New Teachers Advice

When you've been teaching for many years you can sometimes forget what it's like to start afresh, take over a new course and step out of your comfort zone. There are few people who have qualifications that exactly match the ESS course and even students of the course who go on to teach the course will see how it evolves quickly over time. With this in mind, I've compiled a set of advice from fellow teachers, their names are at the end of this page.

You Can Do This

This is an amazing course which will allow you to forge real connections with your students. Give a little environmental passion and students will start giving it back. Talk about the tv documentaries you're watching and encourage students to do the same.

Breath deeply, ask for help, read as much as you can and enjoy. Oh and don’t try to do every idea in your first year. Take your time and develop your portfolio of ESS tricks (or as one teacher says, Defence against the Dark Arts spells) over time.

Know Your Support Network

There are many places that can provide support, beyond our InThinking website!

Within your own school, don't forget that you can go outside your own department and ask science colleagues or humanities/social science colleagues for their thoughts.

The Facebook group ESSpedia is a great source of help and inspiration. There are teachers with decades of ESS experience who are happy to answer questions on this site.

As an IB teacher, you have access to myIB. From myIB you can access the Programme Resource Centre (PRC) and the Programme Communities.

The PRC is where you will find all the offical and essential information including the Subject Guide, teacher support material and very usefully the Subject Reports. These reports are written by the principal examiners for each component after each exam session and provide you with advice to remedy common problems that students make.

The Programme Communities is where you can ask questions and an experienced ESS teacher monitors the forum but it isn't as fast or as active as the Facebook group.

There is also IB Answers where you can email or call for more technical interpretations of the course.

There are a growing group of ESS teachers on Twitter using the hashtag #ibess. You can also follow scientists and activists on Twitter.

Where to Start

Start by reading the Subject Guide and then read it again (and again). 

Read the whole guide, not just the subject content. Make copies of the topic pages and give these to your students. Tell them to keep track of what you do by ticking off the knowledge statements as you cover them. Refer to the topics and subtopic numbers as you teach. If you are nervous or struggling with time, you can’t go far wrong just following the guide.

Read past exam papers and the subject reports. You will quickly get an idea of the style of questions and the subject reports provide you with a commentary on the exam papers. If you don’t know where to find the past papers, ask your Diploma Coordinator. They should be buying them after each session from Follett.

Read an ESS textbook. All seem to be equally recommended from Oxford, Pearson and Cambridge.

Plan out your timing for the one or two years you have. If teaching over two years, aim to complete four units per year. Include 3 weeks to complete the internal assessment (individual investigation).

New to IB Teaching?

IB assessments use a set of command terms. When preparing for tests, make sure you emphasise these command terms and the requirements for them. Students can lose marks by not answering the command term. You can also do this retrospectively by showing students where they lost marks due to not following the command term. Some teachers have quizzes on the command terms themselves.

Most of the exam questions are marked against a mark scheme so they gain marks for giving a correct point but the part c of Paper 2 Section B questions and the Internal Assessment (Independent Investigation) are marked against rubric. You will need to become familiar with these rubrics and how to use them. They are different from other subjects.

Teaching Approach

One of the key things to realise in ESS is that everything is connected. It is useful to start the course with topics 1.1, 1.2 and 1.3 to introduce the conceptual underpinnings of the course which are repeated and embedded in all the topics. Beyond this, it is possible to take any order through the topics which works for you.

If you are familiar with the MYP then some teachers advise teaching the course like an MYP course where you emphasise the conceptual and thematic nature of your units.

As this is an interdisciplinary course, combining Group 3 (Individuals and Societies) and Group 4 (Sciences), develop your understanding of the different approaches these groups take. Ask colleagues for help. Science teachers will be good at transfer of knowledge and scientific experiments, humanities teachers will be good at the use of case studies, strategies for tackling  topics and essay writing. There’s no shame in borrowing good strategies.

