Setting the exam papers

Writing and preparing the examination papers  

The paper setting team is made up of the Chief Examiner, Deputy Chief Examiners and some Senior Examiners. About three years before the examination is due to be set the Assessment Subject Area Manager (ASAM) for Chemistry contacts three[1] members of the paper setting team and asks them to set the examination papers. Three different  examinations are set for each year, two for the May session (Time Zone 1 and Time Zone 2) and one for the November session. The Chief Examiner is usually one of the team members for all three examinations to ensure some degree of uniformity but the other two members are likely to be different for the three different examinations. It is an absolute rule that no person setting the paper can also be teaching IB Chemistry to students who will be taking the particular examination being set.

Once the team is agreed each of the three members sets one of the three papers at SL and also the comparable paper at HL together with the answers and markscheme. These are set according to fairly stringent guidelines to ensure that there is continuity of format for different examinations.  The ASAM will provide details of assessment statements covered on other recent papers so that no one statement is either continually tested every year or ignored every year.  For each question the sub-topic has to be identified (to ensure it is on the syllabus) and the objective level (1, 2 or 3) needs to be stated (to ensure that a 50:50 mixture of objectives 1 and 2 and objective 3 appears on all three Papers).  These initial papers and markschemes are posted on a secure website and the other two members of the team criticise constructively the other two papers that they have not written.  A second draft of the papers and markschemes is then put on the secure website by the papers’ authors after consideration of the criticism.

About two weeks after this second posting the team meets at IBCA for a paper setting meeting which is also attended by the Chemistry ASAM. At this meeting the questions and answers/markscheme for all three HL and all three SL papers are gone through word by word to ensure that they are correct Chemistry and that they fulfil all the requirements of the programme. After the three papers are agreed by the whole team the papers are sent to the External Advisor for comment. The External Advisor is a person with a good knowledge of both the IB and of Chemistry who checks that the chemistry covered is both correct and on the syllabus and is of the correct degree of difficulty. These comments are sent to the examining team who consider them and if necessary alter the papers to accommodate them. The papers are then put into a publishable form and returned to the team members who confirm that they are correct. The papers are then sent to practising chemists who translate them into French and Spanish. Sometimes during the translation process the translators also pick up on some problems. The papers are then printed and the paper editor checks the printed version of the papers and markschemes and signs them off. There is one final check by a second external advisor. Shortly before the examination period the sealed packets of examination papers are sent to schools.

Some past problems with examination papers

The whole process is very human and very occasionally a few problems have gone through the whole system undetected. However, chemistry has a good record for examination papers and the quality has been consistently high. Most of the problems have been very minor and have had little or no effect on the ability of the paper to discriminate fairly. Perhaps the most widely publicised problem in recent years was the omission of the Periodic Table in Paper 1 in May 2006. To eliminate any unfairness this may have caused several questions (four at both SL and HL) were not counted in the marking.

Other problems have involved chemistry that is not completely correct. For example in the May 2004 HL examination part (e) of Question 9 was:

“Enthalpies of reactions for example combustion, can be calculated using average bond enthalpies or enthalpies of
  The two methods give similar results for cyclohexane but different results for benzene.
  Explain this difference.”

After the exam was taken it was pointed out that in fact they do not give similar results for cyclohexane. The question was then changed so that copies of the examination published afterwards show: 

“Enthalpies of reactions, for example combustion, can be calculated using average bond enthalpies or enthalpies of   formation.
   The two methods give closer results for cyclohexane than they do for benzene.
   Explain this difference.”

A similar instance occurred in November 2006 HL Paper 3 in Option H - Further organic chemistry. The original question in the examination taken by the students had the question:

In fact there are many isomers of C4H6Cl2 and the question had to be changed after the exam to:

However in both of these cases the students were not disadvantaged.

To those who say there should never be any errors that get through the system I would simply say, “Try writing examination questions together with the answers and markscheme yourself without any errors!”


  1. ^ Sometimes there may be four in the team as two examiners may share the writing of Paper 3.
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