Skip to content

Psychology Research Question Extended Essay Outline


These subject guidelines should be read in conjunction with the Assesment Criteria


An extended essay in psychology provides students with an opportunity to investigate an area within the field of psychology that is based upon personal interest, and which may well go beyond the Diploma Programme psychology course. Students are able to pursue actively a research question that will develop their analytical and communication skills, and their understanding of behaviour. At the same time, the extended essay aims to introduce students to the excitement of academic discovery.

The current Psychology guide defines the nature of the subject as "the systematic study of behaviour and experience". Students should have a well-developed understanding of what falls within the scope of psychology when they are developing their topic. Psychology involves studying the behaviour of human as well as non-human animals. It has its own specialist terms, methods and literature. It is essential for students undertaking an extended essay in psychology to have a reasonable understanding of the subject and its methodologies.

Psychology is not a "residual" category for essays that do not fit into any other extended essay subject. Students must choose topics that lend themselves to psychological investigation and analysis, and must carefully consider their choice of topic in terms of the assessment criteria.

Choice of topic

An extended essay in psychology allows students to investigate a topic of personal interest in a systematic manner. The essay should be based on a well-focused research question that the student attempts to answer throughout the course of the essay. The essay should be considered more of an investigative, analytical argument than a research hypothesis to be uncovered by use of research methods in a formal psychological study. Data collection and research methods, such as experiments, surveys, observations and case studies, are not appropriate for a psychology extended essay, and should not form part of the students project.

Psychology is a broad field that has many subsets and specialties, providing a wide range of possible topics. Past experience strongly suggests that personal interest plays an important role in the success of an essay and it is recommended that students consider their own personal interests, such as sport or child development, as a starting point in the process. After selecting a field of interest, students can then consider areas of investigation within that field in order to narrow the scope of their essay and research question. For example, a student might be highly interested in commercial aviation. Many large commercial airlines employ psychologists to investigate pilot performance and factors such as stress or emergency management. A research question that may follow from this could be "To what extent has research on stress with airline pilots improved airline safety standards?". Additional examples are provided later in this section.

The topic selected need not be from the current Psychology guide. In fact, some of the most interesting, engaging and successful extended essays are not necessarily based solely on material learned as part of the psychology course. Essays confined to the guide often produce descriptive, dispassionate accounts of classic psychological research. Supervisors do not need to have detailed knowledge of the students topic: this is a less important factor in topic selection than availability of resources, student interest and the scope of the essay.

Topics that generally fall within the area labelled as "pop psychology" or "self-help" are usually not appropriate for the extended essay. As noted in the definition, psychology is a systematic study. Psychologists conduct research studies and develop theories in their attempt to understand behaviour and experience. Psychology extended essays must be supported with careful and appropriate citation of relevant theories and/or studies within psychology. This implies that the best resources are academic and psychological research journals and texts. Anecdotal support or references from popular publications do not form an appropriate base from which to develop an extended essay in psychology. Additionally, popular topics such as eating disorders, dysfunctional behaviour (such as schizophrenia and depression) and forensic psychology pose a challenge to students unless they have a tightly focused research question. These are very ambitious topics that need far more time and experience than students have at their disposal.

The research question must be focused and provide direction for a psychological argument, issue or topic. Topics that are general in nature inevitably lead to a descriptive and superficial recounting of what can be found in many resources, rather than the development of an argument that attempts to answer a specific question. A more focused question leads to a more tightly developed essay that makes appropriate use of psychological research as the basis for a reasoned argument. While the research question does not need to be phrased as a question, to encourage focus within the essay, it is often helpful to the student if the research question is thought about as an actual question itself. In this way, students can ask themselves "Have I answered this question?". It is also appropriate for the title to be phrased similarly to the research question, which, again, refocuses the development of the essay.

The choice of topic is best described as a logical process that starts with a field of psychology that is of personal interest to the student. This choice may be further refined to a topic of study within the broader field. From this decision, a research question is developed that may best be constructed in the form of a question, followed by a statement of intent that indicates the approach that is going to be used in answering the question. In this way, the approach to the topic chosen may be even further clarified. Some examples of this could be the following.

