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The Complete IB Physics Syllabus: SL and HL

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Posted by Dora Seigel | Feb 2, 2022 3:00:00 PM

International Baccalaureate (IB)



I took IB Physics HL back in my high school days. It is still probably the most challenging class I have ever taken (even including my college courses), but I got a 6 on the exam, so trust me—it's doable.

In this article, I'll discuss all the topics covered in IB Physics Standard Level and IB Physics Higher Level, the number of hours dedicated to each topic, and what IB expects you to know for each topic.




2022 IB Exam Changes Due to COVID-19

Because of the ongoing COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, the IB has decided to extend the adaptations which were put in place for 2021 to 2022. May 2022 IB assessments will have two routes, exam and non-exam, depending on which your school chooses. Stay up to date with the latest information on what this means for IB diplomas, course credit for IB classes, and more with our our IB COVID-19 FAQ article.


IB Physics SL and HL Core

Both IB Physics SL and HL consist of the same core requirements that consist of the same number of hours. Both classes will cover the same 8 topics (requiring 95 teaching hours) in the order listed below with the same subtopics listed below:


Topic #1: Measurements and Uncertainties—5 Hours for Both SL and HL

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand
Measurements in physics


  • Fundamental and derived SI units
  • Scientific notation and metric multipliers
  • Significant figures
  • Orders of magnitude
  • Estimation
Uncertainties and errors


  • Random and systematic errors
  • Absolute, fractional and percentage uncertainties
  • Error bars
  • Uncertainty of gradient and intercepts
Vectors and scalars 1.3
  • Vector and scalar quantities
  • Combination and resolution of vectors



Topic #2: Mechanics—22 Hours for Both SL and HL

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand


  • Distance and displacement
  • Speed and velocity
  • Acceleration
  • Graphs describing motion
  • Equations of motion for uniform acceleration
  • Projectile motion
  • Fluid resistance and terminal speed


  • Objects as point particles
  • Free-body diagrams
  • Translational equilibrium
  • Newton's laws of motion
  • Solid friction
Work, energy and power


  • Kinetic energy
  • Gravitational potential energy
  • Elastic potential energy
  • Work done as energy transfer
  • Power as rate of energy transfer
  • Principle of conservation of energy
  • Efficiency
Momentum and impulse 2.4
  • Newton's second law expressed in terms of rate of change of momentum
  • Impulse and force–time graphs
  • Conservation of linear momentum
  • Elastic collisions, inelastic collisions and explosions




Topic #3: Thermal Physics—11 Hours for Both SL and HL

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand
Thermal concepts


  • Molecular theory of solids, liquids and gases
  • Temperature and absolute temperature
  • Internal energy
  • Specific heat capacity
  • Phase change
  • Specific latent heat
Modelling a gas


  • Pressure
  • Equation of state for an ideal gas
  • Kinetic model of an ideal gas
  • Mole, molar mass and the Avogadro constant
  • Differences between real and ideal gases



Topic #4: Waves—15 Hours for Both SL and HL

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand


  • Simple harmonic oscillations
  • Time period, frequency, amplitude, displacement and phase difference
  • Conditions for simple harmonic motion
Travelling waves


  • Travelling waves
  • Wavelength, frequency, period and wave speed
  • Transverse and longitudinal waves
  • The nature of electromagnetic waves
  • The nature of sound waves
Wave characteristics


  • Wavefronts and rays
  • Amplitude and intensity
  • Superposition
  • Polarization
Wave behaviour 4.4
  • Reflection and refraction
  • Snell's law, critical angle and total internal reflection
  • Diffraction through a single-slit and around objects
  • Interference patterns
  • Double-slit interference
  • Path difference
Standing waves 4.5
  • The nature of standing waves
  • Boundary conditions
  • Nodes and antinodes





Topic #5: Electricity and Magnetism—15 Hours for Both SL and HL

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand
Electric fields


  • Charge
  • Electric field
  • Coulomb's law
  • Electric current
  • Direct current (dc)
  • Potential difference
Heating effect of electric currents


  • Circuit diagrams
  • Kirchhoff's circuit laws
  • Heating effect of current and its consequences
  • Resistance expressed as R = V/I
  • Ohm's law
  • Resistivity
  • Power dissipation
Electric cells


  • Cells
  • Internal resistance
  • Secondary cells
  • Terminal potential difference
  • Electromotive force (emf)
Magnetic effects of electric currents 5.4
  • Magnetic fields
  • Magnetic force



Topic #6: Circular Motion and Gravitation—5 Hours for Both SL and HL

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand
Circular motion


  • Period, frequency, angular displacement and angular velocity
  • Centripetal force
  • Centripetal acceleration
Newton's law of gravitation


  • Newton's law of gravitation
  • Gravitational field strength



Topic #7: Atomic, Nuclear and Particle Physics—14 Hours for Both SL and HL

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand
Discrete energy and radioactivity


