If choosing IB diploma subjects in Hong Kong has got you mega confused, expert educator Alethea Bleyberg is here to shed some light on the subject(s)
IB educator and examiner Alethea Bleyberg from The Learning Curve has been working in the field for many years (plus, she’s the daughter of IB specialists too, so it’s in the blood!) She often receives the same questions from parents and students regarding choosing IB Diploma subjects in Hong Kong, so here she lays the facts on the table to make life a little easier for you.
Intro to choosing IB Diploma subjects
If you have a child, or are a student, going into the IB Diploma Programme next year or in the future, subject choices are a big deal, and it can be a bit confusing when you first start doing your research. A full IB Diploma student needs to take all three Core components, and in addition six subjects across at least five different subject areas – three at Higher Level (HL) and three at Standard Level (SL). Most schools offer more than just six subjects in the IB Diploma Programme so students have the opportunity to select the combination subjects that match their interests, abilities and future aspirations the best.
Unfortunately, schools can’t wait until the end of the school year to ask students for their subject selections as their choices determine the timetable, staffing, recruitment and resourcing for the following academic year; and they need this information early so that they can plan ahead.
Intro to choosing IB Diploma subjects: how it usually works
In order to help parents and students with this process, schools usually offer information evenings for parents and organise subject carousel or marketplace events for G10 / Yr 11 students at which students already in the IB Diploma explain the course content, structure and assessments to their younger peers to help inform them about the different subjects. Schools usually also organise taster lessons to allow students the opportunity to learn more about different IB subjects from the subject teachers, and are advised by their IB Coordinator and university guidance team about which subjects at which levels are required for entrance onto university courses in various destinations.
Despite best attempts made by the school, students can find making these choices challenging for a number of reasons. Firstly, they are being asked to narrow the number of subjects they study – students might take up to 12 subjects in Grade 10 / Year 11 – which might mean giving up subjects they enjoy. Secondly, students are asked to choose between subjects that they may not have studied previously – such as Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS) or Philosophy – so they feel underinformed. There are also choices within subject groups such as Literature vs Language and Literature in Group 1 and two different mathematics courses (both offered at HL and SL) which further expand the options from which students must choose. Thirdly, these choices impact university applications; not choosing the right subjects at the right level can limit which destinations and courses students are eligible for. This process can have far-reaching consequences and, therefore, needs due care and attention.
Tips for prospective IB Diploma students and parents
1. Choose your subjects with university entrance in mind
Students interested in studying Economics at top universities in the UK will need Mathematics at Higher Level, future Engineering students will need Physics and Mathematics HL, medics will need Biology and Chemistry at HL and prospective law students are advised to take English A HL to demonstrate critical reading and strong writing skills. Even if you are not sure of what you want to study yet, choosing the right subjects at the right levels for the courses you are potentially interested in, means you avoid limiting your options.
2. Choose the most rigorous combination of subjects and levels that is still manageable
To ensure as many doors to university entrance are kept open for students as possible, students should choose a rigorous combination of subjects, while ensuring that they are not overburdening themselves with an excessive level of challenge. This might mean choosing one or two subjects that are more of a ‘stretch’ and compensating with other subjects that are more manageable to create a balanced Diploma subject combination, or choosing more challenging subjects only at SL. Choosing the easiest combination of subjects and levels to maximise total points score is probably not the best strategy as universities look for students who push themselves academically beyond scoring highly.
3. Research subjects you are unfamiliar with
If the school offers IB subjects about which you know very little, try to find out more about them. You can do this by talking to the subject teacher(s), IB Coordinator or university guidance counsellor, borrowing a textbook for the subject from the library, talking to students who take the subject, or researching the syllabus details on the IB’s website. Often students think they are not interested in a subject only to express great interest in it after they find out more.
4. Understand how subjects are assessed
All IB subjects are assessed to some extent by your teacher through coursework (called Internal Assessment) and by examiners (called External Assessment). However, the balance between internal and external assessment varies from subject to subject. Most subjects are examined through exams, but some, such as Visual Arts and Theatre, do not have any written exams. Some subjects require more essay writing, such as History, while others will require short answers, such as Business Management. Knowing your strengths as a student can help you decide which subjects play to your strengths.
5. Understand the difference between HL and SL
Taking a subject at HL means covering all the SL material and then an additional extension. It pays to find out exactly what additional content and assessment is required for a subject at HL. In some subjects the HL extension material is more extensive and challenging than in other subjects. That might help you decide between which subjects to take at HL (and which to avoid). Students who take subjects such as Design Technology, Visual Arts, Music and Theatre will need to spend more time on project work so make sure you have budgeted time accordingly if you are thinking of taking more than one of these subjects at HL.
6. Limit the influence of extraneous factors
Sometimes students make their choices for superficial reasons such as choosing the same subjects as their friends or choosing a subject taught by a teacher they like. While it can be sometimes helpful to have social support or confidence in a reliable teacher, basing decisions on these factors alone Is not a good strategy. Similarly, students sometimes avoid choosing some subjects because of rumours around perceived difficulty or inability to score highly in the subject. Make sure you don’t over-rely on scare stories and get all the facts before ruling out a subject on hearsay alone.
No matter how good the planning, it is common for students to change their level choices, and sometimes even their subject choices, in the first weeks of starting the Diploma Programme. Perhaps a subject is not what they thought, or the demands of taking a subject at HL are simply too high. Most schools have a grace period at the start of the academic year and a deadline by which changes to subject choices need to be made. Teachers do not cover HL content at the start of the course, so changing levels is unlikely to be problematic. That said, being as accurate as possible with subject selections now gives schools the best chance of being able to facilitate your choices in the timetable. Time spent now can avoid disappointment later!