Writing the Essay

Writing the TOK essay is one of the most difficult challenges that students face during the whole of the DP. The prescribed essay titles are conceptually difficult to grasp, and although the assessment instrument has been clarified for the 2022 syllabus, there is still considerable debate over what it is looking for. The word limit is restrictive, so it’s tricky for students to fit in all their ideas. Added to all this is the fact that students will be doing other IAs and the EE, so they’ll be overworked, and stress levels will be high.

However, if your students have done meaningful formative assessment tasks, the essay-writing process is approached in a step-by-step way, and you make full use of ManageBac, the pressure will be eased considerably. Here’s a suggestion of how that can work in practise.

7 steps to creating an effective TOK essay

STEP 1

Introduce the task

Introduce the task by outlining the following easy-to-grasp elements:

  • Practical requirements (word-count, format, etc.)

  • An overview of the PTs

  • A typical structure for the essay (exploring usually two AOKs, and considering different points of view)

  • The importance of considering different perspectives and the implications of arguments

  • Supporting ideas with evidence (eg real-life situations and issues)

  • Discussion should be based on second-order knowledge

The success of this first step depends on you having already included a clear understanding of the expectations of the essay in the course during the first year (ie via formative assessment and other tasks). This is a bit of a balancing act though: the more you drill students, the more they’ll be prepared, but the less they’ll be engaged by the course.

STEP 2

Clarify what’s being assessed

Primarily this comes from the assessment instrument, so go over this carefully with your students. We identified the five key skills that the instrument is looking for above. However, examiners are also looking for qualities that are not stated explicitly in the instrument, such as:

  • Discussion should be based on second-order knowledge

  • Examples should be used to support what has already been discussed, not explain, or (worse) be used to introduce a point.

  • Areas of knowledge should be interlinked via comparisons and contrasts, for example, at the transition point between two AOKs

  • The student should include their own perspective as a knower, via their experiences, observations, and opinions

STEP 3

Unpack the PTs

Ask your students to identify the following aspects of the different prescribed titles:

  • Key terms and words in the title that need pinning down

  • A general idea of what the title is looking for

  • Assumptions within the title that could be challenged

  • Areas of knowledge that could be used as the context to explore the question

Get students to share their ideas, and create a big shared document with all the best ideas from your year group. This will be useful support for students as they begin writing their essays.

STEP 4

Begin the interactions

The subject guide specifies that there should be three student-teacher ‘interactions’, which means a considerable amount of time for one-to-one guidance on writing the essay. This is essential for success in the essay.

If you’ve had a good unpacking session (step 3), then in your first interaction your students should come to you ready to talk about their chosen prescribed titled, and create a rough essay plan. Discuss with them:

  • What they should include in their introduction (which essentially outlines their understanding of what the title is looking for)

  • The areas of knowledge that could work for their title

  • Possible real-life situations and issues that could be used to support their arguments

ManageBac is great for recording what you have discussed during the interactions, so ask your students to fill this in straight after you have talked.

STEP 5

Create and check the essay plan

In your second interactions, you should go over the essay plans that your students have created. Their essay plans should consist of a fully-developed introduction, comprising:

  • A ‘hook’ to engage the reader, such as an appropriate and embedded quote, an arresting statement, or an original and challenging opinion

  • An interpretation of the key words and terms in the title. This should not just be pulled from a dictionary - students should offer their own definitions and understandings of the title

  • An outline of the scope of the essay, such as the AOKs that will be explored, and how these relate to the question being asked. Given the low word limit, it’s advisable to keep the thesis of the essay until the conclusion and, b) the arguments that will be presented to explore the question, which should include:

  • How the question will be discussed within the context of the areas of knowledge

  • A consideration of different points of view, which is related to (but not the same) as different perspectives

  • An evaluation of the implications of the arguments (in other words, why they matter to us as knowers

Again, ask students to record their second interaction comments on ManageBac.

STEP 6

Write and check the draft essay

Students need plenty of class time to create their draft essays, and plenty of encouragement and support. Consider allowing them to work in a study environment of their own choice, and be on hand to field any questions they may have, such as whether their arguments are clear, relevant, and supported sufficiently by evidence.

Stress to your students that their drafts need to be as finished and polished as possible, to allow you to provide meaningful feedback which they can then apply to what they are doing - rather than having to re-write big chunks of their essays. You are not permitted to provide any further written feedback, so you need to make this set of feedback count. Guide them with the following points:

  • Arguments that work, and ones that don’t

  • Effectiveness of RLSs and other forms of evidence supporting points

  • How clearly discussions have been articulated

  • How well they have included a consideration of different perspectives

  • Whether they managed to assess the implications of their arguments

Make sure you are not providing them with editorial advice, or giving them a mark for their work, as this is not permitted by the IB. Ask them to record the conversation on ManageBac.

STEP 7

Complete and upload the PPF

Students can’t be provided with any further written advice, but they may still consult you for advice on specific points within their essays. When they have finished their essays, you should give them a final check, paying attention not only to the content, but also the practical aspects - word count, referencing, font, spacing, etc.

Once you are satisfied that they meet all the requirements, then they are ready to be uploaded. You should run them through a plagiarism checker, such as TurnItIn, to ensure that there are no accidental or deliberate infringements of academic honesty. This can be done automatically on ManageBac.

Your comments on the PPF won’t be used directly to calculate the grade, but it will indicate whether your students have been supported sufficiently. Your comments can be based on:

  • The students’ role as a knower, and their particular social and cultural perspectives

  • The process of writing, rather than what has been written

  • Significant conversations that you’ve had with students

  • Challenges they have faced during the process of creating the essay

  • Key achievements within the essay

Upload essays within plenty of time of the final deadline, as technical issues do occur.