Ink Drawing by Franz Kafka

Ink Drawing by Franz Kafka

Before drafting a mini TOK essay for themselves, students should see an exemplar and  grade it for fun according to the latest official grading criteria. is independent of the IBO and does not contain downloads of copyrighted IBO assessment material. Updated versions of these are available from your IB Coordinator, or the OCC after login as an IB World School teacher. TOK assessment overview in the Ending TOK section has a list of essential assessment documents. 


Prepare in advance of the activity class copies of:

  • Prescribed Essay titles from the previous May and November sessions
  • Essay Grading Criteria
  • TK/PPF Personal Planning Form
  • Exemplar student essay

Working silently and alone students grade the exemplar essay according to the official criteria. Next they find a partner and argue their case for the impression marks they have allocated. They are told that they must reach consensus. Finally, a rapid “show of hands” poll is made to obtain the climate of the class grading. It is important to use a fairly strong essay as an exemplar, so that students see for themselves the spirit and conventions of the TOK essay and to encourage them to aspire to challenge of a high bar. I tell them, exaggerating only slightly, that a Grade A essay is “almost fit for publication.”


This heavily contrived starter Essay has a gentle word count of 800 to 1000 words. The assignment is based on an recent official prescribed title:

To what extent is the metaphor of natural selection useful in describing the development of knowledge in an academic discipline?  

This assignment will be graded mostly on whether these dozen diagnostic questions can be answered in the affirmative.  

1. Does the essay begin with an unaltered Prescribed Title?

2. Is there an accurate Word Count?

3. Does the term “Area of Knowledge” appear in the essay in context?

4. Does the term “Way of Knowing” appear in the essay in context?

5. Does the term “Personal Knowledge” appear in the essay in context?

6. Does the term “Shared Knowledge” appear in the essay in context?

7. Are there at least two arguments justified by worked-through, Real World Examples?

8. Is there at least one Counter Argument somewhere in the essay?

9. Is there a Multicultural or Non-Western Perspective anywhere in the essay?

10. At least once, does the student offer a Personal Perspective using the “I” word?

11. Does the essay culminate in an open-ended Conclusion?

12. Are there appropriate Citations?



There may be some resistance to this contrived assignment from stronger essay writers. I give them a choice. I urge them knowingly to play the game just this once; mindful that problem solving and creativity are “imagination with constraints.” Indeed, it is quite a challenge to produce a flowing, intelligent and provocative essay populated by the dozen highly contrived, straitlaced constraints imposed in the assignment. Students can be reminded that professional ballet dancers warm up with the same five positions they learned in childhood; and professional musicians warm up with scales. No disgrace in going back to basics.

Alternatively, in the spirit of differentiation, the brave few are welcome to attempt a full-blown 1600 word TOK essay using the same prescribed title; graded on the official criteria, just to see if they can pull it off. This small cohort may or may not be humbled by the remarks that follow.


Every TOK Examiner knows that in each examination session there are brilliant students from around the world whose essays are a provocative delight from beginning to end. These essays(with, perhaps, some minimal editing) really are “almost fit for publication.” 

At this level, there is some sense that “all bets are off.”  The written criteria are at least partially transcended.  There is a kind of free-spirited audacity in the selection of examples and deliberate playfulness in pushing the logical implications in novel directions. The reader is taken along for the ride , with twists an turns and the to and fro of multiple perspective and counterclaim.  At the uppermost levels there is nothing less than virtuosity. Well-chosen, non-cliched, varied, artfully worked through examples can actually astonish! Like a great short story the details can be savored and remain with the reader.


Lev Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana (1908)    The first Russian color photo portrait

Lev Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana (1908) 
The first Russian color photo portrait