  • Discrete energy and discrete energy levels
  • Transitions between energy levels
  • Radioactive decay
  • Fundamental forces and their properties
  • Alpha particles, beta particles and gamma rays
  • Half-life
  • Absorption characteristics of decay particles
  • Isotopes
  • Background radiation
Nuclear reactions


  • The unified atomic mass unit
  • Mass defect and nuclear binding energy
  • Nuclear fission and nuclear fusion
The structure of matter


  • Quarks, leptons and their antiparticles
  • Hadrons, baryons and mesons
  • The conservation laws of charge, baryon number, lepton number and strangeness
  • The nature and range of the strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force and electromagnetic force
  • Exchange particles
  • Feynman diagrams
  • Confinement
  • The Higgs boson



Topic #8: Energy Production—8 Hours for Both SL and HL

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand
Energy sources


  • Specific energy and energy density of fuel sources
  • Sankey diagrams
  • Primary energy sources
  • Electricity as a secondary and versatile form of energy
  • Renewable and non-renewable energy sources
Thermal energy transfer


  • Conduction, convection and thermal radiation
  • Black-body radiation
  • Albedo and emissivity
  • The solar constant
  • The greenhouse effect
  • Energy balance in the Earth surface–atmosphere system



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Additional Higher Level Topics

These 4 topics are only for IB Physics Higher Level students—60 hours total for HL only




Topic #9: Wave Phenomena—17 Hours for HL Only

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand
Simple harmonic motion (HL ONLY)


  • The defining equation of SHM
  • Energy changes
Single-slit diffraction (HL ONLY)


  • The nature of single-slit diffraction
Interference (HL ONLY)


  • Young's double-slit experiment
  • Modulation of two-slit interference pattern by one-slit diffraction effect
  • Multiple slit and diffraction grating interference patterns
  • Thin film interference
Resolution (HL ONLY) 9.4
  • The size of a diffracting aperture
  • The resolution of simple monochromatic two-source systems
Doppler effect (HL ONLY) 9.5
  • The Doppler effect for sound waves and light waves


Topic #10: Fields—11 Hours for HL only

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand
Describing fields (HL ONLY)


  • Gravitational fields
  • Electrostatic fields
  • Electric potential and gravitational potential
  • Field lines
  • Equipotential surfaces
Fields at work (HL ONLY)


  • Potential and potential energy
  • Potential gradient
  • Potential difference
  • Escape speed
  • Orbital motion, orbital speed and orbital energy
  • Forces and inverse-square law behaviour




Topic #11: Electromagnetic Induction—16 Hours for HL Only

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand
Electromagnetic induction (HL ONLY)


  • Electromotive force (emf)
  • Magnetic flux and magnetic flux linkage
  • Faraday's law of induction
  • Lenz's law
Power generation and transmission (HL ONLY)


  • Alternating current (ac) generators
  • Average power and root mean square (rms) values of current and voltage
  • Transformers
  • Diode bridges
  • Half-wave and full-wave rectification
Capacitance (HL ONLY)


  • Capacitance
  • Dielectric materials
  • Capacitors in series and parallel
  • Resistor-capacitor (RC) series circuits
  • Time constant



Topic #12: Quantum and Nuclear Physics—16 Hours for HL Only

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand
The interaction of matter with radiation (HL ONLY)


  • Photons
  • The photoelectric effect
  • Matter waves
  • Pair production and pair annihilation
  • Quantization of angular momentum in the Bohr model for hydrogen
  • The wave function
  • The uncertainty principle for energy and time and position and momentum
  • Tunnelling, potential barrier and factors affecting tunnelling probability
Nuclear physics (HL ONLY)


  • Rutherford scattering and nuclear radius
  • Nuclear energy levels
  • The neutrino
  • The law of radioactive decay and the decay constant




As a part of the IB Physics course, you cover additional subjects of your choosing from the list below (typically you don't choose, but rather your teacher does).

Whichever option(s) you or your teacher chooses you will cover 3 or 4 topics (15 hours total) for SL and an additional 2 or 3 topics (25 hours total) for HL.




Option A: Relativity—15 Hours for SL and HL

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand
The beginnings of relativity


  • Reference frames
  • Galilean relativity and Newton's postulates concerning time and space
  • Maxwell and the constancy of the speed of light
  • Forces on a charge or current
Lorentz transformations


  • The two postulates of special relativity
  • Clock synchronization
  • The Lorentz transformations
  • Velocity addition
  • Invariant quantities (spacetime interval, proper time, proper length and rest mass)
  • Time dilation
  • Length contraction
  • The muon decay experiment
Spacetime diagrams A.3
  • Spacetime diagrams
  • Worldlines
  • The twin paradox



Additional HL Relativity Topics—10 More Hours for HL

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand
Relativistic mechanics (HL ONLY)


  • Total energy and rest energy
  • Relativistic momentum
  • Particle acceleration
  • Electric charge as an invariant quantity
  • Photons
  • MeV c^–2 as the unit of mass and MeV c^–1 as the unit of momentum
General Relativity (HL ONLY)


