Gaining full marks for a databased IA

I've made this a free page so that any IB chemistry teacher can access it for educational purposes. The page has two very different functions. You can use it to show your students how to write their IA report based upon secondary data so that it fulfils all the assessment criteria. It also shows that the IB assessment criteria bear little relationship to the criteria used to judge the worth of a peer-reviewed report for publication in an internationally recognised academic chemistry journal.


In 2010 Eugen Schwarz wrote a paper claiming that theoretical quantum mechanical calculations lead to the conclusion that the 3d level is lower in energy than the 4s level in transition elements. In 2013 Scerri stated that many teachers were still teaching blatantly wrong chemistry by giving the electron configuration of scandium as [Ar[4s23d1 and provided experimental evidence to support the argument that it should be [Ar]3d14s2.  During the lockdown enforced by the Covid pandemic I decided to investigate the validity of this experimental evidence by looking at the atomic spectra of relevant atoms and ions. You can see the results of my investigation on a separate page on this website. What I realised after I had written it up for publication in Foundations of Chemistry was that effectively I had completed an individual scientific investigation using secondary data. All this secondary data is easily accessible to students on the Internet and the investigation could have been undertaken by a student for their IA.

Problems with databased IAs

There is currently much unease and worry by both teachers and students about Individual Scientific Investigations that are based on secondary data. Before the pandemic it is significant that the May 2019 subject report stated only a small proportion of the IAs submitted were based on secondary data from databases - the overwhelming majority were based upon hands-on experimentation. Since access to school laboratories worldwide has been severely restricted or has been completely unavailable for long periods during the past year this has all changed. Now many students are having to cope with an investigation based on secondary data. The concerns are many but essentially they are:

  • Research questions are difficult to find and formulate where enough data from different sources can be utilized.
  • The criteria are less easy to address than if hands-on work has been performed.

 and perhaps most worrying

  • With the cancellation of the May 2020 exams instead of the IA component counting for only 20% of the final mark it effectively became the main basis upon which grades were awarded. Currently the May 2021 are due to proceed on a curtailed basis (Paper 3 and the Group 4 project have been discarded) but in the United Kingdom the summer 2021 A level examinations have already been cancelled so it may well be that in some or all countries the IB exams may suffer a similar fate. 

I have two other concerns. The current programme reduced the overall component mark from 24% to 20%. This was partly to offset worries that it is difficult to ensure complete academic honesty. Although students are only supposed to deal with their own supervisor who is able to comment on the final draft there is nothing to stop students collaborating with other students and there are even websites now where IB teachers offer to help individual students with their IA for the payment of a fee. My second worry is that the whole of the IA assessment has become a ‘ticky box’ exercise involving passing through ‘hoops’ that bear little relevance to how chemistry is normally reported. The assessment criteria are set out clearly in the guide but the interpretation of how to apply them is based upon what is written in several pages of the subject reports and the instructions that are given to moderators.  None of the words ‘variable’, ‘dependent’, ‘independent’ and ‘constant’ appear even once in the assessment criteria. Despite this, in order for students to gain high marks, the RQ is almost required to be written in the form of “How does altering variable A affect variable B whilst keeping variables W, X, Y, Z etc. constant?” A search through any reputable academic chemistry journal will show that articles are almost never formatted this way.

I thought it would be instructive to send my seven page report to an experienced IA moderator to see what mark it would achieve when marked according to the IB internal assessment criteria. I sent it without any explanation as to why I was doing it to James Midgley who has produced some excellent webinars and videos on how to achieve a high IA mark particularly using secondary data. James awarded it a mark of 7/24 which I felt fairly reflected its worth according to the IB assessment criteria. The marks broke down as:

Personal engagement 1/2; Exploration: 2/6; Analysis: 2/6;  Evaluation: 0/6 and Communication: 2/4.

His comments included the following:

The RQ was very narrow.

Only 7 pages - it does not feel like 10 hours effort.

Method not explained or described

No attempt at elucidation of variables.

No mention of safety, ethical, environmental

Rationale for method missing

Whole premise of IA relies on atomic spectra which are not included - fundamental flaw in the execution of this report

Raw data table omitted 

No attempt at uncertainties

No graph

Tables are not explained, and data is not processed.

Narrow data set and absence of numerical manipulation

No attempt at evaluation

RQ not answered.

Obviously this is not an official IB mark and the comments are not official IB feedback but James has a good record of marking according to the IB's standard.  Because I wrote the article, I cannot really assess it in a subjective or unbiased way but it seems to me that James' mark is spot on. So all in all a mediocre to poor report – according to the IB assessment criteria.

This exact same report was submitted as a manuscript to Foundations of Chemistry, an international academic journal which provides an interdisciplinary forum in which chemists, biochemists, philosophers, historians, educators and sociologists discuss conceptual and fundamental issues which relate to the `central science' of chemistry. All articles are only published after being peer-reviewed and approved by the editorial board. The peer-review for this article came back as “This manuscript is a very thorough and comprehensive study of the spectroscopic energy levels for a uniquely interesting and oft-overlooked atom.  It provides also a good selection of cited works. It is up to the high standard of Foundations of Chemistry”.

Clearly the standard at Foundations of Chemistry is not up to IB standards!

Improving the IA to meet the IB assessment criteria

What I then did was to spend about an hour rewriting my article to address specifically all the IB assessment criteria without adding or changing any of the actual chemistry. I changed the title to make it a question and explained why I was interested in the topic to help with personal engagement, identified the variables and how they were controlled, described the procedure and explained about the source and the uncertainties associated with the data and added fairly meaningless sentences such as “There would appear to be no particular ethical or safety concerns inherent in this investigation and one positive advantage is that the lack of primary experimental work makes this a very green chemistry approach”  etc. etc. This expanded the report to eleven pages. It was then sent off to be marked by James and came back with the mark of 24/24 with glowing comments.

You can see my original 7/24 paper online and I've embedded my 24/24 “IA report” below with the main changes (which are almost all just additions) made in red so you can teach your students how to address the criteria effectively.  I’ve also added James’ comments at the end of the report. However, surely the IB should be rewarding real chemistry not insisting on mindless box ticking particularly if final grades are going to depend upon it. On my page on History of Internal Assessment I have detailed how the IA assessment has changed over the years. Maybe it is time for the chemistry practical assessment to be decoupled from the other two sciences to reflect more accurately what real chemists do.

All materials on this website are for the exclusive use of teachers and students at subscribing schools for the period of their subscription. Any unauthorised copying or posting of materials on other websites is an infringement of our copyright and could result in your account being blocked and legal action being taken against you.