Forming the research question

Writing an EE is an academic exercise where students get the chance to show that they can be “a researcher”. Of course, it is expected that they will write at a level which is appropriate for their level of education. The purpose of the EE is to demonstrate that they can come up with a focused research question, investigate it using appropriate resources and then present the results of the investigation in the proper format. They should also be able to construct an argument based on psychological knowledge, including psychological theories, empirical studies, psychological terminology and key concepts.

Students will probably start by having an interest in some area but it is not possible to formulate a research question without having carried out some research. It is important to read what psychologists have written on the topic. Only then will they have some idea of what the focus should be. It is very important for supervisors to understand that it is not the supervisor's responsibility to find the research. Students should be able to show research to their supervisors prior to getting their research question approved.

The thesis statement

The research that they find helps them to gradually formulate a research question. After the initial research, they will also have an idea of what could be the thesis statement - that is, the position they are going to make in relation to the research question. The thesis statement should be a direct answer in response to the research question. It is a good idea to combine research question and thesis statement because they must construct the argument based on the thesis statement. If they find that their research doesn't support their thesis statement, then they may change this as they become more informed about the topic.

Examples of thesis statements

Research question: Does prejudice have evolutionary roots?

Thesis: Evolutionary psychologists argue that prejudice is a hard-wired survival mechanism that has been advantageous to the human species.

Research question: Is Prozac effective in the treatment of depression?

Thesis: Prozac is effective in the treatment of Major Depressive Disorder in certain clients - but is not overall effective in the treatment of the disorder.

Research question: To what extent can ‘optimism’ influence one's physical health?

Thesis: Optimism has a limited influence on one's physical health.

Sample research questions

The research question must be clear and focused so that the reader knows exactly what is being investigated. It must be present in the introduction of the EE. Students are supposed to justify the choice of RQ with reference to real problems and former research done in the area. The following list is a set of good EE questions that are well defined.


  • To what extent is child testimony reliable in court?
  • Does long-term computer use have an effect on memory?
  • Is computer use in the classroom actually enhancing learning?


  • To what extent does genetics play a role in OCD?
  • To what extent is the theory of biological preparedness of phobias supported?
  • Is anorexia a cultural phenomenon?


  • To what extent do attachment patterns in early childhood determine later interpersonal relationships?
  • To what extent are gender differences biologically based?


  • To what extent does psychological stress affect one's ability to cope with a chronic illness?
  • Are government-imposed bans on trans-fats a feasible strategy for reducing obesity?
  • Is mindfulness an effective means of coping with stress?

Human Relationships

  • Can prejudice be reduced?
  • Is homosexuality a learned behaviour?
  • To what extent does communication play a role in a successful marriage?

Sport - although sports psychology is no longer part of the curriculum, it is totally acceptable as a topic.

  • To what extent is the theory of self-efficacy useful for explaining behaviour in competitive sport?
  • Is mental imagery an effective strategy for improving performance in football?
  • To what extent do coaches play a role in team cohesion?
  • Is it possible to increase one's level of "grit"?
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Comments 22

Jill Goodreau 12 February 2018 - 21:08

Hi John! Do you think this question would be too specific? To what extent do individualistic versus collectivistic societies influence the coping of stress?

John Crane 13 February 2018 - 04:59

Dear Jill

I have a student who just tried to write an essay similar to that this year. She was unable to find very information and in the end looked at the role of social support networks in one's ability to cope with stress. If your student can find the research to specifically address the I-C dimension, then run with it. The question is a bit clunky - I would probably reword it to "Does the I-C cultural dimension influence one's ability to cope with stress?"

Jill Goodreau 14 February 2018 - 01:21

I was wondering the same thing - if there would be enough info just on the I-C dimension. Thanks as always!

Silvia Longo 9 March 2018 - 09:13

Dear John,
A student of mine is very interested in the topic of anorexia, but I'm worried it's too delicate a topic and not recommended by the IB. Should I advise her against it?
Also, I have the same issue with a student who wants to investigate childhood sexual abuse and its role in the development of antisocial personality disorder. I've read that they're topics that never get high grades.
Thanks in advance for your help

John Crane 10 March 2018 - 07:26

Dear Silvia

It is up to you to decide with regard to the student. From the IB's point of view, anorexia is a completely valid topic and many students write about it for EE. The second topic is also fine. Students just need to remember that their essays must be based on published research.

