Disclaimer: The following advice is my personal advice to my students and not approved by the IB (or by anybody else). TOK examiners may have a different opinion on these issues. Use the information at your own risk.
1. Can I use the word “I” in the essay? Can I write the essay in first person?
The TOK essay is a personal essay. Yes, you can use the word “I”, but you do not have to. As a matter of fact, this may even be useful if you give personal examples. Still, do not forget that the TOK essay is a formal essay. Do make sure that the essay uses a formal language nevertheless.
2. Do I have to do research? Do I need a bibliography?
No, research is not required according to the criteria, but it may be helpful. The TOK Essay is not a research essay, it is an argumentative essay. You will not get points for only summarizing other people’s ideas. You get points for analysis and for understanding of these ideas. If you do use quotes or other people’s ideas, then you must give a proper bibliography, of course (as a matter of fact, points will be taken off otherwise).
3. How important is the introduction?
The introduction is one of the most important paragraphs of the essay. It lays the foundation of the essay and guides the reader. If the intro is not clear, then the reader may have problems following your thoughts. An unclear introduction may also be a sign that you, the author, are not fully clear of the ideas yourself.
4. What should be included in the introduction?
For students who have no idea on how to start the introduction, I would recommend to do the following (this is not written in the assessment criteria, it is a personal advice, read the disclaimer at the top of the page!):
- First, explain the prescribed title. What is the problem implied by the title? If you have difficulties with this (or if you simply repeat the title) then this may be an indication that the problem of knowledge is not clear to you. Explain key terms of the prescribed title, but do not give me dictionary definitions and do not simply summarize TOK theory.
- Second, answer the prescribed title question. Force yourself to do this. If you can not do this, it can be a warning sign that you are not clear of what you are going to say in the essay. Answer the question in a differentiated way, a clear answer may not simply be a yes/no answer. It can also be a “yes, but…” or “no, but…” answer. Try to complete the following line: “In this essay I will show that…”. If you do not want to use the “I” word, then you can reformulate the sentence: “In this essay it will be shown that…”. The answer to the title question is your thesis. It should tie the essay together and make it easier for the reader to follow the essay. The thesis should also help the author to answer the title question.
- Third, tell the reader which areas of knowledge and which ways of knowing you will use in the essay. Do not use too many areas (there is the danger that you can not cover everything in depth) and do not use too few.
5. Should I define important terms in the introduction?
Clarify the terminology, explain the prescribed title question, but do not give me a dictionary definition. All too many students simply quote from the dictionary or from the TOK book without being clear what the term means in relation to the prescribed title. Again, you do not get points for quoting ideas, you get points for analyzing the ideas.
6. Should I use TOK theory?
Yes, do use TOK theory but make sure that you use it to answer the prescribed title question. Analyze and reflect on the theory. In the past I have read too many essays which simply summarize TOK theory without any connection to the title. You do not get points for the summary, you get points for analysis, reflection and application of the TOK theory. If you write a whole paragraph explaining the different approaches to ethics, or if you start to explain what knowledge or truth is, then you are already on the wrong path.
7. What examples should I use?
Include personal examples from your own life, include examples from different areas and explain them. Do not use generic text-book examples. This just shows that you could not think of an example yourself. Overused examples include:
- Science: The flat earth vs. round earth example (there are more current, and more exciting examples from science)
- Math: 2+2=4 (I think many students choose this example because they read George Orwell’s novel “1984”, it’s slowly getting boring…)
- Logics: “All men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal.” (not again….. It’s so easy to invent your own examples)
- Language: “The Inuit have 100 different words for snow.” (Actually this is an urban legend and not even correct. Do some research first).
- Ethics: “Is it right to steal if your family is starving?” (Don’t tell me that you were ever confronted with this particular situation. Honestly, were you never ever confronted with an ethical dilemma yourself?)
8. How many counter arguments do I need?
This is not a question of quantity, but of quality, but you must include them. Sometimes people confuse counter arguments with contradictions. They build up an argument and then say that it’s not correct without going into depth. This confuses the reader.
9. I do not understand the prescribed titles! They are too abstract, too “philosophical”. What should I do?
What you need is a structured approach in analyzing the prescribed titles. My recommendation is as follows:
- What type of answer does the title ask for? Is it a “yes/no” answer, an “evaluate” answer, a “to what extent” answer? There are not many possibilities. Underline or highlight these words.
- Are there any (TOK) terms that need to be defined or clarified? Identify them.
- Try to identify a conflict/problem in the title. Why is this an issue in the first place? Different people will answer the prescribed title differently. Why? Because there is a problem of knowedge hidden in the title. This one you should try to identify.
- Is the title asking you to compare different areas of knowledge and ways of knowing? Which ones? If it does not explicitly mention these, then ask yourself which areas of knowledge/ways of knowing are most appropriate to answer the title.