IB Diploma Program Extended Essay: 11 Tips on How to get an A grade in a Sciences Essay
Get the lowdown on Writing a Successful Extended Essay in IB science From an Experienced IB Science Teacher.
Congratulations, you have chosen to do your IB extended essay in a science subject. This shows dedication and ambition, maybe even bravery. How do you get an ‘A’ grade in your science extended essay?
Well, the short answer is by planning, then planning… and then a bit more planning. After that your extended essay should write itself and you can head on to ace your exams. But that’s easier said than done.
Why would I know? I am an IB HL science teacher at a busy international school. I have been guiding extended essay students through their essays for the past 15 years.
I Work with Students Each Year, Guiding Them to Successful Essays.
By now you should hopefully have a few things in place. Ideally you should be aiming for a scientific discipline later on at university. If this is not the case then do yourself a favor and pick an easier subject like English or History. Seriously. No disrespect to those subjects (I am a big fan of both of them) but an extended essay in science is a very, very ambitious project.
You will have to plan and carry out the biggest scientific experiment in your academic career and it will have to work. It often will not work and you will have to return to the lab, refine your method and restart your data collection, this takes dedication. Especially when your non-science selecting IB friends have carried out their straightforward research in the library and have already have their first draft written. You should also make sure that your supervisor is a teacher that teaches the specific subject that your essay is based on.
The lowdown: What Is The Extended Essay and How Will it Affect Your Grade?
In a nutshell: the extended essay is an important part of the IB (International Baccalaureate) diploma program. It’s basically a 4000 word research project that YOU plan, carry out and write up. As an IB science teacher I get a lot of enquires about writing an extended essay in a science subject. I try to be honest with my students and tell them to only do an extended essay in science if you are truly passionate about practical science. They should really have proven skills in their chosen scientific subject. Oh and I really expect science extended essay students to be applying to medical school or a scientific degree course…or else I encourage them to spare themselves the torture and pick an different (….easier) subject. I truly believe that science is THE toughest extended essay subject to select and you better be passionate about the science involved or you are opening yourself up to a whole new world of IB pain!
How will the Extended Essay Affect My Overall IB Results?
Students are often unsure about how their extended essay grade will affect their overall IB results. The short answer is that the IB combines your extended essay grade with ‘Theory of Knowledge (TOK) to determine how many extra points to give you. They do this using the Diploma Points Matrix below:
Example: a student getting a ‘C’ grade in her theory of knowledge course and a ‘B’ grade in her extended essay would get one extra point when reckoning day arrives. To get the full three points you need a ‘B’ or higher in both the TOK and Extended Essay sections of the IB course.
So a ‘B’ or higher is what you need in the extended essay – now lets discuss how you can give yourself the best chance at success in the IB diploma’s extended essay in science.
First Some General Tips:
1. Try to be as original as possible, within reason: You shouldn’t know the answer to your research question and it follows that it cannot be an experiment that has been done before in your science class. The IB understands that you are not a professional scientist and isn’t expecting a study that makes it into the science journals such as ‘Nature’. That said, if you’re aiming for the highest grades, some originality and personal initiative must be evident in your study.
2. Don’t make it too challenging: Your experiment must be challenging enough to warrant an extended approach, but not so challenging that you will not have the understanding, skills, equipment, etc. to undertake it.
3. Make sure it actually works: As you know from experience, it is easy to plan an experiment on paper; it is a very different thing to get it to work in the real world. You need to create an experiment that produces results. Often a great deal of time and energy must be expended just to make this happen. See tip #6 in the following list.
So now that you know you’re interested in writing your extended essay in science, here’s those 11 tips to ace your grade:
IB Diploma Extended Essay: Tip #1 / Pick a topic you’re interested in.
You should be interested in your extended essay subject so picking a topic shouldn’t be too difficult. Have a browse through the contents page of your textbook for inspiration – most textbooks will also have experiments that you can use for inspiration. Don’t copy them but it’s perfectly fine to adapt, extend and modify them for your use.
