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The quest for understanding:  Making the most out of IB Physics


The quest for understanding: Making the most out of IB Physics

Arthur Zargaryan

My name is Robert, and I am a recent graduate (or survivor?) of the IB; I studied maths, physics and chemistry at HL (my SLs are irrelevant as far as I’m concerned). My enthusiasm and ability in these subjects means that I feel at least partially qualified to give my $0.02 on approaching them. However, if I’m honest, I do not fully understand what makes someone good at maths, and I don’t particularly care for chemistry, so I will instead focus on physics.

Many people go into a physics class with a passive mindset, highlighting key definitions, writing down formulae, remembering explanations. When you get down to doing exams, this translates into a ‘factory’ mindset. The question gives you certain quantities, you put them into a formula, and your calculator gives you an answer. If asked for a definition or a standard explanation, you give the one you rote-learned.

This approach may work for chemistry, and would probably be enough to score you a 6 for physics. But if you are shooting for those very high scores, this attitude may not suffice. I can almost guarantee that, in both the MCQ and the extended answers, there will be an unexpected question. A question for which you will have to think, and to do physics. How on earth are you meant to prepare for this?

The best piece of advice I can give you is to understand what you are doing. Understand the relationships between all the topics, make sure you know clearly in your head exactly what is going on. Never just learn the formula. Always ask yourself exactly what the formula is saying. Don’t just say F is the force, m is mass, and a is acceleration. Understand that F = ma is really reflecting the deeper principle of inertia. If you are currently taking physics, there are a few topics for which having a clear conception of the interrelationships is highly beneficial (e.g simple harmonic motion, fields, and thermodynamics).

Developing a strong physics intuition (or indeed, an intuition for any other subjects) will take you very far. I do not mean that you shouldn’t rote-learn things. This is often a valuable asset in order to ensure that you remember which keywords the IB likes, because even if you know in your head what’s going on, at the end of the day you still have to put it on paper. But I want for you to be able to walk into your exam with confidence, knowing that you actually understand the material and are ready for whatever they throw at you.

One last thing, for anyone who intends on studying physics at university, the things I’ve said are especially important. For my Cambridge interview, one of the first questions I was asked, regarded the meaning of F=ma. A simple question meant to differentiate those who learnt a formula from those who learnt physics. It would be a good exercise for you to try to derive every formula in the data booklet, which I found to be very rewarding. You also may find my blog,, interesting (bonus points if you know to whom the title alludes).