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The Secrets to Success in the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) Essay

So, you've been handed the TOK essay titles for November 2023, and you're feeling overwhelmed. How do you even begin to approach these big, abstract questions? What are the examiners looking for? And how can you write an essay that stands out from the rest?


Don't worry – you're not alone. The TOK essay can be a daunting task, but the secret to success in the TOK essay is all about understanding what's expected of you and developing a structured approach to your writing. There are two approaches which you can take with your TOK essay:


An Unstructured Approach (NOT RECOMMENDED) – I have read a number of TOK essays that were deep, insightful and highly creative, but lacked a clear structure. Even though some of these essays read like they were written by Plato himself, this unstructured approach is not ‘reliable’ as they risk leaving the examiner stranded in an abyss of ambiguous terms, vague concepts and unclear arguments.


The IB Solved Approach – Our approach builds a structure around the key terms and intentions of the marking criteria, actively considering the perspective of the examiner and utilising a range of strategies to have your essay associated with the top band descriptors. It is a tried-and-tested method of success, developed by TOK specialist Alexander Ciarroni with an active consideration of the requirements of the new TOK course.


In this blog post, we'll walk you through the key steps to writing a winning TOK essay with the IB Solved Approach. Ready to dive in? Let's get started.


General Structure


You will notice that all TOK titles require you to consider two Areas of Knowledge (AOKs). This provides a useful structure for the essay as you can plan your essay around these two AOKs. The recommend IB Solved structure for your 1,600 word TOK Essay is:


  1. Introduction (approx. 200-250 words)

  2. AOK 1 – Perspective 1 (approx. 250 words)

  3. AOK 1 – Perspective 2 and Implications (approx. 300 words)

  4. AOK 2 – Perspective 1 (approx. 250 words)

  5. AOK 2 – Perspective 2 and Implications (approx. 300 words)

  6. Conclusion (approx. 200-250 words)


Introduction


The introduction is one of the most frequently over-complicated parts of the TOK essay. Some students like to start with a ‘quote’ related to their title. Others may prefer to give a ‘thesis statement’ which summarises their stance on the title. In any case, there is no need to be especially ‘flashy’ or to spend too long worrying about making any monumental breakthroughs in the introduction. There are only two elements which are essential for your introduction:


Define Your Key Terms – You must define any terms in the title which you believe may be ambiguous. Do not fall into the trap of arguing about possible definitions, just give concrete definitions for each term/phrase which will provide the scope of your essay.


Outline Your Perspectives and Counter-Perspectives for each AOK – We can come back to this later, once we delve into what our perspectives and counter-perspectives actually are…for now, just think of it as four simple sentences, outlining the main argument for each perspective, within each AOK.


Perspective 1


It can often be tricky to know how to start your body paragraphs, however once you have established your perspectives and counter-perspectives, it can become very simple.


But what is a perspective?


In the top band of the marking criteria, it states “there is clear awareness and evaluation of different points of view”. This suggests that you cannot only argue one side of the TOK title, but you must explore multiple different sides…hence the two perspectives! Each perspective is a ‘take’ on the title and each should be relatively opposed to each other.


Learn More: Unpacking the 2023 November TOK Titles


Essentially, each paragraph will be exploring a new perspective, with two perspectives for each AOK. But what do we put into that paragraph? There are a few key components to help structure your paragraph with consideration of the marking criteria:

1. Topic Sentence – This sentence should encapsulate your perspective and use the words of your title. This is essential, as another key feature of the marking criteria is a “sustained focus on the title” which is “linked effectively to areas of knowledge”.

  • Example (Title 4: November 2023) – “Within the Natural Sciences, it can be problematic for knowledge to be shaped by the values of its producer, as this can lead to biases and inaccuracies in the production of knowledge.”


2. Argument (TOK Theory) – This should be 3-4 sentences elaborating on your perspective, utilising the knowledge framework, key concepts and other elements of the TOK course. This is an opportunity for you to introduce your perspective and your argument within the specific AOK which you are discussing. No examples are to be implemented at this stage, although there may be theories, philosophers or other secondary material which may help you make your point.