Do your research on ideas and experimental techniques
Here’s an example – this is a great Australian resource that my students often find very useful. It contains ideas that can be adapted for use in an extended essay in science, specifically Biology – thanks to Dr Richard Walding for putting this together.
If you really can’t find a topic you’re interested in – maybe you should consider a different subject?
IB Diploma Extended Essay: Tip #2 / Pick a supervisor who is knowledgeable and has time to work with you.
Don’t just pick your extended essay supervisor based on your relationship with the teacher. Your supervisor should be an expert in that topic and should agree to supervise you – check with them that they have time and don’t be insulted if they say they already have too many students or simply no time.
Look After Your Supervisor!
Get off to a good start with your supervisor – you will rely on them later for their time, expertise and opinions. Find them and thank them for being your supervisor, don’t just assume everything’s fine because your names are on a list in google drive.
IB Diploma Extended Essay: Tip #3 / Draft a research question that is clear and focused.
Once you have chosen your topic area you can start to think about your research question. This is trickier than it sounds and the IB is fussy about research questions, science extended essays are certainly no exception. What makes a good research question?
Be Specific: Draft and redraft your research question until it is nicely focused.
Arriving at a focused research question takes some effort. Here’s an outline of the tips I give to my students :
Research Question Style: Try to remain clear and focused. Make sure it is actually a question!
Research Question Components: A decent research question should contain:
–the dependant variable
–the independent variable.
-the system involved,
-the key controlled variable (constant)
-the measuring technique used.
Here’s an example of a decent extended essay research question in biology:
In the above example:
– The dependant variable is what we measure and we don’t know it before we start. Therefore the dependant variable is is the amount of glucose (mg/g) in each potato.
– The independent variable is what we change and we know it it before we start the experiment. Therefore the independent variable is the wavelength of light (nm) that each potato plant is exposed to.
– The system involved in this case is a King Edward potato plant
– The key controlled variable (constant) what we keep the same to ensure a fair test. The most obvious controlled variable is the species of plant – Solanum tuberosum.
– The measuring technique used is the standard test for glucose: the reaction with Benedicts solution.
All these need to be incorporated into the research question – this can be tricky. Consider finding other non scientists to read your question to let you know if it makes sense. See the same example below annotated to show where each component can be found to form a focused research question.
Just remember: it takes some time and thought, as well as several drafts to come up with a good RQ.
IB Diploma Extended Essay: Tip #4 / Ensure your experiment can be carried out safely in the school lab
This is a classic problem with many of the students I work with. The student has formulated and drafted the research question. Then we look around the lab, at the available equipment and spaces. Quickly it became obvious that the task is too ambitious and the equipment is lacking in quantity, scope or sophistication.
You’ll need time and space to complete your extended essay…
Or sometimes it’s a matter of space. Some experiments need a lot of space and this takes some organising. Some experiments are simply too dangerous to leave out for days as other student may disturb or interrupt them. Many of these problems can be overcome: all this needs to be discussed with your supervisor. If it looks like your chosen research question can be answered in the confines of your school lab, then well done – you’re on the right track.
IB Diploma Extended Essay: Tip #5 / Work with your supervisor. Plan and agree your extended essay deadlines and checkpoints.
It’s vitally important that you sit down and review or put in place some major checkpoints or deadlines for your extended essay – this will help you stay on track to hand in your first draft on time. Make sure you have ample time for data collection – what happens if your data needs recollecting or additional trial need to be carried out? This happens all the time.
Stay organised, use google docs and google calendar to keep on top of your progress
At the school where I currently work we give science students extra time to hand in their first draft – maximising their time available for data collection. This is important – make sure your know when your supervisor will be expecting to see your progress. Use a tool such as google calendar to log these deadlines and set notifications to remind you a few days before so you don’t fall behind.
Agree on your Extended Essay Road Map
Here’s a typical road map you might arrange with your supervisor for an extended essay in the sciences. This plan is designed to take place over approximately 6-7 months:
Meeting one: Submission of topic ideas
Formal agreement of partnership between student and supervisor
Before the next meeting: Student should read over the extended essay guidelines from the IB. Select one favored topic area.
