IB Math: AA or AI?

By Indrani Banerjee

(Test Preparation, Math, and Physics tutor at The Edge Learning Center)

The maths courses for the IB diploma are changing. Whether or not this news brings fear, anxiety or happiness, we still have to make a choice between these two courses to take in the diploma years. Yes, there is information out there about what is hard and what is not, and what kind of student should take which course and which types of students shouldn’t take a course and so on. So, understandably, it can be quite a task digesting and deciphering all the vast vats of information so that you can make a sound decision on which maths course is for you. Whilst many schools and teachers, all around the world, will be figuring out their own ways of implementing the changes, here are 4 things you can consider before handing in your subject choice forms.

  1. Pure maths or applied maths?

The IBO has released guides outlining the details of the syllabi for the two courses, so get your hands on them! Of course there will be sections of the document you may not understand thoroughly, but there is the World Wide Web just waiting for your google search.

Generally speaking, the Analysis and Approaches (AA) course provides a very classical approach to mathematics. If you are eager to dive into the world of abstract theories and are keen on learning about the various types of proofs and methods we use to reach generalizations about the world around us then AA is the course for you.

In comparison, the Applications and Interpretation (AI) course provides a very different perspective to some of the same problems and concepts that are explored in the AA syllabus. If you enjoy maths, but would like to see the practical applications of mathematics in the world of finance and the natural sciences amongst others then AI is a better fit for you. If modeling brings you thrills in maths, then AI is for you.

Still not sure? Katherine Johnson once said, “like what you do, and then you’ll do your best.” She loved maths enough that she took on segregated American… and won, becoming one of the first few black female mathematicians to work for NASA who developed the Apollo mission.

AA or AI: if you like the syllabus, chances are you’re going to enjoy doing the work needed for that ultimate 7!

  1. SL or HL?

There is a fine line between challenging yourself and having unrealistic expectations, so when deciding between AA and AI or SL and HL, it is useful to keep in mind your strengths and weaknesses. For both AA and AI there are 60 hours of SL content that are common to both courses, and 60 hours of specific content. So what’s the difference between HL and SL?

HL has 90 teaching hours’ worth of additional material for each specific course compared the SL program, so it’s a good idea to ask yourself if there is such a thing as “too much” maths for you or not! However, remember one of the motivations that lead to these changes in the maths courses were to make the HL program much for approachable. What does this mean for you? All of the SL program is part of the HL, unlike how the current Group 5 courses, but similar to IB sciences. So, if you decide to pursue HL and then drop down to SL at a later date, provided your school permits this, you can do so without having to backfill the syllabus. The HL and SL examination papers have a large number of questions in common: the higher level paper will be less guided, have a few marks worth of questions added to common standard level questions which will target HL skills or content. Of course, the HL examination papers will also have questions testing exclusively the additional higher level material.

Analysis & Approaches (AA)Applications & Interpretation (AI)
HL Only90 hrs90 hrs
SL60 hrs60 hrs
SL Core60 hrs (for both AA & AI)

In additional to this the HL students are also required to sit a third examination paper, which is somewhat similar to the paper 6 CIE IGCSE paper, or the criterion D projects/assessments from MYP. This new form of assessment is quite an interesting addition to the HL program, and whilst it might be challenging, in my opinion, is only a little bit harder in terms of skills required from the MYP years. So don’t let Paper 3 scare you off, but do consider it when making a choice between HL and SL.

Both HL maths course are challenging, and require dedication and hard work… exactly what almost all HL courses from the other 5 groups in the diploma program require… So, if you are thinking:

… chances are every HL student from each group is thinking this at some time or another… so why not try out the language of the science s

  1. Calc or non-calc?

AA involves a non-calculator paper whilst AI requires extensive use of a graphic calculator- do you have a preference? In the AA course the non-calculator paper forms 40% of your final grade, which is how both the current Standard Level and Higher Level courses are arranged. In the diploma program, each examination paper can test topics from all aspects of the syllabus, so don’t just hope for the best and pick AA hoping for no serious arithmetic work!

On the other hand, the AI course heavily relies of a graphic calculator: you are expected to work through the exam papers very quickly through efficient and proficient use of your calculator. Is this a problem for you? Don’t assume you can do all calculator work manually!

On the other hand, if you have never used a graphing calculator, don’t just assume it’ll be hard and pick AA to limit your need of it. They are surprisingly useful, and lots of other programs like the International A-Levels, Aps, SATs and ACTs require them… and most of us leave the diploma years with a love-hate relationship with our trusty GDCs.

  1. University/college requirements

And, finally whilst enjoying your last two years of secondary school is definitely important, it is also important to remember that there are factors beyond your control that will influence your subject choices for the IB diploma: your future academic plans!

Have a think about what you like and what you would enjoy studying.

If you are looking to apply to the UK, it is a good idea to look at the university subject-specific course requirements. Sometimes, if you are lucky, similar subject groups might have similar entrance requirements e.g HL maths and HL physics are usually required for studying maths, physics and engineering courses. What do you want to do?! A lot of universities have stated that they don’t have a preference, whilst some universities have already started stating they would like one course over the other. Not only will this research help you shortlist your university choices, but this is a great way of learning about the different courses that are offered and how courses, sometimes even with the same names, can differ from university to university!

However, beware there are many universities around the globe that haven’t stipulated their preferences between the courses. So, here things can start to get tricky… and I would highly recommend speaking to college counsellors. Don’t panic! Remember if teachers and counsellors are not giving you a black and white answer, it is most likely because they don’t know yet.

Still struggling to make a choice? I’ll leave you with the thoughts of Georg Cantor, the mind from the 1800s which brought us the idea of one-to-one functions amongst other concepts we have already encountered from the early years of our maths careers to the father of many ideas we will encounter in the diploma and even in university, “The mathematician does not study pure mathematics because it is useful, he studies it because he delights in it and delights in it because it is beautiful.” At the end of the day, pick the course you will enjoy. If you like it and are interested, whether you pick either HL or SL, for AA or AI you will enjoy the course. If you enjoy the course then chances are high that when some new material stumps you, you are still going to be motivated to do the work required. Good luck in your choices and I hope you enjoy whichever route you choose to pursue!

To help students who are going to the first year of IB get prepared for the upcoming syllabus changes as well as stay ahead of their in-school instruction, The Edge will run a course to cover the common core topics under the new IB Math curriculum. Click here to view the IB Math Common Core Course Details and Schedule.


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