How to Structure a Theory of Knowledge Essay

My full ToK Essay Mastery course is here (step-by-step videos, templates and tips) if you’d like a big boost with your essay– including the May 2016 Prescribed Titles.

The following structure is a foolproof, step-by-step method you can use on any ToK essay to get very high marks.

It works really well, to give you a strong foundation for your essay. And once you have this in place you can challenge your own thinking and consider ways you can make your essay as insightful as possible.

(I’ve also done this for the TOK presentation, here).

Before you can begin your real/final essay, you’ll need to take the title (something like: “What is it about mathematics that makes it convincing?” and come up with a Knowledge Question (KQ) that turns the title into a question of knowledge. For example, “To what extent is math more reliable than other areas of knowledge?”).

 

In my ToK Mastery Course I encour­age you to begin the KQ with words like: “To what extent…”,” “How do we know that…,” “How reli­able is…,” “How cer­tain is…” These kind of open questions allow you to pull in multiple perspectives (AoK’s and WoK’s, as we’ll talk about), so you can show your TOK think­ing. Also, make sure that your ques­tion is directly related to know­ing–that it is a question about knowledge (not about Sociology, for example).

Second, take your KQ and choose three aspects of knowledge you’re going to relate it to: any of the Areas of Knowledge (Mathematics, Human sciences, Natural sciences, the Arts, Ethics, and History) or the Ways of Knowing (Sense perception, Reason, Emotion, Language). Then you can explore these in your essay.

The Body

Each body section will look at another area of knowledge or way of knowing. To explore the KQ we came up with above, let’s use Mathematics, Natural Science and Ethics as our three aspects. Each of these parts can be thought of as arguments you’re making. Think of a court case. Your lawyer will make the case that you can’t be guilty of robbing the bank (her thesis), by using several arguments (claims); she’ll show that A-you weren’t there, B-you’re are a moral person and C-you don’t have the technical knowledge to pull off a job like that. However, if your lawyer was a ToK student they would also be explaining reasons why you might be guilty (the counterclaims). A-someone said they saw you there, B-you did lie to your mom about candy one time and C-you are pretty good at computers. The lawyers would use evidence to support each of these claims and counterclaims. Making sure your evidence actually supports your claim is one of the toughest aspects of the essay.

The Formula

The formula has 4 sections and 7 paragraphs overall and specific aspects need to go in each. Section 1: The Introduction 150-200 words

Paragraph 1

Give your KQ. For example, “To what extent is math more reliable than other areas of knowledge?”

State your thesis. What is your short answer to the KQ (your question of knowledge). “While looking at mathematics, natural science and ethics, we will see that mathematics isn’t necessarily more reliable; however, we will see that knowledge is different in different fields.”

Give us a roadmap, a sentence that gives us a preview, showing us what you’re going to do in your body paragraphs. Make it clear how you are going to explore the KQ, which Ways of Know­ing and/or Areas of Knowl­edge you’re going to use. This will make it easy for the marker to know what to look for. An example: “Mathematics can be seen as more reliable because it uses reason. Natural science can be less reliable because it relies on observation. And ethics can be less reliable because it is related to the norms of a person’s society. ”

Section 2: Two paragraphs totalling 600 words

Paragraph 2

Claim. A claim a topic sen­tence that outlines your argument about the KQ. For example you could claim that, “Mathematics can be relied on because it is a purely logical system.”

Explain. Elaborate and clarify your claim. “Mathematics is axiomatic and independent of subjective experience.“

Example. A real life example, to clar­ify and sup­port the claim from your own experience. Examples should be personal, specific, precise and real. Did something happen in your Science class? Did you have a conversation with your or hear a story from your grandfather? These are evidence from your own life rather than examples from Darwin or Lincoln. So you could talk about how, “In mathematics we learned that the inside angles of a triangle, in Euclidian space, sum up to 180 degrees.”

Paragraph 3

Counter-claim. Argue against your claim above. “However, it is possible to come to different conclusions using different systems of mathematics.”

Example. An example that supports your counter claim. “There are different It is not possible to demonstrate that the interior angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees in Euclidian space, this cannot be proven within other systems, such as spherical geometry or hyperbolic geometry.”

Link to KQ. Quickly sum up the (complicated) insights of this section. “It is therefore clear that mathematics is reliable to an extent, but often it can only show something to be true within one fixed system or approach.”

Section 3: Another two body paragraphs, looking at your second AoK or WoK. Write these using the same approach you saw in paragraphs 2 and 3. 600 words

Paragraph 4

Claim.

Explain.

Example.

Paragraph 5

Counter-claim.

Example.

Link to KQ.

