Human Relationships

  • Can prejudice be reduced?
  • Is homosexuality a learned behaviour?
  • To what extent does communication play a role in a successful marriage?

Sport - although sports psychology is no longer part of the curriculum, it is totally acceptable as a topic.

  • To what extent is the theory of self-efficacy useful for explaining behaviour in competitive sport?
  • Is mental imagery an effective strategy for improving performance in football?
  • To what extent do coaches play a role in team cohesion?
  • Is it possible to increase one's level of "grit"?
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Comments 19

Jill Goodreau 15 November 2017 - 14:31

Hi John, A student would like to research the extent to which animals are an effective model to study human behaviour. Is this appropriate or would it be considered double dipping since it's part of the curriculum? If it is double dipping is there a similar avenue/question this student could do? Thanking you in advance!

John Crane 15 November 2017 - 16:39

Dear Jill, the question is much too broad. They could do it for a specific behaviour - e.g. aggression.

Angela Chamosfakidis 28 November 2017 - 08:59

John hi again,
Just wanted to ask what you think of the following RQ:
To what extent does stress influence responsiveness to treatment for people diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder.
Thanks so much :)

John Crane 29 November 2017 - 19:55

Dear Angela, it is not really clear to me. Stress in general? Why would APD have more stress than the average patient? I think it needs a bit more clarity. Does the student have some study that they found that is leading him/ her in this direction?

Angela Chamosfakidis 30 November 2017 - 17:38

John hi,
Thank you for the feedback - I can see how more clarity is needed. She has come up with research evidence which suggests that among men with APD, a substantial subgroup present life-long anxiety disorders – Some findings suggest that this pattern of comorbidity may be signalling the need for specific treatments.
Maybe rephrase the RQ to more clearly reflect this?

Charlotte Cachia 24 January 2018 - 19:09

Dear John,
It’s my first year as head of department and I’m terrified of approving an EE title which isn’t appropriate. In the past, our EE’s have scored unpredictably and I think a lot of it comes down to the question.

I’ve read your advice on here, and after taking in 37 EE proposals, I have whittled them down to the 12 below. I would really appreciate some second opinions on the proposed questions below. If you think any are unsuitable, it would be helpful to know why so I can develop my EE knowledge and understanding.

1) To what extent is the Dissociation Experiences Scale a valid and reliable measure of dissociation?

2) To what extent does socioeconomic status affect the likelihood of major depressive disorder in adolescents?

3) To what extent do genetics influence the onset of anorexia nervosa?

4) To what extent is PTSD a cause of alcoholism in female adults?

5) To what extent can child trauma influence the onset of Borderline Personality Disorder?

6) To what extent is CBT an effective treatment for psychosis? OR to what extent do perceptions of psychosis depend on culture? (if there’s enough research)

7) To what extent do corporate psychopaths negatively influence organisational outcomes?

8) To what extent does IQ influence the onset of bipolar disorder?

9)To what extent does having a premature child influence the onset of post-natal depression in women?

10) To what extent does Animal-Assisted Therapy benefit care home residents/ OR those with dementia (if there’s enough research on this)

11) To what extent does social media influence self-esteem in adolescents?

12) To what extent is ecstasy an effective treatment in PTSD.

John Crane 25 January 2018 - 18:55


I can give advice, but I cannot approve your questions. All of your questions look fine. I personally think that question 4 will be very difficult to answer. I don't think that PTSD causes alcoholism - so there is a false assumption in making a "to what extent" question. In question 6, psychosis is too broad - specify a disorder. Otherwise, good.

Charlotte Cachia 27 January 2018 - 09:10

Thank you John. Good to know I’m along the right lines.

If number 4 changed to ‘to what extent is PTSD in women associated with alcoholism?’ Might that be more acceptable?

John Crane 27 January 2018 - 10:31

Charlotte, that would be better. I wonder if there is any research out there about why alcoholism is comorbid with PTSD in women? If there is, then that question may be interesting to explore rather than simply a "to what extent" question. I would have the student start the research and then come back to the research question and see if there is something that s/he has found that is a trend in the research that might make for a more "interesting" question.

Jill Goodreau 12 February 2018 - 21:08

Hi John! Do you think this question would be too specific? To what extent do individualistic versus collectivistic societies influence the coping of stress?

John Crane 13 February 2018 - 04:59

Dear Jill

I have a student who just tried to write an essay similar to that this year. She was unable to find very information and in the end looked at the role of social support networks in one's ability to cope with stress. If your student can find the research to specifically address the I-C dimension, then run with it. The question is a bit clunky - I would probably reword it to "Does the I-C cultural dimension influence one's ability to cope with stress?"

Jill Goodreau 14 February 2018 - 01:21

I was wondering the same thing - if there would be enough info just on the I-C dimension. Thanks as always!

Silvia Longo 9 March 2018 - 09:13

Dear John,
A student of mine is very interested in the topic of anorexia, but I'm worried it's too delicate a topic and not recommended by the IB. Should I advise her against it?
Also, I have the same issue with a student who wants to investigate childhood sexual abuse and its role in the development of antisocial personality disorder. I've read that they're topics that never get high grades.
Thanks in advance for your help

John Crane 10 March 2018 - 07:26

Dear Silvia

It is up to you to decide with regard to the student. From the IB's point of view, anorexia is a completely valid topic and many students write about it for EE. The second topic is also fine. Students just need to remember that their essays must be based on published research.

Sania Begum 18 March 2018 - 13:37

Dear John,

I would appreciate if you could guide me on this topic/RQ - the student wants to explore the male form of anorexia (‘manorexia’) and the role of social media in furthering this condition. How can this be formulated in to a RQ?

John Crane 20 March 2018 - 04:50

Dear Sania, they could write it simply as a "To what extent...." question.

Sania Begum 3 April 2018 - 09:24

Dear John,

Thank you. May I ask whether the following is a Psychology based RQ - To what extent are differences in thought/learning styles seen in left/right handed people?

John Crane 4 April 2018 - 05:21

Dear Sania

The question is rather problematic as learning styles have been disproven for a long time now. For any research question, I would ask students to first bring you research on the topic to see what they have found. If they do not present you with academic research, I would tell them that they need to rethink the question.

Sania Begum 4 April 2018 - 06:15

Thank you John.

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