Learning Curve: How to navigate IB diploma's tricky waters

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 3:05pm

Cambridge University research shows that the exam results of youngsters after age 16 are a much better predictor of degree success. But that depends a lot on subject choices.

Students in Form Six who have started their international baccalaureate (IB) programmes this autumn will find that success may depend on the subjects they choose.

It's not just parents and students who find it difficult to figure out the IB diploma requirements; I had a myopic understanding of them myself and only a few years ago learned what ab initio meant.

IB subjects are divided into six groups:

Group 1 comprises studies in language and literature in the student's native tongue.

Group 2 covers subjects in a second language that may be tackled at three levels: A2 courses, which require the study of literature, are for students with a good grasp of the language; B courses focus on written and oral language skills for students who have previously studied the language; and ab initio - the lowest level of proficiency, which emphasises basic competency.

Business management, economics, geography, global studies, history, philosophy, psychology, anthropology and world religions are Group 3 subjects under the umbrella "individuals and societies".

Group 4 consists of experimental sciences such as physics, chemistry, biology, design technology and sports, exercise and health science.

Group 5 encompasses mathematics and computer science with choices of different levels, or, for the mathematically challenged, studies where basic concepts are reinforced.

Students can select dance, film, musical theatre or visual arts from Group 6, or in lieu of it, they may take another course from Groups 1 to 5.

Environmental systems and societies, often referred to as the "soft science", is one course that satisfies requirements of both Group 3 and 4, thus allowing them to select another course to complete the requirement of six. But research the requirements of your preferred university, as some don't accept it as satisfying the Group 4 component if a science-related career path is to be pursued.

Of the six subjects, three or four should be studied at the higher level (HL) and the others at standard level (SL). This provides the balance between having a broad understanding of some subjects while others are explored in depth.

Candidates have a choice of writing their Group 3-6 subjects in English, French or Spanish as the response language. Each subject is assessed on a scale of 1 to 7. To receive an IB diploma, a student needs at least 24 points.

Additionally, candidates must complete all of the three components of Creativity, Action and Service in the CAS programme, for which the IB recommends a commitment of at least 150 hours. Students also need to conduct independent research on a topic of interest from any of the six subject groups and write an extended essay (EE) of about 4,000 words under the direct supervision of a teacher at the school, showing writing skills expected at the tertiary level. The theory of knowledge (TOK) course, which works on the process of gaining knowledge, has elements from each of the subject groups and is assessed by a presentation.

About 119,000 students across the world who received their diplomas in May (about 78 per cent) averaged 29.83 points, with 109 scoring the maximum of 45 points.

Students are eligible for a bilingual diploma if they choose two languages from Group 1 or other language and subject combinations.

Conditions that prevent a student from being awarded an IB diploma regardless of points received are procuring a score of 1 in any subject; more than three scores of three or below; an inability to score at least 12 points in their HL subjects and at least nine points from their SL subjects; failure to complete the CAS; or plagiarism.

A nephew of mine insisted on studying the effects of different yogic asanas on blood chemistry. Though an interesting subject to investigate, it contravened the IB experimentation policy on taking blood and tissue samples. He did not satisfy the TOK and EE grade combination and was not awarded a diploma. Hence, it is extremely important that students familiarise themselves with the IB subject and diploma requirements.

Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at an international school in Hong Kong