Section 4: Conclusion with two paragraphs totalling 200-250 words

Paragraph 6

Implications and significance. Why is it important that we know about this?

Perspective. Explain another view that someone may have (i.e. an older person, someone who’s had different life experiences than you)

Paragraph 7

Sum up the argument. The thesis again, in short. What have we learned?

(My full ToK Essay program is here if you want/need a lot more help. It’s only available outside of Singapore Click Here. It expands on everything in this essay and takes it up a few levels. My online students are giving it great reviews. Feel free to join if you’d like. Or you can join our Facebook group for ToK students.)

Here are some more ToK Essay tips you might want to consider. (A big thank you to my ToK mentor, John Hell­ner who has helped me and encouraged me to develop and share this structure).

Tim WoodsHow to Structure a Theory of Knowledge Essay
  • Superb and informative points you have shared about this topic here and useful guidelines for me, I will follow these tips,

    • lady gaga was aka googoogaga

      Hi Website hosting india! Thank you very much for following tips, I believe I should start following these tips as well! Thanks very much Mr Woods!

  • You have described it very well. Now a day, I feel that, No need to go to out because Internet showing me a more information to read. Today I have got a new information from your blog…

  • guest

    only problem is the word count, min is 1200 and max is 1600, and the formula here gets you only to 800

    • I had originally written this to help my students write a shorter (mock) essay, but I can see where that might have been confusing. I’ve changed the article, so that it’s more clear and shows you how to structure a real ToK Essay (with 1600 words). Thanks for pointing that out!

  • Marine & Eva

    Is it possible to write more than 4 body paragraphs and maybe go a little over the word limit? Because at times we may feel that we have too much information to squash into one paragraph. Will this affect our grade in any way? Will the extra words just be cut off and not taken into consideration when grading? Thank you for the helpful information! – Marine & Eva

    • Thanks for the comment. Don’t go over the word limit please. As a rule, expect that you will lose marks for going over the limit. 

    • Thanks for the comment. Don’t go over the word limit please. As a rule, expect that you will lose marks for going over the limit. 

  • Jim

    What about knowers perspective/personal experience? 

    • Very good point!! With this outline, I’m trying to keep things simple (so that it’s easy to follow) rather than comprehensive. To make sure to get full marks. I would definitely advise students to read these other two posts on the topic: http://www.timwoods.org/2012/03/02/the-top-ten-theory-of-knowledge-essay-tips/ and http://www.timwoods.org/2012/03/02/how-to-meet-all-of-the-theory-of-knowledge-essay-requirements/

    • Very good point!! With this outline, I’m trying to keep things simple (so that it’s easy to follow) rather than comprehensive. To make sure to get full marks. I would definitely advise students to read these other two posts on the topic: http://www.timwoods.org/2012/03/02/the-top-ten-theory-of-knowledge-essay-tips/ and http://www.timwoods.org/2012/03/02/how-to-meet-all-of-the-theory-of-knowledge-essay-requirements/

  • Lin

    I think this website is quite good, it gives some ideas to all of the ToK Essay topics:
    http://blog.tok-essay.com

    However, if you are doing the topic 4, I have got the the template so you don’t have to register in order to be able to get the ToK template 🙂

    https://word-view.officeapps.live.com/wv/WordViewer/request.pdf?Fi=SDA7AB5CCD012E56F2!127&C=1__SN2-SKY-WAC-WSHI&z=271&type=printpdfhttps://skydrive.live.com/view.aspx?resid=A7AB5CCD012E56F2!127&app=Word

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  • RKRS

    Thank you for posting this! It’s very helpful and much appreciated 🙂

    • Happy to help. Good luck with it!

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  • Bryanna

    If my TOK question is about emotions in knowledge, would you suggest comparing two areas of knowledge like history and the arts, or contrasting two areas of knowledge like history and mathematics?

    • Actually either way would work equally as well. It’s all about discussing how emotion helps and hinders us in gaining knowledge in the different areas of knowledge. They’re all different enough from each other that you don’t need to worry about it.

  • tsruh

    my essay title is “the possession of knowledge carries an ethical responsibility” and I am planning to write about natural sciences, ethics and emotion as areas of knowledge/ways of knowing and contrast them to point out pros and cons about how they play a role in the question whether possessing knowledge carries an ethical responsibility. i’m really not sure if that’s a correct way of doing it though?

    • Rather than pros and cons, I would focus on getting a thesis that answers your KI. And then use examples in each area to (for example) show that it does carry a responsibility (claim) and that it doesn’t (counter claim) and then synthesise your insights to get to some original conclusions. Does that make sense? It’s hard to summarise this stuff, but I hope that helps a bit.