  • Example (Title 1: November 2023) – “Facts alone are necessary for the production of knowledge in the Natural Sciences, as this area of knowledge is heavily dependent upon testing and falsification. The concept of falsification was pioneered by…”


3. SPECIFIC Example – Within the marking criteria, it is stated in the top band that “Arguments are clear, coherent and effectively supported by specific examples.” Particular emphasis is given to the term “specific” which is a differentiating feature of ‘top band’ essays.

  • Generic Example: COVID-19

  • Specific Example: A specific doctor, politician, piece of legislation or issue related to COVID-19

  • Generic Example: Pseudoscience

  • Specific Example: A specific pseudoscientific theory or research paper that was shown to be pseudoscience

  • Generic Example: Depression

  • Specific Example: A more niche disorder which illustrates your point, or even a more specific case or research paper on depression which is unique


4. Connect the Example to the Argument – Whilst this should be done throughout your explanation of the example, it is highly effective to add an extra linking sentence at the end which demonstrates the relevance of the specific example you have utilised and the way it supports your argument


  • Example (Title 3: November 2023) – “Therefore, the claims made by former President Trump that ingesting disinfectant can provide a cure to COVID-19 and the adoption of this method by some Americans reveal the danger in ignoring experts completely, as knowers without expertise are susceptible to manipulation by popular figures.”


5. Concluding Sentence – This is often similar to your topic sentence, again utilising the key words of the title and reiterating your overall argument for this perspective.


Perspective 2 and Implications


The best part about this structure is that it is highly replicable for each paragraph. For Perspective 2 in each AOK, you can follow the same structure as Perspective 1…but what are these implications?


Well so far, we have covered 3/4 of the elements of the marking criteria (sustained focus on the title with links to AOKS, arguments clear, cohesive and supported by specific examples and clear awareness and evaluation of different points of view). However, other than the concept of “specific” vs “non-specific examples” and some subjective descriptive words such as a “focus” vs “sustained focus” on the title, it can seem tricky to figure out what differentiates a 5-6/10 essay from a 9-10/10 essay. That is where these implications come in – you’ll notice that there is an entire sentence which is only in the top band, stating, “the implications of arguments are considered.” So what does this actually mean?


Think of it like this – for 90% of your essay, you will either be arguing one perspective or its counterpart, but it is only through your implications that you are able to tie these two perspectives together to draw a ‘mini-conclusion’ for each AOK. Without drawing implications, the examiner won’t know how your two perspectives can work together…so your job is to show how your two perspectives can both be right!


  • Example (Title 3: November 2023) – “Therefore, whilst ignoring experts completely is more problematic for the acquisition of knowledge by knowers who may rely on unsupported claims, following them blindly is more dangerous for the production of knowledge over time, hindering the progression of scientific knowledge.”


And that’s it for the body of the essay! The same structure for Perspective 1, Perspective 2 and the Implications can be repeated across the two AOKs.


Conclusion


The conclusion of the TOK essay should mirror the introduction. Once again, there is no need to overcomplicate this paragraph, rather you merely need to show a clear evaluation of the perspectives which you have explored, reflected through the implications you have drawn. Much like the introduction, there are only two essential components to your conclusion:


Thesis Statement – Draw an overall conclusion on the title which encapsulates the mini-conclusions/implications you have drawn for each AOK.


Restate Your Perspective (but now, add your Implications) – You should restate each perspective which you explored within each AOK, except now we add in the implications that have been drawn. This shows that your essay has presented consistent and clear arguments which have followed throughout the essay, to draw your conclusion on the title.


 

So there you have it – the secrets to success in the TOK essay! By following the IB Solved Approach, you can guarantee that your essay is clear, well-structured and addresses the marking criteria to give you the best chance of maximising your marks.


And if you're still feeling overwhelmed or unsure about how to proceed, don't worry - our team of experienced IB tutors is here to help. Whether you need help brainstorming ideas, formulating your perspectives and examples, or simply need some further guidance on how to approach your TOK essay, our IB tutors are here to support you every step of the way. And with online IB tutoring available, you can receive the support you need no matter where you are in the world.


Contact us today to learn more about our IB tutoring and take the first step towards achieving your academic dreams and securing your future!


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