Student interests                      Football: "Choking !' under pressure during an important match

Field of psychology                     Sport psychology

Topic                                              Arousal and athletic performance

Research question                    What levels of psychological arousal are most effective for players in team sports?


Arousal levels and their effects on athletic performance have been subjected to many studies.One of several comparative approaches could be used, for example, qualitative and quantitative methods, collectivist and individualist cultures, male and female. These approaches could include reference to gender, methods, ethics or culture. It is suggested that students consider the advantages of confining their research to one specific sport for which they have enthusiasm and, preferably, personal experience in performing.

Student interests          Perception, culture, web site design

Field of psychology     Cognitive psychology

Topic                                Cultural differences in perception and eye movement patterns

Research question       How can findings from psychological research on perception differences between Asians and Americans be applied to web site design?

Approach                         Research must be conducted from secondary sources to establish the extent of perceptual differences that are claimed to exist between the two cultures. How are findings from relevant studies applied to strategies that involve visual perception and eye movement patterns, and what industries use this information? Specifically, how do international web site designers interpret these findings in designing their web sites?

Student interests:          Physiotherapy: Recovering from injury

Field of psychology     Learning

Topic:                                Learning physical skills

Research question:   To what extent does immediate feedback, employing digitized moving images of the self, help in the learning process in developing a physical skill?



The focus H on re-educating the leg muscles of a patient learning to walk again while recovering from a chronic leg injury. By focusing on one of these examples or similar physical actions, the student may consider the advantages of digitized software that allows the patient to have immediate feedback on their movement. On a split screen, this action can be compared to that of a perfect model. The movement can also be compared in a similar way with "stickmen" images on a four-way split screen. The student might consider how this learning method compares to traditional coaching or training, and consider ethical implications.The methodologies used to interpret the efficacy of each learning strategy could be evaluated.

The choice of topic is crucial for achieving a high mark for the extended essay. Choosing the topic needs a period of thoughtful reflection where consideration is given, even at this early stage, to the potential argument, analysis and evaluation that may develop over the course of writing the essay. Topics that do not lend themselves well to analysis, evaluation or debate are unlikely to be the best choicesfor a student.

Treatment of the topic

Students submitting extended essays In psychology must be fully aware that the discipline has its own unique terms, methods, ethical standards and evaluative commentary. Students should not attempt to prepare an extended essay in psychology if they have not studied the subject formally. The type of knowledge and analytical skills required for a psychology extended essay are best developed through direct learning experiences derived from the Diploma Programme psychology course. Schools where psychology is not taught must be aware that students who submit extended essays in psychology with no formal exposure to the subject risk earning very low marks.

Specific reference to relevant psychology concepts, theories and studies must be integrated throughout each extended essay; these form the basis for the development of an argument in response to the research question. Essays that take a common sense or anecdotal approach will not earn high marks. Students should incorporate relevant psychological research, and demonstrate critical awareness and understanding of the material. Analysis should go beyond description or recitation of published material and include original analysis by the student.

An important skill that is developed throughout the psychology course is that of evaluative commentary and argument. One of the aims of all group 3 subjects is that students develop an understanding of the contestable nature of the content, as well as a toleration of uncertainty, that often comes from studying the behaviour of individuals and societies. Extended essays submitted in psychology should also demonstrate such understanding. Research and claims should be carefully evaluated to develop a well-rounded understanding of the topic being investigated. When students make assertions in their extended essays, these should always be supported by evidence that is drawn from psychological theories or studies. The current Psychology guide includes a framework for evaluation that trains students to address cultural, ethical, gender or methodological considerations that may affect the interpretation of behaviour resulting from a particular study or theory. Comparative analysis might also be an evaluative strategy relevant for inclusion in an extended essay. Students should keep these considerations in mind when selecting a topic, defining a research question and developing an argument.

The IRO has published a set of ethical guidelines for the internal assessment component of the psychology course. While the requirements of a psychology extended essay are very different from those of the internal assessment, the ethical guidelines also apply to this project. Students and supervisors share the responsibility of ensuring that the extended essay does not breach established ethical guidelines. Many topics within psychology are sensitive and personal in nature, and careful consideration should be given to all possible ethical issues before students embark on the process of developing their essay.