Sania Begum 18 March 2018 - 13:37

Dear John,

I would appreciate if you could guide me on this topic/RQ - the student wants to explore the male form of anorexia (‘manorexia’) and the role of social media in furthering this condition. How can this be formulated in to a RQ?

John Crane 20 March 2018 - 04:50

Dear Sania, they could write it simply as a "To what extent...." question.

Sania Begum 3 April 2018 - 09:24

Dear John,

Thank you. May I ask whether the following is a Psychology based RQ - To what extent are differences in thought/learning styles seen in left/right handed people?

John Crane 4 April 2018 - 05:21

Dear Sania

The question is rather problematic as learning styles have been disproven for a long time now. For any research question, I would ask students to first bring you research on the topic to see what they have found. If they do not present you with academic research, I would tell them that they need to rethink the question.

Zakeya Azam 29 May 2018 - 10:35

Hi please may i have some advice on the following EE questions that my students are interested in? 1) To what extent do genetics play a role in the development of a sociopath (Or schizophrenic if sociopath is to general)?
2) To what extent is CBT effective in the treatment of agoraphobia
3)To what extent do stereotypes influence gender roles

John Crane 30 May 2018 - 04:58

Dear Zakeya

1. I hope that the student does not think that sociopathy and schizophrenia is the same thing. Otherwise, the question is fine.
2. Fine.
3. I am not really sure what question 3 is asking. Is this about stereotype threat?

Zakeya Azam 30 May 2018 - 06:28

Morning John,
Thanks for the reply, the students understand the difference between schizophrenia and sociopath, she was just worried that sociopath may be too general? Would the question "To what extent do genetics play a role in the development of a sociopath" be okay? (provided of course that she can bring me research studies for this question)
For question 3, i think he wanted to look to see if 'traditional' male and Female roles are because of stereotypes a culture has?

John Crane 31 May 2018 - 05:14

Dear Zakeya

I assume that sociopath means Antisocial Personality Disorder. It would be better for her to use that term than "sociopath." Psychopathy is the other option. And yes, this question is fine.

I don't see how question 3 would be a viable question. It sounds like a chicken or egg question. Stereotypes exist because a behaviour is seen as being the rule. Then the stereotype affects the behaviour. I don't think it is a good question and research specifically on the question will not be possible to find. I think that he should look at some research on gender roles and see if there is something that interests him.

Zakeya Azam 3 June 2018 - 07:39

Thank you John for the extensive feedback and advice, I appreciate it .

Psychology ASGBSA 4 June 2018 - 08:08


One of my students chose this for a research question, there was a good amount of research on it (8 sources directly addressing the topic) in addition to others that are more general

To what extent does sexual harassment affect body image views in the victims.

I am unsure about the topic due to it's sensitivity and should it be narrowed down to gender?

John Crane 5 June 2018 - 04:56


The question is fine. And it does not need to be narrowed down any more than that.

Jakob Vestergaard 14 June 2018 - 10:01

Hi John one of my students are struggling with her RQ. I hope you could give me some advise? Which one would you prefer/advise and why:
(i) To what extent is childhood trauma linked to schizophrenia?
(ii) How largely does childhood trauma correlate with schizophrenia?
(iii) How does childhood trauma lead to schizophrenia?
(iv) How do traumatizing social and/or environmental factors correlate to schizophrenia?

Regards Jakob

John Crane 15 June 2018 - 04:39

The wording of the first one is the best. ii is simply that we don't usually say "how largely" in English. iii is a question that simply asks for a descriptive response and it also makes an assumption in the question. iv Same as iii.

Jakob Vestergaard 20 June 2018 - 10:23

Thank you John for the advice.

Ranjani Ravi 30 July 2018 - 10:35

Dear John. My student wants to do her EE on the topic " How does the visual media influence romantic expectations in young adults". But romantic expectations is a very wide term is my feeling. Any suggestions ?

John Crane 31 July 2018 - 11:40

Dear Ranjani,

I would ask the student what exactly they are interested in. Is it the role of media in the forming of relationships? The role of culture on the role of romantic love in relationships? Once they have identified what they want to study, they should then find research to show you. Once they find research, then they can finalize their question. The question now is "ok," but if there is no research on that specific topic, then the student will have to refine or change it.

Ranjani Ravi 1 August 2018 - 07:10

Yes. Thank you for the clarification.