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This blog post is designed to be used as a basic guide to attaining a higher maths IA mark. Do note that as the potential topics for maths IA’s are so wide and that each topic of maths would be approached differently, this blog post will provide more general advice as opposed to necessary components of each IA; which can be otherwise be discerned from the IA marking criteria. Our tutor achieved full marks for his HL maths IA, 20/20, and hope that his personal experience can assist you when writing up your final IB maths IA.
1: Find a topic you genuinely enjoy
The typical, clichéd piece of advice; find a topic you actually enjoy. In my opinion, this applies to the maths IA more than almost any other IA or assignment (apart from the EE), as a great deal of time will have to be spent on it to achieve a high mark. The IA will definitely be tedious in terms of formatting and working out and so on, especially with maths studies IA which will typically involve statistics, and so it is essential that you don’t bore yourself too much and become demotivated.
When referring to a “topic” you actually enjoy, however, I don’t just mean the subject, e.g. an IA based on your favourite sport, but also on the maths involved. While maths studies IA’s will usually be statistics-based as mentioned, there is much more variety in SL and HL IA’s. Students should pick their favourite maths topic, or at the very least one that they don’t particularly dislike, so that again the IA doesn’t become too tedious and boring. This is of extra importance for SL and HL IA’s, in which “Personal Engagement” is one of the criterion.
2: Meet the criteria
This brings me to my next point, which seems obvious but can be so easily overlooked; simply, meet the IB’s marking criteria. It is absolutely imperative that students work with the marking criteria next to them, constantly comparing their work to the qualifiers described in the criteria and making sure that these qualifiers are met. It is usually very helpful to base your IA off of the ‘full marks’ qualifier for each criterion, and then compare this to the one below to see exactly what is required for the extra mark.
Many of the criteria are relatively vague and based on marker’s interpretations, and so it is necessary to fulfil the ones that are measurable and quantitative in the chance that you have a harsh marker for the subjective criteria. For example, it is much more difficult to demonstrate personal engagement than to simply have the correct notation and terminology, or to have a correctly formatted bibliography.
3: Structure your IA effectively
Personally, one aspect of maths IA’s that I consider highly important is structure. In terms of having a good structure, I mean that the IA should be easy to follow and separated into small sections, each with an obvious purpose - for example: Introduction, Raw Data, Processing, and so on. Having an effective, organised and coherent structure helps both markers to understand and follow your IA (therefore being more inclined to give it a higher mark) as well as meet some of the criteria.
In maths studies, some of the criteria even include “introduction” and “structure and communication”, and so obviously having a clear-cut structure will allow for higher marks. Moreover, segmenting maths studies IA’s also facilitates higher marks in the “interpretation of results” criteria; simply interpret your results after every section, as opposed to one long paragraph at the end.
Similarly in maths SL and HL, having a well-structured IA aids the “communication” criterion, as well as “personal engagement”; again, simply reflect at the end of each section as opposed to one long paragraph at the end. I personally constantly reminded myself to do this, and believe that it is a major factor as to why I achieved full marks for the personal engagement criteria.
4: Read over your IA, and have someone else proofread over it too
The maths IA can be extremely laborious, whether it be the amount of raw data and processing necessary for maths studies or the amount of equations to type out and notation to fix for maths SL and HL. As such, it is very easy to simply make a careless mistake on terminology or notation or to miss a digit in a number. Therefore, students should read over their IA and what they are typing constantly, as well as having someone else read over it. The way I look at it, the more people who proofread your assignment for these small errors, the less likely you are to submit a final assessment riddled with such errors.
I would advise asking someone more experienced at maths to read over it (i.e. a tutor, mentor, high-achieving friend or lecturer) so that they can recognise more notation and terminology errors, as well as discovering potential errors.
5: Start ASAP!
Finally, with all that in mind, start the maths IA as soon as possible. Some assignments, such as an English essay or written assignment can, if need be, be written several days before a deadline. I do not believe that this is possible to do this and achieve high marks in a maths IA. There is simply too much to do, i.e. finding raw data and processing it for maths studies or solving equations and then typing all of them in SL and HL, reading over your IA for notation and terminology and asking a friend to read over it also, creating graphs, fixing your structure, and so on. The list is endless and for this reason, I would highly recommend to start as early as possible.
