Navigating the Learning Curve of the IB

May Fujita
9 min read

For the large majority of people, the rigor of the IBDP programme is unfamiliar and challenging to get used to at first. Even after an entire year, lots of students still find it difficult to manage some of their subjects. The IBDP is made to be difficult, a reason why it is one of the most renowned high school curriculums globally.

It’s 100% okay and normal to see a drop in your grades when you start the IBDP. A hard truth to take, but at some point, you will most definitely find yourself stuck one way or another. These new challenges may seem like the end of the world, but you can work your way out of it if you find the right mindset and tools to help you. For some inspo, here’s some strategies that you can fall back on if you find that things aren’t working out the way you want in the beginning.

Find a way to study that works for not just you, but for your subject

For my first two topic tests in IB Physics, I walked in having studied my notes and memorizing key terms. Walking out of both, I was on the verge of tears from how I could hardly solve the questions on the paper. The result? 3s. In other words, I failed, a first for me in my entire academic career.

At that point I knew I had to change the way I prepared. I discovered that my classmates were using past paper questions to study, and I decided I’d start to do the same. Throughout a grand total of seven subsequent tests, by preparing using past-paper resources like RevisionDojo, I saw a huge improvement in my numeric grades. By the last test of the year, I had managed to get that 7 I could only dream of back in the fall.

This isn’t to say that using your notes and reviewing key concepts isn’t important. The issue was how I was revising knowledge without putting it into practice. If my tests were composed of questions asking me to define this or explain that, maybe it would have been suitable. But in reality, my tests sought a lot of calculation and identifying when to use which ideas. Practicing with past paper questions helped me recognize the rules that applied to different situations, perform calculations with more confidence, and see the ways in which questions challenge students to relate different concepts.

The best way to study will likely look different for different subjects. (And people!) But regardless of the field, if you find that you always feel unprepared, take the time to reflect on why that is so. Try asking yourself:

“Has how I studied aligned with the format of the assessment?”

”What am I expected to know at this point in time?”

“What other resources might be available to use?”

Spend more (or less!) time

You might be tired of hearing this, because time management is a lot easier said than done! But in the IB, you will find it’s not always easy to do an assignment last minute and get a 7.

Pulling an all nighter before the due date may have worked before, but it’s unsustainable in the long run. Having 6 broad subjects to manage at once, constant procrastination is going to leave you with complicated topics that you realize you don’t understand by your final exams. If you don’t take the time at the beginning to build a strong foundation, you’re more likely to have a harder time later as classes start covering more complex topics.

Now, I’m going to sound quite hypocritical, but it’s equally unsustainable to spend too much time studying. Unfortunately, the IB is not the place where you will be rewarded just for the effort, as much as we all wish it was.

No matter how much time you allocate to studying each day, without focusing on the right things, you can’t achieve high marks. If you’re studying for a test, I advise you to check with your teacher what content will be tested. Likewise for projects and assignments, look over the assessment criteria and clarify unclear grade descriptors with your teacher.

You should also reflect on if you are allocating the right amount of time to each of your subjects. Some subjects will need more time outside school hours, so it’s important to ensure your success in one is not at the expense of another. But if you can’t seem to make time after school (CAS can be a struggle sometimes), who said you couldn’t make class hours more effective?

Personally, I minimize the amount of time I spend studying for ESS by engaging during class more often. Yes, tetris can be more interesting than your teacher sometimes, but staying focused can help save time overall. Staying engaged lets you write clearer notes for revision, and gives you opportunities to ask questions in class so you don’t use up time writing emails after school. Thanks to this, I find that I can score consistent 7s without revising any more than one or two hours combined spread out over a few days. This strategy may be easier with subjects that call for lots of memorization: You can spend time in class understanding content, recall it later to review, and then link new knowledge in later classes, building a natural spaced repetition system.

Switching subjects can be the best choice

A frequent worry amongst my M26 juniors seems to be the question of “what if I chose the wrong subjects?”

Here’s my answer: As long as you’ve taken into account the subjects you might need for applying to university, there’s no wrong answer to subject selection. People will have their own priorities and expectations for the IBDP programme, so the final six can look a lot different between students even at the same school.

What you should consider though, is how motivated you are to pursue this selection.

Motivation is absolutely crucial. Certain subjects can get extraordinarily difficult, so in the face of challenge, you need to make success seem worth it. If a subject is giving you a struggle and you can’t find the will to improve, it’s likely a good sign to take the hint and switch it out.

I myself changed one of my choices early on. I started DP1 taking both English and Japanese A Language and Literature. But in the first weeks, I quickly realized I lacked the same confidence I had with English for Japanese. Writing and speaking in class became an anxiety-inducing chore. By the first month, I had come to the conclusion that my pride and the bilingual diploma was not worth feeling terrible about myself 3 hours a week. With the help of my IB coordinator, I switched to Spanish ab initio in no time. Not only am I getting better grades than I ever would have in Japanese, I have found learning a new language to be fascinating and eye-opening.

If you ever consider switching any of your subjects, it’s definitely best to do so earlier rather than later, before you fall behind on lots of content. If you do find that something’s not for you at the end of the first semester, it might also be possible to alter some levels within your current selection. Think it over until you are content with whatever your decision. The process can look different at each school, so if you’re unsure, consult your university advisors and IB coordinator about available options.

To conclude

I acknowledge that the advice I’ve given above may not be particularly new. But they get preached so often because students today face the same challenges as those from years and years before. You have seniors and teachers who can provide you with advice, and the internet is full of fellow peers and alumni ready to rant, rave, and reflect about all things IB. You will inevitably face an academic challenge like never before. But trust me when I say that improvement is just around the corner, and it comes alongside the pride that you are surviving one of the hardest curriculums in the entire world.

Good luck!