Extended research – beyond the textbook

It’s the beginning of the examination season and the extended essays have flooded in with the internal assessments soon to drop through the letterbox. What I would like to do in this post is continue the theme of several others over the last year related to the extended essay and internal assessment and to develop thoughts about the research process.

Surprisingly, assessment is a relatively simple task. When marking essays or moderating assessments, there is only one guiding principle for examiners; that is to follow the assessment criteria from the relevant guide and to interpret it according to the associated exemplars and advice (or by reference to the additional materials on the OCC). What an examiner does not have is any preconceptions about the student – they have no background from which to draw conclusions about academic potential, effort, motivation. What they have is the essay or assignment in front of them.

Given that situation, it is clear that students and their supervising teachers must also have the understanding of the assessment criteria that an examiner must apply, and a clear appreciation of the context of the assessment. The starting point for students and teachers in the process of writing an essay or assignment must be clarity in terms of the task and assessment criteria. Starting with the highest level in each assessment criterion is sensible as this identifies the ideal characteristics of a high quality essay or assignment.

I fear that I may become repetitive, but it is evident that the basics of this process are simply not followed and/or understood by a significant minority of students and their teachers. I will repeat the point made in previous posts that it is crucial to understand that research for an HL internal assessment is unsuitable for an extended essay, and is also unlikely to earn high marks. The focus of the IA is on primary data. IAs are often quite practical with recommendations for action provided for decision makers. Extended essays are totally different – they are academic research papers based on SECONDARY research. An extended essay based heavily on questionnaires, interviews and surveys will inevitably lose marks on a range of criteria.

This should be no surprise to those who have really read their extended essay guide. The guide is not only extensive in its content, but illustrated throughout. The subject specific guidance identifies how the general criteria are applied to each subject and must be read in conjunction.

The following are just examples of phrases taken from the Guide:

  • The extended essay is an in-depth study of a focused topic … It is intended to promote high-level research and writing skills, intellectual discovery and creativity.
  •  … a formal piece of scholarship containing no more than 4,000 words.
  • a systematic process of research appropriate to the subject.
  • acknowledging sources in one of the established academic ways.
  • apply analytical and evaluative skills appropriate to the subject, with an understanding of the implications and the context of their research.
  • The extended essay should be written in a clear, correct and formal academic style.
  • “Academic context”, as used in this guide, can be defined as the current state of the field of study under investigation.

This approach is reflected in the assessment criteria, e.g.

  • C – investigation level 4: An imaginative range of appropriate sources has been consulted.
  • D – knowledge and understanding of the topic studied level 4: Where appropriate, the essay clearly and precisely locates the investigation in an academic context.
  • K – holistic judgment: The purpose of this criterion is to assess the qualities that distinguish an essay from the average, such as intellectual initiative, depth of understanding and insight.
  • I: formal presentation: the extent to which the essay conforms to academic standards about the way in which research papers should be presented.

Subject-specific guidance: Overview

An extended essay in business and management provides students with an opportunity to carry out  in-depth research  relating to business and management…Whichever research area is chosen, it should be firmly rooted in the realms of accepted business and management theory. The extended essay provides students with an opportunity to develop research skills by reviewing business theory, concepts and principles, and critically analysing how these have been put into practice in the business world and the resultant impact on business activity. This will involve broad and detailed research using a range of sources. Excessive reliance on a single type of source, such as a company’s annual report, is unlikely to give students sufficient scope or breadth in their analysis of the research question.  

Criterion K: holistic judgment

Intellectual initiative: Ways of demonstrating this in business and management essays include the choice of topic and research question, the nature and breadth of the theory chosen to help answer the research question, and the breadth of research sources and imagination used in sourcing relevant material/data.

Students should use secondary sources in the first instance. These may include the Internet, textbooks and research literature/journals.

It is this last statement that I want to develop – in particular secondary research and the use of the textbook. The guide makes it clear that a textbook may be a legitimate secondary source. Textbooks like Hoang and Clark et al certainly have their place. Their advantages are that the follow the syllabus closely, synthesise relevant theory and ideas and are written for a student audience – hence their use in classroom. Textbooks can provide a valuable overview of a topic and a useful starting point for an essay or assignment, but they are not research articles or academic publications. Frankly, constantly referencing a textbook, at the expense of virtually all other research in some cases, is academically lazy and prevents the student from achieving some of the higher assessment levels, which refer to broad research from a range of sources, and an approach which hardly demonstrates intellectual initiative.

This session I have read a large number of essays that refer extensively to a textbook. Given that in the age of the internet, academic articles (often original papers) are freely available with a bit of searching, it would be wise to move students way beyond the textbook, which offers little more than a broad brushstroke of the subject.

One area, where students can improve their extended essays is to research the market and the economy within which the organisation being researched operates. Indeed at the end of the essay, the examiner is often left with little knowledge of the context of the organisation being researched beyond a historical description of the development of the business.  It is surprising how rarely students seek to find real data and evidence to support statements, which as a result leads to generalisations. For example, there have been a few essays this session that have identified economic factors such as recession and inflation as a threat within a SWOT or PEST analysis. However, what they have not done is to research how likely or significant economic trends are, especially in terms of the specific industry and any trends that can be identified.  This information is readily available from government sites and industry commentators.

For the extended essay, research is all. For the student, in-depth research can be an excellent introduction to the requirements of a university and provide additional perspectives and ideas that can be integrated into examination answers. The giveaway is the bibliography; does this have depth and breadth? If not a high grade is unlikely.

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