Frequent reference to the assessment criteria by both the supervisor and the student will help keep a sharper focus on the essay.

Interpreting the assessment criteria

Criterion A: research question

The research question may be written in the form of a question, proposition or statement. It should be focused on a topic that is clearly relevant to psychology, deals with behaviour and is able to be addressed consistently throughout the extended essay.

Criterion B: introduction

This section should place the research question in the context of existing knowledge and understanding of the topic. The student's personal experience or views should not appear in this section. Previous psychological studies that can be related to the research question should be considered. The studies that are introduced here may be generally supportive but they are unlikely to answer the research question in an entirely satisfactory manner. It is part of the student's task to identify strengths, weaknesses and omissions of past work, and to show how his or her essay could help to resolve some of the problems that have been identified.

Criterion C: investigation

There is a wide range of resources available for questions that are likely to be raised in extended essays related to psychology. These include textbooks, academic journals, films, television, radio, newspapers and Internet-based sources. Film, television, radio, newspapers and Internet-based sources should be treated with considerable caution since the material they contain may be neither accurate nor valid. The essay should present findings and theories from these sources in an evaluative context and students should not necessarily accept their findings at face value. A healthy and informed scepticism should be maintained towards material from film, television, radio, newspapers and Internet-based sources, until authoritative judgment allows their findings or theories to become accepted. Although the argument presented in the essay may be supported by the student's own observations, the presentation or analysis of such material should be used for illustrative purposes only and should form no more than a very minor part of the evidence used.

Criterion D: knowledge and understanding of the topic studied

Evidence and findings from empirical studies and their related theories should be an integral part of extended essays for psychology. Such material may refer to human or non-human animals and their associated behaviours. Where appropriate, students should draw on cultural, ethical, gender and methodological considerations; they should show how these aspects may affect the interpretation of the research question that is the focus of the essay.

Criterion E: reasoned argument

The research question should be the central focus of the argument as it is developed throughout the essay. As the argument is constructed, it often creates conflict between varying theories and findings from studies. The student should explain and analyse these different views and marshal those essential points that support the argument that is being advanced. It is the task of the student to persuade the reader of the reasons for, and validity of, his or her view. This is best accomplished by using a logical approach where successive salient points are built up, one upon the other.

Criterion F: application of analytical and evaluative skills appropriate to the subject

Demanding cognitive effort is needed to apply analytical and evaluative factors created by the student. The analysis and evaluation need to be covered in depth sincethese will lead to the crux of the argument. There is also an opportunity for the student to use reflexivity—a consideration of his or her own experiences and views that have contributed to the methods used in the investigation and the interpretation of points that have arisen.

Criterion G: use of language appropriate to the subject

Psychology is a subject that uses its terminology in a specific manner and students are expected to show this in their essays. Students who have not studied psychology as a specific part of an academic course are strongly urged to become thoroughly acquainted with the language used by psychologists and how it is applied within the discipline.

Criterion H: conclusion

The conclusion is a synthesis of the argument that has preceded it. It is the end point of a logical process that has been established by employing a succession of psychological studies and theories to justify the case that has been presented.

Criterion I: formal presentation

This criterion relates to the extent to which the essay conforms to academic standards about the way in which research papers should be presented. The presentation of essays that omit a bibliography or that do not give references for quotations is deemed unacceptable (level 0). Essays that omit one of the required elements—title page, table of contents, page numbers—are deemed no better than satisfactory (maximum level 2), while essays that omit two of them are deemed poor at best (maximum level 1).

Criterion J: abstract

The abstract is judged on the clarity with which it presents an overview of the research and the essay, not on the quality of the research question itself, nor on the quality of argument or the conclusions.

Criterion K: holistic judgment

Qualities that are rewarded under this criterion include intellectual initiative, insight, and breadth and depth of understanding. Ways of demonstrating such qualities include:

  • choice of a relevant research question that extends the student's thinking but is also feasible within the time available
  • location and judicious use of resources
  • analysis and evaluation of psychological material to produce salient points for the argument
  • use of a reflexive approach that involves the views and imagination of the student to make a unique contribution to understanding the topic.


