It’s tough at the top

This post is a short discussion of the problems with Physics which result in a relatively low proportion of top grades being produced.  The fear is that these problems will not go away with the new course and might even be worse!

The pass-rates for all IB courses are very similar.  However, there are marked differences between the grades that are achieved.  Statistically, the three subjects which seem to be the toughest to get a ‘7’ in are HL Physics, Chemistry and Maths.  This makes it particularly tough for students who are considering a degree course in Physics or Engineering – since Physics and Maths will be the main two subjects and ideally, should be done at HL.

HL Physics is tough, partly for the following reasons:

  • Physics is a subject that does require a student to be good in three areas:

o    They must be able to cope with the range of different concepts covered in the course.

o    The must have good memories for the application of ideas, mathematical equations, definition, etc.

o    They must be very good at Mathematics.

  • The Physics course is huge – arguably too large.  The old course was large, the new one is even larger.  It should be noted here that, even though the course itself is not apparently larger, the syllabus material in the core and extended core has been supplemented with material from the Optional Topics which have now been removed, and this creates additions which will require far more teaching time than would be expected.  As such, it is a major challenge to get the full syllabus covered in the available time.
  • The course requires around 60 hours of practical work at HL.  On the old course this is reduced to 50 when the Group 4 project is considered.  In the new course, this is reduced to 40 hours when the IA is also considered.  This tends to be particularly interesting for students.  However, the large amount of practical work could slow down the pace of the course. Note: 10 hours are assigned to the Gp4 project, 10 hours to the (single piece of IA) and so, 40/20 hours of practical work are required for the HL/SL course.  This amount of practical work is needed to ensure that when students do their IA, they have the skills to do it well enough to score highly.
  • The level of Mathematics required on the course is also significant and there is little doubt that a knowledge of calculus (mainly differentiation) helps students.  However, it is unusual for Maths departments to teach this aspect of the course early in the two years and so progress can be slowed if the Physics teacher feels they need to teach this.  Also, the Mathematical courses do not have mechanics in them, which means that this part of the Physics course is not always supported as well as it could be.
  • The format of the examinations is quite aggressive in that, the Marking Schemes are strictly adhered to and benefit of the doubt is not common.  In order to do well in the IB exam system, students must work very hard alongside the Marking Schemes to ensure they are fully aware of the way exam questions should be answered – training to the marking schemes is crucial.
  • The coursework rarely helps the students overall marks as much as teachers would like.  CW marks are externally moderated and they are often reduced by some amount.  Hopefully, the new IA system starting From Sept 2014 will produce better consistency of marks.

Let’s hope that the new course produces a better set of statistics for Physics students of the future.

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