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Finding a Question

There are several ways to approach a history extended essay:

a.  First, you could choose a topic that’s been well-written about. Make sure this topic has many different interpretations. Your job will be to    analyze these interpretations and decide which interpretation you agree with and why.

Example:  To what extent was blank the cause of WWI?

For this topic, you would explain how your specific blank was a cause of World War I. You would either come to the conclusion that this factor was a cause or merely a catalyst. Then, in your conclusion you would give a few other major causes of WWI and state that these other factors also helped lead to WWI.

    b. Another possibility is coming up with a completely new interpretation or fusing two interpretations. In this type
    of essay, you would need to explain the flaws you found in other interpretations and explain why you think your
    interpretation is superior.

    c. Another possibility is finding something that hardly anyone has written about. Your job would be collect
    first-hand accounts and interpret them.

Example:  To what extent did Fourierism lead to the downfall of the utopian community, Brook Farm?

In this essay, you would have to compile many different first-hand sources (i.e. the ledger, letters from members the  community, minutes from important meetings, diary entries, etc.) and analyze them. You would then decide how important this philosophy was in leading to the downfall of that community.


Examples and suggestions directly from IB:


These subject guidelines should be read in conjunction with the IB extended essay general guidelines.


An extended essay in history or history of the Islamic world (for the rest of this section, ‘history’ will be taken to include both subjects) should provide
candidates with the opportunity to undertake an in-depth study of a limited topic containing a
valid historical question.

Choice of Topic

The words ‘valid historical question’ in the introduction are meant to imply that the topic chosen must lend itself to systematic investigation in line with the published assessment criteria, and must be a topic to do with the human past. An extended essay is an in-depth investigation of a focused issue, and the systematic and disciplined development of an argument or thesis following the conventions of scholarly writing.  An extended essay in history is not a narrative exposition, a descriptive composition, a biographical chronicle or a factual report.  It is not a requirement for the topic of an extended essay in history to be chosen from the IB history programme, or related in any way to the regional option being studied by higher level candidates.  The topic chosen must avoid a focus on the time span of the last ten years. One reason for this is that hindsight is seen as important in history; history and current affairs are different.  However, history can aid understanding of recent happenings, and some reference in extended essays in history to recent developments and happenings, if relevant and done effectively, can contribute to demonstrating historical understanding. The topic chosen should provide opportunities for some critical analysis of sources. Topics which are entirely dependent on summarizing general secondary sources (such as textbooks and encyclopedias) and topics likely to lead to an essay which is essentially narrative or descriptive in nature should be avoided.

Choosing a broad topic which covers a long period of time is unlikely to result in a successful essay. Restricting the scope of the essay will help to ensure a clear focus. It will provide opportunities for demonstrating not only knowledge, but also critical analysis, and historical judgment and understanding. The following examples of titles for history extended essays are intended as guidance only. The pairings illustrate that focused topics (indicated by the first title) should be encouraged rather than broad topics (indicated by the second title).

        Explanations of the collapse of the Mayan civilization is better than The Mayan civilization.

        Varying interpretations of the Salem witch trials is better than Witch trials in North America.

        What does ‘Mein Kampf’ tell us about Hitler? is better than Adolf Hitler.

        Use of the visual arts in fascist propaganda is better than Fascist propaganda.

        An analysis of the first five-year plans of Mao Zedong and Stalin is better than Five-year plans in the USSR and China.

        The role of the Pan-African movement in the downfall of Kwame Nkrumah in
is better than Kwame Nkrumah.

Treatment of the Topic
Candidates must choose a research question that is susceptible to effective treatment within the word limit and is not of a trivial nature. Research questions that do not allow a systematic investigation that demonstrates critical analysis, historical judgement and understanding, are unlikely to be suitable in history. In some instances, there may be too few sources available to permit such an investigation; sometimes there may be adequate sources but no possibility of achieving the other requirements.  Many different approaches to the research question can be appropriate in
history, including:  use of primary source material for a case study or local history project, possibly leading to a comparison of local and national developments using primary and secondary sources in order to establish and then appraise varying interpretations studies involving critical analysis and interpretation of documents, including important acts and treaties analysing sources (primary and/or secondary; historical and/or popular
publications) in search of changing views, over time, of particular happenings or developments  explaining and considering varying interpretations identified through a study of secondary sources collecting and analysing data from family, friends and/or neighbours in order to establish past happenings, again possibly leading to a comparison of local and national happenings.

Some examples of titles and approaches chosen in the past are:

Title: Varying interpretations of the Salem witch trials
Approach: Background reading, enabling identification and explanation of two dominant theories as to why the trials took place; appraisal of the merits of the two theories using data obtained about the accused and the accusers.

Title: The influence of the national socialist ideology on the German school system, 1937-1939.
Approach: Reading to make possible a summary of National Socialist ideology and curriculum proposals; use of primary sources (teachers’ records) to establish how far the proposed changes were put into practice in one school, 1937-1939.

Title: The 1975 Treaty of Waitangi Act and the Waitangi tribunal: how far did they faithfully pursue the aims and the text of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi?
Approach: General reading for historical introduction. Analysis of documents mentioned in the title, and consideration of views of historians, in order to produce an informed and well-founded historical judgement.

Title: Cuba’s changing view of the 1962 missile crisis
Approach: General reading for historical introduction. Reading as many
Cuban sources as possible (primary and secondary) to establish and explain changes in
views of the 1962 missile crisis in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Candidates need to be able to evaluate relevant sources and data with skill and understanding.  In history, effective evaluation can be demonstrated through considering, for example: the origins of sources used (who were the authors? what were their intentions? is it likely that any of the sources have been altered?)  the usefulness and reliability of the sources.  The value and reliability of sources should not be taken for granted in extended essays in history, especially when the authenticity of some of the sources is questionable.  Candidates should aim to produce a convincing argument which addresses the research question, and is well developed, well organized and clearly expressed. Good argument, whatever the topic of the essay, will have these qualities. On the other hand, opportunities for evaluation will vary with the topic; clearly some topics will be more controversial in nature than others and so offer more opportunities for consideration of different interpretations. In history it is, of course, particularly important that any evaluation is not subjective, and candidates will also gain more credit for assessing varying interpretations than they will for reporting them.


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