The doorbell rings and the first parcel of internal assessment samples are delivered, even though the remnants of the extended essays still sit on the table. The samples inside the parcel represent hours of hard work put in by both students and their teachers. However, it is also the beginning of a process that highlights the effectiveness, or otherwise, of the preparation of the students for assessment.

Whether internal assessment, or extended essay, without doubt one constant will be market research. The quality of the final product is influenced greatly by the quality of the research; primary or secondary. Secondary research sets the context and places the firm within its market and primary research adds the specifics about the firm and its key stakeholders.

However, there are issues about how the research is conducted, and its role and significance in the investigation. It is clear that some students, and possibly their teachers, do not fully appreciate the distinction between an extended essay and the internal assessment in Business and Management. The focus of the extended essay should be a review of secondary sources; after all it is an academic rather than a practical exercise. Students should use secondary sources in the first instance. The inclusion of a significant primary research in the extended essay may be justified as way of supporting secondary research. In most cases, however, the presence of primary research is at the expense of secondary data and the extended essay becomes another HL internal assessment, where primary data takes precedence. If this is the case, the student will be penalised under criteria C and D, and possibly criterion K. Any student who uses a questionnaire as a key focus for the extended essay should be challenged to support this choice, and advised that is unlikely to be appropriate.

The extended essay assessment criteria should be read in conjunction with the subject specific guidance in the extended essay guide. This states that the sole use of secondary data will allow students access to all levels of the extended essay assessment criteria. At times, it is not evident that students are fully aware of this advice.

As we move onto the internal assessment, primary research acts as the focus of the investigation; indeed students are expected to conduct their research with an organisation. However, the use of supporting secondary data is encouraged to provide detail on the context of the study. The rationale for the investigation, for example, will often be supported by secondary research of the market and the firm’s position, which may be represented by historic data.

One issue of concern related to HL investigation, in particular, is the role of the the ubiquitous questionnaire. A significant number of internal assignments focus on questionnaires and their analysis, often to the detriment of other sources of data. This, in itself, may not prevent an assignment from scoring well, but in many cases does, especially when the questionnaire itself is flawed. There are several common weaknesses of the questionnaire process, construction, conduct and analysis:

  • the objectives of the questionnaire are not established, so that the questions do not focus on the requirements of the research question; in some cases there is little structure or purpose.
  • the questionnaire is not trialled (or piloted) to check the clarity of the questions.
  • there is no explanation of the choice of sample, or its size, and the effects of this on the significance and validity of the findings.
  • it is claimed that respondents have been selected at random, when in fact what is used is a ‘convenience sample’, with relatively few people having the chance of being selected.
  • there is little description and understanding shown of the ‘population’ that the questionnaire is addressing and whether the sample selected is representative of this population.
  • the project includes myriads of unnecessary diagrams of results, when the results could be summarised relatively simply (such as by using a tally presented in a table), especially when the actual sample is small. For example, a series of pie charts with percentages seem overkill when the sample is below 10.

There is a role for an effective questionnaire, but students should not use it as their only major source of data, nor present findings without reference to supporting data from other sources, both primary and secondary. The effect of potential bias should be examined with supporting data from other sources adding credence, or otherwise to questionnaire findings. Above all, questionnaire data should be used with appropriate business theories, tools and techniques, rather than as a substitute for them. Students often think preparing and conducting questionnaires is simple; this could not be further from reality.