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In this article, I will provide three pieces of advice for any IB student struggling to find a potential EE topic.
1) PICK A TOPIC THAT FASCINATES YOU
For all the benefits of the IB, a common complaint from students is that it forces them to choose subjects they dislike. Not a strong science student? Too bad, the IB requires that you choose a science subject. Satisfied with being unilingual? The IB forces you to learn a second language.
This is, however, NOT the case for the EE. Students can choose whatever topic and question they like (within reason of course). Common disciplines which come to mind include: English, Psychology, History, Economics, Science, Film and Visual Arts.
But how do you decide what fascinates you within a general topic area? I would recommend these three following actions:
(a) Skim through the syllabus or textbook of your favourite subject(s) and think back to what you have covered earlier in class. Ask yourself “what was my favourite topic we studied in class? What topic did I wish we learnt more of?” This is a good first step in the brainstorming process to find a suitable topic.
(b) I would then engage in the following thought experiment. Imagine you have been given $100,000 from the local government to pursue any academic project you like. You have absolute resources (time, employees and available research) at your disposal. What topic would you decide to pursue?
(c) Finally, look at your recent YouTube and Google searches. Look for the common theme(s) in those searches. Interested in losing weight to look better in summer? Why not consider an EE exploring the psychology and biochemical principles regulating weight loss? Do you love reading fiction or watching movies? Why not write an EE on your favourite novel or film (for an English and Film EE, respectively)?
2) FOLLOW THE RESEARCH
Now that you’ve come up with a range of potential topics for your EE, how do you decide which one is the winner? “FOLLOW THE RESEARCH”.
Google your potential topic and observe what research (from PhD candidates and researchers in that field) and media coverage surrounds that topic. Interesting in the psychology of political beliefs? Search that into Google and you’ll see that the amount of research and media coverage into political beliefs has exploded in the past couple of years with the recent election in the USA. A great deal of research and media articles is a good sign to indicate that there is sufficient depth of information out there for a 4000 word essay.
Thinking of writing an essay for a humanities subject? Without enough research, 4000 words might feel like an impossible task. Let me give you a concrete example. If you were fascinated with mental illness (a Psychology EE) and considering a potential mental disorder to explore, depression (formally known as “Major Depressive Disorder”) and anxiety might come to mind. This is because there is an extensive aggregate of research and media exposure on these disorders. This should provide you with enough substance to approach the study of depression and/or anxiety from the perspective of your choice (e.g., investing the causes or treatments of the disorders, the effects on workplace productivity, implications for creative achievement in artists and writers, etc.). In contrast, less prevalent mental disorders such as triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number 13), bibliomania (obsessive-compulsive behaviours focused on the collection of books) or dissociative identity disorder (popularised from the American film “Split”) are often poorly documented, making it more difficult for students to form pragmatic conclusions and a clear path of argument.
3) BE FLEXIBLE WITH YOUR RESEARCH QUESTION
The EE will likely be the most time-consuming assessment you complete for the IB. Sustaining focus and attention when writing 4000 words on a specific topic as a high-school student is not a walk in the park. So be prepared to be flexible with your chosen topic and research question.
For my EE, I initially decided to focus on the impact of head trauma in contact sports (e.g., NFL) on mental illness and suicide rates. An interesting and pertinent topic with a decent amount of research (which has exploded since I completed the IB), but as I started to read research papers and plan the path of argument, I realised that I was painting a dire picture of exercise for mental health. In my own life, I had experienced that exercise was an effective method to combat feelings of stress (especially in the lead up to major exams or deadlines), sadness, boredom and isolation. I researched the link between exercise and positive mental health outcomes and found significantly more research, a clearer path of argument and more wide-ranging implications than I had with my previous topic. In the end, I stuck with this second topic and I’m thankful I made the change when I did.
Pick a topic you are fascinated with and would happily study in the holidays for pleasure. If you have chosen a subject for the “marks”, you will find yourself bored, disengaged and loathing the process of research, planning and writing the EE. In most cases, this will be reflected in the mark you receive for your EE.
