Research on the International Biology Olympiad: Perspectives through international student competitions - Students take away more than fond memories from the International Biology Olympiad

September 17th, 2021

What specialized requirements do participants in international student competitions have to meet, and to what extent does participation encourage them to pursue a career related to the sciences?

Sebastian Opitz

Student competitions such as the Science Olympiads, which include the International Biology Olympiad (IBO), aim to foster particularly interested and talented students. Science Olympiads are widely supported by politics, industry and science and achieve broad media attention. Research conducted by the IPN has investigated the questions of which subject requirements students participating in the International Biology Olympiad have to fulfill and whether the participants are influenced by the competition in a professionally desirable fashion.

The International Biology Olympiad is one of the most renowned student competitions in the life sciences. Secondary school students from 76 countries currently compete against each other in practical laboratory tests and multiple-choice exams. From a technical point of view, the IBO aims to promote a differentiation of interests with a view to the participants' later careers. Furthermore, it is about international exchange and the goal to encourage future leaders to work together.

The International Biology Olympiad - a challenging competition

Each year, different host countries organize the International Biology Olympiad. Students participating in the IBO qualify in several national competition rounds that become successively more difficult. Similar to the other Science Olympiads, the national selection competition for the German IBO delegation is hosted by the IPN.

IBO participants generally already achieve outstanding results in biology before taking part. A large proportion of former participants in competitions such as the IBO go on to achieve prestigious positions in science and industry. The preceding national selection rounds, which involve more than one million students worlwide, address a broad performance spectrum. The effects of the German selection competition are also being researched at the IPN in the WinnerS project.

Although competitions such as IBO enjoy a high reputation, surprisingly little is known, for example, about the effects of international Science Olympiads on the participants. The project IBOint deals with this overarching question and the investigation of further effects of this student competition with regard to its different levels. In the following, we would like to present selected results on two sub-questions of our research.

Characteristics of the competition tasks - implications for school instruction

We have analyzed around 700 practical and theoretical laboratory tasks from the IBO using a system of categories that describe formal, content-related and cognitive item characteristics, as well as the use ofrepresentations that go along with these tasks. The results show, for example, that the core concepts defined in the educational standards for biology (e.g., structure & function; transfer of matter & energy) are completely covered by IBO tasks. This is remarkable in that those who develop the tasks are usually international researchers in biology and generally unfamiliar with the German educational standards. They develop tasks for an international audience with the primary goal of addressing current biological research. We interpret this result as supporting the content validity of the core concepts of the educational standards for biology.

In addition, the study investigated the extent to which IBO tasks require the application of scientific practices. Here we found that the majority of the tasks require the analysis of data, while other practices - such as deriving biological questions, developing and using models, reasoning, or planning and carrying out investigations – are either not applied, only applied in a limited form, or only applied in IBO’s practical exams in the laboratory. It also becomes clear that practical examinations and theoretical examinations are differently suited to test different aspects of biology competence.

The results initially point to development potential for the IBO's rules and regulations, which specify what the competition's exams should cover. Implications can also be derived for regular secondary schools: The IBO tasks have a strong focus on data analysis, which means that the IBO's international jury sees it as essential that people who want to work in the life sciences later can quickly grasp key messages from figures. This ability - at a simpler level - is also important for a larger group of students and should be practiced more in schools. Since its inception over 30 years ago,  IBO has systematically designed both laboratory practical examinations and theoretical examinations. IBO thus makes it clear that the ability to apply knowledge in practical activities and to acquire knowledge for oneself are essential components of biological competence. Accordingly, important performance examinations should also increasingly cover procedural aspects of students' performance in regular schools.

Fostering relevant attributes

In a different study, our project also explored the question of whether participation in  IBO fosters subject-relevant person characteristics. "Subject-relevant" here refers to characteristics of students that can significantly influence their performance in the sciences - for example, with a view to a later career in the life sciences. These include, for example, the subject-specific self-concept (i.e., self-confidence in one's own abilities in the subject of biology), subject-specific interests, subject-specific goals, or later career aspirations. Based on theoretically assumed variables (e.g., Munich Model of Giftedness), we asked participants of the 2018 and 2019 International Biology Olympiad to complete standardized questionnaires on these variables immediately before, immediately after, and approximately four months after their IBO participation. In total, we analyzed data from 154 students from 45 countries.

The results show that participation in the competition influences several variables which might be important, for example, for later biology studies. For example, participation in the IBO seems to further positively influence the participants' already high biology self-concept. Analogously, the fear of failing in strenuous situations seems to play a smaller role after participation in the international competition.

The study conducted has methodological limitations: For example, a meaningful control group at the level of the IBO participants is hardly feasible. Nevertheless, we assess the observable trends as basically positive. This is because the students who participated in the international competition already possessed advantageous characteristics in the observed variables prior to IBO participation and were further reinforced in these characteristics. Accordingly, we hope that many of the participants will feel encouraged by the competition to pursue a professional career in the life sciences, and that some will later make contributions that substantially advance the discipline.

Opitz, S. & Harms, U. (2020). Assessing High Performers in the Life Sciences: Characteristics of Exams used at the International Biology Olympiad (IBO) and Their Implications for Life Science Education. CBE – Life Sciences Education, 19(4), ar55, 1-18.

Dr. Sebastian Opitz

is a research scientist at the IPN in the Department of Biology Education. Within the IBOint project, he researches effects of the International Biology Olympiad. In addition, he has headed the Kiel-based IBO Office since 2017, which coordinates the administration, cooperation and development of the competition.