TOK is a course that is much greater than the sum of its parts, but ultimately students are evaluated on two final assessment tasks. At the end of DP1, they create a TOK exhibition, and in DP2, they write a 1600-word essay.
Check out our short videos outlining key aspects of the tasks in our TOK explainer playlist.
At the heart of TOK is the concept of ‘knowledge questions’, or ‘KQs’. These are, as the name suggests, questions about the way in which we produce and use knowledge, and they help us to link the real world to the world of TOK.
The key to understanding knowledge questions is to divide them into two different types: first-order, and second-order knowledge questions. The former ask direct questions about the world, and the latter ask questions about how we know about the world. In TOK, of course, we are more interested in second-order knowledge questions. The table below shows the difference between these two forms.
The TOK essay
There are five different assessment skills which candidates are expected to demonstrate. Here’s what students need to do to place their essay in the ‘excellent’ band on the rubric:
- Making links to TOK The discussion is linked very effectively to the AOKs
- Understanding perspectives There is a clear awareness shown of different points of view, and these are evaluated
- Offering an effective argument Arguments are clear and coherent, and are effectively supported by specific examples
- Keeping discussion relevant The discussion offers a sustained focus on the title
- Considering implications Implications of arguments are considered
Formative assessment tasks for the essay
You should practice the five skills identified above in normal lesson contexts, via discussions, short written tasks, and group activities. But you should also think about setting specific formative assessment tasks, which you formally assess, and use as a way of familiarizing students with what’s required to create an effective TOK essay. Members have access to two practice essay tasks, which you can use to prepare students for the final essay task.
Level 5 assessment characteristics – the essay
Within the assessment instrument, you’ll also find words identified that characterize an excellent assessment task. These are:
We suggest that you draw on these words to give feedback during the formative assessment tasks, and during the course in general, so that students are able to calibrate accurately what is meant by each one. You can consult the full assessment instrument in the TOK guide to see the qualities of other mark bands.
Writing the essay
Writing the TOK essay is one of the most difficult challenges that students face during the whole of the DP. The prescribed essay titles are conceptually difficult to grasp, and although the assessment instrument has been clarified for the 2022 syllabus, there is still considerable debate over what it is looking for. The word limit is restrictive, so it’s tricky for students to fit in all their ideas. Added to all this is the fact that students will be doing other IAs and the EE, so they’ll be overworked, and stress levels will be high.
However, if your students have done meaningful formative assessment tasks, the essay-writing process is approached in a step-by-step way, the pressure will be eased considerably. Here’s a suggestion of how that can work in practice (members will find each of these steps explained in a lot more detail):
- Introduce the task
- Clarify what’s being assessed
- Unpack the PTs
- Begin the interactions
- Create and check the essay plan
- Write and check the draft essay
- Complete and upload the PPF
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.
TOK essay: final checklist
The following checklist can prove quite useful for students on the verge of submitting their final version of the essay
- Have you read and understood all the different criteria for assessment? Really?
- Does your essay number between 1200 and 1600 words? (it should be far nearer 1600 than 1200!)
- Have you organized your essay into an introduction, 2-3 knowledge issues, and a conclusion?
- Is your introduction concise, with a discussion of what the title means, and a brief plan of how your essay will tackle the question?
- Have you referred explicitly to the different AOKs, and provided links between them?
- Have you used personal examples, specifically from your experiences as an ‘IB learner’?
- Have you used well-referenced examples that you have found out about from beyond the classroom (articles, documentaries, books, the ideas of thinkers, etc.)?
- Have you considered other perspectives and points of view?
- Is your conclusion consistent with the rest of your essay?
The TOK exhibition
There are four different assessment skills which candidates are expected to demonstrate. Here’s what students need to do to place their exhibition in the ‘excellent’ band on the rubric.
- Interlinking ideas It clearly and explicitly explains the links between the objects and the IA prompt, and explicit references are made to the selected IA prompt.
- Justifying ideas There is a strong justification why the objects have been chosen for the exhibition.
- Using evidence All the points in the commentary are well-supported by evidence.
