IB exams

Review of the IB exams

Group IV science (Environmental Systems and Societies, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics) teachers gathered together today from around the region to review the IB exams that our students sat this past May.  We each had taken time to work the exams beforehand and then came together to analyze the questions and determine the value and quality of each question. Five different international schools were represented.

The biology teacher from the host school led us to his lab where he had set up a large table for us to gather around.  We pulled out the exam papers and immediately set to work.  The atmosphere was cheerful, lively and very collaborative.

Initially, when I had previewed the exams, they seemed good and fair to me.  I had scrutinized each question from a teachers's perspective,  to determine whether all content had been sufficiently covered and whether there were any surprizes for my students.  I was satisfied that the students had been equipped to answer all the questions.   However, as I listened to my colleagues attack each question from the standpoint of students, my eyes were opened.  Suddenly I envisioned each of my pupils pondering the questions and instantly new perceptions filled my mind.  I realized that though my students might have been equipped with the content, there was, indeed, some ambiguity in a few of the questions that might have prevented them from knowing what to write.   It was actually enjoyable to approach the exam questions from this stance and to document our input.  The group will submit our report to the IB and then we each individually will have a chance to logon to the IB site and record our personal impressions of the exams.  The IB takes our input seriously and if enough teachers place doubt on a particular question, it can be thrown out.  Participating in such an activity is satisfying and is somehow empowering as you feel like you’re contributing to a greater process.  It’s kind of like voting.  You research the issues, you put forth the effort to go out and vote and then you feel good.

Additionally, the process has given me additional respect for the IB process and the IB education.  Any other IB teachers out there that have taken a formalized approach to the exam review? Or have any exam review experiences to share?

IB Exams Mark an End

The school is silent. It’s Friday afternoon and nearly everyone has emptied out of the building.  However, my IB students are sitting the second of their three biology exams. Their first one was written earlier in the afternoon.

We’ve worked together for two years to get to this point.  They all successfully completed their internal assessments.  They’ve learned the content.  Practice tests, review sessions, and more practice questions have led them up to this point.  I wonder if the nervousness I feel is similar to theirs.

My classes have continued all day but when my IB students entered the exam room my mind and thoughts were with them.  Will they remember the details?  Did they review the areas that they are weak in?  Did they secure their strengths? 

What will the focus on the exams be?  Will they need to recall the specifics of osmoregulation, respiration, heart function, or something altogether different? Will they understand the questions?  Will they pay attention to the command terms?  Will they read the questions?  I’m a bundle of nerves. 

I hope I haven’t failed them in any areas. Will I read through the questions next week and find one or more that causes me to think, “Oh no, they won’t have been able to answer that one”?

My last class for the afternoon departs.  There’s still an hour before the first students will be done.  My web sites are updated.  Programs for the science fair are printed and folded. Our choir practice for the graduation is a welcomed distraction.  Immediately following the practice, I hurry upstairs and linger in the hallway, anticipating my students’ emergence from the exam room.

My seniors - last year doing a catalase enzyme lab.  I will miss them!

Slowly they trickle out.  One is in tears.  Another grins claiming, “That was easy”.  Surely the reality is somewhere in between these two extremes: I doubt the exam was truly tear-worthy but I also question its “easiness”.  Of course I grill them for details, details we can’t share  beyond the walls of our school for another 24 hours.  They just wrote extended responses but struggle to recall what the questions were.  Together, however, they recollect several specifics.  While I cringe internally at some, there are no surprises.  It seems some of their answers were sketchy while others might have been complete. 

The exam questions will make it to my desk next week and I will pour over them answering them for myself simultaneously attempting to guess how my students would have answered the same questions.  However, I’ll still have to wait until the heat of summer for the results.  Then we’ll know the Biology scores for each student plus the results for all of their subject areas.  And, of course, whether they earned the coveted IB diploma.

How I hope they each succeed.  However, in the end, I know I’ve done all I can possibly do to help them in their aspiration for the Biology portion.  And, I know they’ve all done the best they are capable of given their study habits, dedication over the two years, test taking skills, and inherent interest in their subject areas. I can’t ask for more. 

Last year  doing the lab.

On Monday they will sit the last exam for Biology.  I will repeat the above nervous anticipation of hearing their experience in the exam.  Then, our time together is over and we wait until July. 

The IB exams mark an end.  An end I’m excited to see arrive but also sad to see go.  It means I won’t teach this particular group of students together ever again.  They’ll honestly all be missed and will forever, as past students do, hold a special place in my heart.  I hope they’ll keep in touch and let me know where life takes them.  It is sincerely my wish for them to have successful and happy lives. 

