HSC Sciences – improving performance in extended responses

Like it or hate it, the way HSC science subjects (e.g. Physics, Chemistry, Biology) are implemented in our HSC requires students not only to have quantitative skills for calculation-type questions, but also be skilled in forming cohesive arguments to support a conclusion – much like essays in English, but about scientific issues. Many students don’t have as much trouble with the quantitative aspects of HSC sciences, but have issues consolidating the qualitative aspects of their courses for essay-type responses.

Summarise essay dot-points that have extended response requirements

It is a good idea to know which parts of the syllabus correspond to essay-type exam responses. As you learn the course, always cross reference the content you cover with the syllabus. Become strongly familiar with the syllabus dot-points for each module. You will notice that most subsections in each module (i.e. the numbered sub-parts in each module) will have one or two dot-points that require ‘discuss’ or ‘assess’ or ‘evaluate’ – words which require students to be able to synthesise content and form coherent arguments.

Familiarise yourself with these dot-points. Revise related content, or ask your teacher / tutor about the relevant issues for each, then make a short summary sheet (probably half a page for each) in dot-point form to lay out everything that’s relevant.

Here’s a couple of examples of how you might roughly summarise the essay requirements for a sample module.

HSC Chemistry

The Acidic Environment

1. Summarise the industrial sources of SO2 and NOx and evaluate the reasons for concern about their release into the environment. For example: SO2 is from coal burning and car exhaust, and causes acid rain. NOx is from automobile exhaust mainly, (older cars, or malfunctioning catalytic converters) and causes photochemical smog, acid rain etc.

2. Trace the developments in understanding of acid / base reactions. E.g. understand the main developments in our definitions of acids / bases, outline the concept of conjugates, discuss the validity of current definition of acids / bases compared to past definitions.

3. Assess the use of neutralisation as a safety measure / to fix acid spills. E.g. outline what buffers are and how weak bases can be useful in neutralising acids. Understand why a weak base instead of a strong base is used. Explain neutralisation and buffer systems in terms of Le Chatelier’s principle.
HSC Physics


1. Contribution of Tsiolkovsky, Obert, Goddard, Esnault-Pelterie, O’Neill, or von Braun to the development of space exploration (i.e. modern rocketry). E.g. Robert H. Goddard, considered as ‘father of modern rocketry’ developed the world’s first liquid-fuel rocket, pioneered research into multi-stage rockets (allowed astronauts to reach the moon), research into gyroscopic stabilisation, and steerable thrusters, allowing greater, safer control of rockets.

2. Discuss issues with safe reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. E.g. backward-facing astronauts (eyeball-in effect is less stressful than eyeball-out), radio blackout prevents communication to ground base during most of re-entry. Optimum angle of re-entry ensures probe does not skip off atmosphere, or undergo excessive deceleration and heating. Heat shields carry away heat. Parachutes are required for final deceleration, or in the case of a shuttle, gliding like a plane.

3. Describe, evaluate and interpret the MM experiment’s results. E.g. the MM experiment produced a null result for the existence of the aether. This result alone does not disprove the aether’s existence, but it does not contradict Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. The latter was developed further and was successful in predicting real-world phenomena, such as time dilation / length contraction observed between inertial frames with relative motion.

4. Discuss the relationship between theory and evidence supporting it, using Einstein’s predictions. E.g. Einstein’s thought experiments were merely conjectures supported by logical deduction – at the time, there was no experimental way to verify Einstein’s predictions. In modern times, with the advent of atomic clocks and space flight, we are able to experimentally verify Einstein’s predictions as correct. The relationship is theory of the unknown comes from deduction of what is known, and experimental verification follows. If real-world results differ, the theory must be modified or superseded. This is the scientific method.

Do this for the entire syllabus, by first identifying which syllabus dot-points require an extended response in order to be tested in an exam. These dot-points are guaranteed to come up in your exams, either in your first assessment, half yearly, HSC trials, or the external HSC exams. Don’t leave this till last minute – familiarise yourself as you go through the course, then revise and re-familiarise. Be sure to include all of the relevant issues, some of which are latent and require deeper analysis. E.g. is Ethanol truly greenhouse neutral? You can argue yes or no, depending on what evidence you include in your response.

Finally, don’t be afraid of those 6 mark or 7 mark discuss / evaluate / assess exam questions. As long as you’re familiar with most of the relevant issues that particular question entails, you will be fine. Good luck!

HSC English: Tips on how to improve

HSC English is one of the most problematic subjects students face – partly because at least 2 units is compulsory under the HSC system, leaving many, many students stuck doing a subject they don’t particularly enjoy. This is especially true for students who are accustomed to subjects that require a systematic approach, such as maths, or sciences – to these students, HSC English seems mysterious, random, lacking any recognisable pattern in terms of what’s required for high marks.

While success in HSC English requires a different way of thinking compared to other subjects, it can be broken down into a systematic approach, just like maths or science. Although prescribed texts may vary depending on school, or change over time (AOS: Belonging won’t be around forever!) the factors to success remain the same.

We’ve included some useful tips to improve your chances at the subject, but the best way is to seek out a high quality HSC English Tutoring programme to assist. The right support and guidance can make a world of difference in this subject.

Get your hands on model responses

The rule here is: the more you see, the better you get. Try to get your hands on annotated model answers that break down the key elements to a good response. Pay particular attention to what markers assign marks to. Often a response cannot be completely broken down into where each mark is awarded and only makes sense when considered as a whole. Of course, you’ll also need to have a go at your fair share – homework that gives you practice at actual HSC-exam style questions will be useful here. This leads onto the next point:

Prepare early

Use your limited time wisely. Every HSC student has the same amount of time leading up to the HSC – yet some do well and some don’t. A lot of this comes down to effective time management. Take advantage of year 11 as a dry-run for year 12. Your school may prescribe irrelevant texts for the year 11 modules, but you’ll have freedom to select HSC-relevant texts to use as your additional texts. Do this and you’ll get to familiarise yourself early with HSC texts while satisfying year 11 requirements – hitting 2 birds with one stone.

Avoid verbosity

In an exam response, you won’t be impressing anyone with awkward phrasing and big words that can be condensed into a more succinct version. HSC markers are more impressed by your ability to be succinct and articulate clear thought-out arguments in an efficient manner (i.e. avoiding unnecessarily long phrasing).

Using big words

A good test for the suitable use of ‘big words’ is – if there’s a shorter way to say the same thing with simpler words, choose that way. Only use ‘big words’ for their specific meaning, if that meaning is what you specifically intend.

Essay intros – keep them short

Avoid essay intros that go on for 50% to 75% of the page (depending on how big your writing is). Write your thesis (the point your essay argues), and introduce the texts you will be using to illustrate your thesis. Then move onto the body of the essay. More often than not, you’ll find you have a lot to talk about / write down in your allocated time, so it’s best to spend this time writing the meaty parts of your essay, rather than on a long-winded introduction. But be careful to always link your body paragraphs back to your central argument. Always revisit your thesis – everything you write must support your thesis you introduced in your introduction.

Submit your practice essays to teachers for marking

Take advantage of the resources available to you! Your English teachers at school would be (read: should be) happy to help you maximise your HSC English mark. Whenever you complete a practice essay, submit it to them for marking and feedback. Ask for detailed comments, and ask for feedback. Ask specifically where the lost marks could have been gained. Incorporate what you learn each time into your next attempt – there’s no shortcut here. The more you practice, the more well-structured and polished your final essays will be in the all-important HSC exams.

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