Strategies to Enhance Teaching and Learning of Physics
Approaches to the teaching and learning of physics and how to make learning physics easy | download free pdf
First assessment 2016Introduction
Nature of science
The Nature of science (NOS) is an overarching theme in the biology, chemistry and physics courses. This
section, titled “Nature of science”, is in the biology, chemistry and physics guides to support teachers in
their understanding of what is meant by the nature of science. The “Nature of science” section of the guide
provides a comprehensive account of the nature of science in the 21st century. It will not be possible to cover
in this document all the themes in detail in the three science courses, either for teaching or assessment.
It has a paragraph structure (1.1, 1.2, etc) to link the significant points made to the syllabus (landscape
pages) references on the NOS. The NOS parts in the subject-specific sections of the guide are examples of a
particular understanding. The NOS statement(s) above every sub-topic outline how one or more of the NOS
themes can be exemplified through the understandings, applications and skills in that sub-topic. These are
not a repeat of the NOS statements found below but an elaboration of them in a specific context. See the
section on “Format of the syllabus”.
Although this section is about the nature of science, the interpretation of the word technology is
important, and the role of technology emerging from and contributing to science needs to be clarified.
In today’s world, the words science and technology are often used interchangeably; however, historically
this is not the case. Technology emerged before science, and materials were used to produce useful and
decorative artefacts long before there was an understanding of why materials had different properties
that could be used for different purposes. In the modern world the reverse is the case: an understanding
of the underlying science is the basis for technological developments. These new technologies in their
turn drive developments in science.
Despite their mutual dependence they are based on different values: science on evidence, rationality and
the quest for deeper understanding; technology on the practical, the appropriate and the useful with an
increasingly important emphasis on sustainability.
1. What is science and what is the scientific
1.1. The underlying assumption of science is that the universe has an independent, external reality
accessible to human senses and amenable to human reason.
1.2. Pure science aims to come to a common understanding of this external universe; applied science
and engineering develop technologies that result in new processes and products. However, the
boundaries between these fields are fuzzy.
1.3. Scientists use a wide variety of methodologies which, taken together, make up the process of science.
There is no single “scientific method”. Scientists have used, and do use, different methods at different
times to build up their knowledge and ideas, but they have a common understanding about what
makes them all scientifically valid.
1.4. This is an exciting and challenging adventure involving much creativity and imagination as well
as exacting and detailed thinking and application. Scientists also have to be ready for unplanned,
surprising, accidental discoveries. The history of science shows this is a very common occurrence.
1.5. Many scientific discoveries have involved flashes of intuition and many have come from speculation
or simple curiosity about particular phenomena.
6 6 Physics guideNature of science
1.6. Scientists have a common terminology and a common reasoning process, which involves using
deductive and inductive logic through analogies and generalizations. They share mathematics,
the language of science, as a powerful tool. Indeed, some scientific explanations only exist in
1.7. Scientists must adopt a skeptical attitude to claims. This does not mean that they disbelieve everything,
but rather that they suspend judgment until they have a good reason to believe a claim to be true or
false. Such reasons are based on evidence and argument.
1.8. The importance of evidence is a fundamental common understanding. Evidence can be obtained by
observation or experiment. It can be gathered by human senses, primarily sight, but much modern
science is carried out using instrumentation and sensors that can gather information remotely and
automatically in areas that are too small, or too far away, or otherwise beyond human sense perception.
Improved instrumentation and new technology have often been the drivers for new discoveries.
Observations followed by analysis and deduction led to the Big Bang theory of the origin of the
universe and to the theory of evolution by natural selection. In these cases, no controlled experiments
were possible. Disciplines such as geology and astronomy rely strongly on collecting data in the field,
but all disciplines use observation to collect evidence to some extent. Experimentation in a controlled
environment, generally in laboratories, is the other way of obtaining evidence in the form of data, and
there are many conventions and understandings as to how this is to be achieved.
1.9. This evidence is used to develop theories, generalize from data to form laws and propose hypotheses.
These theories and hypotheses are used to make predictions that can be tested. In this way theories
can be supported or opposed and can be modified or replaced by new theories.
1.10. Models, some simple, some very complex, based on theoretical understanding, are developed to
explain processes that may not be observable. Computer-based mathematical models are used to
make testable predictions, which can be especially useful when experimentation is not possible.
Models tested against experiments or data from observations may prove inadequate, in which case
they may be modified or replaced by new models.
1.11. The outcomes of experiments, the insights provided by modelling and observations of the natural
world may be used as further evidence for a claim.
1.12. The growth in computing power has made modelling much more powerful. Models, usually
mathematical, are now used to derive new understandings when no experiments are possible (and
sometimes when they are). This dynamic modelling of complex situations involving large amounts of
data, a large number of variables and complex and lengthy calculations is only possible as a result of
increased computing power. Modelling of the Earth’s climate, for example, is used to predict or make
a range of projections of future climatic conditions. A range of different models has been developed
in this field and results from different models have been compared to see which models are most
accurate. Models can sometimes be tested by using data from the past and used to see if they can
predict the present situation. If a model passes this test, we gain confidence in its accuracy.
1.13. Both the ideas and the processes of science can only occur in a human context. Science is carried out
by a community of people from a wide variety of backgrounds and traditions, and this has clearly
influenced the way science has proceeded at different times. It is important to understand, however,
that to do science is to be involved in a community of inquiry with certain common principles,
methodologies, understandings and processes.