International Baccalaureate Organization. (2007). Psychology. In IBO Extended essay guide, First examinations 2009, (pp. 153-158). New York: International Baccalaureate Organization.


IB students around the globe fear writing the Extended Essay, but it doesn't have to be a source of stress! In this article, I'll get you excited about writing your Extended Essay and provide you with the resources to get an A.    

If you're reading this article, I assume you're an IB Student getting ready to write your Extended Essay. If you're looking at this as a potential future IB student, I recommend reading our other introductory IB articles first: What is the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program? and What is the IB Curriculum? What are IB Diploma Requirements?


Why Should You Trust My Advice?

I'm a recipient of an IB Diploma, and I happened to receive an A on my IB Extended Essay. If you don’t believe me, the proof is in the IBO pudding,

If you're confused by what this report means, EE is short for Extended Essay, and English A1 is the subject that my Extended Essay topic coordinated with. In layman’s terms, my IB Diploma was graded during May 2010, I wrote my Extended Essay in the English A1 category, and I received a grade A. 


What Is the Extended Essay?

The IB Extended Essay (or EE) is a 4,000 word structured mini-thesis that you write under the supervision of an advisor (an IB teacher at your school), which counts towards your IB Diploma (to learn about all of the IB diploma requirements, check out our other article). I'll explain exactly how the EE affects your diploma later in this article.

For the Extended Essay, you choose a research question as a topic; this topic needs to be approved by IBO (which is not very difficult). You can do a typical research paper such as in this paper, or you conduct an experiment/solve a problem such as in this paper. Most schools allow you to pick your advisor (an IB teacher preferably at your school, although you can also get access to one at another school through the Pamoja Education). I'll explain how to pick your IB EE advisor below. 

The IB Extended Essay must include: 

  • A cover page
  • An abstract (one-page synopsis of your essay)
  • A table of contents
  • The 4,000-word essay (which will range from 10-20 pages depending on whether your topic requires illustrations such as an experiment would)
  • A bibliography
Your completed Extended Essay will then sent to the IBO to be graded (I will go into more detail on grading below). 



What Should You Write About in Your Extended Essay?

You can technically write about anything, so long as the IBO approves it. However, you should choose a topic that falls into one of theIB Course Categories, (such as Theatre, Film, Spanish, French, Math, Biology, etc.) which shouldn’t be difficult because there are so many class subjects. Here is a range of sample topics with the attached extended essay: 

You can see from how varied the topics are that you have a lot of freedom when it comes to picking a topic. So, how do you pick when the options are limitless? I will help you with that next:



6 Tips for Writing a Grade A Extended Essay

Below are the six key tips you need to follow to write an outstanding Extended Essay.


Tip #1: Write About Something You Enjoy 

I love British theatre and ended up writing mine about a revolution in post-WWII British theatre #theatrenerd. I really encourage anyone who pursues an IB Diploma to take the Extended Essay seriously. I ended up receiving a full-tuition merit scholarship to USC’s School of Dramatic Arts program and in my interview for the scholarship, I spoke passionately about my Extended Essay. I genuinely think my Extended Essay helped me get my scholarship.   

How do you find a topic you are passionate about? Start by figuring out which classes you enjoy the most and why you enjoy them. Do you like Math because you like to problem solve? Or do you enjoy English because you like to analyze texts?

Once you have figured out a general subject area such as Physics, you should brainstorm more specific topics by putting pen to paper. What was your favorite chapter you learned in that class? Was it astrophysics or mechanics? What did you like about that specific chapter? Is there something you want to learn more about? I recommend spending an hour on this type of brainstorming. 


Tip #2: Chose a Topic That Is Not Too Broad or Too Narrow

This is a fine line. You need to write about something specific, but not so specific that you can’t write 4,000 words on it. You can’t write about WWII because that would be a book's worth of material. You don’t want to write about what type of soup prisoners of war received in POW camps because you probably can’t come up with 4000 words on it. However, you could possibly write about how the conditions in German POW camps were directly affected by the Nazis successes and failures. This may be too obvious of a topic, but you get my point.

If you're really stuck trying to find a not too broad or narrow topic, I recommend trying to brainstorm a topic that uses a comparison. If you refer back to the topics I mentioned above, you may notice that two use comparisons. 

