Physics Coursework - how to do it well - a Teacher's Guide from the Tutor Team

How to Write Good Physics Coursework – A Teacher’s Guide

Physics Coursework


What have Special Relativity, Newton’s laws and electromagnetic induction got in common? They would have all scored poorly if they were entered as physics coursework at sixth-form. It matters not a bit that they were pioneering, ground-breaking physics; in the context of coursework, if it does not fit the mark scheme, it gets – for want of a better word – shafted.

Herein, I break a common misconception: an ingenious piece of physics is not rewarded in pre-university education. IBDP examiners are not a Nobel Prize committee, rather, they are probably underpaid teachers sat at a laptop trying to earn extra money to take their kids on a holiday in summer (let’s be realistic).

The Mark Scheme for Physics Coursework

I write this blog because once, as a young and enthusiastic teacher, I fell victim to the misnomer that a good piece of physics was always rewarded. I was doubly wrong: it isn’t and it shouldn’t be. IBDP candidates are in abundance and have to be marked consistently and fairly. There must, therefore, be a simple way of ensuring that everybody is marked to the same objective standard: the mark scheme. The mark scheme – the rubric – one of the few useful pages in the rainforest of paper (or whatever the digital equivalent is) that makes up the specification, seldom seen and buried somewhere near page 999999.


Believe it or not, the mark scheme is very often the last thing that is consulted (if at all) by the student (and, sadly, very often the teacher). Oh, if I had a dollar for every time I heard “why has the moderator slashed our results?” The answer almost always is because you never looked at the mark scheme and the tired examiner working to pay for the family holiday was not able to tick the box where you did not state what the “ethical and environmental issues” were. It mattered not that you squared the circle or had lunch with the Higgs’ particle – that was not on the mark scheme.


So, what follows is my best attempt for what should be included on a physics IA, based on how I interpret the mark scheme. I am not promising 100%, but if you stick to this, you will not bomb.

A Teacher's Guide to Physics Coursework from the Tutor Team



1. Personal Engagement

This is a small section linking your investigation to you. It is NOT how science works but it is very fashionable – and it is how the IBO thinks science works. In the real world, scientists do things because…   ….well, because, why not?

In the world on the IBO, however, if science is not done to meet the objectives of Greta Thunberg et al, it ain’t science. Play the game. Talk service, sport, something to do with your family or saving the Earth – and then link it to your investigation. You will get the personal engagement marks.


2. Exploration

 Research Question
  • State the area of physics your investigation involves (mechanics, waves etc).
  • State the focused research question. Make sure it is clear and asks a question about the relationship between two variables.
  • State the independent variable and the dependent variable (consistent with the above).
Background Information
  • Derive an equation that you will test in your investigation. Do NOT do anything qualitative because the whole thing will be much harder.
  • State that said equation is your hypothesis and say your investigation will be to test it.
  • State what you will plot on the axes of a graph to obtain a straight line and say what significance the gradient is (preferably, how it relates to known physical constants).
  • In words of one syllable, state very clearly how your experiment works (remember, it is not a recipe). Draw a labeled diagram and, if you can, add a photo.
  • State, for both the independent and dependent variable, the following: whether or not the variable is raw or processed. State the instruments you will use and their precision. If the variable is processed, state how you will use the measurements to calculate it.
  • For the controlled variables, use a table with the headers:
        • “controlled variable”
        • “how it is controlled”
        • “value”
        • “what effect this variable will have on the dependent variable if it is not controlled”
  • In order to state how the errors were minimized, create another table, using the headers:
        • “error”
        • “type of error (random or systematic)”
        • “what I did to minimize the error”
 Risk Assessment, and ethical and environmental issues
  • Do a risk assessment using a standard RA template and paste it into the investigation.
  • State any ethical and environmental issues the experiment raises. If it is none, state none.




