2.1 Formulating a research question

2.1.2 Three criteria for a good question

In order for your research question to function as the cornerstone of your extended essay, it will have to be interesting, feasible and acceptable. 

Slide show - The research question


It helps to have a subject in mind before you formulate a question, because the IB has different rules and ‘categories’ for each DP subject. For example, in Group 1 (Studies in Language and Literature) you may want to write about two works in translation. This however is not allowed. However, comparing a work in translation to a work in the target language is acceptable as a ‘Category 2’ extended essay. It is recommended that you discuss these ‘categories’ with your supervisor. Your research question will be acceptable if it:

  • leads to an essay in a ‘category’ of a DP subject
  • meets the EE requirements for the subject
  • meets the ethical and legal requirements of the IB


It is recommended that you spend 40 hours on your extended essay. The word limit is 4000 words. These are some of the ‘bottle necks’ that determine the nature and scope of your essay.  There are many other factors that will affect the success of your essay. Here are some you should consider: 

  • Scope of question (See Page 2.1.3)
  • Time
  • Resources available
  • Word limit
  • Methodology 


If your examiner enjoys reading your essay, you are more likely to score well. Similarly, if you enjoy writing it, you are more likely to score well. These are a few aspects of an ‘interesting’ question worth considering:

  • Original – Try to offer new insight on a (traditional) topic.
  • Open-ended – Your question cannot be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
  • Arguable - There may be several answers to your question, and you must explain why your answer is 'best'.
  • Relevant – People care about the answer to your question.
  • Problem-based – By applying a method of research something becomes ‘known’, which was previously ‘unknown’.
  • Topical (optional) – Perhaps your question is relevant to a current affair or trend.   
Figure 2.1.2a - RS should be acceptable, feasible and interesting


Download the A6 cards. On one side of the card, you see a rather poor research question. Discuss ways in which it could be improved. Then turn over the card and see how it was improved. 

3 Research questions

  1. What can one learn about the nature of death through a study of Mort by Terry Pratchett , in which ‘DEATH’ is a character, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, in which ‘Death’ is the narrator?
  2. How is one’s golf swing and ball flight affected by cutting all of the clubs in a set to equal length? 
  3. How can one arrive at the ‘smartest’ algorithm for solving the ‘most scrambled’ Rubik’s Cube?


Good research questions are like good experiments in the sciences; they are controllable, measurable and repeatable. What variables have you controlled? How can you measure your findings? If someone were to repeat your research, would they come to similar conclusions? Is the evidence you use to support your argument "superior" to evidence which might work against your argument?