Changes to IB May 2021 Exams | Physics, Chemistry and Biology

exam facts exam techniques ib physics Aug 13, 2020

On 12th August 2020, rumours started circulating on social media regarding significant changes to the IB May 2021 exams.

These changes will have a profound impact on what you should be learning right now and how you should prepare for your Physics, Chemistry and Biology exams in May 2021.

This blog post will walk you through the exact changes and consider the positives/negatives of each proposed change. I'll summarise with some tips on how to adapt your learning to maximise your marks in the final May 2021 exams with these changes in mind.

With the disappointment of the May 2020 results still very raw for many students, it was important the the IB made some allowances for the next set of May exams. In a document sent to school leaders, the International Baccalaureate said it was making the changes:

“In response to requests from our community to mitigate the loss of instructional time and logistical challenges" and to "help IB schools plan for a manageable, practical and achievable teaching and learning experience in the new school year”.

It has obviously been recognised that May 2021 students will be disadvantaged in the loss of class time and are trying to lessen the possible impact of this.

As of 13th August 2020, there have been no official announcements on the IBO website but if you deep dive into the back end of the website they have published this document reflecting the changes expected across all IB Diploma subjects:

Despite no formal announcement, we can assume this these changes are valid and will happen. Unfortunately, there are still some big questions needing answered:

  1. Why has the May 2021 examination timetable not been updated?
  2. What are the plans for November 2020 and November 2021 exams?
  3. How will the weightings of each components be affected?


  • Remove Paper 3
  • Remove Group 4 Project

Loss of Group 4 Project

The Group 4 project has no material input to your final grade. It is not graded. The project exists to promote collaborative and multi-disciplinary work between students.


  • The loss of the Group 4 project will save you time and energy - without compromising your final grades
  • You won't have to produce a written reflection of the project
  • Most IB Physics teacher will welcome the loss of the dreaded Group 4 project from the curriculum for those sitting the May 2021 IB exams! In our school, it requires a couple of days out of timetable for all the students and is an organisational nightmare.


  • Many students really enjoy the Group 4 project! It's an excellent learning experience and great fun.
  • The heart of the IB mission is to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect. The Group 4 project is often seen as a major part of this lifelong learning.

Summary: I don't think many students (and teachers) will be mourning the loss of this project - given the current demands in completing the IB physics, chemistry and biology courses. It will save time and energy. I think this change is largely welcomed.

Loss of Paper 3

You will not sit Paper 3 in May 2021. At present, Paper 3 is split up into two sections:

  1. One data-based question and several short-answer questions on experimental work. 
  2. Short-answer and extended-response questions from one option. 

The removal of Paper 3 means that you will no longer be examined on your Option topic. There has been no word on how they plan to assess the practical and the data-analysis element. At present, you could probably assume that they won't assess this.


  • You have less content to revise
  • You have more time in class to concentrate on core topics and internal assessment
  • You do not have to practice the data analysis question 
  • They will probably lower the grade boundaries for Paper 1 and 2 to accommodate for the loss of "easier" marks in Paper 3


  • People find the option topics interesting! (particularly Astrophysics)
  • Paper 3 tends to be easier than papers 1 and 2 
  • Many students use Paper 3 to bump up their average grade

Summary: The IB seem committed to ensuring that student's outcomes are consistent and comparable with prior exam sessions. In theory, this means that they will account for the loss of the 'easier' Paper 3 by lowering the grade boundaries of the remaining papers and adjusting the weightings of each remaining element to ensure fairness.

The new weightings for each paper in May 2021 have now been released and they are shown in the table below:

Internal Assessment

The internal assessment is more important than ever. When the May 2020 exams were cancelled, many GradePod students were delighted that the final grade would place a higher importance on the Physics IA. We offer a bonus course (as part of GradePod's Ace Your IB Physics Exams) that leads students step-by-step through the EXACT process of writing the perfect physics IA from scratch. Most of the GradePod students had followed this and were on course for top marks. Indeed when the grades were finally released, GradePod were delighted to receive emails from LOADS of students regarding their 7 in IB Physics and the importance of their internal assessment in obtaining that grade.

Why am I talking about the past?

Well.... you never know what will happen in the future. At the moment, your Internal Assessment will count for 20% of your final grade. What if they cancel exams again?? You know that you can positively effect 20% of your final grade by spending time on your internal assessment now - so what are you waiting for?

You can get help with your Physics IA here

Study Advice for May 2021 IB Physics Exams

I'm a specialist in IB Physics - so I'll focus the blog post only on Physics here (sorry Chemists and Biologists!)


Start focussing your revision NOW on the most commonly examined topic in Paper 1 and Paper 2. 

Most Commonly Examined Topics in SL Paper 1 are:

  • Topic 2: Mechanics
  • Topic 4: Waves
  • Topic 5: Electricity and Magnetism
  • Topic 7: Atomic, Nuclear and Particle Physics

Most Commonly Examined Topics in HL Paper 1 are:

  • Topic 2: Mechanics
  • Topics 4 & 9: Waves
  • Topic 11: Electromagnetic Induction
  • Topic 12: Quantum and Nuclear Physics

Most Commonly Examined Topics in SL Paper 2 are:

  • Topic 2: Mechanics
  • Topic 4: Waves
  • Topic 5: Electricity and Magnetism
  • Topic 3: Thermal Physics

Most Commonly Examined Topics in HL Paper 2 are:

  • Topic 2: Mechanics
  • Topics 4 & 9: Waves
  • Topics 5 & 11: Electromagnetism
  • Topic 12: Quantum and Nuclear Physics


Paper 2 holds a higher weighting than Paper 1 and Internal Assessment - start practising those exam questions NOW! Find a bank of past paper (split out by topic) and work through them.

Hope this helps