Supervising the TOK essay

Supervising the TOK essay

Supervising the TOK essay is one of the most challenging part of the theory of knowledge course for you as a teacher. The IB is fairly clear about the extent to which you can help students during the process of writing, stating first of all that your role is to ‘encourage and support’ students, provide them with ‘advice on and guidance’ about essay writing skills, and check that they have completed the essay without any outside help.
It then goes on to state that teachers are allowed to ‘discuss’ the essay titles, and that you may read through a first draft, and provide comments on it, though not edit it for students. One caveat to this last point is that students writing in a second or third language may be provided with more grammatical assistance.

Essay practice

Get in plenty of essay writing with your students during the first year of the course. They should have the structure of TOK essays drilled into them – ie introduction, argument, counterclaim, and conclusion – as well as understanding that the core of both the essay and the presentation is a discussion of knowledge questions. If they’ve written journals during the course, this will aid them immeasurably in figuring out what we mean by the term ‘knowledge question’. In addition, they should be very familiar with all the other key elements of TOK essay writing, such as backing up points with real life examples (NOT hypothetical ones!), using the language of TOK, comparing and contrasting the different elements of the subject, and considering different perspectives.

When to give the prescribed titles?

There is some debate over when in the course you should provide your students with the essay titles. One school of thought has it that if you give them the essays too early in the course, they will focus only on information relevant to that single essay title, and will not consider anything beyond that. The other school of though believes that as soon as you have the essay titles, you should pass them on to your students, to give them the same chance of success as any other IBDP student in the world.
Your choice may depend on the type of student you deal with: personally, I have had little experience of students who don’t follow a last minute approach to assignments, so believe that even if you do give them the list early on, they will continue on as they would have done otherwise. I am careful not to structure my classes around the essay titles, but I do draw attention to resources we encounter that may help in the writing of a particular essay, and questions and knowledge questions that cover similar ground to any of the 10 questions.

Choosing the right title

We all teach the course in a different way, and we all have areas of particular expertise that we may have spent more time indulging. In other words, your students will inevitably be more prepared for some essay titles than for others. Also, the ease with which titles can be answered varies significantly, with some questions providing themselves with a ready-made structure, and others seeming to demand a more contrived form of answer. You may have the perfect resource ready for one question, and be hard-pushed to come up with anything for another. This means that serious discussion needs to be done over the correct essay title. Just like the Extended Essay, choosing a title that is understood properly is half the battle. This can be done by going through each title with your TOK classes, and asking the students how they would hypothetically structure their answer, in terms of introduction, arguments, counterclaims, and conclusions. They more they know about a title, the more they should be encouraged to select it.

Resources for the essay

Remind your students about relevant resources that you have provided them with during the course. Tell them to look through the glossary of TOK ideas, and the page on key TOK thinkers, and highlight every term or person relevant to the areas of knowledge and ways of knowing that they choose for their prescribed title. Our Facebook page, which has links to around thousands of real life situations as well as a forum which discusses TOK-related issues. They can also subscribe to the free monthly newsletter, which goes into more depth on these real life situations. Many schools have also taken out subscriptions to the , which provides a huge amount of support when it comes to drawing on real life situations for the essay and presentation, and looking at different perspectives and implications.

Translating the assessment criteria

The assessment criteria for 2015 onwards has seen the criteria reduced from 4 down to 2. These focus on an understanding of knowledge questions, and a the quality of analysis of knowledge questions. For the first of these, this means offering clearly articulated points, and a consideration of different perspectives. For the second, students should be supporting assertions with reference to strong real life situations, and considering the implications of their arguments. Key words associated with an essay in the top marking band are:


The good news is that the pared down version of the assessment descriptors mean that students won’t be quite as confused as they once were. The bad news is that this arguably also means there’s less guidance in terms of what is expected. Definitions for the key words, for example, aren’t provided, so you’ll have to hope that what you regard as ‘accomplished’ and ‘compelling’ is the same as what the examiner does.

A personal service

Try to meet with each student at least three times during the course of the essay writing process. This means one meeting to discuss the title they have chosen, and to keep a record of what each student is doing, a second meeting to give back their first draft, and a final meeting about a month before the final deadline to discuss any potential problems that they have encountered. Clearly, the earlier you pass on the essay titles, the easier it is for you to organize three meetings with each of your students. Give them a final checklist if you think it will be useful (see below).

Commonly made mistakes

There are many, many things that students mistakenly do, and which teachers sometimes miss, so it’s impossible to come up with even a half-comprehensive list here. Some of the most common include:

  1. Not including a good mixture of both personal and investigated real examples.
  2. Drawing on hypothetical examples in order to back up a point. Examples must be real!
  3. Not thinking beyond a single perspective.
  4. Mistaking the nature of certain elements of the course. Perhaps the most glaring example of this is treating ‘history’ as ‘the past’, rather than the study of the past.


TOK essay: final checklist

The following checklist can prove quite useful for students on the verge of submitting their final version of the essay

  1. Have you read and understood all the different criteria for assessment? Really?
  2. Does your essay number between 1200 and 1600 words? (it should be far nearer 1600 than 1200!)
  3. Have you organized your essay into an introduction, 2-3 knowledge issues, and a conclusion?
  4. Is your introduction concise, with a discussion of what the title means, and a brief plan of how your essay will tackle the question?
  5. Are your knowledge questions organized CLEARLY (using linking sentences) into claims and counterclaims?
  6. Have you referred explicitly to the different AOKs and WOKs, and provided links between them?
  7. Have you used personal examples, specifically from your experiences as an ‘IB learner’?
  8. Have you used well-referenced examples that you have found out about from beyond the classroom (articles, documentaries, books, the ideas of thinkers, etc.)?
  9. Have you considered other perspectives and points of view?
  10. Is your conclusion consistent with the rest of your essay?


Support for TOK educators

Our email consultation support offers instant peace of mind to educators who are teaching the course for the first time, and are still not 100% confident about TOK. From queries on how to mark an individual essay, to strategies to engage an entire cohort of students, we can provide you with expert advice, whenever and wherever you like. Find out more here.

The TOK Essay Guide for teachers

The THIRD edition of our hugely popular gives advice on helping your students to structure and write their TOK essay, deal with knowledge questions, and draw on perspectives and implications. It also assesses the challenges of each prescribed title, talks about how the assessment criteria have changed, and gives tips on supporting your students. $34.99, electronic publication.


Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. Supervising the TOK essay (30th May 2013). Last accessed: 20th March 2018


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