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  • Zain Asif

Unpack the IB Subject Guides- IMPORTANT! 📦

You have a test coming up. But you have no idea where to start or what to study. Classic dilemma with a simple solution. The single most useful thing an IB student can start off with is to READ THE SUBJECT GUIDE.

How does it help?

Everyone gets the subject guides in their first week of school but we just stuff them in our bag and never look at them again. In reality, thoughtfully using it can be the difference between a 5 and a 7.

The subject guide is a word for word outline for every single topic the IB can assess us on for a subject. Nothing can be assessed outside of this guide!! It specifically points to everything we need to study and include in our exams. It provides us with clear criteria and method to get a 7 in our internal and external assessments. It breaks down everything you have to do to succeed in a subject. I honestly cannot stress how essential it is to use it for EVERY part of your subject.

Let's take a question on neurons in a biology test:

"Explain how an impulse passes along the membrane of a neuron" [8 marks]. 💡

Amy has a passion for neurobiology and spends 3 hours reading around all the interesting nuances of a neuron. But in her answer, she only mentions 3/8 points that the IB wanted her to talk about and ends up with a low grade :(

Terry, however, chooses to look at the sub-topics of the unit in the biology subject guide. He realised that there are a few key points he must address in his answer and is done in 30 mins. He studied exactly what the IB wanted him to and ends up with a solid 7/8 marks.

Back in school, most people, including me, were big fat Amys. We waste so much time mindlessly studying unimportant parts of the chapter from the textbook and end up losing the bigger picture. It would feel like an infinite amount of information to remember and even after I put so much detail in my answers, I'd never get the grade.

I didn't understand why until I looked at the syllabus in my subject guide. It literally tells you a) exactly what to learn b) the depth you need to go in and c) what we can expect on the exam. The IB wants us to include only certain points in our answers. And it wants us to convey them in a very specific manner.

The problem is: most of us just end up studying the mainstream parts of a topic for the exam. Why? Simply because it's the information that is most commonly available. However, this is flawed. The IB wants us to learn very specific chunks of knowledge to fulfill the highest criteria and, as you can see, the mainstream information only makes up a part of this. The subject guide is the only clear-cut way we can know about every specific topic the IB wants us to know for the exams. So why waste time learning about so much useless content, when you can just use the guide to spoon-feed you the things you need to study.

Let's break it down:

The syllabus section of the guide is the first thing you need to focus on. Here is a break-down of what a group 4 (sciences) guide would include for a sub-unit:

How should I use it?

Now, in an ideal world, I'd tell you to explore the guide's content before you study any topic in your classes. But I know that most of you are pretty lazy and will rarely be bothered to do this. But to secure the highest grade, putting effort smartly is the way to go. So, let me give you some doable steps for using the guide instead:

Disclaimer: Tip 1 is highly essential for everyone. Tip 2 is important for progression. Tip 3 is for the top tier students only. Do all three effectively and you're golden.

Tip 1: Whether you're studying in class or at home, always use the guide to direct your learning and revision.

  • You will always know exactly what to revise for the exams so revision is going to be very clear.

  • You can verify whether the resources you use for studying, ie. teachers and textbooks, are focusing on all the right content. Using the best resources is 🔑 to doing well.

  • Looking at the list of topics helps make you feel less overwhelmed and less anxious about what's on the exams.

Tip 2: Highlight (red, orange, green) all of the specific content + skills of any topic you study, to evaluate your personal understandings of them.

  • You will keep reflecting on your understandings as you go through more and more content over time. It is immensely helpful to know exactly how much you know.

  • This gives you a very realistic picture on what you need to work on or improve for all topics in the exam, regardless of where you are in the IB.

Tip 3: Find links + patterns between the subject guide topics and the IB exam papers + mark schemes.

  • Comparing specific topics in the guide to common IB exam questions, allows you to focus your efforts more on learning the important parts of the course before exams:

Chemistry Guide Example: The 'Applications & Skills' section of 'the moles concept' shows up in 75% of ALL paper 2 IB chemistry exams to date. In an SL paper, an average of 9/50 marks is devoted to the 'Understandings + Applications' of Unit 1: Stoichiometry.

  • Finding patterns between the guide's topics and the mark scheme can help master answering certain IB questions the way they want you to:

Biology Example: Let's compare the mark scheme of the neuron impulse question with the topics in the Biology guide. You will notice that 5/9 bullet points of the "Understandings" within the 'Neurons & Synapses' section of the guide are replicated in the mark scheme of the question about neurons. So by stating these 5 lines from the guide in the exam, you will get 5 out of the 8 marks automatically!!

This last tip here will take a while to capitalize on and won't be easy but you will be so grateful you analysed and compared the IB past papers with the IB guide. Not many people know how useful this can really be ;)


Hopefully, you're now convinced that continuously using the IB subject guide for your subjects is the single most useful and underrated investment of your time. I want you to follow the advice and tips given above but I also want you to explore your own techniques. Annotate difficult topics in the guide, think about new ways of using it and be creative with your studying.


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