I also used comparison in my EE, comparing Harold Pinter's Party Time to John Osborne's Look Back in Anger in order to show a transition in British Theatre. Topics with comparisons of 2-3 plays/books/diets/etc. tend to be in the sweet spot of not too narrow or broad because you can analyze each portion and after doing in-depth analysis on each, you compare and explain the significance of the comparison. The key here is that the comparison needs to be significant. I compared two plays to show a transition in British Theatre.

Comparisons are not the only way to get a grade A EE. If after brainstorming, you pick a non-comparison based topic and you are still unsure if a topic is too broad or narrow, spend 30 minutes doing some basic research and see how much material is out there. If there are over 1,000 books/articles/documentaries out there on the exact topic, it may be too broad. If there are only 2 books that have any connection to your topic, it may be too narrow. If you are still unsure, ask your advisor! Speaking of advisors:


Don't get stuck with a narrow topic!



Tip #3: Choose an Advisor Who Is Familiar With Your Topic 

If you are not certain of who you would like to be your advisor, I would start by creating a list of your top three choices. Next, create a list of pros and cons (I know this sounds tedious, but it really helps!).

For example, Mr. Green is my favorite teacher, and we get along really well, but he teaches English, and I want to conduct an experiment to compare the efficiency of American Hybrid Cars to Foreign Hybrid Cars. Ms. White teaches Physics, I had her a year ago, and she liked me. She could help me design my experiment. I am going to ask Ms. White! 

Do NOT just ask your favorite teacher to be your advisor. They may be a hindrance to you if they teach another subject. I would not suggest asking your Biology teacher to guide you in writing your English EE.

EXCEPTION: If you have a teacher who is passionate and knowledgeable about your topic (as my English teacher was about my Theatre topic), you can ask that instructor. Consider all of your options first before you do. There was no theatre teacher at my school, so I could not find a theatre-specific advisor, but I chose the next best thing.

Some IB high schools require your IB Extended Essay advisor to sign an Agreement Form. Make sure you ask your IB coordinator if there is any required paperwork. IBO does not require any paperwork. If your school needs a Form signed, make sure you bring it with you when you ask a teacher to be your EE advisor. 


Tip #4: Choose an Advisor Who Will Push You to Be Your Best

Some teachers may just take on students because they have to and may not be passionate about reading drafts and may not give you a lot of feedback. Choose a teacher who will take the time to read several drafts and give you extensive notes. I would not have gotten my A without being pushed to make the draft better.

Ask a teacher that you have experience with through class or an extracurricular activity. Do not ask a teacher that you have no connection to; a teacher who does not know you is unlikely to push you. 

Note: The IBO only allows advisors to suggest improvements to the EE, but they may not be engaged in writing the EE. The IBO recommends that the supervisor spends approximately two to three hours in total with the candidate discussing the EE.


Tip #5: Make Sure Your Essay Has a Clear Structure and Flow

IB likes structure. Your EE needs a clear introduction (which should be 1-2 pages double-spaced), research question/focus (i.e. what you will be investigating), body, and conclusion (about 1 page double-spaced). An essay that has unclear or poor organization will be graded poorly. Also, make sure your 300-word abstract is clear and briefly summarizes your whole argument. An ambiguous abstract will make it more challenging for the reader to follow your essay’s argument and will also hurt the grading of your EE. 

The body of your EE should make up the bulk of the essay. It should be about 8-18 pages double-spaced (again just depending on whether or not you include diagrams). Your body can be split into multiple parts. For example, if you are doing a comparison, you might have 1/3 of your body as Novel A Analysis, 1/3 as Novel B Analysis, and the last 1/3 as Comparison of Novel A and B Analysis.

If you are conducting an experiment or analyzing data such as in this EE, your EE body will have a clear and obvious parts following the scientific method: stating the research question, discussing your method, showing the data, analyzing the data, discussing uncertainties, and drawing a conclusion/evaluating the experiment.  


Tip #6: Start Writing Sooner Rather Than Later!

You will not be able to crank out a 4,000-word essay in a week and get an A. You will be reading many, many articles (and, depending on your topic, possibly books, plays, and watching movies). Start the research possible as soon as possible. 

