Using evidence and examples
Using evidence and examples to support your claims and counterclaims is vital, and the best sort of evidence to support claims in TOK comes from real life. We can either take it from our own personal knowledge, or from outside knowledge. Personal knowledge comes from first hand experiences we have had in our own lives; outside knowledge comes from second hand experiences we gain from news stories, documentaries, books, the internet, and so on. Obviously, there is a range of validity amongst these sources: some newspapers, for example, are reliable and objective; others are extremely sensationalist, and don’t really exist in order to convey factual information about the world. So it’s up to the student to discern which sources can be trusted, and which should be rejected.
Examples to avoid I: Hypothetical examples
Hypothetical examples are situations we either ‘make up’ or embellish in order to illustrate a point. Although they can be of use when trying informally to explain something, and may be based on completely credible and reasonable scenarios, they are not valid within a TOK essay, or even during a debate or discussion in class. The reason for this is that they tend to lead on to generalisations, without proving knowledge claims.
Because hypothetical examples are often grounded in reality, it’s not always easy to distinguish them from real life situations. You may for example, join difference scenarios you have experienced yourself to create a hypothetical one. If, for example, you know how to drive a car, and you know the sensation associated with feeling tired, and you have experienced being in a heavy storm, you may be tempted to refer to how difficult it is to drive, when tired, in a storm, even if you have never been in such a situation. Such a claim would no doubt be true, but we have to stick to the principle of only using real life situations in TOK essays and presentations.
Other examples of where the line is blurred between real and hypothetical examples is when people use the experience of friends or relatives, or put themselves into the shoes of someone they’ve read about, or use very accurate conjecture to construct situations. For more help in avoiding hypothetical examples, see section 6 of the Essay Guide.
Examples to avoid II: Anecdotal examples
You should also be careful to avoid anecdotal and informal personal experiences. Stories about relationships with boyfriends and girlfriends are shaky at best; tales involving sport and parties and alcohol are similarly unconvincing and tiresome. Instead, try to include your experiences as a learner – refer to challenges you’ve had with your extended essay, intellectual clashes you’ve had with teachers, difficulties that you’ve overcome in your Diploma courses. Keep it contemporary, as well: stories that take you back to elementary school are dubious in accuracy, and lack immediacy. Be precise about what you’re saying, and as much as possible, connected to above, try to fix your experiences with a place and date to make them more convincing.
Including the ideas of others
Your justification of the points you are making should not just be done by offering your own opinion. This is important, of course, but you also need to draw on the ideas of others, and refer to articles, studies, and theories that help us to understand the areas you are considering. The more examples you can give (assuming they are reliable and relevant examples), the stronger your argument will be.
But there’s a catch here. The word limit is quite low in the TOK essay, so don’t include so much by other people that you haven’t expressed your own thoughts. A useful rule of thumb is that within each ‘mini-conclusion’, you should only be giving your opinion, after having drawn on the ideas of others to illuminate the ideas in your argument and counter-claim. Remember to properly reference your sources, which means making sure that examiners can trace the origin of what you have used. Find out more about this in section 1 of the Essay Guide
Ask a question about the TOK essay
If you have a question about the TOK essay writing process, you can send it to us using this form. We’ll respond to the best of these, and feature them on our TOK forum.