Evaluating EE questions

For many students, the most difficult part of the whole EE process is deciding on a research question. It is important that before students finalize their question, that they have done a bit of research.  Asking a question for which they cannot find any research, is a frustrating waste of time.

In order to help my own students, I have a stack of Scientific American Mind magazines. We spend time together over lunch looking through them and identifying topics that they find interesting.  They then sign out the magazines to read articles to get them started.  Another way to get students thinking about topics is to expose them to the different types of psychology and the kind of questions that psychologists in that field study. 

It is totally acceptable for students to write a paper that extends understanding of a topic in the IB Psychology curriculum; however, the EE must go into more depth than simply the "classic studies" that are in any of the textbooks available.

Guidelines for formulating a question

First and foremost, the question needs to be psychological in nature. In other words, it should not be a history or anthropology topic. For example, a history of asylums in the United States is not an appropriate topic.  If you are not sure if it is a psychology topic, look at the syllabus. Is it relevant to areas of the curriculum? If not, can you find information on your topic in a psychological journal or database?

Secondly, the question must present a debate.  The argument should be able to present more than one side or perspective on an issue.  EE questions such as "What happens during the stress response" or "Factors that influence depression" are too descriptive in nature and do not present a debatable topic.

Thirdly, the question must be focused. If the question is too general, students are penalized.  When writing a "to what extent question", there should only be one variable.  For example, "To what extent does genetics play a role in resilience?" or "To what extent do cognitive factors play a role in depression?" A poorly constructed question would be: To what extent do biological, cognitive and sociocultural factors play a role in depression?  These questions score low marks as to really evaluate the extent of each of those factors is beyond the scope of a 4000-word paper. Papers that attempt to do this lack depth and analysis.

Another aspect of a question being focused is the clear operationalization of terms in the introduction. For example, if the question is "To what extent do genetics play a role in criminal behaviour?" - then criminal behaviour should be clearly defined.  The paper should not look at violent crime, delinquency, anti-social personality disorder and cheating/lying.  Only one aspect should be discussed in depth in order to get high marks.

Finally, when choosing a topic, think of the audience. Avoid questions that could be seen as offensive.  A question such as "Is there validity to the argument that women who are raped are "asking for it"?" or "To what extent were Mengele's experiments on Jews in the Holocaust beneficial to science?"  or "My friend's experience with sexual abuse: a personal story." These topics are very controversial and seen as offensive by many. Although there is no "automatic penalty" for these types of topics, they are seen as poor judgment and the school may be contacted with concerns about the ethics of the paper.

The task

For each of the following research questions, decide whether you think that it is a good example of an EE question. If it is not, explain your reasons and what you would recommend to your friend that is thinking of writing a paper on that topic.

1. Does being a perfectionist have a detrimental effect on sporting performance?

Even though this question is not written with a command term, it is a totally appropriate question. A good paper will describe and evaluate evidence for both sides of the argument.

2. Is addictive behaviour more inherited or is it more influenced by environment?

Nature vs nurture questions should be avoided - they are much too broad.  The danger of this question is that it will lead to a description of research on genetics, followed by research on environmental factors. This question would be better worded as To what extent is addictive behaviour inherited?

3. How can society address the problem of teenage obesity?

This question is a bit problematic simply because it is so broad. It is a discussion question, so it is fine. However, "society" needs to be operationalized. It is always great when you can write a paper that is linked to your own community. So, for example, you might want to ask: To what extent could anti-smoking campaigns be applied in the Czech Republic to decrease teen smoking? Then you would look at factors that influence the success of campaigns and link it to the culture of the Czech Republic. Another example would be How could biological research on resilience be applied in the Israeli military or To what extent are Montessori schools in Prague supported by Piagetian theory? All of these examples show that you are trying to apply your knowledge and understanding to a specific situation. It is very specific and an excellent example of critical thinking.

4. Is there a biological basis for homosexuality?

Although yes/no questions cannot be ruled out, this is not a great question. Today almost all behaviours have biological, cognitive and socio-cultural explanations. This question would be better if it read: To what extent does genetics play a role in homosexuality?

5. What factors affect the likelihood that we will conform to group norms?

There is not a lot of debate on this topic. The response is going to be primarily descriptive.

6. To what extent are the media to blame for eating disorders?

This is a fine question, but really a big one. Many students attempt this every year, but it is not an easy question. As you can probably guess, there is not much research that can clearly demonstrate a cause and effect relationship between media and the origin of eating disorders. That being the case, even before you begin your paper, you know that the answer will be "we don't know because we cannot demonstrate cause and effect." The "media" is also very broad and difficult to define. A better question would be something like "to what extent does self-esteem play a role in eating disorders?" This is something that can be more accurately measured.