Each school has a slightly different deadline for the Extended Essay. Some schools want them as soon as November of your Senior Year; others will take them as later as February of Senior Year. Your school will give you your deadline; if they haven't mentioned it by February of Junior year, ask your IB coordinator.

Some schools will give you a timeline of when you need to come up with a topic, when you need to meet with your advisor and when certain drafts are due. Not all schools do. Ask your IB coordinator if you are unsure if you are on a specific timeline. Here is my recommended timeline, it is earlier than most schools, but it will save you so much heartache (trust me, I remember):

  • January/February of Junior Year: Come up with your final research topic (or at least top 3). 
  • February of Junior Year: Approach a teacher about being your EE advisor (if he or she says no, keep asking others until you find one - see my notes above on how to pick an EE advisor). 
  • April/May of Junior Year: Submit an outline of your EE and a bibliography of potential research sources (I recommend at least 7-10) to your EE advisor. Meet with your EE advisor to discuss your outline. 
  • Summer between Junior and Senior Year: Complete your first full draft over the summer between Junior and Senior Year! I know, I know no one wants to work during the summer, but trust me this will save you so much stress come the fall when you are busy with college applications and other IB internal assessments for your IB classes. You will want to have this first full draft done because you will want to complete a couple of draft cycles as you likely won’t be able to get everything you want to say into 4000 articulate words the first time. Try to get this first draft into the best possible shape you can, so that you do not have to work on too many revisions during the school year on top of your homework/college applications/work/extracurriculars/etc.  
  • August/September of Senior Year: Turn in your first draft of your EE to your advisor and receive feedback. Work on incorporating their feedback into your essay. If they have a lot of suggestions for improvement, ask if they will read one more draft before the final draft. 
  • September/October of Senior Year: Submit second draft of EE to your advisor (if necessary) and receive their feedback. Work on creating the best possible final draft. 
  • November-February of Senior Year: Submit two copies of your final draft to your school to be sent off to IBO. You likely will not get your grade until after you graduate. 


The early bird DOES get the worm!


How’s the Extended Essay Graded?

Extended essays are marked by external assessors (examiners appointed by the IB) on a scale of 0 to 36. There are "general" and "subject-specific" criteria, at a ratio of 2:1 (24 possible marks for the general criteria and 12 marks for the subject-specific one). The total mark is converted into a grade from A to E, using the below parameters:

Rubric Assessment Points Earned Descriptor Letter
Grade 30 – 36Excellent: A
25 – 29Good: B
17 – 24Satisfactory: C
9 – 16Mediocre: D
0 - 8Elementary: E

Here is the typical breakdown of scores (from 2008):

% Awarded Grade






Extended Essay






How Does the Extended Essay Grade Affect Your IB Diploma?

The Extended Essay grade is combined with your TOK (Theory of Knowledge) grade to determine how many points you get towards your IB Diploma. To learn about Theory of Knowledge or how many points you need to receive your IB Diploma, read our other articles on What is the International Baccalaureate (IB) Program? or IB Diploma Requirements. This diagram shows how the two scores are combined to determine how many points you receive for your IB diploma (3 being the most, 0 being the least). 



So, let’s say you get an A on your EE and a B on TOK, you will get 3 points towards your diploma. Note: this chart is slightly outdated. Prior to the class of 2010, a diploma candidate could receive a failing grade in either the extended essay or theory of knowledge and still be awarded a diploma. However, as of 2014 (for the first examination in May 2015), a student who scores an E on either the extended essay or TOK essay will not be eligible to receive an IB diploma.


Sample Extended Essays

In case you want a little more guidance on how to get an A EE. Here are 50 Excellent (grade A) sample extended essays for your reading pleasure:  


What’s Next?

Trying to figure out what extracurricular you should do? Learn more about participating in Science Olympiad, starting a club, doing volunteer work, and joining Student Government. 

Studying for the SAT? Check out our complete guide to the SAT. Taking the SAT in the next month? Check out our guide to cramming. 

Not sure where you want to go to college? Check out our guide to finding your target school. Also, figure out your target SAT score or target ACT score.


Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now: