I found this great post today from an A-level student’s blog, reviewing their A-level choices and subsequent grades. I thought it was such a good idea that I’d do something similar about my experiences on the international baccalaureate diploma programme (IB).
It’s such a long-winded fancy name that you immediately get reactions like ‘ok……’. Then you get people that actually have heard about it and respond with ‘I bet that was hard’. Yeah. It was bloody hard.
Now let me first say that the IB is a great idea in theory. In short, you study 3 subjects at ‘higher level’ and 3 subjects at ‘standard level’, which many UK students like to compare to AS/A-level standards (no, it’s not that simple). You have to pick those subjects within areas though. So you have to do a physical science, a maths, english literature, a language, a humanities subject and usually an art or an extra science/language/humanity. Your grades are out of 7, 4 is a pass and 7 is like top 2% in the world (little bit different to an a* a level, just saying). You then have to complete 150 Creativity Action Service hours over the 2 year course, an ‘extended essay’ (where the Extended Project Qualification came from) and participate in Theory of Knowledge classes. ToK is basically an easy going philosophy class. So I basically had 7 ongoing subjects.
Where IB gets hard is when the school isn’t really prepared to host it. I found out about IB at my local college’s open day, from a teacher who sold it to me as ‘an easy ticket into uni’. As I was already volunteering and had a diverse array of GCSEs at the time, I thought ‘great! sign me up!’.
IB at my local college had about 30 participants and well over 400 A-level students. So we were already a bit of a minority.The great thing about this was the class sizes were really low, my largest was 8 and my smallest was 2 (me and one other person). The bad thing was training of the teacher staff was left to the bare minimum.
So i’ll go through my review of each aspect of IB for me, but please bear in mind this will be different depending on the emphasis IB has at your school.
Higher level Biology
So I did quite well in Biology in the end! It was my favourite subject after all and always will be. Our teacher, Steve, was great and guided us through the syllabus step by step. We always knew what was coming up and what we needed to know, which made learning such a breeze.
The only reason I deducted some marks was because the actual content got a bit weird sometimes. As IB is an ‘international’ qualification, some of their anecdotes and comparisons can be odd. For instance, we had to randomly learn the process of making soy sauce in the middle of a microbiology chapter. There was a lot of random facts you just had to memorise, which prepped me well for a uni course in anatomy but was really boring as well. They could have lead somewhere with it, y’no?
Higher level Pscyhology
This video of Rosenhan himself describing his revolutionary experiment in the 70s that changed the american mental institution system for good. It also stimulated so much curiosity in me about psychology. Learning about this experiment kickstarted my degree choice.
Again, I really really enjoyed this course even though I completely chose it on a whim as I didn’t know another humanity I wanted to study. My teacher was so engaging and the subject content itself was fascinating. What’s weird about it is I was predicted a grade 6. I even came out of the exam, thinking it had gone well, and explained my answers to my teacher who said congrats i’ll maybe even get a 7! Our whole class ended up with a grade lower than our predictions so part of me doubts how great those lessons were in the long run. Regardless, it’s part of the reason I studied neuroscience, so nothing can take that away.
Higher level Chemistry
Online videos from Bozeman science got me through this subject.
This was where it got tough. The teacher (bless him) was such a nice guy but for some reason just got disjointed with the IB content. The rest of my class would grill into him so much as he had a lisp and a stammer, making it hard for him to keep the class under control and focused. I honestly think half of the problem with this class was the rest of my classmates constantly being negative and depressing.
The content itself was fairly interesting and I actually really enjoyed the amount of knowledge they expect out of you at that level – it’s much more than a-level, trust me, teachers have said this. I ended up getting extra help with this topic, but it was too little too late in the end. Regardless I enjoyed it! That’s the science nerd in me showing.
Standard level English
My teacher in this subject had such a lovely, mumsy type personality. I have never been a fan of English (read my post about my rant), so I was so surprised to get this grade in the end. My writing quality improved so much during this course, so I owe a lot of this blog performance to her! I actually enjoyed the lessons where we would act out a play together from start to finish and then go over the analysis. I had been part of a local pantomime society for 8 years so I loved getting stuck into it.
I remember receiving a 7 in my English exam, which was the only place I had ever seen a 7 on any of my work, so that was an amazing feeling. It restored my confidence in writing, which went on to help me in so many future essays at uni (and this blog!).
