In this article, I will provide three pieces of advice for any IB student struggling to find a potential EE topic.
1) PICK A TOPIC THAT FASCINATES YOU
For all the benefits of the IB, a common complaint from students is that it forces them to choose subjects they dislike. Not a strong science student? Too bad, the IB requires that you choose a science subject. Satisfied with being unilingual? The IB forces you to learn a second language.
This is, however, NOT the case for the EE. Students can choose whatever topic and question they like (within reason of course). Common disciplines which come to mind include: English, Psychology, History, Economics, Science, Film and Visual Arts.
But how do you decide what fascinates you within a general topic area? I would recommend these three following actions:
(a) Skim through the syllabus or textbook of your favourite subject(s) and think back to what you have covered earlier in class. Ask yourself “what was my favourite topic we studied in class? What topic did I wish we learnt more of?” This is a good first step in the brainstorming process to find a suitable topic.
(b) I would then engage in the following thought experiment. Imagine you have been given $100,000 from the local government to pursue any academic project you like. You have absolute resources (time, employees and available research) at your disposal. What topic would you decide to pursue?
(c) Finally, look at your recent YouTube and Google searches. Look for the common theme(s) in those searches. Interested in losing weight to look better in summer? Why not consider an EE exploring the psychology and biochemical principles regulating weight loss? Do you love reading fiction or watching movies? Why not write an EE on your favourite novel or film (for an English and Film EE, respectively)?
2) FOLLOW THE RESEARCH
Now that you’ve come up with a range of potential topics for your EE, how do you decide which one is the winner? “FOLLOW THE RESEARCH”.
Google your potential topic and observe what research (from PhD candidates and researchers in that field) and media coverage surrounds that topic. Interesting in the psychology of political beliefs? Search that into Google and you’ll see that the amount of research and media coverage into political beliefs has exploded in the past couple of years with the recent election in the USA. A great deal of research and media articles is a good sign to indicate that there is sufficient depth of information out there for a 4000 word essay.
Thinking of writing an essay for a humanities subject? Without enough research, 4000 words might feel like an impossible task. Let me give you a concrete example. If you were fascinated with mental illness (a Psychology EE) and considering a potential mental disorder to explore, depression (formally known as “Major Depressive Disorder”) and anxiety might come to mind. This is because there is an extensive aggregate of research and media exposure on these disorders. This should provide you with enough substance to approach the study of depression and/or anxiety from the perspective of your choice (e.g., investing the causes or treatments of the disorders, the effects on workplace productivity, implications for creative achievement in artists and writers, etc.). In contrast, less prevalent mental disorders such as triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13), bibliomania (obsessive-compulsive behaviours focused on the collection of books) or dissociative identity disorder (popularised from the American film “Split”) are often poorly documented, making it more difficult for students to form pragmatic conclusions and a clear path of argument.
3) BE FLEXIBLE WITH YOUR RESEARCH QUESTION
The EE will likely be the most time-consuming assessment you complete for the IB. Sustaining focus and attention when writing 4000 words on a specific topic as a high-school student is not a walk in the park. So be prepared to be flexible with your chosen topic and research question.
For my EE, I initially decided to focus on the impact of head trauma in contact sports (e.g., NFL) on mental illness and suicide rates. An interesting and pertinent topic with a decent amount of research (which has exploded since I completed the IB), but as I started to read research papers and plan the path of argument, I realised that I was painting a dire picture of exercise for mental health. In my own life, I had experienced that exercise was an effective method to combat feelings of stress (especially in the lead up to major exams or deadlines), sadness, boredom and isolation. I researched the link between exercise and positive mental health outcomes and found significantly more research, a clearer path of argument and more wide-ranging implications than I had with my previous topic. In the end, I stuck with this second topic and I’m thankful I made the change when I did.
Pick a topic you are fascinated with and would happily study in the holidays for pleasure. If you have chosen a subject for the “marks”, you will find yourself bored, disengaged and loathing the process of research, planning and writing the EE. In most cases, this will be reflected in the mark you receive for your EE.
Next, follow the research and media coverage as an indication of the depth of available information on your topic and the most appropriate path of argument. Finally, be flexible when it comes to making changes in your topic and research question along the way.
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