How to Structure a Theory of Knowledge Essay

The following structure is a very good, step-by-step method you can use on any ToK essay to get very high marks. Well... actually, there have been some changes since May 2016 which make this structure slightly less foolproof than it used to be.

There are some traps you can fall in now when applying any method, such as the one below. Remember that is very important that you actually answer the prescribed title in your answer and try to do that in an interesting way (i.e. using original insights and good evidence).

I've updated this approach in my new ToK Mastery essay course, which you can join here. You'll find it helps you in lot of different ways. I've also made it free for 14 days, so it's easy. 

Okay here we go...

The structure on this page will give you a strong foundation for your essay. And once you have that 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?"). (Again, there are some changes in how we do this since the May 2016 subject report).

I encour­age my students 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).

It's worth asking a few people if they think that your KQ is really about knowledge --about what we can know, or how we can know.

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




Paragraph 5



-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 expands on everything in this essay and it is fully adapted to the recent changes in ToK. 

Here are some more ToK Essay tips you might want to consider. A big thank you to my recently-retired ToK colleague, John Hell­ner who gave me a lot of the ideas that went into this structure.