This time of year, certainly in education, marks many ends.  End of the school year.  End of a grade.  The end of elementary, middle, high school, college, university, or graduate school.  But in every case, the end marks also the beginning of a new phase of life.   Cheers to all seniors everywhere in the middle of exams!

With exams around the corner, motivation has finally hit.

Yesterday was the seniors’ last day and on Monday they begin the arduous task of writing a series of IB exams for which they have been working towards for two years.  Earlier in the week our IB coordinator probed the students to see how they are doing.  Some sat there dazed with blood shot eyes looking terrible, clearly already in a sleep-deprived state due to extreme study habits.  However, there were a couple who reported, “We’re chill”.  This alarming attitude concerned the IB team as the students still have a lot of review to complete from their two –year course.  “Chill” will not carry them.  Additionally, after the schedule was released, students noted that there was a 40-minute break between several sets of exams.  “So is that study time?” to which the IB coordinator responded, “No, this schedule does not build in study time.  You were supposed to be studying for the past two years”. 

More "chill" times: The 11th grade trip - taken just as the students began their two-year IB journey.

So, given the attitude of some of these students, who happen to be IB Biology candidates, I was left wondering if any of them would want review time with me before the exams.  Even though the seniors are not required to come to school unless they are writing an exam, IB teachers remain available during the students’ normal class hours (and beyond) to provide review sessions and/or answer questions in preparation for the impending exam.  I’ll admit, I didn’t expect that my seniors would come in today and I was secretly looking forward to having some extra time to work on our upcoming science fair, to do some research for my South Africa trip, to work on report card development, and quite frankly, address my gigantic “to do” list.

However, much to my surprise, my HL IB Biology students requested a review session and they had some very specific topics that they wanted me to cover.  So, I created a revision plan and met with these students this morning.  It was incredible!  The process of muscle contraction with all the details of action potential, calcium ion diffusion, troponin, actin, myosin heads, and ATPase clicked into place.  “This is so awesome” they exclaimed, “to think this is happening all the time.  It is amazing!” They flushed with excitement over their comprehension.  We moved on to ultrafiltration, selective reabsorption, and osmoregulation of the kidney.  The students bent over their notes carefully diagramming and annotating the nephron structure.  Questions flowed freely as they intently sought understanding.  Exceeding our normal time together by 5 minutes, they confidently claimed they thoroughly understood the functional processes of the kidney.  Equally awed by this amazing organ of our bodies they shared their wonder with me.   Then they discussed their study plan and made arrangements for the next review session, complete with a detailed request of material to be addressed.

As our IB coordinator noted, “It’s not a matter of if the IB exam mentality sets in, it’s a matter of when.  Four days before exams begin is a little late but at least it has arrived”.

It’s true, each group of seniors and every individual is different.  However, I do wonder, if there is a way to ignite the motivation much, much earlier.  Or, is it just human nature to wait until we actually feel the heat in order to act?

How much choice should students have in their own learning?

“Don’t you think you should let us make the decision?”

“He’s right”, I think.  But, I’m hesitant.

Normally, I send my second year IB students into the spring break with a regimented plan of review.  This year, however, I was stymied by the fact that their needs were so diverse and I couldn’t hone in on a “one size fits all” method.  From their mock exams I knew that, at a minimum, they all needed to review photosynthesis, osmoregulation, and all of genetics.

Now, it’s somewhat common to include students in deciding the rules of a classroom to enhance classroom management or to include students in building rubrics for a specific assignment to increase engagement in learning as well as quality of product.  However, I’m not so sure about preparation for IB exams.

Within a 10-second period a mental battle rages within:  The control freak inside of me wants to give them a quiz, after the break, covering their areas of weakness so that I can ensure that they will study what they need to study.  However, my logical self agrees with my students’ perspective that they are motivated enough to learn the topics they need to learn.  Then, the IB teacher inside of me reminds me of my responsibility to give them every opportunity to succeed.  The individual within me argues back that the students do know what to do and I’ve already equipped them properly.

10 of the graduating seniors are in my IB Bio class, 7 of them intent on passing the IB Biology exam.

I listen to their individual study plans that include practice papers, reviewing weaknesses, and studying as they determined best suited for themselves.  They are convincing.

So, in the end, I decide to let them self-regulate.  After all, in a few months time they will all be at college.   They should be able to handle this on their own, right?

Of course, I’ll be doing some formative assessment upon their return from the break.  After all, I need to collect data on this little experiment, right?  And, the reality is that we still have time to go into hyper-drive mode in the event that the experiment doesn’t work.