Given the prevalence of senioritis in American schools and the phenomenon of highly motivated students “doing school”, one might not expect to find IB seniors engaged in their extended essays; however, anecdotal evidence and engagement theory suggest otherwise. Early reports from teachers on page and IB officials show that the extended essay was once an effective antidote to senioritis as it engaged students’ intellectual interests while preparing them for postsecondary education. The first Director General of the International Baccalaureate Organization, A. D. C. Peterson explained that feedback from both students and teachers convinced him of the curricular merit of the extended essay.
Teachers, according to Peterson, remarked on how engaged and committed students were when writing their extended essays. In fact, they worried that students concentrated on their extended essays to the detriment of their other studies, particularly their May subject area examinations. Teachers’ concerns stimulated a policy shift within the IBO, and the due date for the extended essay was moved from May to March. In an article for Harvard Educational Review, guidance counselor Elisabeth Fox cited internal school surveys and follow-up studies to note the “particular tribute IB graduates paid to the value of the extended essay as a rigorous and stimulating preparation for college”.
In one of the only systematic, empirical studies of students’ experiences with the extended essay, Munro examined students’ performance on the extended essay (the score they received) relative to their motivational orientation. He found that students earning the highest scores on the extended essay claimed to balance “deep” and “achieving” motives for learning; that is, they were equally motivated to increase their knowledge of a topic (a deep motive) and to achieve understanding at a level relative to others (an achieving motive). By contrast, students receiving the lowest scores on their essays claimed to favor deep motives over achieving motives. Although the implications of his work are limited by methodological constraints, such as the use of a single school site and the lack of attention to contextual considerations, the fact that none of the clusters of students he studied indicated a preference for achieving motives over deep motives suggests that all of these students seemed to be cognitively engaged as they worked on their extended essays. With regard to this assignment, they demonstrated a commitment to learning and a willingness to be led by their interests.