Facing IB exams with confidence

So, your son, daughter or ward will be taking the IB exams either this year or next year. What can you do to help him/her face the challenge with confidence? Clearly, factors such as your home environment, your son’s/daughter’s/ward’s personality, support mechanisms in the school, etc. will make a difference. But, the following represent some tips that we have found useful… In it, we’ve represented your “young person” as “Sam” – mainly because writing “son, daughter or ward” repeatedly takes up more space.

Start early

Sam cannot begin the revision programme too early. The confidence gained by an early start is huge.

Support, support and more support

The IB Diploma Programme is tough. But, everyone believes that Sam can succeed on it. Show that your belief in this is unwavering. Consider:

  • Physical support – look after Sam’s physical needs… especially as the revision gets more intense. Stock the fridge. Give Sam space and an appropriate environment to work. Buy lots of Post-Its – or whatever Sam needs for study. Encourage healthy/regular eating (not too many sugary foods – and not too much caffeine). Encourage Sam to get enough sleep (and to do something relaxing before going to sleep). Encourage regular exercise.
  • Emotional support – many students (including Sam?) find exams stressful – especially if it seems as if their future depends on the results. Friends and families can provide tons of emotional support. The first stage is belief – you believe in Sam. The second is listening. When Sam is stressed, don’t rush in to try to calm him/her down. That suggests that signs of stress are wrong. They are not. They are perfectly normal. Instead, encourage Sam to express the worries or fears that he/she is experiencing. But then, don’t feel that you need to offer advice. Usually, you can’t. But, you can offer time and space. Give Sam the opportunity to talk, to cry or just to be quiet. Thirdly, show appreciation. Sam’s goals may be ambitious – and might not be achieved. Regardless of the outcome, show that you accept Sam’s efforts – whether you think that they could be improved or not! Praise the work that is being done, the maturity that is shown, Sam’s massive development during the two-year IB programme, etc. Whatever Sam achieves, is wonderful in your eyes.

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Understand the work-load

Sam will have lots of deadlines to meet in the second year of the Diploma or will have met lots of deadlines already. Coursework – usually amounting to 20-30% of the final grade – has to be submitted to the IB. CAS also has to be completed. It is important that Sam gets all of these commitments out of the way by the deadlines set by the school. But, don’t forget that it is also important for Sam to get the best possible grades for them. If any “Internal Assessment” completion dates are looming or outstanding, support Sam in doing the work as thoroughly as possible, but certainly by the deadline. Does Sam have commitments outside school? Are all of these necessary? Can they be scaled down as the exam period gets nearer?

Look out for signs of stress

Many students show signs of stress in the build-up to exams – and Sam is probably no exception. Some “manage” their stress well; others struggle. As a parent, you are in a good position to identify signs of stress. A moderate amount of stress is often good – it raises adrenaline levels and increases motivation. Too much can paralyse work. The more of the following that are visible, the louder the alarm bells should be ringing:

  • Physical symptoms – such as sleeping or eating more or less, but also signs such as chest pains,  headaches, nausea, constipation, etc.
  • Mental symptoms – e.g. loss of concentration or interest, but also nail biting, etc.
  • Emotional symptoms – for example, tears, tantrums or panic attacks
  • Addictive symptoms – increased smoking or alcohol consumption
  • Self-deprecating comments – “I know I’ll never pass”, “Amin is much brighter than me”, etc.

If the signs are mounting, what can you do? This depends a lot on the type of person that Sam is. The emotional support described above is vitally important. But, one key is often relaxation. Breathing exercises are good. So are other relaxation techniques. Physical activity is great. You might be able to do something diverting as a family. Or, Sam’s friends might rally round to go and have fun together.

