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Extended Essay (IB): The Inquiry Process

To guide IB students through the Extended Essay process. New format for September 2020.


Using the FOSIL Cycle to guide you during the EE process will help you to structure your inquiry and make sure you don't miss key stages - and end up needing to work twice as hard! Based on the Stripling Cycle of Inquiry, the FOSIL cycle rests on a solid background of internationally recognised research into how to conduct inquiry effectively.

The FOSIL Cycle


Connect Drawing on what you might already know in order to better understand what you do not yet know.

During Connect you will be doing a great deal of background research and reading. The beginning of this stage is discussed in the Choosing a topic tab of the General EE Guide, but even once you have chosen your topic you will still need to do a fair amount of exploring before you are ready to understand what a good question in this area might look like. Use the guidance in the Finding and selecting sources tab of this subject guide to help you find suitable sources.

This is the point at which you will begin to generate the vital list of keywords to guide your search, which you will use, revisit and revise throughout the Investigate stage of your inquiry.

During this initial stage you might expect to feel a bit uncertain and confused. This will get better as you work through your background research and your thinking becomes more focussed and less vague.


Wonder circleIdentifying those questions that will best guide your investigation.

You do not begin the inquiry process with a question - you start with a topic you are interested in and then generate questions around that. Your main inquiry question is likely to shift and change as you proceed through the Investigate stage, but you should expect to have settled on your exact question by the time you start Constructing your understanding.

You can find further guidance in the Developing a line of inquiry tab of this guide.

As your knowledge of your topic grows and you start to generate your own questions, you are likely to start feeling more optimistic about your essay.


Investigate circleKnowing what scholarly resources are available and being able to use them effectively.

Not all resources are suitable for an academic essay, and you should always evaluate the resources you choose for Currency, Relevance, Accuracy, Authority and Purpose. Don't waste your time working with unreliable resources that you cannot cite in your assessed work. You will find guidance in the Finding and selecting sources tab of this guide on: where to find suitable, reputable sources for you subject; how to evaluate them; how to make and organise effective notes; and what information you should be collecting along the way in order to be able to reference your sources properly when you come to write-up your research.

Once you get going you may realise how much you still don't know and that you still have some work to do to focus your question and make your task more manageable. It is normal to feel some confusion, frustration and doubt at this stage.


ConstructBuilding an accurate understanding based on factual evidence.

As you process the information you have found, you will begin to develop a new understanding of your topic and start to work your way towards answering your question. As your understanding grows, you may still need to seek new information to fill in any gaps - research is a messy back-and-forth process! However, at a certain point you will need to stop Investigating and work on building a coherent argument. You wil find support for this in the Working with ideas tab of this guide. Remember that you will be working with the ideas of others in order to develop your own, and it is important to reference clearly to show where the ideas come from.

At this point you might expect to feel clarity, direction and confidence as your thoughts become more focussed and your goal is now in sight.


Express circleMaking the most complelling case given your evidence and audience.

Now it's finally time to start writing! Make sure you follow all the IB guidelines on how to present your work (in the EE guide, or subject guides), write in a suitable style for a piece of academic work and reference all your sources correctly. You can find guidance on all of this, including ICT helpsheets, in the Expressing your ideas tab in this guide.

At this stage, depending on how well you completed the previous stages you are likely to be feeling either relief and satisfaction, or disappointment.


Reflect circleEvaluating how you have worked and what you have produced.

While there is a place for reflecting on your work once it is complete, reflection should also be happening all the way through your inquiry. Don't wait until you have finished and it is too late to change anything before making use of the resources in the Reflecting tab! For the EE the IB requires three formal reflection sessions - one early in the process, one part-way through and a final viva voce. However, it is also strongly recommended that you make use of a Researcher's Reflection Space to structure your inquiry and help you "to show evidence of intellectual growth, critical and personal development, intellectual initiative and creativity" (EE Guide: Reflection in the extended essay). Have a look in the Reflecting tab for ideas.

By the time you have finished your inquiry (and, in the case of your EE, reached your viva voce) you should have a well-deserved sense of accomplishment and an increased self-awareness which will prepare you for the next academic challenge you meet.

The Information Search Process

The Information Search Process


Professor Carol Kuhlthau's Information Search Process is based on years of research into how students undertake inquiry and what they are feeling, thinking and doing at different stages. Here we have combined it with FOSIL (itself a product of years of research by Professor Barbara Stripling) and Oakham School's EE timetable, to give you a sense of what you might expect to be feeling, thinking and doing at the different stages of the process.


The Information Search Process (by Carol Kuhlthau) is based on research about what inquirers are likely to be feeling, thinking and doing at different stages of the inquiry process. Understanding this can help you to navigate your way through the process.

Knowing when in process you might expect to feel confused and frustrated, for example, helps you to anticipate, recognise and embrace this as a necessary stage that you need to pass through to reach the feelings confidence, satisfaction and accomplishment that come with a job well done. It also helps you to know when you might need some extra help and support - either from an expert such as your supervisor or a member of Library staff, or from a friend or family member who can just give you a bit of encouragement when you need it.

In this table we have integrated this with the FOSIL Cycle and the EE process to help you locate yourself more easily.

The IB's 12 step EE process

The IB introduce research and writing with this 12-step process, which ends with the collection of information. Have a look also at The Inquiry Process tab in this LibGuide to see a simpler structure that covers the whole process, not just a part. Notice the emphasis on background reading, time-management and frequent reflection in a Researcher's Reflection Space.

(Image from The IB Extended Essay Guide: The Research and Writing Process)

IB 12 Step Research Process


Work smarter, not harder!

The FOSIL Cycle is based on the Stripling Cycle of Inquiry and so rests on a solid background of internationally recognised research into how to conduct inquiry effectively.

Using the FOSIL Cycle to guide you during the any inquiry process (EEs, IAs, 'research prep' or just whenever you are learning something new) will help you to structure your inquiry and make sure you don't miss key stages - and end up needing to work twice as hard!

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