You will find that many of the exam questions require knowledge from many parts of the course so it is useful to help your students make links to other parts of the course as you move along. I start the course with an environmental news story and have students dissect the article showing how it links to each of the eight topics.

For success in the exams, students need a mix of skills but one that they particularly benefit from is retrieval practice. Do lots of quizzes regularly and mix up the topics. With InThinking, you can give your students access to the website and then they can do self-test quizzes too. Guide students to read through their notes / textbook after every lesson and advise them about how to become active participants in their learning.

Making it Real

It is essential to link your teaching to real life examples and case studies. The Paper 1 exam is a full length case study and Paper 2 section B questions require the use of examples and case studies.

Try to engage your students in following environmental news stories. Let them do this in whatever way they like, technology preferences move fast and Instagram or tiktok might provide them with engagement. News stories in authoritative newspapers like the Guardian, New York Times, Washington Times but also your local newspapers will probably provide more depth.

If your students are from different countries, help them to find stories that connect them to this country and culture. If you are more locally based, follow the stories locally.

Students will have diverse interests. Not all will be National Geographic subscribers or David Attenborough fans, so have them find out about stories that connect to their interests, e.g. sustainability in fashion or sport. In many schools, there are clubs, such as the Model United Nations, which can be used as sources for the case studies.

Get them sharing these stories with each other and try and keep a record of them. Many teachers see this as key to student engagement. Make following current events part of your classroom culture. You will be surprised how many families tell you that your class is their dinner table / evening conversation.

Internal Assessment

Read through the assessment criteria and look at examples of individual assessment reports. The IB provides some and there are examples on this site (Grading the Individual Investigation Report). Plan a series of practical activities over your course that help build the skills that students will need (try Building a PSOW to Support Data Analysis). There are a wide variety of types of investigations, ecological, lab based, secondary data and surveys but you don’t have to do them all in your first year. Play to your strengths and that way you can support your students better. As you gain more experience you can add different options for your students.

Keep it simple too. The investigations don’t need to be very complicated; it is about choosing an environmental context then investigating that context in order to come up with an application or solution.

Practice different parts of the final IA report alongside a practical activity, e.g. when teaching population demographics, practice writing research questions and use secondary data to produce scatter graphs, when teaching ecology, do a lab on productivity and practice analysing the problems with the methodology and suggesting improvements.


Give regular tests using past papers. Make sure your school purchases a subscription to the IB Questionbank. When marking the tests, stick carefully to the markscheme. Don’t be generous. The IB examiners won’t be. Have students use the markschemes and analyse why they lost marks (.

Give each test a different focus, e.g. short answers, essay or a Paper 1 resource book with questions. Over the course of one year you should have covered all the types of questions. Try to give a larger exam modelling the whole of the examination experience at least once a year. Mix up the years and questions if your students have a culture of memorising mark schemes.

If you use a mix of different types of exam questions over the year then you can keep the same grade boundaries over the year and by the end of the year it will balance out. Some teachers raise the grade boundaries for shorter tests but I stick with the IB “normal” grade boundaries where a 7 is about 68%. This works for me. These grade boundaries are published in the subject reports each year.


Thanks to all the ESS Facebook contributors.

Zoe Badcock, Laura Hamilton, Shameek Kumar Ghosh, Radhika Gatade, Daniel Michael, Emma Baxendale, Barbara Bilgre, Karin Hartog-Kroeze, Ginger Link Beach, Michelle Mojzak Housenga, Teddi Bewernitz, Lynne Maree, Ana Teresa Figueroa, Nathan Peter, Satyajit Salgarkar, Sarah Overstreet, Aloa Lamarca Dams, Kara Noonan Stevens, Nigel Gardner, Jane Snell, Sarah Urquhart, Christina Wilson Bowers, Elena Lerner, Martyn Steiner, Kristin Abt, Samantha Richards, Chris Leonhard, Roland SB and Tim Needham who asked for help.

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