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The TOK Essay is the second of two assessments for TOK. There will be a set of Prescribed Titles issued by the IB for each examination season. Students are required to produce an essay of a maximum of 1600 words in response to one of those titles. Unlike the presentation/exhibition, this is an external assessment, and all essays will be sent to the IB examiners for marking. The essay accounts for ⅔ (roughly 67%) of the final grade.

Examples of past titles include:

  • Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not” (Pablo Picasso). Explore this distinction with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  • Does it matter that your personal circumstances influence how seriously your knowledge is taken?
  • “Accepting knowledge claims always involves an element of trust.” Discuss this claim with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  • “Labels are a necessity in the organization of knowledge, but they also constrain our understanding.” Discuss this statement with reference to two areas of knowledge.
  • Shared knowledge often changes over time. Does this fact undermine our confidence in current shared knowledge?

 

So what makes a good essay? Well, as with any essay, it’s always a good idea to take a look at the marking rubrics, so that you know exactly what the examiners are looking out for, and can give it to them. Here are the official requirements for a 10-point essay:

Does the student provide a clear, coherent and critical exploration of the essay title?
Excellent
9-10
Good
7-8
Satisfactory
5-6
Basic
3-4
Rudimentary
1-2
0
The discussion has a sustained focus on the title and is linked effectively to areas of knowledge.
Arguments are clear, coherent and effectively supported by specific examples. The implications of arguments are considered.
There is clear awareness and evaluation of different points of view.
The discussion is focused on the title and is linked effectively to areas of knowledge.
Arguments are clear, coherent and supported by examples.
There is awareness and some evaluations of different points of view.
The discussion is focused on the title and is developed with some links to areas of knowledge.
Arguments are offered and are supported by examples.
There is some awareness of different points of view.
The discussion is connected to the title and makes superficial or limited links to areas of knowledge.
The discussion is largely descriptive. Limited arguments are offered but they are unclear and are not supported by effective examples.
The discussion is weakly connected to the title.
While there may be links to the areas of knowledge, any relevant points are descriptive or consists only of unsupported assertions.
The discussion does not reach the standard described by the other levels or is not a response to one of the prescribed titles for the correct examination session.
Possible characteristics
Insightful
Convincing
Accomplished
Lucid
Pertinent
Relevant
Analytical
Organised
Acceptable
Mainstream
Adequate
Competent
Underdeveloped
Basic
Superficial
Limited
Ineffective
Descriptive
Incoherent
Formless

 

As you can see, the requirements for a TOK essay are fairly straightforward:

  • Focus on answering the essay question as given. Do not twist it into a different question altogether and start answering that. Teachers will often encourage the inclusion of sub or secondary knowledge questions, but the answers to such questions should ultimately serve the purpose of helping to answer the overarching main question. If they do not, they are off-topic. More on this later.
  • Your exploration of a given topic should be done in the context of at least two different Areas of Knowledge (AOKs). TOK distinguishes between eight areas of knowledge: math, natural sciences, human sciences, the arts, history, ethics, religious knowledge systems, and indigenous knowledge systems.
  • Make sure that you illustrate your points with specific examples from your chosen AOKs.
  • Consider what your conclusions on specific points might mean for the nature of knowledge both in that specific AOK and for knowledge in general.
  • You should have claims and counterclaims, as well as an evaluation of which side holds more weight. Note that it is generally a good idea to stay away from extremes, and you can and should formulate a conclusion that has nuance. Examiners are not likely to be impressed if you try to argue that historians are involved in an irrational pursuit solely to further personal and political ends; or that that which is not absolute, certain, or universal is automatically marginalized, biased, or unsound; or that the senses cannot be trusted at all and emotions distort understanding. It is perfectly acceptable to say that in general something works, but that issues can occur for specific reasons, or that certain points apply more to specific AOKs due to specific features of those AOKs, while they may be less applicable to other AOKs due to their differing objectives, structure, or subject matter. Do not feel the need to challenge at any cost the basic foundations of knowledge; such attempts tend to be wholly unconvincing and ultimately accomplish very little.
  • Note that there is no requirement for style or accurate spelling and use of vocabulary. In fact, examiners are explicitly instructed not to take such things into account in their evaluation of an essay. That said, it is, in practice, extremely difficult to entirely ignore such considerations in one’s evaluation, for the simple reason that quality of writing affects comprehensibility. If your writing is filled with errors or is overly convoluted, readers will struggle to understand you, and your arguments will not receive the marks they deserve.

 

Lastly, to return to the topic of sub-knowledge questions, the opening sentence of the description in the rubric used to be worded as follows: “There is a sustained focus on knowledge questions connected to the prescribed title”. This has led to a great deal of confusion in students and teachers alike, and countless misguided attempts to extract an entirely new knowledge question from the original essay title. It was–and often still is–such a big problem that the IB examiners have reprinted the following paragraphs in their examiners’ reports every year since 2014:

In all […] cases, the task is to respond to the title exactly as it has been presented. Under no circumstances should the candidate immediately present a knowledge question (“my knowledge question is…”) such that it appears as if the title has been replaced by it. The essay task is not about “finding” a central knowledge question to which the rest of the essay is a response […]

In order to construct a successful response to the title, it will be necessary to establish at least tentative or partial or provisional answers to a number of related questions as the essay unfolds […]

 

What the examiners are referring to here is the fact that, over the course of answering a question, it often becomes necessary to discuss, clarify, and/or establish an opinion on certain smaller topics that then go on to form the foundations for the rest of the discussion. To use an extremely simplistic analogy, let us say that I wanted to find out the answer to the question, “Is this knife good?”. Before I could even begin to answer that question, it would first be necessary to answer the question of what I even meant by the word “good” in this context, and by what benchmarks I was measuring goodness. Good for slicing sushi? Good for playing baseball? Good in terms of quality of craftsmanship? Good in a moral sense? Only when I have established an answer to that question can I then begin to construct an argument to answer the original question of “Is this knife good?”

 

As the report says:

Ideally, such questions and the discussions that they inspire can be organized into a logical sequence such that they form the backbone of the essay – each contributing to the overall answer to the prescribed title. The content of each paragraph might constitute a response to one of these questions. Hence such knowledge questions can act as markers in the development of the argument and pave the way from title to conclusion. As described here, the identification or formulation of these questions can play a crucial role in the exploration and planning phases of the essay task, and when the final essay is constructed it may not be necessary or desirable to the flow of the arguments for the questions to be stated explicitly. A sequence of paragraphs each prefaced by “my next knowledge question is…” does not read well and is likely to appear disjointed.

 

So, in summary, knowledge questions are NOT “alternatives” to the title, and they are best thought of as aids to the exploring and planning processes such that they become woven into the analysis but not necessarily stated explicitly in the final essay.

Need help with your IB TOK Essay?

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Jessica W.

Jessica W.

A former college debater, Jessica holds a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from the National University of Singapore, with a specialization in human behaviour and ethics. Before joining Prep Zone, she spent 5 years as a senior trainer with training and consulting company Rieink, where she designed and delivered workshops on leadership, communication, and job skills. Using her experience, Jessica has guided countless students on their Theory of Knowledge (TOK) essay and presentation, helping them score well in TOK.

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