Extended Essays are a nightmare

Having just completed the marking of 59 Physics extended essays for the IB, I am compelled to write this post about the appalling quality of them.  Of the 59, only a handful scored over 20/36 – which is pretty poor.  The main reasons are:

1. Theoretical and Inappropriate

Some extended essays are theoretical. Whilst these are allowed (and I have seen a few good ones over the years), in general they do not score well. The work is often inappropriate and although there are some signs that the student did actually put some effort into this, the marks are significantly compromised because of this.  It should be remembered that the IB Physics course has a lot of focus on the experimental (or empirical) aspects of the subject and very little which actually supports the role of theoretical investigation.  As such, if a student does decide to take on the challenge of a theoretical EE, they will need support and guidance from the Supervisor if the final work is to score well against the marking scheme.

In fairness to the IB, they do give extremely good advice on this matter.  The EE guide for Physics clearly states the following:

Students should choose a well-focused, well-defined and realistic topic that allows for an in-depth treatment. Broad or complex survey topics, for example, investigations into black holes, gravity, time machines, the Higgs particle or the fate of the universe, will not permit the student to discuss conflicting ideas and theories, nor to produce an in-depth personal analysis within the word limit. Also, by definition, some topics are not suitable for an extended essay in physics, which is an experimental science with a specific approach and techniques.

As such, it should be stated that in the majority of cases, students that produce such EEs are ill-advised and if there were more guidance and a stronger hand in saying ‘no – that will not work and therefore, will no score well’, they might be better.

2. Experimental but too simple

This type of EE is a great shame because an experimental EE fits wonderfully into the marking scheme.  It should be remembered that the Extended Essay is stated by the IB as …

“… is an in-depth study of a focused topic chosen”

“… presented as a formal piece of scholarship”

“… the result of approximately 40 hours of work by the student”.

When the work is either inappropriate or so simple and straightforward that it is effectively is carried out within an hour or so, this does not constitute what the IB require and does not give the students the chance to gain what they need from the experience.

It should also be remembered that if the work will clearly produce conclusions that the student already is aware of (i.e., they are already part of the IB physics course of study), then this is not the point of the EE.  In such a situation, it will of course, compromise the marks they achieve.

3. Practical but it was never going to work

These EEs are a good example of why the role of the supervisor at the beginning of the EE is crucial. The student has obviously put in some effort here, but this was an inappropriate piece of research that was never going to work. Often when this happens, the student usually does not seem to see this, and that can compromise the conclusion and evaluation marks. Supervisor guidance is once again crucial – the supervisor should be aware of what is a viable Research Question in the sense of what the IB require for an EE.

4. The EE is done away from the school

There is a small but growing number of EEs that are done by the student either at home (often supervised by the father) or at a local institute (e.g., a university). These are often a disaster for the work and this situation is not really an acceptable method for the EE. It is worth remembering that the IB EE Guide clearly states that it is the responsibility of the school that it “… ensures that each student has an appropriately qualified supervisor, who is a teacher within the school”.

When the work is carried out away from the school, this situation mean that the supervisor cannot guarantee that the work was carried out by the student and indeed, carried out safely. The analysis of the results, the interpretation of the data in light of experimental problems that may arise, etc, cannot be discussed easily with the Supervisor and as such, the necessary guidance cannot be provided. The report is often written with no guidance at all, or with the guidance of a university academic – in both cases, it usually produces a poor report.

Beyond the above, a couple of my main gripes are below.  When we get to the part of the year where EEs are being considered, I will add a lot more to hopefully help students get better marks – that would be a good thing.

Photos

For many reports, students include a photograph of their equipment and seem to consider that this is a suitable substitution for a diagram.  This is not good – although photographs are a useful ‘addition’, they are rarely useful to see exactly what is going on – a suitably details, labelled diagram is required.

The hypothesis

Students often seem to feel that they can state a hypothesis or prediction by simply stating what they think will happen – which strangely, often happens to be the same as the final results they get!  Yet, without any scientific explanation, this is essentially meaningless because it could simply be based on what they know the result show. This happened a lot this year.

No Physics

The ‘Physics’ content of reports tends to be limited to the background work in the first few 2-3 pages and then, this is usually material from a web or book source with no attempt to actually ‘explain’ the physics. There was almost no physics used in the entirely of the 59 reports I marked – which is very disappointing.  Students do not seem to use physics to inform their methodology, analysis or evaluation and conclusions.

Uncertainties

It was very noticeable, that many students worked out the uncertainty in the gradient of a straight line graph by taking the top and bottom data point only. This was a method allowed in the previous version of the syllabus but is (correctly) no longer valid and teachers should ensure students are aware of this.

Graphs

Graphs with dot-to-dot or curvy dot-to-dot links between the points should be avoided. There was also a lack of the input-output graphs, with students simply going for the graph to show the variation they expected!

Amazingly, many students feel that it is appropriate to only have 3 values for their independent variable. Further, some students feel that non-numeric input variables are fine when in fact, they usually produce data that cannot be systematically analysed.

All in all, extended essays in physics are in a pretty shocking state. And the most frustrating aspect of this is that it does not have to be this way.  Supervisors need to ensure the student has a good plan to move forward with. Do not expect students to come up with their own – they have no experience in this and don’t know what will work and what will not work – that is the supervisors job. If you know that an idea is awful, then say so and do NOT allow the student to go forward with it. And remember that the total time spent on this should be around 40 hours – so the report should reflect a lot of practical work, not an afternoons work in the lab.

It can change for the better, but will take effort. But the effort is worth it.

1 Comment
  • Richard Atherton
    June 6, 2017

    I run the IB at a major British school. Sadly, I now do not allow the studnets to take an EE in any science subject because the marking is so fierce compared to other subjects. The IB’s anti-STEM stance is a tragedy but we have to do what is necessary to get good marks. Luckily the World Studies essay is a perfect replacement.

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