Updated: Jan 12, 2019
IB math and science are subjects that a lot of IB students have difficulties with. In this blog post, we will share tips suggested by our IB math tutor and IB science tutor.
Math, Physics and Chemistry are similar in a lot of ways. Students who
enjoy one tend to enjoy the other two and students who excel in one will
mostly excel in the other two. All three subjects require students to think
and solve problems logically. Most students can understand the basic
concepts, but not many can apply the concepts to difficult test questions
and score top marks. You have probably heard that the key to doing well in
these subjects is intensive practice, but you may not know the most
effective way of practicing.
Through talking to top students in the fields of Math, Physics and
Chemistry, we have discovered that students who excel in these fields have
a specific mindset and approach to studying that set them apart.
The bulldog mindset
Are you a good problem solver? You might think problem-solving skills
are an innate ability, but we are here to tell you that it is not. A top student
we talked to told us that he read a chapter in the book "Outlier" by
Malcolm Gladwell that improved his score in the sciences and math
In one of the chapters, Gladwell tries to explain the difference in math
ability between Asians and Caucasian Americans. This has been the
subject of many studies, and experiments seem to show that the answer can
be captured by one word: persistency.
To study the difference in how people approach a math problem, a math
professor gave difficult math problems to over 1000 Asians and Caucasian
Americans to do. The stunning difference is that Asians are willing to
spend an average of 15-30 minutes on the problem before giving up. While
Caucasian Americans, on the other hand, are only willing to give the
problem 3-5 minutes. The study concludes that persistency is what sets
great math students apart from poor math students. The best math students
are willing to dedicate themselves to figuring things out before giving up,
but the poor ones just give up too easily.
There are 3 main benefits of breaking down a difficult math problem on
1. You gain tremendous confidence in problem solving, and soon, you will
love solving math questions.
2. You will understand the concepts related to the question very well.
3. You can solve unfamiliar problems in exams much more easily.
After talking to more top math students, we found that they all have the
never-give-up mindset and attitude, which we called the bulldog mindset.
Some poor math students we talked to, on the other hand, simply give up
very easily. Whenever they encounter a question they don’t know, they
would give up within 30 seconds and ask the teacher for the answer. To be
great at math, you need to be willing to try different approaches to solving
a problem until you find one that works. When you finally do find one, you
will feel tremendously rewarding and the problem solving skill will truly
With repetition comes intuition
Almost all top math students describe problem solving as an intuitive
process. When they see a question on an exam, their instinct will show
them the approach to solving it. The process is automatic. It is like a reflex
action in their brain that tells them what they should do. Do you find this
hard to relate to?
Everyone has the ability to achieve this level of mastery. When you repeat
a process over and over again, it becomes wired into your brain. It is like
learning to ride a bicycle when you were a kid. At first, you needed to
consciously think about how to balance yourself and move forward. But
with enough practice, it will become natural to you and you do not even
need to think about it. The same is true for any kind of skill. You know you
have achieved mastery when you can solve problems without consciously
thinking step by step. You would intuitively know the steps to take.
The problem now is ― how do you get there? Below are the essential
Guideline 1: Master from easy to hard
In Math, Chemistry and Physics, concepts build upon themself. Without
understanding the basics, it is impossible to tackle the hard questions.
Thus, it is important that you are patient in mastering the simple concepts
before moving forward to the hard ones. Almost all top students always
work hard to ensure that they don’t fall behind.
How do you truly master a math concept? Purely understanding or
memorizing is far from enough. As we mentioned earlier, you need to
develop an intuition for problem solving and this only comes with practice.
Thus, after you have understood a concept, you need to do at least 5-6
textbook practice questions or in-class examples that are related to that
concept. Before moving to the next concept, you should ensure that you
can solve problems related to the concept with ease.
Guideline 2: Sort past-papers questions by types and practice!