2. The understanding of science
2.1. Theories, laws and hypotheses are concepts used by scientists. Though these concepts are connected,
there is no progression from one to the other. These words have a special meaning in science and it is
important to distinguish these from their everyday use.
2.2. Theories are themselves integrated, comprehensive models of how the universe, or parts of it, work.
A theory can incorporate facts and laws and tested hypotheses. Predictions can be made from the
theories and these can be tested in experiments or by careful observations. Examples are the germ
theory of disease or atomic theory.
2.3. Theories generally accommodate the assumptions and premises of other theories, creating a consistent
understanding across a range of phenomena and disciplines. Occasionally, however, a new theory
will radically change how essential concepts are understood or framed, impacting other theories and
causing what is sometimes called a “paradigm shift” in science. One of the most famous paradigm
shifts in science occurred when our idea of time changed from an absolute frame of reference to
an observer-dependent frame of reference within Einstein’s theory of relativity. Darwin’s theory of
evolution by natural selection also changed our understanding of life on Earth.
Physics guide 7Nature of science
2.4. Laws are descriptive, normative statements derived from observations of regular patterns of behaviour.
They are generally mathematical in form and can be used to calculate outcomes and to make predictions.
Like theories and hypotheses, laws cannot be proven. Scientific laws may have exceptions and may
be modified or rejected based on new evidence. Laws do not necessarily explain a phenomenon. For
example, Newton’s law of universal gravitation tells us that the force between two masses is inversely
proportional to the square of the distance between them, and allows us to calculate the force between
masses at any distance apart, but it does not explain why masses attract each other. Also, note that the
term law has been used in different ways in science, and whether a particular idea is called a law may
be partly a result of the discipline and time period at which it was developed.
2.5. Scientists sometimes form hypotheses—explanatory statements about the world that could be true or
false, and which often suggest a causal relationship or a correlation between factors. Hypotheses can be
tested by both experiments and observations of the natural world and can be supported or opposed.
2.6. To be scientific, an idea (for example, a theory or hypothesis) must focus on the natural world and
natural explanations and must be testable. Scientists strive to develop hypotheses and theories that
are compatible with accepted principles and that simplify and unify existing ideas.
2.7. The principle of Occam’s razor is used as a guide to developing a theory. The theory should be as
simple as possible while maximizing explanatory power.
2.8. The ideas of correlation and cause are very important in science. A correlation is a statistical link or
association between one variable and another. A correlation can be positive or negative and a correlation
coefficient can be calculated that will have a value between + 1, 0 and −1. A strong correlation (positive
or negative) between one factor and another suggests some sort of causal relationship between
the two factors but more evidence is usually required before scientists accept the idea of a causal
relationship. To establish a causal relationship, ie one factor causing another, scientists need to have a
plausible scientific mechanism linking the factors. This strengthens the case that one causes the other,
for example smoking and lung cancer. This mechanism can be tested in experiments.
2.9. The ideal situation is to investigate the relationship between one factor and another while controlling all
other factors in an experimental setting; however, this is often impossible and scientists, especially in biology
and medicine, use sampling, cohort studies and case control studies to strengthen their understanding of
causation when experiments (such as double-blind tests and clinical trials) are not possible. Epidemiology
in the field of medicine involves the statistical analysis of data to discover possible correlations when little
established scientific knowledge is available or the circumstances are too difficult to control entirely. Here,
as in other fields, mathematical analysis of probability also plays a role.
3. The objectivity of science
3.1. Data is the lifeblood of scientists and may be qualitative or quantitative. It can be obtained purely from
observations or from specifically designed experiments, remotely using electronic sensors or by direct
measurement. The best data for making accurate and precise descriptions and predictions is often
quantitative and amenable to mathematical analysis. Scientists analyse data and look for patterns,
trends and discrepancies, attempting to discover relationships and establish causal links. This is not
always possible, so identifying and classifying observations and artefacts (eg types of galaxies or
fossils) is still an important aspect of scientific work.
3.2. Taking repeated measurements and large numbers of readings can improve reliability in data
collection. Data can be presented in a variety of formats such as linear and logarithmic graphs that
can be analysed for, say, direct or inverse proportion or for power relationships.
3.3. Scientists need to be aware of random errors and systematic errors, and use techniques such as error
bars and lines of best fit on graphs to portray the data as realistically and honestly as possible. There is
a need to consider whether outlying data points should be discarded or not.
3.4. Scientists need to understand the difference between errors and uncertainties, accuracy and precision,
and need to understand and use the mathematical ideas of average, mean, mode, median, etc.
Statistical methods such as standard deviation and chi-squared tests are often used. It is important
to be able to assess how accurate a result is. A key part of the training and skill of scientists is in being
able to decide which technique is appropriate in different circumstances.
3.5. It is also very important for scientists to be aware of the cognitive biases that may impact experimental
design and interpretation. The confirmation bias, for example, is a well-documented cognitive bias
that urges us to find reasons to reject data that is unexpected or does not conform to our expectations
or desires, and to perhaps too readily accept data that agrees with these expectations or desires. The
processes and methodologies of science are largely designed to account for these biases. However,
care must always be taken to avoid succumbing to them.