Meeting two: Official Proposal Submission: Including – Topic idea, background concepts required for research, overview of what is known already, Possible independent variable, dependent variable, Top three controlled variable, materials required.
Before the next meeting: Student should carry out some preliminary research (details in tip #6) – essentially set up a small version of the experiment and see if it ‘works’.The student should also collect some data, this will form an integral part of their planning/exploration phase. Students should complete their first reflection on ‘Planning’.
Meeting three: Student to provide details on research question, overview of procedure, description of where ‘speciality’ materials will come from. Student and supervisor discuss the results of the preliminary work. How will the preliminary work and the data collected affect their experimental set up?
Before the next meeting: Student should set up their experiment and start collecting data
Meeting Four: Supervisor and student look at the experimental set up and see how the early data collection is progressing.
Before the next meeting: Student should complete the data collection phase.
Meeting Five: The supervisor should check that all data has been collected as planned. Supervisor and student should now discuss potential data processing techniques. The extended essay format should be quickly reviewed so that the student can move easily into the write up phase.
Before the next meeting: Student should complete the data processing and write their first draft of their essay.
Meeting Six: The student (hopefully) hands in the first draft on time and the supervisor checks and reviews the material against the extended essay grading criteria. The supervisor then meets with the student and provides written and verbal feedback on the state of the essay. I usually give my students an idea of what grade the essay will receive at this point.
Before the next meeting: Student should complete the final draft of their extended essay. Once completed they should complete their second official reflection on ‘planning and data collection.
Meeting Seven: The viva voce and plagiarism check should be carried out. The supervisor and student should use the viva voce as an opportunity to celebrate completing the essay. They should also discuss the challenges and successes of the entire extended essay process.
Finally: The student will write their final reflection on the extended essay process. The supervisor will write up their notes on the themes discussed in the Viva Voce session.
IB Diploma Extended Essay Tip #6 / Carry out Preliminary Work
Does your experimental set up actually work? Can you actually detect the changes you are hoping to detect? Do you have all the equipment you need? Do you know how to use it? To find the answer to all these essential questions you need to do one thing: carry out some preliminary work.
Preliminary work: so vital in Science Extended Essays- just do it! (but most students don’t)
This is the one step that almost all students neglect to do… or skip over. If you do this step properly, you will learn so much about whether your experiment will work and you will save yourself hours of wasted time. Preliminary work is usually simple – set up a small version of your experiment and see if it works. Collect some preliminary data – this looks great in your write up and I can’t state enough – it tells you what you need to change or modify in your study.
Don’t forget to note your preliminary data in a spreadsheet and save it for your write up later.
IB Diploma Extended Essay Tip #7 / Take care with your planning. It will define your extended essay.
Planning in a school lab can be very tricky. The science teachers will be setting up other experiments and there are lots of other students around that can fiddle with or ruin your experiment. Talk to your supervisor about this – ask for a reserved spot that is your place for a set amount of time. Put up a sign and/or label the area with tape – make it clear that no one should touch or mess with the equipment.
The Lab Technician is Your Friend
Make sure you have a good relationship with the lab technician – they should be fully aware of your experiment – the technician can often be a great source of help and equipment expertise – use them. Try to plan to carry out your experiment when lab space is not at a premium.
Plan poorly and this will be reflected in your extended essay.
IB Diploma Extended Essay Tip #8 / Take a moment as you progress through your experiment to reflect on your progress.
The IB rightly places great importance on reflection. Reflection is great evidence or your progress and your learning. For this reason all extended essay students have to fill out three official reflection pieces known as ‘Reflections on Planning and Progress Form’ – RPPF.
RPPF1: After planning
RPPF2: After writing the first draft
RPPF3: After completing the final draft
For more information check out the IB extended essay reflection page
The RPPF (Formal Reflection) is Something Your Supervisor will Help You With
In case you need it here a link to the official RPPF form.
