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2.2 From question to method

2.2.1 Unpacking the question
2.2.2 Know, Want, Learned (KWL)
2.2.3 Methodology
2.2.4 Submitting a proposal

Site: Philpot Education
Course: Extended Essay Support Site
Book: 2.2 From question to method
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Date: Sunday, 27 September 2020, 5:15 PM

2.2.1 Unpacking the question

Once you have formulated a possible research question, you will want to explore all of its potential. A good research question is a like a suitcase, it contains more than appears. In order to fully understand it, you should 'unpack' it. There are several ways of doing this, two of which are described below. You may want to create a mind map or question the question. 

Questioning the question

Imagine you are exploring the research questions below. Now imagine you could ask questions of this question. What would you ask? You might come up with a list like the one below. 

"To what extent were foreign influences the main cause in the Khmer Rouge’s rise in power in Cambodia in 1975?"

      1. Which countries influenced the Khmer Rouge? 
      2. How were the Khmer Rouge influenced by foreign ideologies? 
      3. Which events led to the Khmer Rouge's rise in power? 
      4. Who were the Khmer Rouge? 
      5. What were their main reasons for taking power? 
      6. Why is this important to the history of Cambodia? 

Mind maps

Creating a mind map of your question is a useful way of exploring all of its potential. This strategy helps to see what you already know - and what you may need to find out (more) about. Here is an example of a mind map that is based the research question from above. Can you make one based on your research question?

Figure 2.2.1b - Questioning the question
Often times the simplest questions are the most effective in revealing the multiple layers of a research question. 


  1. Question your research question. Use the example on this page as a model for your brainstorming. 
  2. Study the mind map of the history question on this page. Could you make a similar mind map for your research question? This is a useful method for seeing what you already know and discovering blind spots that need researching. 


  • This mind map was made with SimpleMind, which is useful software for creating your own mind maps.
  • Ask your supervisor to question your question. Your supervisor may see possibilities that you had not previously seen. 

2.2.2 Know, Want, Learned (KWL)

In 2002, US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld made this statement in a press conference, in response to a question about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: 

"There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."

While many have ridiculed Rumsfeld for using these words in this context, he actually articulated an idea that scientists have understood and respected for ages. These three concepts, 'known knowns', 'known unknowns' and 'unknown unknowns', are very relevant for an exploration of your research question. They are also closely related to a method of learning known as KWL, which stands for 'what I know', 'what I want to learn,' and 'what I learned' (Donna Ogle, 1986). Figure 2.2.2a offers a visual representation.

Figure 2.2.2a - Know, Want, Learned diagram
This version of the KWL diagram incorporates the notions of 'known unknowns' and 'unknown unknowns'

This is to say that...

  • you already start with some knowledge on the topic
  • you are both aware and unaware of your 'blind spots'
  • you clearly know what you want to find out
  • you are aware of some of the things you need to find out
  • your research focuses on discovering the 'known unknowns'
  • you may discover both the expected and the unexpected.


  • Donna M. Ogle, K-W-L: A Teaching Model That Develops Active Reading of Expository Text, The Reading Teacher, Vol. 39, No. 6 (Feb., 1986), pp. 564-570;
  • DoD News Briefing - Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers, Feb. 12, 2002
2.2.2b - Donald Rumsfeld in 2002
What are your 'known unknowns'?



  1. If you haven't already made a mind map of 'what you know' (See Page 2.2.1), do so! You can make list in the left column of the KWL worksheet. 
  2. What are the 'known unknowns' of your research question? What do you want to know? Make a list in the middle column of the KWL worksheet.
  3. You will notice that the last column of the worksheet can be used to document what you have learned.   


Use the KWL structure for your Researcher's Reflection Space (RRS). Refer to your 'known knowns' and 'known unknowns' in your initial RPPF session.

2.2.3 Methodology

Once you have a clear picture of what you know (Page 2.2.1) and what you want to know (Page 2.2.2), it's time to think about how you will conduct your research. Methodology is the term used to describe the ways in which you gather data and acquire knowledge. Before you finalise your research question, you will need to know which methods are most appropriate for exploring it. Here is an overview, by group, of common data-gathering methods. 

Group Data-gathering methods Points to consider
1 Studies in Language and Literature
  • study (and comparison of) primary sources
  • reading of primary source(s) in light of secondary source(s)
  • analysis of stylistic devices / literary features in primary source(s)
  • study of translation
  • Appropriateness of source texts
  • IB requirements
    • Cat 1 - Studies of works in target language
    • Cat 2 - Compare a target-language work to a work in translation
    • Cat 3 - Studies in language (non-literary texts)
2 Language acquisition
  • study of a primary source (literary or non-literary)
  • reading of primary source(s) in light of secondary source(s) 
  • reading, viewing and listening of secondary sources
  • Appropriateness of source texts
  • IB requirements
    • Cat 1 - Language (linguistics)
    • Cat 2 - Culture and society: a) impact of culture on language or b) cultural artifact (non-literary text)
    • Cat 3 - literature
3 Individuals and societies
  • study of primary and secondary sources
  • questionnaires / surveys
  • interviews
  • fieldwork / observation
  • experiment 
  • comparison
  • statistical analysis
  • access to (scientific) articles and sources
  • time to collect surveys
  • time and nature of experiment 
  • ethical constraints
  • confidentiality and permission
  • health and safety

4 Experimental sciences

  • reading of primary and secondary sources
  • lab work / experimentation
  • observation
  • comparison
  • analysis
  • time and nature of experiment 
  • ethical constraints
  • animal rights
  • health and safety
5 Mathematics
  • reading of primary and secondary sources
  • gathering of data from other fields and disciplines
  • mathematical focus
  • application of formulas
6 The arts
  • reading / viewing of primary and secondary sources
  • comparison of primary sources
  • focus on medium: film, drama, oil on canvas, architecture, etc. 



  • Think about how much time your methods will require. How long will it take to run an experiment, organise a survey or read a novel?
  • Create a step-by-step plan or proposal (see next page) for your extended essay, which takes methodology into account. Submit this to your supervisor and discuss this during your initial or interim RPPF meeting.

2.2.4 Submitting a proposal

Your school may ask you to submit a research proposal, before you have permission to work with a supervisor and begin deep research for and writing your extended essay. The research proposal helps clarify thinking. It helps ensure that the research question is feasible and doable, and may suggest or provide a framework for the research and the writing. Here are few questions to answer when pitching your EE idea to a supervisor: 

Sample proposal

  • I am looking at (topic) .........
  • because I want to find out .....
  • so that I can understand .....
  • This leads to my research question ...
  • To answer / respond to this, I will need to .....

In particular, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is the investigation doable, and doable within the time-frame and in 4000 words?
  2. Is the RQ significant? Why is it significant?  (You may, for instance, show why the question is important, or that other studies have discussed the need for more research in this area)
  3. Can you get all the evidence you need? How?
  4. Can you get the materials and equipment, can you do the experiments?
  5. Can you contact the people and get the information you need? Will they give it to you - and if they do, will you be allowed to use it?
  6. Do you have the time for a pilot study as well as the real thing? (a pilot study is especially useful when you are conducting interviews and surveys - more on this later)
  7. What other resources do you need?
  8. Have you checked the Choice of Topic and Treatment of the Topic sections of the EE Guide for your subject, to ensure that your approach meets requirements?
  9. If you have doubts about any of these, you may need to refine or change your research question.  Discuss your doubts with your supervisor.