8 Physics guideNature of science
3.6. Although scientists cannot ever be certain that a result or finding is correct, we know that some scientific
results are very close to certainty. Scientists often speak of “levels of confidence” when discussing
outcomes. The discovery of the existence of a Higgs boson is such an example of a “level of confidence”.
This particle may never be directly observable, but to establish its “existence” particle physicists had
to pass the self-imposed definition of what can be regarded as a discovery—the 5-sigma “level of
certainty”—or about a 0.00003% chance that the effect is not real based on experimental evidence.
3.7. In recent decades, the growth in computing power, sensor technology and networks has allowed
scientists to collect large amounts of data. Streams of data are downloaded continuously from many
sources such as remote sensing satellites and space probes and large amounts of data are generated
in gene sequencing machines. Experiments in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider regularly produce
23 petabytes of data per second, which is equivalent to 13.3 years of high definition TV content per second.
3.8. Research involves analysing large amounts of this data, stored in databases, looking for patterns and
unique events. This has to be done using software that is generally written by the scientists involved.
The data and the software may not be published with the scientific results but would be made
generally available to other researchers.
4. The human face of science
4.1. Science is highly collaborative and the scientific community is composed of people working in science,
engineering and technology. It is common to work in teams from many disciplines so that different
areas of expertise and specializations can contribute to a common goal that is beyond one scientific
field. It is also the case that how a problem is framed in the paradigm of one discipline might limit
possible solutions, so framing problems using a variety of perspectives, in which new solutions are
possible, can be extremely useful.
4.2. Teamwork of this sort takes place with the common understanding that science should be open-
minded and independent of religion, culture, politics, nationality, age and gender. Science involves
the free global interchange of information and ideas. Of course, individual scientists are human and
may have biases and prejudices, but the institutions, practices and methodologies of science help
keep the scientific endeavour as a whole unbiased.
4.3. As well as collaborating on the exchange of results, scientists work on a daily basis in collaborative groups
on a small and large scale within and between disciplines, laboratories, organizations and countries,
facilitated even more by virtual communication. Examples of large-scale collaboration include:
– The Manhattan project, the aim of which was to build and test an atomic bomb. It eventually
employed more than 130,000 people and resulted in the creation of multiple production and
research sites that operated in secret, culminating in the dropping of two atomic bombs on
Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
– The Human Genome Project (HGP), which was an international scientific research project set
up to map the human genome. The 3-billion project beginning in 1990 produced a draft
of the genome in 2000. The sequence of the DNA is stored in databases available to anyone on
– The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), organized under the auspices of
the United Nations, is officially composed of about 2,500 scientists. They produce reports
summarizing the work of many more scientists from all around the world.
– CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, an international organization set up
in 1954, is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. The laboratory, situated in Geneva,
employs about 2,400 people and shares results with 10,000 scientists and engineers covering
over 100 nationalities from 600 or more universities and research facilities.
All the above examples are controversial to some degree and have aroused emotions among
scientists and the public.
4.4. Scientists spend a considerable amount of time reading the published results of other scientists. They
publish their own results in scientific journals after a process called peer review. This is when the work
of a scientist or, more usually, a team of scientists is anonymously and independently reviewed by
several scientists working in the same field who decide if the research methodologies are sound and
if the work represents a new contribution to knowledge in that field. They also attend conferences
Physics guide 9Nature of science
to make presentations and display posters of their work. Publication of peer-reviewed journals on
the internet has increased the efficiency with which the scientific literature can be searched and
accessed. There are a large number of national and international organizations for scientists working
in specialized areas within subjects.
4.5. Scientists often work in areas, or produce findings, that have significant ethical and political implications.
These areas include cloning, genetic engineering of food and organisms, stem cell and reproductive
technologies, nuclear power, weapons development (nuclear, chemical and biological), transplantation
of tissue and organs and in areas that involve testing on animals (see IB animal experimentation policy).
There are also questions involving intellectual property rights and the free exchange of information
that may impact significantly on a society. Science is undertaken in universities, commercial companies,
government organizations, defence agencies and international organizations. Questions of patents
and intellectual property rights arise when work is done in a protected environment.
4.6. The integrity and honest representation of data is paramount in science—results should not be fixed
or manipulated or doctored. To help ensure academic honesty and guard against plagiarism, all
sources are quoted and appropriate acknowledgment made of help or support. Peer review and the
scrutiny and skepticism of the scientific community also help achieve these goals.
4.7. All science has to be funded and the source of the funding is crucial in decisions regarding the type
of research to be conducted. Funding from governments and charitable foundations is sometimes
for pure research with no obvious direct benefit to anyone, whereas funding from private companies
is often for applied research to produce a particular product or technology. Political and economic
factors often determine the nature and extent of the funding. Scientists often have to spend time
applying for research grants and have to make a case for what they want to research.
4.8. Science has been used to solve many problems and improve humankind’s lot, but it has also been used
in morally questionable ways and in ways that inadvertently caused problems. Advances in sanitation,
clean water supplies and hygiene led to significant decreases in death rates but without compensating
decreases in birth rates, this led to huge population increases with all the problems of resources,
energy and food supplies that entails. Ethical discussions, risk–benefit analyses, risk assessment and
the precautionary principle are all parts of the scientific way of addressing the common good.