3. Analysis

 The raw data
  • Present both a table and graph with the raw data.
  • The graph should have both x and y error bars.
  • State the precision of the instrument and the unit of the variable in the header of each column.
  • State the uncertainty on any repeat readings.
  • Ensure all axes of the graph and labelled with units.
  • Ensure that the uncertainty of all measurements are clear.
 The processed data
  • Present both a table and graph with the processed data (whatever you did with the raw data to make it a straight line).
  • The graph should have both x and y error bars.
  • State the uncertainty on the data you process.
  • Ensure all axes of the graph and labelled with units.
  • Ensure that the uncertainty of all measurements is clear.
  • Produce a table showing how every uncertainty was calculated.
  • For every variable, state the average uncertainty as well as the maximum and minimum % uncertainty (these figures make the evaluation, later, very easy).
  • Sketch a first order polynomial through your points and calculate the gradient and the y-intercept (better still, get Excel to do this).
  • Sketch lines of maximum and minimum gradient, calculating the gradient and y-intercept of these lines too.
  • Use your maximum and minimum gradient to calculate the uncertainties on the gradient and the y-intercept.
  • State the R2 value and comment how close it is to 1.
  • Compare the % uncertainty on the gradient and the intercept to the % uncertainty of your raw data (they should be more or less the same and you should comment as much).
  • State whether the line of best fit passes through the error bars (it really should).

Physics Coursework - a Teacher's Guide from the Tutor Team



4. Evaluation

  • State, again, what the research question was.
  • Repeat your hypothesis.
  • State the conclusions of your analysis (with all the uncertainties you calculated) and, with some luck, that should confirm your hypothesis. THIS is your conclusion. Do not overcomplicate it.
Conclusion in the Scientific Context
  • In the theory section you stated the physical significance of the gradient – depending on the investigation this will be a known constant (e.g. gravitational field strength, density of oil, mass per unit length of string etc). Remind the reader of this.
  • Use your calculated gradient to determine this ‘known constant’ and compare it to the textbook value (or value measured by another means).
Strengths and Limitations
  • If you have followed these instructions well, the strengths should be obvious. You have meticulously performed the experiment, controlled the variables, minimized the errors, propagated the uncertainties and determined a physical constant. It is a solid investigation and you saying how you made it so in a list is a neat and efficient way to demonstrate the strengths.
  • There will always be limitations. Try and name three or four but, for top marks, explain them (I like quick lists but here a quick list will not get full marks). Some ideas follow for limitations:
        1. All experiments are limited by the range of data. Start with this. Say what the range is and what interesting things might be found outside the range.
        2. Go back to where you worked out the % uncertainties on your raw data. Pick the worst and say it limits your conclusions.
        3. Think about any constrictions the laboratory had on you. At the end of the day, you were not working in CERN and the equipment you had would be pretty limited. State why.
Improvements and further work
  • If you have done the above well this section is easy. Just address every limitation saying how you would overcome it. E.g. if the range is narrow, extend it (say how), if the uncertainty is too large, suggest how to reduce it. The beauty of this section is that you do not have to do it – and hence, in your solutions, you can afford to be more ambitious.
  • Pick another question that sounds like yours. State a basic outline of the experiment, the independent variable, the dependent variable and the controlled variables


And finally….

There are significant points for presentation and communication. Ensure, therefore, that:

  • All titles and subtitles have numbers
  • You give all tables and figures numbers and labels
  • All your equations are numbered and the variables are described
  • Any uncertainties are quoted to 1 significant figure and measurement and calculated values are quoted to the same number of decimal places as their uncertainty
  • You reference, correctly, any equations and claims that are not yours



A bit about the author, Michael T:

Dr Michael TDr Michael is currently a senior leader at one of Britain’s leading independent educational institutions and has an exceptional record in teaching. Having been in education for over 15 years, he has developed a track record in transforming departments and academic programmes into headlining acts.

Michael read physics at university, achieving first-class honours and was awarded the final year university prize. He also has a Ph.D. in physics and postdoctoral experience, publishing in the field of molecular spectroscopy.

Michael has value-added results, which he is happy to share, demonstrate, statistically, that the students he teaches achieve higher than they would if they were taught elsewhere in similar institutions.

You can enquire about tutoring with Michael here

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