7. The effect of diet on children’s performance in an educational setting

A better wording would be: To what extent does diet play a role ... In addition, the question needs to be better operationalized. What is meant by "performance in an educational setting?" Also, what is meant by "children?" All of these variables will need to be defined in order for this paper to be focused.

8. An exploration of the social motivations of graffiti artists

This question makes me wonder what the paper will be about. Exploration is a vague term. Social motivations? Is this simply asking graffiti artists why they do it? This has the potential of being highly descriptive. There are a lot of graffiti topics that you could do. For example, do evolution-based theories adequately explain graffiti? or To what extent is graffiti linked to criminal activity. Most importantly, before beginning any of these topics, you have to first make sure that you can find the research.

9. A comparison of the effectiveness of different methods of teaching reading.

A good topic - but not a good question. A better question would be to compare the effectiveness of two specific methods. Then a question might be:  Is method A more effective than method B in the reaching of reading?  It will be important to actually have studies that measure effectiveness.

10. How images are used in magazine advertisements to influence consumer attitude and behaviour

This question sounds descriptive. It would be better to look at "to what extent are magazine advertisements effective."  In addition, it would be better to focus the question more. What "attitude and behaviour" is being studied?

11. An evaluation of British and American methods of offender profiling

This question sounds better than it is. One has to ask what you are actually going to evaluate. It is difficult to really evaluate effectiveness - and it is also questionable what the psychological link is. Although this could potentially be a good question, there is a real danger of this paper not being focused on psychological research.

12. The impact of bilingualism on cognitive functioning.

The role of bilingualism is a good topic, but the question needs to define "cognitive functioning." What specifically are you going to debate? The role of bilingualism on memory? attention? What about the role of bilingualism on social skills? There are several aspects that could be explored; you should focus on only one.

13. What is the effect of gender on preference in reference to novel genre?

Psychologists have problems with the concept of "the effect of gender." Gender differences themselves are controversial. You might want to look at a question like "to what extent are gender differences in educational performance biologically based?" But looking a preference in reading a novel genre is not a really psychological topic.

14. Cognitive dissonance in the Cambodian Genocide.

This is one of those questions that sounds so interesting when you read it, but the reality is - there is no research on this topic. This question is trying to apply a theory to a past event for which there is no empirical research to support the idea. This is like applying personality theory to Adolf Hitler, explaining the role of Group Think on 9-11 or analyzing the role of social identity theory in fairy tales. Although these all may be considered interesting intellectual exercises, the topics should be avoided for EE.

15. The effects of steroids on the human brain.

The question is descriptive in nature. What is the debate?

16. To what extent do biological or environmental factors contribute to the development of serial killers?

The wording of a "to what extent" question should always focus on one set of factors. So, to what extent do biological factors..... Do not use an "or" statement for to what extent questions. And as for serial killers, it is not a recommended topic. Most papers on this topic do poorly. They tend to be overly descriptive and many readers, myself included, find the descriptions highly disturbing. Although you could write a good paper on psychopathy, do not write a paper in which you are describing the murders committed by the criminals. This is not appropriate for EE as the information is then anecdotal and not empirical.

17. To what extent can a child’s testimony be seen as credible and reliable within an eyewitness situation?

This is a totally acceptable topic. The question could simply read "reliable". Keep questions simple and focused.

18. The 1964 Kitty Genovese Case: America’s Tolerance for the Bystander Phenomenon

This is not a question and sounds like a descriptive paper. It also sounds like it is a historical perspective on the case.

19. Do psychological factors affect a person’s immune system?

This is a yes-no question. Better would be "to what extent does stress affect a person's immune system?" Be careful when choosing a biologically based topic. A lot of the research that you will find may be very advanced and difficult to understand. If you are a bio-geek, then go for it.
20. Aggression in sports: A discussion of the psychological explanations of aggression in female amateur roller derby players
At first glance, this topic looks impossible. But what if you found out that this student was an amateur roller derby player and that she had access to a university library which had a specialty in sport psychology? It is possible to do such very specific topics, but before you begin you need to show that the resources exist to write your paper. Remember, your goal is to have a minimum of 8 to 10 sources. If you cannot find that many, time to start rethinking your topic.

21. An analysis of psychological explanations of the Holocaust

The Holocaust is a very popular topic, but there are very few good Holocaust papers written for EE. A lot of the research is trying to apply modern understanding to a historical event. (Please see my comments about this for question 14). Also, much of the research on the Holocaust is historical, not psychological in nature. If you are interested in the Holocaust, there are several interesting topics you could do. For example, the question of resilience in survivors of genocide or the effect of secondary trauma in children of Holocaust survivors.

22. Are married couples happier than singles?

Potentially, a good question. However, this question also has the potential of no strong research, but simply a bunch of surveys. A better question would be "Can psychologists predict the success of a relationship?" or "Does marriage affect your health?"

