IB Physics can be taken at either Higher Level (HL) or Standard Level (SL). The recommended time investment for HL is 240 hours, and for SL, it is 150 hours. The grading breakdown for both is the same: internal assessments (comprising individual investigations) are 20%, and external assessments are 80%.
IB Physics Content Overview
Science skills required for IB Physics
Much of physics rests on observations. A student must build models from these observations which then go on to become theories. Students are expected to understand and apply scientific concepts, terminologies, methodologies, and techniques as well as be able to communicate scientific results concisely. They must be able to formulate appropriate and engaging research questions and hypotheses, and build on their predictions with primary and secondary data from simulated/hands-on experiments. They must also be able to produce scientific explanations of their investigations.
Mathematical skills required for IB Physics
Students are expected to be able to perform arithmetic calculations such as percentages, and approximations, and manipulate equations with trigonometric functions (logarithmic and exponential function manipulations are requirements only for HL students). They are expected to be familiar with doing scientific notation, manipulating algebraic equations, plotting and interpreting graphs and data, as well as both calculating and expressing uncertainties in measurements to one or two significant figures (with apt explanations).
The difference between SL and HL Physics
1. Differences in syllabus:
The core topics, common to both levels, include a basic understanding of measurements and errors in science, mechanics, heat, waves, electricity, energy, atomic physics, and circular motion. Higher level students are required to study additional topics and subtopics, such as wave phenomena, and fields, to name a few. Additional higher level (AHL) topics include wave phenomena, fields, electromagnetic induction, and quantum physics (an additional 60 hours compared to SL). Within topics classified as “option”, students can choose amongst relativity, engineering physics, imaging, and astrophysics.
All this is complemented by the practical activities, IA, and group 4 project that the students are expected to undertake. The group 4 project is a team activity where students from different group 4 subjects work together on a common topic, enabling a cross-disciplinary and collaborative understanding of science and the processes involved in an interdisciplinary project.
For most students new to science, SL would be a better fit. HL requires a basic understanding of scientific ways of thinking.
2. Differences in grading:
Internal assessments, common to both SL and HL, comprise an individual investigation that could be a simulation, a model, or a hands-on experiment. This assessment allows the students to challenge and engage themselves by applying their scientific knowledge to their personal interests. These assessments are marked by the teachers and externally moderated by the IB to maintain quality and fairness.
External assessments comprise three written papers: Paper 1 has MCQs (30 for SL, 40 for HL) and contributes to 20% of the grade for both SL and HL. Paper 2 has short-answer and extended-response questions on core and AHL (if applicable) topics and contributes to 40% of the grade for SL and 36% for HL: that is, 50 marks. Paper 3 is subdivided into two sections: Section A comprises one data-based question and several short-answer questions on experimental work, and Section B tests short-answer and extended-response questions from one option. Overall, paper 3 contributes to 20% of the grade for SL and 24% for HL. Papers 2 and 3 allow for the use of calculators, and a physics data booklet is provided for all papers.
Overall, IB Physics aims to engage students with scientific ways of thinking and building models to simulate the world around them and understand how it works. It aims to instil in students an awareness of collaborative and interdisciplinary efforts in the field of science through a practical approach.