5. Scientific literacy and the public understanding
5.1. An understanding of the nature of science is vital when society needs to make decisions involving
scientific findings and issues. How does the public judge? It may not be possible to make judgments
based on the public’s direct understanding of a science, but important questions can be asked about
whether scientific processes were followed and scientists have a role in answering such questions.
5.2. As experts in their particular fields, scientists are well placed to explain to the public their issues and
findings. Outside their specializations, they may be no more qualified than ordinary citizens to advise
others on scientific issues, although their understanding of the processes of science can help them to
make personal decisions and to educate the public as to whether claims are scientifically credible.
5.3. As well as comprising knowledge of how scientists work and think, scientific literacy involves being
aware of faulty reasoning. There are many cognitive biases/fallacies of reasoning to which people
are susceptible (including scientists) and these need to be corrected whenever possible. Examples
of these are the confirmation bias, hasty generalizations, post hoc ergo propter hoc (false cause), the
straw man fallacy, redefinition (moving the goal posts), the appeal to tradition, false authority and the
accumulation of anecdotes being regarded as evidence.
5.4. When such biases and fallacies are not properly managed or corrected, or when the processes and
checks and balances of science are ignored or misapplied, the result is pseudoscience. Pseudoscience
is the term applied to those beliefs and practices that claim to be scientific but do not meet or follow
the standards of proper scientific methodologies, ie they lack supporting evidence or a theoretical
framework, are not always testable and hence falsifiable, are expressed in a non-rigorous or unclear
manner and often fail to be supported by scientific testing.
5.5. Another key issue is the use of appropriate terminology. Words that scientists agree on as being
scientific terms will often have a different meaning in everyday life and scientific discourse with
the public needs to take this into account. For example, a theory in everyday use means a hunch or
speculation, but in science an accepted theory is a scientific idea that has produced predictions that
have been thoroughly tested in many different ways. An aerosol is just a spray can to the general
public, but in science it is a suspension of solid or liquid particles in a gas.
10 Physics guideNature of science
5.6. Whatever the field of science—whether it is in pure research, applied research or in engineering new
technology—there is boundless scope for creative and imaginative thinking. Science has achieved a
great deal but there are many, many unanswered questions to challenge future scientists.
The flow chart below is part of an interactive flow chart showing the scientific process of inquiry in
practice. The interactive version can be found at “How science works: The flowchart.” Understanding
Science. University of California Museum of Paleontology. 1 February 2013 http://undsci.berkeley.
Pathways to scientific discovery
Physics guide 11Introduction
Nature of physics
“Physics is a tortured assembly of contrary qualities: of scepticism and
rationality, of freedom and revolution, of passion and aesthetics, and of soaring
imagination and trained common sense.”
Leon M Lederman (Nobel Prize for Physics, 1988)
Physics is the most fundamental of the experimental sciences, as it seeks to explain the universe itself from
the very smallest particles—currently accepted as quarks, which may be truly fundamental—to the vast
distances between galaxies.
Classical physics, built upon the great pillars of Newtonian mechanics, electromagnetism and
thermodynamics, went a long way in deepening our understanding of the universe. From Newtonian
mechanics came the idea of predictability in which the universe is deterministic and knowable. This led
to Laplace’s boast that by knowing the initial conditions—the position and velocity of every particle
in the universe—he could, in principle, predict the future with absolute certainty. Maxwell’s theory of
electromagnetism described the behaviour of electric charge and unified light and electricity, while
thermodynamics described the relation between energy transferred due to temperature difference and
work and described how all natural processes increase disorder in the universe.
However, experimental discoveries dating from the end of the 19th century eventually led to the demise
of the classical picture of the universe as being knowable and predictable. Newtonian mechanics failed
when applied to the atom and has been superseded by quantum mechanics and general relativity.
Maxwell’s theory could not explain the interaction of radiation with matter and was replaced by quantum
electrodynamics (QED). More recently, developments in chaos theory, in which it is now realized that small
changes in the initial conditions of a system can lead to completely unpredictable outcomes, have led to a
fundamental rethinking in thermodynamics.
While chaos theory shows that Laplace’s boast is hollow, quantum mechanics and QED show that the initial
conditions that Laplace required are impossible to establish. Nothing is certain and everything is decided by
probability. But there is still much that is unknown and there will undoubtedly be further paradigm shifts as
our understanding deepens.
Despite the exciting and extraordinary development of ideas throughout the history of physics, certain
aspects have remained unchanged. Observations remain essential to the very core of physics, sometimes
requiring a leap of imagination to decide what to look for. Models are developed to try to understand
observations, and these themselves can become theories that attempt to explain the observations. Theories
are not always directly derived from observations but often need to be created. These acts of creation can
be compared to those in great art, literature and music, but differ in one aspect that is unique to science:
the predictions of these theories or ideas must be tested by careful experimentation. Without these tests,
a theory cannot be quantified. A general or concise statement about how nature behaves, if found to be
experimentally valid over a wide range of observed phenomena, is called a law or a principle.
The scientific processes carried out by the most eminent scientists in the past are the same ones followed by
working physicists today and, crucially, are also accessible to students in schools. Early in the development of
science, physicists were both theoreticians and experimenters (natural philosophers). The body of scientific
knowledge has grown in size and complexity, and the tools and skills of theoretical and experimental
physicists have become so specialized that it is difficult (if not impossible) to be highly proficient in both
12 12 Physics guide Nature of physics
areas. While students should be aware of this, they should also know that the free and rapid interplay
of theoretical ideas and experimental results in the public scientific literature maintains the crucial links
between these fields.