23. The effect of music on the human brain and the use of music in therapeutic treatment

The question is actually looking at two different topics. You should only choose one. It is always best to avoid the word "and" in a research question, unless you are writing a comparison question. In addition, this question is very descriptive.

24. Does sexual intercourse abate aggression in males?

You have to always keep in mind when you are choosing an EE topic that this is an assessment that will be read by an IB examiner. This paper was a justification of rape as an "evolutionary holdover" which society frowned upon, but which is a natural behaviour. Could this argument be made? Perhaps. But it is rather offensive to read such arguments. Although you may think that this is unfair that a reader may be biased against your arguments - and trust me, the IB does ask its examiners to mark according to the rubric no matter what - you really should not choose topics that may offend. If you want to write something controversial, please do so after you have your IB diploma.

25. My coming out experience - does it reflect what psychologists predict?

Writing about yourself is not a great idea. First of all, it is very difficult to be objective about one's own experience. Secondly, it discloses too much information to the reader. Do not write about your own learning disabilities, sexuality, drug use or history of abuse. Also, do not write about a friend or family member's experience. You may want to put a short reference to this in your introduction as a justification of your topic choice, but please do not make it the focus of your paper.
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Comments 14

Jane Harrison 6 February 2018 - 02:57

Hi John, firstly can I just say thank you for all that you do, and the support to give to so many. I have an EE question - My student was originally looking at
To what extent can memories be manipulated unintentionally in an eyewitness testimony?

I asked her to refine and focus the question and she ended up with
To what extent is eyewitness testimony reliable?
My concern with this question is that it is directly from the course .
Is this ok or should she be looking more broadly?.
Thanks again.

John Crane 6 February 2018 - 05:15

Dear Jane, it is "ok", but she would have to go beyond the studies that are typically done in the course. Many students who do this question either narrow it down to children's eyewitness testimony or to specific types of victims - e.g. rape or other victims of violence. A paper that focused on Loftus & Palmer and other such studies would not do well since it would basically be a extended ERQ.

Jane Harrison 6 February 2018 - 09:16

Thank you so much - this is great feedback.

Danyelle Cawood 9 February 2018 - 08:22

To John
Thank you for your help so far, could you please assist with the following question. Following on about my EE student wanting to do neuromarketing - she has decided on "Is neuromarketing necessary in the marketing of today?". As part of this essay can she discuss ethical issues of neuromarketing?

John Crane 10 February 2018 - 10:57

Dear Danyelle,

The question is too ambiguous. The question of whether it is "necessary" is too subjective. A better question is whether neuromarketing can accurately predict human buying behaviour - or something like this. The ethics of neuromarketing could be discussed as part of an evaluation, but should not be the focus of the paper.

Danyelle Cawood 11 February 2018 - 00:30

Thanks very much John

Andrew Martasian 24 April 2018 - 23:13

Hi John, I was wondering about the following question: To what extent is virtual reality therapy effective at treating PTSD in war veterans?
My concern was that the question asked about virtual reality treatments, which might be too new to have a body of research on. On the other hand, my student was very interested in the subject and was able to use a database to locate several pages of search results connected to this topic.

John Crane 25 April 2018 - 13:49

Dear Andrew

I would let the student try it. There is more and more research on virtual reality treatment, the question is whether your student will have access to it based on what types of databases and materials are available to him/her.

Andrew Martasian 25 April 2018 - 15:46

Thanks John, it sounds like a very interesting topic and we do have access to a few databases, so the research should not be an issue. Thanks for the help!

Ginelle Stutt 26 April 2018 - 14:15

Hi John,
Hope all is well with you :) I have a student who is very interested in researching into the role of mental health (depression) in school shootings. After reading through EE questions in this site's resources, I'm wondering if 'To what extent does mental health play a role in American school shootings' is a viable topic?

John Crane 27 April 2018 - 15:21

Dear Ginelle

I think that this may work, but it will depend on if she can find enough research to support the question. It may be difficult to find out if there is a direct link and the research will be correlational in nature. I would have her (or him) start to investigate the question to see if there are enough resources. It may also mean that she finds something more specific to focus on through her research. The question, however, is fine.

Ginelle Stutt 30 April 2018 - 07:57

Thanks John,

Neela Singh 24 May 2018 - 09:07

Hi John,
I have a student who really is interested in how authorities use compliance techniques to achieve genocides. I'm a bit worried that this could end up sounding more like a history essay with not much empiricism to back it up. Do you think that this topic could be workable into a viable EE?

Thanks much :)

John Crane 25 May 2018 - 05:10

Dear Neela

Totally agree. There has to be research for this. It sounds like a question that will lead to speculative claims. I would strongly discourage it. We have many such extended essays that have failed in the past.