Why is IB HL Maths so hard?

If you are a teacher then please also visit my new site: intermathematics.com for over 2000+ pdf pages of resources for teaching IB maths!

This is a question that nearly all students who take the subject will ask themselves at some point during the course – and they’d be right to do so because it’s a question that most teachers ask as well.  The table below shows the students entered for the May 2015 IB exams:

Only 14% of IB students take IB HL,  an incredibly low take up.  Even more remarkably half of this group will only get a level 2-4.   Looking at the top end, to get a level 6 or 7 at HL you probably need to have a maths ability in the top 3.5% of all global IB students.  Out of a year group of 60 you would expect on average only 2 students to be good enough to get a 5 and 2 more to get a 6 or 7.  Given than universities asking for HL maths will invariably be asking for level 5+, this means that the IB have designed a course which is only really useful for 4 students in every 60.

It’s not as if the IB aren’t aware that they’ve created a course that hardly any students get benefit from.  The most recent release acknowledges that “students struggle to reach their full potential” in the subject – with a plan to reduce the marks on the paper to give students more time.  But this is failing to address the overall cause of the problem, i.e that examiners persist in producing bad exams which don’t take into account the needs of the students taking them.

You can see this failure easily enough by looking at past paper grade boundaries.  Given that only half of HL students will come out with more than a level 4, the grade boundary for a level 4 is normally pitifully low – around 40% on paper 1.  There’s absolutely no justification for this when 70% is low enough to produce a level 7.  What is the final 30% of the paper – too difficult even for level 7 students – hoping to achieve?   This is evidence of a bad exam and nothing more.  And yet examiners seem to be incapable of doing anything to change this.  An exam designed expecting level 4 students to be getting 50% should be an absolute minimum requirement.  Hard questions and low grade boundaries simply result in demotivated and disillusioned students who feel like their 2 years slogging through HL has been wasted.  Is this the legacy that IB want to achieve?  That students who start the course with enthusiasm and love for the subject get gradually crushed and demoralised?  It seems a pretty poor outcome.

The option paper for Calculus also shows the same lamentable failings.  The November 2015 Calculus paper required only 38% to get a level 4 and 56% for a level 6.  Given that so few students achieve level 6 or 7 this means the paper was so badly designed that probably close to 75% of the students taking it got less than 50%.  How can this be anything other than a failure of the examiners to actually produce a fair test?  This bunching up of all grades meant that a slip on one question could cost a student 2 grades.  17 marks out of 60 was a level 2 – but 23 marks a level 4.  Equally a student getting 28 marks or 34 marks would have got level 4 or 6 respectively.  This is a terrible test!  Small mistakes are massively penalised and all students leave the exam room feeling like they have failed.

Examiner Mindset

The examiner mindset especially in evidence in the Calculus option unit is to purposely avoid all topics that they think the students will be able to do, and instead to find parts of the syllabus that they expect to catch students out on.  On P1 and P2 where examiners have 240 marks to play with, these exams are a good reflection of the syllabus content.  For P3 this isn’t the case – large chunks of the syllabus are ignored completely in exams, which makes it all the more unfair when examiners decide to deliberately look for problem areas, rather than concentrating on making a test which reflects the overall content of the course.  There also seems to be the desire to make the Calculus option a university undergraduate level maths paper – as though there is a pride to be taken in making it as difficult and rigorous as possible.  But HL maths is not an undergraduate  course – and the students taking it are not university mathematicians.  Designing a paper which is aimed only at the needs of level 6 and 7 students is incredibly unfair to the rest of the cohort – and yet this appears to be what happens.

Essential Resources for IB Teachers

If you are a teacher then please also visit my new site.  This has been designed specifically for teachers of mathematics at international schools.  The content now includes over 2000 pages of pdf content for the entire SL and HL Analysis syllabus and also the SL Applications syllabus.  Some of the content includes:

1. Original pdf worksheets (with full worked solutions) designed to cover all the syllabus topics.  These make great homework sheets or in class worksheets – and are each designed to last between 40 minutes and 1 hour.
2. Original Paper 3 investigations (with full worked solutions) to develop investigative techniques and support both the exploration and the Paper 3 examination.
3. Over 150 pages of Coursework Guides to introduce students to the essentials behind getting an excellent mark on their exploration coursework.
4. A large number of enrichment activities such as treasure hunts, quizzes, investigations, Desmos explorations, Python coding and more – to engage IB learners in the course.

There is also a lot more.  I think this could save teachers 200+ hours of preparation time in delivering an IB maths course – so it should be well worth exploring!

Essential Resources for both IB teachers and IB students

I’ve put together a 168 page Super Exploration Guide to talk students and teachers through all aspects of producing an excellent coursework submission.  Students always make the same mistakes when doing their coursework – get the inside track from an IB moderator!  I have also made Paper 3 packs for HL Analysis and also Applications students to help prepare for their Paper 3 exams.  The Exploration Guides can be downloaded here and the Paper 3 Questions can be downloaded here.