At the school level both theory and experiments should be undertaken by all students. They should
complement one another naturally, as they do in the wider scientific community. The Diploma Programme
physics course allows students to develop traditional practical skills and techniques and increase their
abilities in the use of mathematics, which is the language of physics. It also allows students to develop
interpersonal and digital communication skills which are essential in modern scientific endeavour and are
important life-enhancing, transferable skills in their own right.
Alongside the growth in our understanding of the natural world, perhaps the more obvious and relevant
result of physics to most of our students is our ability to change the world. This is the technological side of
physics, in which physical principles have been applied to construct and alter the material world to suit our
needs, and have had a profound influence on the daily lives of all human beings. This raises the issue of the
impact of physics on society, the moral and ethical dilemmas, and the social, economic and environmental
implications of the work of physicists. These concerns have become more prominent as our power over the
environment has grown, particularly among young people, for whom the importance of the responsibility
of physicists for their own actions is self-evident.
Physics is therefore, above all, a human activity, and students need to be aware of the context in which
physicists work. Illuminating its historical development places the knowledge and the process of physics
in a context of dynamic change, in contrast to the static context in which physics has sometimes been
presented. This can give students insights into the human side of physics: the individuals; their personalities,
times and social milieux; their challenges, disappointments and triumphs.
The Diploma Programme physics course includes the essential principles of the subject but also, through
selection of an option, allows teachers some flexibility to tailor the course to meet the needs of their
students. The course is available at both SL and HL, and therefore accommodates students who wish to
study physics as their major subject in higher education and those who do not.
There are a variety of approaches to the teaching of physics. By its very nature, physics lends itself to an
experimental approach, and it is expected that this will be reflected throughout the course. The order
in which the syllabus is arranged is not the order in which it should be taught, and it is up to individual
teachers to decide on an arrangement that suits their circumstances. Sections of the option material may be
taught within the core or the additional higher level (AHL) material if desired, or the option material can be
taught as a separate unit.
Science and the international dimension
Science itself is an international endeavour—the exchange of information and ideas across national
boundaries has been essential to the progress of science. This exchange is not a new phenomenon but it
has accelerated in recent times with the development of information and communication technologies.
Indeed, the idea that science is a Western invention is a myth—many of the foundations of modern-day
science were laid many centuries ago by Arabic, Indian and Chinese civilizations, among others. Teachers
are encouraged to emphasize this contribution in their teaching of various topics, perhaps through the
use of timeline websites. The scientific method in its widest sense, with its emphasis on peer review,
open-mindedness and freedom of thought, transcends politics, religion, gender and nationality. Where
appropriate within certain topics, the syllabus details sections in the group 4 guides contain links illustrating
the international aspects of science.
Physics guide 13Nature of physics
On an organizational level, many international bodies now exist to promote science. United Nations bodies such
as UNESCO, UNEP and WMO, where science plays a prominent part, are well known, but in addition there are
hundreds of international bodies representing every branch of science. The facilities for large-scale research in,
for example, particle physics and the Human Genome Project are expensive, and only joint ventures involving
funding from many countries allow this to take place. The data from such research is shared by scientists
worldwide. Group 4 teachers and students are encouraged to access the extensive websites and databases of
these international scientific organizations to enhance their appreciation of the international dimension.
Increasingly there is a recognition that many scientific problems are international in nature and this has led to a
global approach to research in many areas. The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are
a prime example of this. On a practical level, the group 4 project (which all science students must undertake)
mirrors the work of real scientists by encouraging collaboration between schools across the regions.
The power of scientific knowledge to transform societies is unparalleled. It has the potential to produce
great universal benefits, or to reinforce inequalities and cause harm to people and the environment. In line
with the IB mission statement, group 4 students need to be aware of the moral responsibility of scientists to
ensure that scientific knowledge and data are available to all countries on an equitable basis and that they
have the scientific capacity to use this for developing sustainable societies.
Students’ attention should be drawn to sections of the syllabus with links to international-mindedness.
Examples of issues relating to international-mindedness are given within sub-topics in the syllabus content.
Teachers could also use resources found on the Global Engage website (http://globalengage. ibo.org).
Distinction between SL and HL
Group 4 students at standard level (SL) and higher level (HL) undertake a common core syllabus, a common
internal assessment (IA) scheme and have some overlapping elements in the option studied. They are
presented with a syllabus that encourages the development of certain skills, attributes and attitudes, as
described in the “Assessment objectives” section of the guide.
While the skills and activities of group 4 science subjects are common to students at both SL and HL,
students at HL are required to study some topics in greater depth, in the additional higher level (AHL)
material and in the common options. The distinction between SL and HL is one of breadth and depth.
Past experience shows that students will be able to study a group 4 science subject at SL successfully with
no background in, or previous knowledge of, science. Their approach to learning, characterized by the IB
learner profile attributes, will be significant here.
However, for most students considering the study of a group 4 subject at HL, while there is no intention to
restrict access to group 4 subjects, some previous exposure to formal science education would be necessary.
Specific topic details are not specified but students who have undertaken the IB Middle Years Programme
(MYP) or studied an equivalent national science qualification or a school-based science course would be
well prepared for an HL subject.