  • The equivalence principle
  • The bending of light
  • Gravitational redshift and the Pound–Rebka–Snider experiment
  • Schwarzschild black holes
  • Event horizons
  • Time dilation near a black hole
  • Applications of general relativity to the universe as a whole



Option B: Engineering Physics—15 Hours for SL and HL

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand
Rigid bodies and rotational dynamics


  • Torque
  • Moment of inertia
  • Rotational and translational equilibrium
  • Angular acceleration
  • Equations of rotational motion for uniform angular acceleration
  • Newton's second law applied to angular motion
  • Conservation of angular momentum


  • The first law of thermodynamics
  • The second law of thermodynamics
  • Entropy
  • Cyclic processes and pV diagrams
  • Isovolumetric, isobaric, isothermal and adiabatic processes
  • Carnot cycle
  • Thermal efficiency



Additional HL Engineering Physics Topics—10 More Hours for HL

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand
Fluids and fluid dynamics (HL ONLY)


  • Density and pressure
  • Buoyancy and Archimedes' principle
  • Pascal's principle
  • Hydrostatic equilibrium
  • The ideal fluid
  • Streamlines
  • The continuity equation
  • The Bernoulli equation and the Bernoulli effect
  • Stokes' law and viscosity
  • Laminar and turbulent flow and the Reynolds number
Forced vibrations and resonance (HL ONLY)


  • Natural frequency of vibration
  • Q factor and damping
  • Periodic stimulus and the driving frequency
  • Resonance




Option C: Imaging—15 Hours for SL and HL

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand
Introduction to imaging


  • Thin lenses
  • Converging and diverging lenses
  • Converging and diverging mirrors
  • Ray diagrams
  • Real and virtual images
  • Linear and angular magnification
  • Spherical and chromatic aberrations
Imaging instrumentation


  • Optical compound microscopes
  • Simple optical astronomical refracting telescopes
  • Simple optical astronomical reflecting telescopes
  • Single-dish radio telescopes
  • Radio interferometry telescopes
  • Satellite-borne telescopes
Fibre optics


  • Structure of optic fibres
  • Step-index fibres and graded-index fibres
  • Total internal reflection and critical angle
  • Waveguide and material dispersion in optic fibres
  • Attenuation and the decibel (dB) scale



Additional HL Imaging Topics—10 More Hours for HL

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand
Medical imaging (HL ONLY)


  • Detection and recording of X-ray images in medical contexts
  • Generation and detection of ultrasound in medical contexts
  • Medical imaging techniques (magnetic resonance imaging) involving nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR)



Option D: Astrophysics—15 Hours for SL and HL

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand
Stellar quantities


  • Objects in the universe
  • The nature of stars
  • Astronomical distances
  • Stellar parallax and its limitations
  • Luminosity and apparent brightness
Stellar characteristics and stellar evolution


  • Stellar spectra
  • Hertzsprung–Russell (HR) diagram
  • Mass–luminosity relation for main sequence stars
  • Cepheid variables
  • Stellar evolution on HR diagrams
  • Red giants, white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes
  • Chandrasekhar and Oppenheimer–Volkoff limits
Cosmology D.3
  • The Big Bang model
  • Cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation
  • Hubble's law
  • The accelerating universe and redshift (z)
  • The cosmic scale factor (R)



Additional HL Astrophysics Topics—10 More Hours for HL

Subtopic Subtopic Number IB Points to Understand
Stellar processes (HL ONLY)


  • The Jeans criterion
  • Nuclear fusion
  • Nucleosynthesis off the main sequence
  • Type Ia and II supernovae
Further cosmology (HL ONLY)


  • The cosmological principle
  • Rotation curves and the mass of galaxies
  • Dark matter
  • Fluctuations in the CMB
  • The cosmological origin of redshift
  • Critical density
  • Dark energy



Practical Scheme of Work

You also need to complete experiments and experimental reports as a part of any IB Science course. For SL, there is 40 hours of material. For HL, there is 60 hours of material. Here are the activities:

  • Practical activities—20 hours for SL and 40 hours for HL
    • Lab work in class counts towards these hours
  • Individual investigation (internal assessment-IA)—10 hours for SL and HL
    • A lab project along with a report that counts as 20% of your IB exam scores (written exam counts for the other 80%)
  • Group 4 Project—10 hours for SL and HL
    • Students are separated into groups and must conduct an experiment and write a report.




What's Next?

Want to brush up on some physics topics? Get your physics fix (phyx?) with our articles on the specific heat of water, acceleration and how to calculate it, and the law of conservation of mass.

Hoping to squeeze in some extra IB classes? Learn about the IB courses offered online.

Preparing to take the SAT? Check out our complete guide to the SAT. Taking the SAT in the next month? Check out our guide to cramming.


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Dora Seigel
About the Author

As an SAT/ACT tutor, Dora has guided many students to test prep success. She loves watching students succeed and is committed to helping you get there. Dora received a full-tuition merit based scholarship to University of Southern California. She graduated magna cum laude and scored in the 99th percentile on the ACT. She is also passionate about acting, writing, and photography.

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