Next, follow the research and media coverage as an indication of the depth of available information on your topic and the most appropriate path of argument. Finally, be flexible when it comes to making changes in your topic and research question along the way.
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The IO is, for the majority of IB students, the most daunting assessment in the IB.
For those not familiar with the structure of the IOC, it involves an 8 minute oral commentary (like paper 1 but oral rather than written) on a poetry passage of approximately 30 lines, followed by 2 minutes of questions regarding this same passage. This is the same for English SL and HL students. However, after the oral commentary is complete and SL students are free to leave, HL students are then required to engage in a 10 minute discussion with their teacher on one of two texts they have studied in class. Sound difficult? That's right, it is.
So what preparation strategies did the English HL tutors at The Seven Solution use to achieve high marks for their IOC?
Preparing for the Oral Commentary1: Pay attention in class when analysing the poems! If you take detailed notes on the poems in class and ask questions to the teacher if there are any sections you do not understand or have neglected, this will make the final stages of your IOC preparation a lot easier. Listening to class discussions on the poems will also significantly reduce the chances of you getting to a specific part of a poem and having absolutely no prepared notes or analysis (not good if you get this extract in the final IOC!).
2: Next, print out a clean copy of each poem, with the poem centred on the page and well spaced out. This allows you to make your final written annotations of the poem (using a range of sources, i.e. your class notes, your own interpretation, your friends' interpretations and the internet) on a clean sheet which is easy to read and revise. Additionally, placing the poems in the centre of the page will enable you to annotate all around the passage, and use all of the space on the page (very important for dense passages with detailed analysis).
3: Revise and learn these annotations until you can accurately reproduce them from memory. When preparing for my IOC, I made sure that if I was given a blank copy of a poetry extract (like in the actual IOC), I would be able to recall at least 90% of the notes I had pre-prepared and revised. This meant that on the day of the IOC, I wasted less time having to analyse the poem and consider meaning and techniques, and thus had more time to spend preparing and structuring my oral response.
4: Practice your 8 minute oral commentaries! This is the part that most students neglect or avoid completely, due to the fear of realising how under-prepared they are, or because of their reluctance to listen to themselves on recording (everyone has a funny voice when recorded, don't worry!). Everyone struggles for the first few oral commentaries, but after a period of time, you get over the hurdle of speaking anxiety, and you actually reach the stage where it is harder to speak for less than 8 minutes than it is to make up the 8 minute time period. Listening to yourself speak out load also helps you to identify repetitive words or phrases (for me the words/phrases were: this suggests, wonder, and capacity of nature to ...), improving your ability to succinctly and eloquently convey your ideas of the passage.
Preparing for the Text Discussion1: Read each text at least twice! For me, the first reading was in class when studying the book as a group, while the second reading took place in the weeks leading up to the IOC. Reading the text a second time allowed me to pick up on some of the complex issues that I missed during my first reading when I was too busy focusing on the plot and not the broader themes and conventions.
2: Have a good set of notes! We have 30 + pages of detailed textual analysis for Hamlet and Saturday available here at The Seven Solution. If these aren't your texts, I would recommend structuring your notes around the following headings: (1) plot analysis, (2) structure, (3) context (author context and wider social and cultural context), (4) character analysis, (5) thematic / symbol analysis. This aims to give you a broad and holistic understanding of the novels, whilst also giving you the freedom to link in all aspects of the texts during your discussion.
3: Revise these notes! There's no use having a perfect set of notes if you don't understand and know them well. I made a conscious effort to revise my notes for each of the two texts at least 5 times before the final IOC, to ensure I had a thorough understanding of all the conventions of the texts, and could also recite certain quotes to support my answers.
4: Practice a discussion with a friend. This formed the basis for the week leading up to the IOC for me. I would meet with a friend (sometimes on FaceTime/Skype), and we would simply ask each other questions on the texts. We had a list of practice questions we were given in class, but once we'd exhausted these, we simply made them up on the spot. They don't have to be perfect; just enough to allow your partner to practice responding to oral questions and showing their knowledge of the texts in oral form.
I hope these short tips will help you in preparing for your upcoming IOC! If you would like more specific advice or tutoring, feel free to e-mail us (email@example.com) and we'll set something up.