Exam Skills

The exams are coming up (aren’t they always?).

This page is for some advice on how to prepare best for your exams and make the most of your time in the exam room. If you have any winning tips to share, please do so in the comments below!

Drawing in IB BiologyCalculations and UnitsExtended Response


Drawing in IB Biology

This presentation is in the very early draft stages, but it might help you with some revision. Draw the Core takes the assessment statements where a drawing, diagram or graph would be needed or very useful in the answer. I have knocked up my own images using a graphics tablet, so apologies for the terrible handwriting in some slides.


Nail down those definitions

Define is a ‘simple’ objective 1 command term… but you must be precise in your answers. Definitions are also a great start to review.

  • Quiz yourself on the definitions, check your answers.
  • Pay attention to the markschemes – what is the importance of the underlined terms and why can’t you get marks without them?
  • ‘Unpack’ the definition into its component parts – what is the relevance of each and how does it lead to more in-depth explanation of the concept?

Here’s a quiz for the define assessment statements in the SL Core and for the two options my class did this year. It’s a GoogleDoc – here’s the link.


Calculations and Units

You need to be able to calculate the following in the exams for the Core:

  • Mean & standard deviation
  • Magnification of an image
  • Actual size of part of a magnified image
  • Difference between two points in a set of data… [final – start]
  • … which is not the same as % difference: [(final – start)/start * 100]

For now, go through your syllabus and pick out all of the assessments statements that require a calculation or a unit. Test yourself on the correct way to write each unit and its use. Know your way around your calculator and pay attention if the question asks you to show your working.


Extended Response

In paper 2 section B, you are required to answer one (SL) or two (HL) extended response questions. These are worth 20 marks. Content makes up 18 of those marks, with ‘quality of answer’ making up the other two. The questions are normally broken into three or four parts, with the first parts just a few marks each. There will be at least one which is 8 or 9 marks.


  • Practice. Ask your teacher for example Paper 2 questions and the markschemes so you can get used to them. Complete them by yourself and check them as a group.
  • Use the 5-minutes reading time at the start of the exam to go through each option and decide which will give you the best outcome.
  • Highlight the command terms, pay attention to the number of marks available.
  • Practice.
  • Look for caveats in the question such as ‘…using a named example…‘ – without addressing these you will not get full marks.
  • Use scientific language appropriately. If you look on the markschemes, these are often underlined, meaning that you cannot be awarded a certain mark without the correct terminology.
  • Practice. You might not have written a block of text for a while, so strengthen those writing muscles!
  • Use English (or your response langauge) appropriately. It is expected that two parts of the question are answered in prose style, but do not confuse this with flowery writing. Don’t overstretch your language abilities, or you may confuse the examiner. Write simply and clearly. Address the command terms.
  • Write logically and check your work. One quality mark is simply for the completeness of the answer and the readability of the work – does the examiner need to skip backward and forward to understand your idea or can they read it once and get your meaning?
  • If you use diagrams or charts, make sure they are clearly labeled and that you refer to them in the text. You can use pencil for these, but you must NOT use colours.
  • Practice. The more you do, the more likely you are to spot patterns and go into the exam feeling confident.
  1. this whole website is amazing.

  2. This website is so useful. Thank you very much! It really does help me for the upcoming exams 😀

  3. wow, this is amazing… do u still teach in indonesia??

  4. You taught in indonesia? Where?!

  5. Where in Japan do you teach?

  6. Do you have some practice questions for each topic ? Like past paper questions…

    This website is really really helpful!

  7. Hi Stephen,
    I don’t even know how to thank you…

    This is the best website for exam preparation and extra notes..
    now it’s only 2 weeks left for the IB exams… this website will help me a lot.. Thank a lot 😀

  8. Tomorrow I will have my first two papers, the whole day I spent reading the presentations. You cannot imagine how helpful they are! I am really grateful. Thank you for help! Especially with the command terms, some really amused me. I reallized difference between label and annotate just in time!