      • tsruh

        thank you very much!

  • That’s a big question. A good starting point might be to modify the title a bit, so that you give yourself a KI that is directly related to knowledge. “Thinking” is related to knowing, but if you had a KI more like “To what extent does language allow knowing in different areas of knowledge” then you might find it easier to use this structure. Hope that helps.

    • Epps

      Except I didn’t think you could change the title because it’s prescribed by the IB?

      • Well yes and no Epps. Certainly you can’t change “the title.” It is prescribed by the IB. But they don’t want you focus directly on that title in your essay. They want you to come up with a KI which addresses the title. Basically your KI tells the examiner how you’re going to tackle the prescribed title, discussing knowledge (how we know, to what extent we can know, how different AOK’s rely of various AOI’s, etc).

  • Abdo

    Pretty confused. Do we state our KI within our essay or just use it?

  • Mishi_96

    hi, thanks for these amazing posts..
    i’m writing a mock essay on the following title; “The possession of knowledge carries an ethical responsibility.” Evaluate this claim. for the KI, i was thinking of ‘to what extent does knowing something execute an ethical responsibility?’
    how does this sound? i made the outline using the pdf from your site, but i wanted to alter the KI and thesis a bit..
    thanks

  • Mishi_96

    hi, thanks for all these useful posts.

    i’m writing a mock essay “The possession of knowledge carries an ethical responsibility.” Evaluate this claim.

    i had made the outline using your pdf..but i’m not sure about the KI and thesis.
    for the KI, how does this sound; to what extent is an ethical responsibility executed on one who possesses knowledge?’
    and for the thesis, something like ‘From historical and ethical aspects it can be deduced that one who possesses knowledge must be prudent, provided the situation involves ethical implications’ something like that.. how does it sound?

  • Mishi_96

    hi, i’m writing a mock essay on the following title; “The possession of knowledge carries an ethical responsibility.” Evaluate this claim.

    i was making the outline using your pdf, but i’m not sure about the KI and thesis.. i did get the examples though..

    here’s the KI; To
    what extent does the possession of knowledge carry an ethical responsibility?

    the thesis; From historical and ethical aspects it can be deduced that one who
    possesses knowledge must be prudent, provided the situation involves ethical
    implications

    are these alright? i’m not sure if i’m on the right track..
    thanks

  • sarah

    thank you very much for the help! very useful. however, im having trouble with the ‘human sciences’ part of my question, to what extent does knowledge give us a sense of who we are! please help…

    • Hi Sarah. First, you’re very welcome. But I’m not sure I can help you much with the question you asked. I can think of a lot of ways human sciences might help to give us a sense of who we are and also ways that they might not help. But I don’t want to make it too easy for you. 🙂

      • sarah

        hello 🙂 does “a sense of who we are” refer to identity?

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  • Michelle

    Thank you for posting this! i got so lost when writing my practice essay. This makes it so clear to me.

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  • Colaco

    Under the heading: Paragraph 2, you’ve repeated the words “about the”.

  • Jordan

    I’m currently writing a mock essay for class (about half the length of the real deal) and this is helping me a bunch! I’ll see what my teacher says about this format tomorrow. Thanks!

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  • jasmine

    hi! I’m just wondering how many ways of knowing that should be used in the essay, I’m going to write about how ethics limit our knowledge in arts and natural sciences and I’m planning on using emotion, perception and reasoning as my wok, is that enough?

    • That should be enough. Good luck.

  • Very happy to hear that. You did the hard work, so I can’t take credit for that. Good for you.

  • Tamar

    How many KI can you have? My teacher told me to aim for three KI – isn’t that too much?

    • Personally, I have my students choose one KI clear per essay only. But your teacher might do things differently (i.e. one mini-KI per AOK/WOK section).

  • Vhthebest

    Hey!! This is an awesome website.

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  • Sahira

    Thank you so much Mr.Woods, I really appreciate the effort you’ve put into all of this. I used the TOK presentation guide & scored an A. Thanks again!

    • Thanks for the note. I’m glad to hear you’ve done so well!

  • Brihathi

    Hello,
    Should all my KI’s and claims have counterclaims?
    I am not able to find counter claims for two of my claims.
    Thank you

    • Yes, all of your KI’s should have claims and counterclaims. You might need to talk to your teacher if you’ve having difficulty. There are always counterclaims, but they can be hard to figure out.

  • Brihathi

    Hello
    Should the personal engagement be tied up with the conclusion?
    Thank you

    • That’s up to you. Personal engagement can be shown in any part of the essay, or preferably in many parts of it.

    • You can show that wherever you like. The conclusion is a good place, but it’s great to show it several times in your essay.