- Identifying a clear real-world context The exhibition clearly identifies three objects and their specific real-world context.
Formative assessment tasks for the exhibition
You should practice the four skills identified above in normal lesson contexts, via discussions, short written tasks, and group activities. But you should also think about setting specific formative assessment tasks, which you formally assess, and use as a way of familiarizing students with this new assessment task. Members have access to two practice exhibition tasks, which you can use to prepare students for the final essay task.
Level 5 assessment characteristics
Within the assessment instrument, you’ll also find words identified that characterize an excellent assessment task. These are:
As mentioned above, draw on these words to give feedback during the formative assessment tasks, and during the course in general, so students can calibrate what is meant by each one. See thel assessment instrument in the TOK guide for more details.
Creating the TOK exhibition
The TOK exhibition is an empowering assessment task which gives students a great deal of choice, and allows them to present their achievements to a public audience. Of course, this openness brings its own challenges, but you are able to provide a lot of support to students, and guide them through the steps of designing and delivering their exhibitions. Here’s a suggestion of how that can work in practice (members will find each of these steps explained in a lot more detail):
- Choose an IA prompt
- Select the objects
- Initial planning meeting
- Write and check the draft commentary
- Submit the TOK exhibition file
- Present the TOK exhibition
Resources for the essay & exhibition
If you used the BQ framework, you have created a fantastic library of ideas, thinkers, and explanations of the key aspects of TOK. Your students should have access to the BQ lessons via Google Classroom. They can also check out the newsletter archive, which has thousands of real-life situations, and which can be used to support arguments offered in the essay. Our exploration points documents will also allow students to delve into any aspect of TOK to whatever level they want, via media sources such as article, videos, and podcasts.
The TOK journal
The TOK journal should be an integral part of all your students’ learning experience in theory of knowledge. Far from being an onerous task, the benefits of getting them to write down their ideas and reflections on a regular basis will help them to master the course, set them up well for the essay and presentation, and may even get them into a habit that lasts a lifetime.
Aims of the TOK journal
Encourage students to connect with what’s going on in the world Asking your students to write about ‘significant’ events means that they will follow the news, and keep their eyes open for interesting and important stories. They can then bring this into the classroom, and discuss it with their peers.
Assist them in understanding what makes an event, issue, or problem ‘significant’ They’ll soon be aware of what other people are following in the news, giving them an idea of what shapes society; but they’ll also connect with other stories that they might otherwise have missed.
Help them to identify and explore knowledge questions associated with real life situations If you ask them to identify and attempt to discuss the ‘knowledge questions’ behind the events, they’ll be well set up for when it comes to writing their essay and presentation.
Improve the way in which they structure their ideas and opinions Writing down their ideas and opinions in an informal way will allow them to play with those ideas, and figure out the most effective way in which to express them. Encouraging them to read them out in class could then lead onto discussion and debate, which will help them to hone their skills in self-expression.
Demonstrate the importance of using evidence to support their arguments Connected to above, they’ll soon learn that an opinion is nothing without evidence – and the best form of evidence is real life examples. You can use this to drill home the importance of using evidence based on actual fact, rather than of a hypothetical or anecdotal nature.
Get them into the practice of reflecting on knowledge (and learn to enjoy it) Not only can personal experiences be developed and better understood by writing them down, it can be immensely therapeutic to write down your feelings. Your students may well find that they continue their TOK journal long after they finish the course, and carry with it wherever in the world they end up.
Suggestions on TOK journal writing
Students may need a little pushing when it comes to journal writing, so you could use it as a written or oral assessment task. You can easily make them write too much; one contemporary news event, one personal experience, and one cultural highlight is about right per half term or bimester, meaning they write 9 or 10 entries per year. For each one, they should provide a brief description, an identification of the key knowledge question (linking it to elements of the course), and a discussion of that question, trying to view it through different perspectives, and include an assessment of the possible implications. You can then have them either write down their ideas, or present them in class. Either way, they should be able to refer back to their journal, and draw on the real life situations to help them with their essay or presentation.