Links to the Middle Years Programme
Students who have undertaken the MYP science, design and mathematics courses will be well prepared for
group 4 subjects. The alignment between MYP science and Diploma Programme group 4 courses allows
for a smooth transition for students between programmes. The concurrent planning of the new group 4
courses and MYP: Next Chapter (both launched in 2014) has helped develop a closer alignment.
14 Physics guideNature of physics
Scientific inquiry is central to teaching and learning science in the MYP. It enables students to develop a
way of thinking and a set of skills and processes that, while allowing them to acquire and use knowledge,
equip them with the capabilities to tackle, with confidence, the internal assessment component of group 4
subjects. The vision of MYP sciences is to contribute to the development of students as 21st-century learners.
A holistic sciences programme allows students to develop and utilize a mixture of cognitive abilities, social
skills, personal motivation, conceptual knowledge and problem-solving competencies within an inquiry-
based learning environment (Rhoton 2010). Inquiry aims to support students’ understanding by providing
them with opportunities to independently and collaboratively investigate relevant issues through both
research and experimentation. This forms a firm base of scientific understanding with deep conceptual
roots for students entering group 4 courses.
In the MYP, teachers make decisions about student achievement using their professional judgment, guided
by criteria that are public, precise and known in advance, ensuring that assessment is transparent. The IB
describes this approach as “criterion-related”—a philosophy of assessment that is neither “norm-referenced”
(where students must be compared to each other and to an expected distribution of achievement) nor
“criterion-referenced” (where students must master all strands of specific criteria at lower achievement
levels before they can be considered to have achieved the next level). It is important to emphasize that
the single most important aim of MYP assessment (consistent with the PYP and DP) is to support curricular
goals and encourage appropriate student learning. Assessments are based upon evaluating course aims
and objectives and, therefore, effective teaching to the course requirements also ensures effective teaching
for formal assessment requirements. Students need to understand what the assessment expectations,
standards and practices are and these should all be introduced early and naturally in teaching, as well as
in class and homework activities. Experience with criterion-related assessment greatly assists students
entering group 4 courses with understanding internal assessment requirements.
MYP science is a concept-driven curriculum, aimed at helping the learner construct meaning through
improved critical thinking and the transfer of knowledge. At the top level are key concepts which are broad,
organizing, powerful ideas that have relevance within the science course but also transcend it, having
relevance in other subject groups. These key concepts facilitate both disciplinary and interdisciplinary
learning as well as making connections with other subjects. While the key concepts provide breadth, the
related concepts in MYP science add depth to the programme. The related concept can be considered
to be the big idea of the unit which brings focus and depth and leads students towards the conceptual
Across the MYP there are 16 key concepts with the three highlighted below the focus for MYP science.
The key concepts across the MYP curriculum
Aesthetics Change Communication Communities
Connections Creativity Culture Development
Form Global interactions Identity Logic
Perspective Relationships Systems Time, place and space
MYP students may in addition undertake an optional onscreen concept-based assessment as further
preparation for Diploma Programme science courses.
Physics guide 15Nature of physics
Science and theory of knowledge
The theory of knowledge (TOK) course (first assessment 2015) engages students in reflection on the nature
of knowledge and on how we know what we claim to know. The course identifies eight ways of knowing:
reason, emotion, language, sense perception, intuition, imagination, faith and memory. Students explore
these means of producing knowledge within the context of various areas of knowledge: the natural sciences,
the social sciences, the arts, ethics, history, mathematics, religious knowledge systems and indigenous
knowledge systems. The course also requires students to make comparisons between the different areas of
knowledge, reflecting on how knowledge is arrived at in the various disciplines, what the disciplines have in
common, and the differences between them.
TOK lessons can support students in their study of science, just as the study of science can support
students in their TOK course. TOK provides a space for students to engage in stimulating wider discussions
about questions such as what it means for a discipline to be a science, or whether there should be ethical
constraints on the pursuit of scientific knowledge. It also provides an opportunity for students to reflect on
the methodologies of science, and how these compare to the methodologies of other areas of knowledge.
It is now widely accepted that there is no one scientific method, in the strict Popperian sense. Instead, the
sciences utilize a variety of approaches in order to produce explanations for the behaviour of the natural
world. The different scientific disciplines share a common focus on utilizing inductive and deductive
reasoning, on the importance of evidence, and so on. Students are encouraged to compare and contrast
these methods with the methods found in, for example, the arts or in history.
In this way there are rich opportunities for students to make links between their science and TOK courses.
One way in which science teachers can help students to make these links to TOK is by drawing students’
attention to knowledge questions that arise from their subject content. Knowledge questions are open-
ended questions about knowledge such as:
• How do we distinguish science from pseudoscience?
• When performing experiments, what is the relationship between a scientist’s expectation and their
• How does scientific knowledge progress?
• What is the role of imagination and intuition in the sciences?
• What are the similarities and differences in methods in the natural sciences and the human sciences?
Examples of relevant knowledge questions are provided throughout this guide within the sub-topics in
the syllabus content. Teachers can also find suggestions of interesting knowledge questions for discussion
in the “Areas of knowledge” and “Knowledge frameworks” sections of the TOK guide. Students should be
encouraged to raise and discuss such knowledge questions in both their science and TOK classes.
