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Research related to the International Biology Olympiad


The competition

Identifying young people with strong interests in science, supporting their development and motivating them to opt for a career in MINT jobs is highly relevant, both for societal and economic reasons. The International Biology Olympiad is one of the premier student science competitions internationally. Over the last three decades, IBO has become an important player in extracurricular science learning, expanding young talents’ interests and providing them performance-adequate challenges in a friendly, yet competitive environment. IBO is organized annually by changing international hosts and addresses high schoolers. Participants are competing in both practical, as well as theoretical exams and participate in a variety of engaging social events to support international exchange. IBO is registered as a public-benefit organization in Germany and has more than 70 active members that, each year, send their top four students from national competitions to the international round of IBO.

Cooperative research and goals

The project IBOint at IPN conducts and coordinates collaborative research studies about different aspects of the IBO.

The research within IBO has the long-term goal to better understand the effects this competition has on its different organizational levels, ranging from the assessment tasks, to its participants, to the their different mentors, as well as to the organizational structures of IBO. The results are intended to help derive conclusions about the impact of student competitions on high-performer education, as well as on broader science education goals. The results are discussed in close connection with the IBO-community so that they can have a feedback effect on the development of the student competition, e.g., regarding its assessment strategies.

Current studies

First studies within the context of IBO have been conducted. In a qualitative content analysis of theoretical and practical IBO assessments, we characterized the tasks to examine what the features of high-performer student competitions are. Using a broad framework of categories, the tasks were compared across the development of IBO and its evolving assessment strategies. The framework includes perspectives on structural (e.g., answer type and length), content-based (e.g., core ideas or scientific practices), and cognitive aspects (e.g., knowledge types or problem solving elements), as well as features of the involved representations. The results indicate, for example, a remarkable overlap in core ideas used in the IBO and those used in high school biology standards, while IBO’s application of scientific practices indicates clear focal points that are not intended in general education. The task features identifies in this analysis can be further used to identify relevant factors predicating item difficulties in competition tasks.

At the level of its participants, there is anecdotal evidence of the positive effects of IBO on its participants and their later work in the life sciences. We currently conduct a longitudinal questionnaire study, aiming to investigate if such effects can be found empirically, particularly with regards to the contestants’ personality traits and affective-motivational variables.


Website IBO:

The project IBOint is conducted in cooperation between IPN - Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education and the International Biology Olympiad Association.


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.


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