  9. I’m a IB student in Hong Kong and your websites and slideshows are used almost every class by my biology teachers!

    Thank you for your help! 🙂

  10. I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you do. What I do know, is that this website, is simply mind boggling. Thank you so much! Greetings all the way from India 🙂

  11. This website is amazing! Thank you so much from Venezuela

  12. Keith Stewart

    I am new to IB Biology transitioning over from the world of AP. Still trying to get a grasp on how they are different. I am curious about the mitosis pictures above. It is 2.5.4. In the drawing for telophase, it looks to me like you are showing two diploid nuclei b/c each cell has 4 chromosomes that are each diploid. I always teach that in telophase you actually have haploid structures so n=2 and then after cytokenesis occurs and the next round of prophase begins, during S phase you see the doubling of DNA essentially giving rise to diploid cells again. Am I confused? Is this schematic diagram the preferred method to show mitosis? Just curious.

    • Hi Keith,

      Looking more closely, you’ve spotted an error – the final image should have four single chromosomes in each of two nuclei.

      It should show:
      1. Four pairs of sister chromatids, entering prophase (diploid).
      2. Four pairs of sister chromatids, aligning at the equator during metaphase.
      3. Four pairs of sister chromatids being separated into individual chromosomes during anaphase.
      4. Two new daughter nuclei forming, each diploid, with a maternal and paternal copy of each of two chromosomes, during telophase.

      I’ll fix it ASAP.



  13. Keith Stewart

    Wow, I didn’t expect a reply so soon. Please don’t take my comment the wrong way. I am NOT a know it all. Just wanting to make sure that I teach IB consistent with the way I understand things to be. The whole IB world is pretty intimidating to me. I guess what I am most fearful of are the data based analysis questions. I looked at one that had to be do with probability of crossing over to form recombinant chromosomes, and although I understand crossing over and how the max value is .5, and the idea that genes will be more likely linked the closer they are in proximity to one another… I did not understand the data in the question AT ALL!!!!

    Anyway, thanks for responding. Should be a fun, yet challenging year. If you have time to help me from time to time, I would be your best friend. If not perhaps you could refer me to someone that might.

    Keith Stewart

    • Hi Keith,

      No worries – one of the good things about putting all this online is that errors can be spotted and corrected, and that benefits everyone. The Online Curriculum Centre forum is a great place to get help as well. If you don’t have an account, make sure you get one from your IB Diploma Coordinator.

      Good luck, and have fun!


  14. Hi Stephen,
    This whole site is so amazing.
    I am a teacher in Jakarta and I am new to IB system
    (going to teach IB SL this year, without any training yet).
    This site is really helpful…
    Anyway, is there any idea about practicals in this site??
    I find IA is the most scary thing I need to face in IB.
    Is there any suggestion?
    Thanks a lot.

  15. I am an IB biology student in Rwanda East Africa and was wondering if you could give me any assistance with maybe practice questions on statistical analysis because I have a test. Thank you

  16. My students are getting prepared for their exams and I was just asked a questions that I wasn’t sure of the answer to and thought you might be able to help…..
    If there is a questions that says “Outline 2 (or any number) ways that…….” if the student gives more than the indicated number, do you know, are only the indicated number read by the exam marker? ie. is only the first 2 read if they have given 3 or more ways?

  17. Hi there,

    I am a former participant of two International Biology Olympiads from Lithuania. As I noticed, there is no website how to prepare for both national and international biology olympiads so I decided to create a blog dedicated to helping young and enthusiastic students to prepare for their national biology olympiad and IBO. That is why I would like to ask whether you can post a link or advertisement to my blog in your website so that more students get acquainted with my blog: http://biolympiads.blogspot.com/ .
    Thank you very much and I strongly feel that together we can make many people fall in love with biology.

  18. This site has seriously saved my grades in biology – THANK YOU SO MUCH!!

  19. Thank you Stephen for this website. I was using it with the old syllabus and I am using it now as well. It is great!

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