16 Physics guideIntroduction
Group 4 aims
Through studying biology, chemistry or physics, students should become aware of how scientists work and
communicate with each other. While the scientific method may take on a wide variety of forms, it is the
emphasis on a practical approach through experimental work that characterizes these subjects.
The aims enable students, through the overarching theme of the Nature of science, to:
1. appreciate scientific study and creativity within a global context through stimulating and challenging
2. acquire a body of knowledge, methods and techniques that characterize science and technology
3. apply and use a body of knowledge, methods and techniques that characterize science and technology
4. develop an ability to analyse, evaluate and synthesize scientific information
5. develop a critical awareness of the need for, and the value of, effective collaboration and
communication during scientific activities
6. develop experimental and investigative scientific skills including the use of current technologies
7. develop and apply 21st-century communication skills in the study of science
8. become critically aware, as global citizens, of the ethical implications of using science and technology
9. develop an appreciation of the possibilities and limitations of science and technology
10. d evelop an understanding of the relationships between scientific disciplines and their influence on
other areas of knowledge.
Physics guide 17 17Introduction
The assessment objectives for biology, chemistry and physics reflect those parts of the aims that will be
formally assessed either internally or externally. These assessments will centre upon the nature of science. It
is the intention of these courses that students are able to fulfill the following assessment objectives:
1. Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:
a. facts, concepts and terminology
b. methodologies and techniques
c. communicating scientific information.
a. facts, concepts and terminology
b. methodologies and techniques
c. methods of communicating scientific information.
3. Formulate, analyse and evaluate:
a. hypotheses, research questions and predictions
b. methodologies and techniques
c. primary and secondary data
d. scientific explanations.
4. Demonstrate the appropriate research, experimental, and personal skills necessary to carry out
insightful and ethical investigations.
18 18 Physics guideSyllabus
1. Measurements and uncertainties
3. Thermal physics
5. Electricity and magnetism
6. Circular motion and gravitation
7. Atomic, nuclear and particle physics
8. Energy production
Additional higher level (AHL)
9. Wave phenomena
11. Electromagnetic induction
12. Quantum and nuclear physics
B. Engineering physics
Practical scheme of work
Individual investigation (internal assessment – IA)
Group 4 project
Total teaching hours 150 240
The recommended teaching time is 240 hours to complete HL courses and 150 hours to complete SL courses
as stated in the document General regulations: Diploma Programme for students and their legal guardians
(page 4, article 8.2).
Physics guide 19 19Syllabus
Approaches to the teaching and learning of physics
Format of the syllabus
The format of the syllabus section of the group 4 guides is the same for each subject. This new structure
gives prominence and focus to the teaching and learning aspects.
Topics or options
Topics are numbered and options are indicated by a letter. For example, “Topic 8: Energy production”, or
“Option D: Astrophysics”.
Sub-topics are numbered as follows, “6.1 – Circular motion”. Further information and guidance about
possible teaching times are contained in the teacher support material.
Each sub-topic begins with an essential idea. The essential idea is an enduring interpretation that is
considered part of the public understanding of science. This is followed by a section on the “Nature of
science”. This gives specific examples in context illustrating some aspects of the nature of science. These are
linked directly to specific references in the “Nature of science” section of the guide to support teachers in
their understanding of the general theme to be addressed.
Under the overarching “Nature of science” theme there are two columns. The first column lists
“Understandings”, which are the main general ideas to be taught. There follows an “Applications and
skills” section that outlines the specific applications and skills to be developed from the understandings. A
“Guidance” section gives information about the limits and constraints and the depth of treatment required
for teachers and examiners. The contents of the “Nature of science” section above the two columns and
contents of the first column are all legitimate items for assessment. In addition, some assessment of
international-mindedness in science, from the content of the second column, will be assessed as in the
The second column gives suggestion to teachers about relevant references to international-mindedness.
It also gives examples of TOK knowledge questions (see Theory of knowledge guide published 2013) that
can be used to focus students’ thoughts on the preparation of the TOK prescribed essay title. The links
section may link the sub-topic to other parts of the subject syllabus, to other Diploma Programme subject
guides or to real-world applications. Finally, the “Aims” section refers to how specific group 4 aims are
being addressed in the sub-topic.
20 20 Physics guide Approaches to the teaching and learning of physics
Format of the guide
Topic 1: Title
Essential idea: This lists the essential idea for each sub-topic.
Nature of science: Relates the sub-topic to the overarching theme of NOS.
• This section will provide specifics of the • Ideas that teachers can easily integrate into
content requirements for each sub-topic. the delivery of their lessons.
Applications and skills: Theory of knowledge:
• The content of this section gives details • Examples of TOK knowledge questions.
of how students are to apply the
understandings. For example, these
• Links to other topics within the Physics guide,
applications could involve demonstrating
to a variety of real-world applications and to
mathematical calculations or practical skills.
other Diploma Programme courses.
• This section will provide specifics and give
• Links to the group 4 subject aims.
constraints to the requirements for the
understandings and applications and skills.
Data booklet reference:
• This section will include links to specific
sections in the data booklet.
Group 4 experimental skills
I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.
Integral to the experience of students in any of the group 4 courses is their experience in the classroom
laboratory or in the field. Practical activities allow students to interact directly with natural phenomena
and secondary data sources. These experiences provide the students with the opportunity to design
investigations, collect data, develop manipulative skills, analyse results, collaborate with peers and evaluate
and communicate their findings. Experiments can be used to introduce a topic, investigate a phenomenon
or allow students to consider and examine questions and curiosities.