IB Diploma Extended Essay Tip #9 / Review the Grading Criteria
The extended essay grading criteria is unique to the extended essay. It isn’t the same as the criteria used for the IAs. Therefore you need to study the criteria and be sure of what the IB is looking for.
Here’s my recommendations for how the extended essay criteria are applied to extended essays in the sciences:
A: Focus and method (6 marks)
- This covers how well the student communicates the topic.
- The “research question” in the introduction is sharply focused and linked to the discussion in the essay.
- The Methodology (the steps the student has taken to search for an answer the research question) uses a good range of relevant sources, carefully selected and used in an appropriate way.
B: Knowledge and understanding (6 marks)
- Have sources been selected which are relevant and appropriate to the research question?
- Does the essay demonstrate a very good knowledge and understanding of the topic studied and if possible in an academic context that can reasonably be expected of a pre-university student?
- Does the language used in the essay communicate clearly and precisely? Is scientific terminology appropriate and used accurately, with understanding? For example in biology; correct scientific units and binomial nomenclature of living organisms.
C: Critical thinking (12 marks)
- Has appropriate data been collected or a range of sources been used.
- Is it relevant to the research question.
- Does the essay use the material collected to present ideas clearly and in a logical and coherent manner.
- Does the essay succeed in developing a reasoned and convincing argument in relation to the research question?
- Does the essay effectively use appropriate analytical and evaluative skills. Referring to Wikipedia as a primary source of information is an indication of the lack of evaluative skills even though this source could be used as preliminary reading.
- Is an effective conclusion clearly stated?
- Is the conclusion relevant to the research question and consistent with the evidence? Does it include unresolved questions, where appropriate?
D: Formal presentation (4 marks)
- Is the layout, organization, appearance and formal elements of the essay consistent.
- These elements are: title page, table of contents, page numbers, illustrative material, quotations, documentation (including references, citations and bibliography) and appendices (if used).
- Does this appendix contain only information that is required in support of the text? In the sciences, this could be details of preparations of solutions used in the investigation, long lists of raw data and other support materials.
E: Engagement (6 marks)
- Has the student engaged in discussion with their supervisor, can they reflect on their progress and research methods in the light of things which they have learned?
- Can the student suggest improvements for their own working methods?
- Does the reflection show evidence of intellectual initiative, depth of understanding and insight or creativity in the approach?
- Does it refer to how ideas were developed as the researched progressed? Do reflections show depth of understanding and originality?
Here’s a handy link to the Official IB Extended Essay Grading Criteria
IB Diploma Extended Essay: Tip #10 / Get as many people to read your essay as you can.
Yes you have your supervisor and he/she should be your main source of guidance for the standard of your extended essay final draft. But that doesn’t stop you asking the right sort of family and friends to give it a read over. This will, if anything, give you and idea of how well the report read and how smooth the language is. It will save you spending time with your supervisor looking at writing/grammar improvements when you should be looking at improvements in the science.
Convert Your family and Friends into Proofreaders
Maybe you know people active in scientific fields – ask them to read it though for an idea of the clarity of ideas. But one major caveat – don’t make any major changes without checking with your supervisor first. You supervisor knows what the IB is looking for and the report must be written to meet the IB grading criteria.
IB Diploma Extended Essay: Tip #11 / Take your first draft feedback very seriously and make the most of your meeting with your supervisor.
You first draft meeting is very important. Listen carefully and make notes on the changes you need to make. Discuss anything you are not sure about with your supervisor. Your supervisor should be referring back to the IB extended essay grading criteria to show you how you are scoring. If you are not scoring full points- there should be some ideas on how you can improve these scores.
Bare in mind that sometimes, especially in science extended essays, improvements can be difficult to make as this may mean that data has to be recollected and there simply may not be time available for this. But certainly, improvements can always be made. Ensure you leave the meeting with a good idea of the various ares that can be improved in your study.
Finally: Here’s a Checklist You Should Follow to Ensure your Extended Essay Meets the IB Requirements
Best of luck with your extended essay in sciences – it’s a great learning experience.
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