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Know about support systems

Sam has many options for supporting revision. These include:

  • Teachers – Sam will have realised that the teachers are on her/his side. They want her/him to do well. They are also experts on their subjects and what the examiners are looking for in IB exams. They can give great advice. But, they are also very busy (and stressed?). Encourage Sam to tell the teachers which aspects of the work he/she is finding particularly difficult. If it’s easier for Sam to talk to teachers after the normal end of school, encourage that.
  • Syllabus – the IB produces clear syllabus guides for each subject. Has Sam got copies of these? Many are very bulky – and some parts are irrelevant for Sam, but having access to the key parts is vital. This includes information on assessment (exams) and how they are graded.
  • Notes – since the start of the IB Diploma, Sam will have accumulated masses of notes and handouts. But, he/she may have missed some work. Are the notes complete? Even when they are, their usefulness will vary. Typically, they are much too bulky. A very useful revision technique is to REDUCE, reduce, reduce – condensing notes into mind maps, diagrams, bullet-points, mnemonics, etc.
  • Textbooks – there is a growing range of IB textbooks, but some schools use non-IB textbooks in their teaching. The value of these is significantly reduced for revision. In fact, few textbooks are of use in the final stages. Revision Guides are often better (see below).
  • Past papers and mark schemes – these are extremely useful. But, Sam should beware of the older ones – IB syllabuses frequently change, and so do the people who write the papers. With the growth of the IB, there has been an increase in the number of past papers (papers for different regions of the world, for different exam sessions, etc.). Sam’s school can access these. Teachers may be reluctant to release everything (because they want to retain some papers/questions for mock exams etc.), but there should still be enough for revision. In addition to trying the questions, Sam must understand the “rules” of each paper (shown on the front cover).
  • Revision Guides – unlike textbooks which are great for learning, these are specifically written for revision. They pull out the key points and prepare students specifically for the exams. Many students have successfully used OSC’s Revision Guides – which can be ordered online and are despatched immediately.
  • Revision advice – there is plenty of advice on how to revise. In addition to guidance from Sam’s school, there are books on the topic and lots of online advice. Two online examples are BBC and Skills4study. Because the IB prepares students for university so well (better than other examinations), the advice provided by university sites may be of use. For example: Brunel, Loughborough, Southampton, Worcester or Manchester.
  • Study Buddies – while exams are still solo activities, revising with others is to be encouraged. Sam can learn a lot from a “study buddy” or two. They can test each other, (re-)teach each other difficult aspects, support each other emotionally, etc.
  • Online support – not surprisingly, there are many potential support services on the web. Many are rubbish, but some are very useful. If Sam feels that the other support systems are inadequate for her/his needs, it might be worth looking for online support. Some students have reported that The Student Room is useful, but it is important that Sam identifies potential support early. Spending time Googling for advice and support as the exams approach is likely to be time wasted.
  • Online Revision – OSC offers a range of Online Support – 1:1 tuition or Online Revision Classes (plus online support on university applications). Sam may find these useful.
  • Revision Courses – since OSC started IB Revision Courses in 1990, several “rivals” have appeared on the scene. Revision Courses are inevitably expensive. Does Sam need them? We have no doubt that they are of value, but they are not for everyone. If Sam is looking for a revision course, think about cost, timing, location, size/flexibility (small courses are much less likely to be able to adjust to Sam’s needs; larger courses can group students accordingly), and, most importantly, the teachers. Some courses employ former IB students to “teach”. Be wary of these. Are they up-to-date with the syllabus and assessment (IB teachers and examiners are kept up-to-date through the IB’s online curriculum centre and officially authorised workshops)? Do they know how to promote learning in others? Have they developed appropriate learning resources?
  • Parents and family – as identified earlier, a major part of Sam’s support system is you – and other members of the family. The IB Diploma is a highly respected academic programme (that’s why universities love it), but one of the reasons why it is valued so highly is because it is tough. At the end, Sam will be a superb, well-rounded “product” who will be able to tackle academic challenges fearlessly. But, Sam will need patience, understanding, support … and lots and lots of love!

Celebrate the achievement

Finally, celebrate when Sam finishes the exams. It’s a milestone which needs to be recognised. The results won’t be known for a month or so, but Sam’s success in completing the course is magnificent… whatever the outcome.

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