Physics guide 21Approaches to the teaching and learning of physics
By providing students with the opportunity for hands-on experimentation, they are carrying out some of
the same processes that scientists undertake. Experimentation allows students to experience the nature of
scientific thought and investigation. All scientific theories and laws begin with observations.
It is important that students are involved in an inquiry-based practical programme that allows for the
development of scientific inquiry. It is not enough for students just to be able to follow directions and to
simply replicate a given experimental procedure; they must be provided with the opportunities for genuine
inquiry. Developing scientific inquiry skills will give students the ability to construct an explanation based
on reliable evidence and logical reasoning. Once developed, these higher order thinking skills will enable
students to be lifelong learners and scientifically literate.
A school’s practical scheme of work should allow students to experience the full breadth and depth of
the course including the option. This practical scheme of work must also prepare students to undertake
the independent investigation that is required for the internal assessment. The development of students’
manipulative skills should involve them being able to follow instructions accurately and demonstrate the
safe, competent and methodical use of a range of techniques and equipment.
The “Applications and skills” section of the syllabus lists specific lab skills, techniques and experiments that
students must experience at some point during their study of the group 4 course. Other recommended lab
skills, techniques and experiments are listed in the “Aims” section of the syllabus outline.
Aim 6 of the group 4 subjects directly relates to the development of experimental and investigative skills.
All Diploma Programme physics students should be able to:
• perform the basic arithmetic functions: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division
• carry out calculations involving means, decimals, fractions, percentages, ratios, approximations and
• carry out manipulations with trigonometric functions
• carry out manipulations with logarithmic and exponential functions (HL only)
• use standard notation (for example, 3.6 × 10 )
• use direct and inverse proportion
• solve simple algebraic equations
• solve linear simultaneous equations
• plot graphs (with suitable scales and axes) including two variables that show linear and non-linear
• interpret graphs, including the significance of gradients, changes in gradients, intercepts and areas
• draw lines (either curves or linear) of best fit on a scatter plot graph
• on a best-fit linear graph, construct linear lines of maximum and minimum gradients with relative
accuracy (by eye) taking into account all uncertainty bars
• interpret data presented in various forms (for example, bar charts, histograms and pie charts)
• represent arithmetic mean using x-bar notation (for example, x)
• express uncertainties to one or two significant figures, with justification.
22 Physics guideApproaches to the teaching and learning of physics
The data booklet must be viewed as an integral part of the physics programme and should be used
throughout the delivery of the course and not just reserved for use during the external assessments. The
data booklet contains useful equations, constants, data, structural formulae and tables of information.
Explicit links have been provided in the “Syllabus outline” section of the subject guide that provide direct
references to information in the data booklet which will allow students to become familiar with its use and
contents. It is suggested that the data booklet be used for all in-class study and school-based assessments.
For both SL and HL external assessments, clean copies of the data booklet must be made available to both
SL and HL candidates for all papers.
Use of information communication technology
The use of information communication technology (ICT) is encouraged throughout all aspects of the course
in relation to both the practical programme and day-to-day classroom activities. Teachers should make use
of the ICT pages of the teacher support materials (TSM).
Planning your course
The syllabus as provided in the subject guide is not intended to be a teaching order. Instead it provides
detail of what must be covered by the end of the course. A school should develop a scheme of work that best
works for its students. For example, the scheme of work could be developed to match available resources,
to take into account student prior learning and experience, or in conjunction with other local requirements.
HL teachers may choose to teach the core and AHL topics at the same time or teach them in a spiral fashion,
by teaching the core topics in year one of the course and revisiting the core topics through the delivery of
the AHL topics in year two of the course. The option topic could be taught as a stand-alone topic or could be
integrated into the teaching of the core and/or AHL topics.
However the course is planned, adequate time must be provided for examination revision. Time must also
be given for students to reflect on their learning experience and their growth as learners.
Physics guide 23Approaches to the teaching and learning of physics
The IB learner profile
The physics course contributes to the development of the IB learner profile. By following the course,
students will have addressed the attributes of the IB learner profile. For example, the requirements of the
internal assessment provide opportunities for students to develop every aspect of the profile. For each
attribute of the learner profile, a number of references from the group 4 courses are given below.
Biology, chemistry and physics
Inquirers Aims 2 and 6
Practical work and internal assessment
Knowledgeable Aims 1 and 10, international-mindedness links
Practical work and internal assessment
Thinkers Aims 3 and 4, theory of knowledge links
Practical work and internal assessment
Communicators Aims 5 and 7, external assessment
Practical work and internal assessment, the group 4 project
Principled Aims 8 and 9
Practical work and internal assessment, ethical behaviour/practice (Ethical practice
poster, Animal experimentation policy), academic honesty
Open-minded Aims 8 and 9, international-mindedness links
Practical work and internal assessment, the group 4 project
Caring Aims 8 and 9
Practical work and internal assessment, the group 4 project, ethical behaviour/
practice (Ethical practice poster, Animal experimentation policy)
Risk-takers Aims 1 and 6
Practical work and internal assessment, the group 4 project
Balanced Aims 8 and 10
Practical work and internal assessment, the group 4 project and field work
Reflective Aims 5 and 9
Practical work and internal assessment analysis, and group 4 project
24 Physics guide