HL, SL or Studies? Where do they all go??

The new school year brings with it, for me, a brand new school and the first IB Diploma cohort the school has ever seen. Although there were about 250 students K – 10 last year, the school has approximately doubled in size with a huge influx of expatriate teachers and students. The big question on day one with my IB math students was,


“Am I in the right course?”

There seemed to be an overwhelming sense of unpreparedness and a great underlying fear of mathematics, so of the 26 new IB students half, rightly or wrongly, opted for Studies. That left the other half willing to take a risk with the “new” guy in town and selected Mathematics SL.  Where were the higher level students??? Having never gone through the experience of starting an IB program at a new school, I was somewhat taken aback by the immensity of starting from scratch. In the past, I would pretty much know (even as early as grade 9), into which course students would eventually be slotted. The fact was, I had no idea who these kids were and what backgrounds they came with.

Having facilitated numerous level 1 Math SL workshops (most recently in Hong Kong last week), I was reminded of this all-important question. New IB schools want to know how to determine who should go where. Many (unfortunately) decide to offer only one or two programs in the first few years or (potentially) worse, combine all three into one class as they grapple with the  complexity of the IB program and limited school financing.

So I spoke with each and every student (very important), explained the differences between the programs, discussed the benefits of taking one course over another, considered university implications and I feel confident that most students have now been placed correctly.

So myself and other readers, particularly in schools that are in the candidate phase of IBD authorization, are really interested in how other schools fit students to math courses.

Personally, I have found that in the past 16 years of teaching IB mathematics, the best way to determine where students belong (whether you know them or not) is to begin your program with a review and extension of the presumed knowledge components of the syllabus, and in particular, the algebra parts. This may seem to be an obvious conclusion but factors (time) do conspire to prevent this from happening.  You will find that for many, the presumed knowledge is not readily accessible, but you will immediately see which students understand the language of mathematics (HL/SL) and those that don’t (Studies). Students will move up and down during the first month until they are comfortable with a teacher and the demands of a particular math course. Let this happen. After the first month, consider only changes down a level.

A review not only helps to place students correctly but also pays huge dividends down the road, particularly when you get to calculus. Students also have a variety of resources at their disposal such as PurpleMath, to consolidate and extend their algebra skills. I have just finished some work on the binomial theorem and was very thankful that I had reviewed the laws of indices at the beginning of the year.

We have now, of course, completed our prerequisite study and the preliminary work has built upon and strengthened the students’ existing mathematical base as we edge further into the course.  Students themselves now have a better idea of where they stand mathematically and two or three have now moved to a more appropriate course.

1 Comment
  • Paul Clark
    November 1, 2010

    As an Economist the problem with selecting the appropriate level of Mathematics are the requirements of various universities in the UK. For a reason completely beyond me the majority of the Russell Group – the top UK universities – demand HL Mathematics for Economics. So if your students wish to take Economics in a top UK university then they will need to select HL Mathematics even though they may be unsuited to this. I think this is a misunderstanding of the nature and breadth of SL Mathematics. As IB schools, I think there is a job to be done to explain the nature of the three levels of Mathematics to UK university admission tutors ( I do not kow if this applies in other countries) and put pressure on them to investigate the difficulty levels and content.

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