2.1 Formulating a research question

2.1.1 Topic, subject and question

Before you start researching or writing your extended essay in depth, it is essential that you formulate a research question. It is the foundation on which you will build your essay. If your question is weak, your essay will fall apart. If it is strong, your essay will succeed. But before you arrive at a research question, you must consider two things (not necessarily in this order): 1) a real-world topic worth exploring, and 2) an IBDP subject or discipline through which to explore. You will need to do some research before you can begin your research!
Figure 2.1.1a depicts how one might formulate a question in light of a topic and subject.

Figure 2.1.1a - Topic, subject and question

Finding a topic

Before you can write a strong research question, you will want to think about what interests you and what interests others. The world is full of ‘topics’. Simply open a newspaper, watch a documentary or listen to the radio. These are places where your interests and other people’s interests converge. Topics are the stuff of the real world. There are several criteria for assessing the quality of a good topic. As you think about what you want to explore, ask yourself if the topic of your essay: 

  • interests both you and many people
  • is relevant and important to many people
  • is well-publicised and known to many people
  • provides a new slant on an old problem
  • has unexplored or controversial aspects.

Finding a subject

Before you can write a research question, you must also think about your IBDP subjects. Each subject includes ‘ways of knowing’ and ‘areas of knowledge’ (TOK). In other words, knowledge has been acquired in these fields according to various methods and frameworks.  These methods can be applied to real-world topics. Ask yourself how the subject of your essay: 

  • provides methods for acquiring knowledge on this topic (e.g. through experimentation, survey, comparison etc)
  • has a history of exploring such topics
  • has resources and literature for researching such topics


On the left you see a list of real-world topics. On the right you see a list of IB subjects. For each topic, state which subjects(s) would be most appropriate for exploring it. After making a match, try to formulate a research question. For help on how to formulate a research question, see the following Page 2.1.2.  

Topics Subjects
a) death of retail
b) Google and privacy
c) search for flight MH370
d) Syrian conflict 
e) nuclear waste disposal
f) drugs in sport
g) poverty
h) love
i) fracking
j) censorship
k) The Ukraine
l) Steven Avery
m) Impressionism
n) the placebo effect
o) Fox News
p) violence and video games
q) xenophobia
r) terrorism
s) whaling
t) 3D printing
u) Khmer Rouge
v) anorexia 
w) distracted driving
x) gun laws
y) global warming
z) fast fashion

Language and literature
Literature and performance
Language acquisition
Business management
Classical Greek
Computer science
Design technology
Environmental systems and societies
Global Politics
Information technology in a global society
Social and cultural anthropology
Sports, exercise and health science
Visual arts
World religions
World studies**

World Studies

As you think about a topic for your extended essay,  you may see connections to more than one subject. This may be a suitable topic for an interdisciplinary World Studies extended essay.


  1. If you had to organise the 'topics' from the activity into groups, how would you label them?
  2. If you had to rank the 'topics' from the activity from 'best' to 'worst', how would you do this? Define 'good' and 'bad' topics. 
  3. Is there an interesting topic that you explore frequently in your personal life?
  4. Is there an interesting topic that you have explored in class at school? 
  5. Can you already formulate a research question based on such 'interesting' topics?