Standard level Spanish
Oh my god, Spanish. Now, for someone who got my only A* at GCSE in spanish to go to hating it at IB was really something. My teacher was bat-shit crazy. If you can imagine a typical crazy young spanish woman with the energy of a 5 year old. Triple it and that was Itziar. She was a complete loon and I do not do mornings. I DO NOT DO MORNINGS. Itziar was always full of energy and inappropriate-ness that I just did not enjoy on those Tuesday 9ams (Tuesday’s are the worst).
This was the class with just one other person in it as well who was in sync with Itziar. They were both raving feminists who were super into history, culture and spain and I just kind of enjoyed spanish… Not saying i’m not a feminist in any way, it’s just that I preferred having a discussion about science than Don Quixote. The content was also yet again more pointless vocab that I have never used in my 3 trips to Barcelona. I just wish the academic side of languages would update a bit and start teaching us the relevant stuff first, then move onto random vocab about nuclear power plants.
Standard level Maths
I saved the best til last!
I actually originally scored a 3 in maths, which was then remarked to a high 4 (how can you even go up a level and a half in a maths remark?!). Just goes to show how much I LOOOOOVED maths! At the beginning we had this extremely socially awkward teacher who just sat at the front of the class and ordered us to do exercises day in day out. Of course, being teenagers we usually just sat there chatting and not caring at all. Then he ‘moved to china’ although we heard he got fired. I can see that.
We then ended up with another crazy loon who was a really good teacher but would focus on one-on-one teaching. She would sit down with
people one person each lesson and go through the content while the rest of us were left to our own devices. I brought in my old GCSE maths teacher to help out in the end. This was ok, but the problem was that he’d never been trained in IB so it was a bit awkward to teach me in his way. That’s the thing with Maths at IB, they seem to go into huge amount of depth into a few topics and then miss out other crucial stuff that a-level does. I only gave this the 1 mark purely because of the miracle that I passed.
At the beginning of ToK, I used to hate it so much and think it was all so pointless. Then the more we got into it and started relating it to all of our other subjects, it started to click to me how everything is connected. That sounds so hippie… But its true when it comes to school! There were parts of english that were relevant in science and parts of maths relevant to psychology. Spanish is probably the odd one out but still! ToK helped me to develop my self-reflection and problem solving skills sooo much and I think this subject single-handedly prepared me for university learning.
The assessment in this subject is also all coursework and debating, which was fun and stress-free. It was much needed in an environment of constant deadlines, oral exams and written exams.
I did my extended essay in psychology, hence the lower than expected grade in the end. I think this actually started off as a B or something and was remarked and down-graded… Great choice! I’m not really sure what went wrong here as again, my psychology teacher was adamant it was worth an A grade.
Regardless, the EE was a useful enough tool in preparing you for future research essays but I swear there was next to no guidance for this at all. Again, maybe it was just my college, but I struggled to get on board with what they wanted from the essay, which was really annoying as the EPQ on the a-level stream seemed to have so much more support in place.
From chatting to other students studying similar a-levels, if you were heading off to a school that doesn’t prioritise the IB, then I’d consider going mainstream as chances are the teachers are better trained in that area and there will thus be more support in place for you. I’ve visited schools across the country that offer the IB as standard and it looks like such an amazing course and I can see the potential it has to be brilliant if it’s delivered well. The extra bits like CAS and ToK are so worthwhile. I honestly didn’t think I’d enjoy them as much as I did and you’ll find there is a super strong community out there of IB survivors.
It is hard. It is tiring. It is a lot of extra work.
But it’s also rewarding, encouraging and seems to be something that employers now tell me is something that stands out on my LinkedIn profile. For all the hours upon hours of revising and working my socks off, I did in the end secure a place at my first choice uni for the subject of my dreams. I scraped in, but I got there. And it’s only now that i’m reaping in the benefits from external appreciation at job interviews.
So in reality, as much as I hate on the subjects and the teacher training and what not. I don’t regret my choice at all. Some of the friends I met on IB were incredible and so motivating. One person was the sole driving force that got me through IB and made me into the hard-working, passionate individual that I am today (thanks El!).
For that I will always be thankful.