  • Just 3 in total. The combination of AoK’s and WoK’s is up to you. 6 in total would definitely be too many to cover. You can do 3 AoK’s though and no WoK’s if you wish.

  • Harshul

    Thank you sooooo much for this !!!!!!
    Better advice than my teachers !!
    Will be always grateful to you ! 🙂

  • Technically yes this would be plagiarizing, unless you cited your sources. However, often KI’s can be quite similar between students. I would recommend coming up with your own KI’s, even if they are somewhat similar.

  • I.B Student #192083201

    So… I’m picking between two topics and I need some advice between which one I should choose. I’m really interested in number 6 because it seems as if I could explore a lot of new things regarding it, but at the same time, I know that it is a bit difficult for me because of the ambiguity. However, I think I would be more comfortable and perhaps better at writing on topic 3. Advice?

    • That’s really hard for me to say. If you think either would work for you than that’s what I call a ‘good problem.’ My would recommend sketching out both of them (plan your KI, thesis, claims and counterclaims and evidence) for both and see which one seems stronger for you and go with that one. Good luck with it!

  • Bayley

    I’m doing prescribed question 4: “that which is accepted as knowledge is sometimes discarded tomorrow. In the question it asks to consider two areas of knowledge. Would it be appropriate to only do 4 body paragraphs, two claims and two counter claims (one claim and counter claim for each AoK) v.s. your recomended 6?

    • Yes, that would be fine for this question. Good luck!

  • I generally recommend against that combination, especially considering you’re only looking at two.

  • Yes, for this one you can just do 2 longer body sections, rather than 3. Good luck!

  • Hi, KI stands for Knowledge Issue. That’s the basic question (about knowledge, or knowing) that you examine in your essay or presentation. The new syllabus is using the term ‘Knowledge Question”, but that means the same thing.

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  • Jamie

    How many KI’s are we expected to discuss throughout our essay?

    • That’s a matter of some debate. I advise my students to have only 1 KI (KQ), but then to have several sub-KI’s (i.e. one for each AOK) –if that makes sense. Basically, by answering the sub-KI’s (you answer your main KI). It’s also ok to raise a question or two about knowledge, that you don’t answer. Hope that helps.

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  • Maya

    Wow…. this is very useful!! I was confuse how to write a tok essay. I researched a lot, and finally I found this website! Thank you!

  • Helena

    My teacher literally copy- pasted this whole formula onto a power-point instead of writing his own, so I guess it’s pretty reliable. So much for academic honesty….

  • Antti

    THANKS !! this really helped me piece my essay together and make it flower better rather than seeming like a mind map thrown onto a page

  • Hi Sal. The implications and significance is basically about the conclusion you’ve drawn regarding your KQ. What is important about this conclusion you’ve come to? Why should we care about it? Convince us your findings are worth listening to.

    Good luck with it.

  • Hi Lilly. You might want to check out my ToK essay course (www.tokmastery.com) if you haven’t already. These kinds of questions (like the one you asked) take a bit of going into it to really answer them properly, so that’s why I set up that course –to do it right. You will need KC’s and AoK’s, but there are some ways you could modify the structure that I explain in detail in the video course.

  • Hi Elma, just be careful that you’re setting yourself up (in your KQ) to focus on knowledge directly –rather than on ideas of beauty (for example). I go into this stuff in a lot more detail in my video course http://www.tokmastery.com if you need any help with it.

  • Hi, yep I’d be happy. Or you might just want to go into my online course, where everything is expanded and explained in a lot more detail (with videos and audio, etc). http://www.tokmastery.com

  • My absolute pleasure. I do this to help great people –like you clearly are! 😉 Take care and have a great year.

  • For this one, I’d just keep it to 2 developments. It seems that “2 is the new 3” –the PT’s seem to be pushing us toward 2 developments a lot of the time now.

  • Hi Omar. In this case, you should definitely just relate it to 2 AoK’s. I have given a lot more advice on how to approach this essay in my online program: http://www.tokmastery.com

  • Courtni

    Thank you for literally saving me!! My teacher was very confusing in her explanation and this is a perfect guide for how to structure the essay. Thank You!!!!!!

    • You’re welcome. I’m sure I’m confusing sometimes too. 🙂

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  • Hi there, you can get all of my resources for the November 2015 essay here. Lots of helpful advice and some insights into the the essay titles http://www.ibmastery.com/free-trial-promotion/

  • Hi Olivia, Yep, it would be too much to try to cover every way of knowing. Definitely focus on about 3. Ideally you’d talk about personal and shared knowledge and show the links between the two. But you don’t need to do both for each WOK. Just do as much as you can. Good luck with it. 🙂

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