After you have understood all the concepts from class and the textbook,
you should begin sorting past paper questions by topic and focus on one
topic at a time. Past papers are usually harder than textbook questions
because textbooks are designed mainly for demonstration, while past
exams are made to “identify” the elites of a subject. Thus, to do well on
your exam, you need to move beyond your textbook and go to past paper
Some students are overwhelmed when reviewing past papers. It almost
seems as if there are infinitely more possibilities of questions that could
appear. But if you look deeper, you will be able to categorize problems into
types. In the end, you will find that there are only a handful of categories
for each topic. Grouping questions together could be very difficult,
especially for a beginner. This is where good tutors who understand the
syllabus well come in handy. They already know all the different types of
questions there are and the common solutions to them. After grouping
questions into types, you can practice repeatedly one category at a time. As
mentioned above, repetition is essential for wiring concepts into your mind.
Focusing on one type of questions at a time allows repetition, which is
essential to developing intuition. After mastering all sorts of questions, it is
just a matter of recalling different sections on the syllabus when you face
the final exam.
Of course, not every single question falls into a particular type. Questions
that can be identified as a common type usually make up around 60-70% of
the exam. If you follow this guideline, you should score at least 90% for
this major part of the exam that is relatively predictable. The good news is
that many students will struggle in this relatively easy part of the exam
because they have not done enough practice. Following this guideline
should put you ahead of many students already!
Guideline 3: Identify the outliers
Around 15-25% of questions are “outliers”, which are questions that are
unlike other questions that usually require thinking out of the box. Most
students will have no clue how to solve these types of questions. If you can
score around 50-60% in this section, you should expect to score in the top
20-10 percentile, which is already a top grade.
To develop you ability to solve unfamiliar questions (the “outliers”), you
need to first have a bulldog mindset. Furthermore, when you go through
past papers, you should identify questions that are “outliers” and put a
mark beside them to remind yourself to go back to them later. When it
comes close to the exam, you should have already mastered the most
common questions. Most top student will use their final study time to
quickly go back to these outlier questions for final revision.
Guideline 4: Do entire past papers in exam conditions
Coaches in sports always emphasize on the importance of training in match
conditions. Training should be a simulation of the real game. It is the same
for studying for an exam. After you have done what is advised in the first 3
guidelines, you need to do full sets of past papers in exam conditions. In
real exams, different types of questions are thrown together in no particular
pattern, which makes it much harder to chapter topic tests. It requires you
to recall and apply different concepts in the syllabus quickly. If you are not
used to this, you will significantly underperform in your exam.
You should sit in a quiet area and time yourself when you do full mock
exams. Many students give themselves more time than they would get in
the real exam. Being able to think and solve problems quickly is something
you can’t ignore. You need to step up on this ability in your practice runs!
The lowest hanging fruit principle
The lowest hanging-fruit principle is a concept from Economics that can
be applied very effectively to a test-taking situation, especially for Math,
Chemistry and Physics. The principle simply states that in order to achieve
maximum efficiency, one must first achieve outcomes with the least cost
before trying to achieve outcomes that are more costly. In your exam, this
means that you should finish questions in the order of difficulty, starting from the easiest ones. There are a few very logical arguments that back up this approach.
Firstly, doing the easiest questions first is the most time-effective.
Assuming that the easiest questions require the least amount of time, which
is a reasonable assumption, you will certainly gain the highest possible
score within the shortest possible time. It is definitely the most efficient
way of allocating your time. In your final exam, timing is everything. You
need to maximize your efficiency.
Here are some interesting study tips by our Tutors
A second more subtle reason is that by doing the easiest questions first, you
gain the confidence and composure that you will need for the “outlier”
questions later on. By the time you move to the questions that require
thinking out of the box, you should have captured all the easy marks,
which already puts you on an acceptable level. This greatly reduces your
stress and enhances your ability to think out of the box to tackle the
Alternatively, if you just go in the order the questions given to you in the
exam paper, you might very well bump into an unfamiliar question in the
beginning and become stuck. All the while, you still have plenty of
questions waiting for you and you haven’t even gotten enough points to
pass yet! Imagine all the stress you would be under. Putting yourself in this
situation is unnecessary. You can avoid it by applying the lowest hanging fruit
We hope that the tips above can help IB students. If you want to register for a free trial with our IB math tutor or IB science tutor, just click on our free trial page.