May 2021 IBDP exam & internal assessment changes

Timothy Hoffmann

NB: This is a condensed post from our recent official report on May 2021 exam changes. Receive a PDF copy of the full 12 page report via our resources home-page.


The IBO has come out early in a bid both to give schools and students as much warning as possible, but naturally also to cover themselves in terms of potential kick-back from various stakeholders about not forward planning. It goes without saying that everyone in the IB ecosystem will have suffered (some more than others) from the various issues from COVID, and so the sensible solution has ultimately been to make reductions – either on terms of what is examined from a syllabus/content perspective, or removing entire assessment components, reducing the skillset students need to develop for exam readiness. 

For a table summarising changes to the IA component breakdown weightings, scroll to the end of this article.


Useful Links


The hope here is clearly to be as equitable to as many students undertaking the IBDP as possible, whilst also balancing the fact that students take a breadth of subjects, all of which are affected in their own way, and so balance must be struck both across schools but also subject combinations.


The short story is that due to reduced school teaching time, subjects have either had exam durations reduced (from, for example 1hr30 to 1hr) as there is less content to assess, or simply that papers have been removed entirely. Given the thousands of potential subject combinations, it is best to assess how this impacts you on a subject-by-subject basis.


Where it is easier to move some of the bulk of the exam to coursework (for example, Literature) this has been done. Where it is harder (for example, experimental sciences which require labs) the IA components have not increased and more emphasis will go towards the exams, even if they themselves have been reduced in length or format, they still count for more overall.

A full breakdown of which changes have been made can be found via this link.

The IB’s official statement for the reasons behind the changes are:

“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”.

The loss of class time, engagement with peers and of course students and schools struggling to adapt to an online or blended learning environment means changes had to be made, and the sooner the better for the whole IB ecosystem.


The IB’s lexicon for the 3 types of changes they’re making are:

  • Amendments to assessment components and requirements
    • Read: Changing the way in which you’re being assessed and examined. For example, removal of the Group 4 project as some students can’t access their labs.
  • Removal of components or requirements
    • Read: removing parts of the syllabus or content, some of which you may already have covered in school. For example, removing Paper 3 (the option paper) from the science papers.
  • The use of in-session mitigations
    • Read: Unclear! Likely to either mean easier exams, or a lower bell-curve for grade awarding and attainment.

The kickback the IB have been met with is that they of course have had to make different decisions for different subjects, meaning that not only will teachers be affected in terms of how they teach and assess different subjects, but as students are taking 6 subjects, some will naturally be more than others. It is hard to see a way around this, as there is no ‘one size fits all approach’ to the wide range of subject combinations you can take within the IBDP. The more literature you read, the better you will understand how you are directly impacted by the changes.

Although the changes are quite vast, changes which are directly impactful on most students are

  • Maths has no direct change other than ‘in session mitigations’ – ie they may make the exam slightly easier to allow for the reduced teaching time and exam readiness.
  • Language A – Paper two removed. As Paper 2 counted for 25% at SL and 35% at HL, that has meant a re-balancing amongst the other components. Oral exams can now take place remotely, over Skype or a similar medium.
  • Sciences – Group 4 project removed. The Group 4 project was a cornerstone of the science subjects, but as so many schools can’t safely get students into labs, it is sadly a non-starter for students this year. As the Group 4 did not count towards your final grade and was rather a binary check on your work, there is no ultimate effect on how your grades are awarded. “The project exists to promote collaborative and multi-disciplinary work between students.”
    • Perhaps more tangibly, OPTIONS papers have been fully removed (paper three). These used to be taught at the end of the second year of the IB so should not really impact students as much in terms of their preparation. The unfortunate downside here is that students tended to score quite well in Paper 3, especially for Physics.


The IB’s official document: “M21 adapted assessment: Modified marks, weightings and examination times” is the best place to see a full breakdown. This is an official IB document, so you will need to speak to your school to gain access to this document. We strongly advise that you read it as soon as possible!


The table below neatly summarises the changes to internal assessment changes.


An example of how the IB is sharing this information can be found in the table below:

Figure 1: – “M21 adapted assessment: Modified marks, weightings

and examination times”