HSC maths and sciences are structured and assessed in a fundamentally different way. These differences require different approaches in studying both types of subjects, in order to secure a top band in each. In this short article, we will look at the main differences between HSC maths and sciences, and give you some insight as to how each type of subject ought to be approached.
Study year 11 and 12 maths topics together
The syllabi of HSC mathematics is integrally linked with the preliminary (year 11) syllabus. This applies to all levels of HSC maths, from General to Extension 2. There is no sudden identifiable transition between preliminary topics and HSC topics. In contrast to HSC sciences (such as Chemistry and Physics), their syllabi are clearly split into preliminary topics and HSC topics.
In mathematics, topics you learn in your preliminary year, or even going back to year 10 (e.g. the sine and cosine rule are sometimes used in year 12, even in Extension 2) are unavoidable when you need to study for HSC topics. For example, we all need to know how coordinate geometry works, and how to find the equation of normals and tangents, before we can understand the Conics topic in Extension 2, or parametrics in Extension 1. The key point here is that there is no clear distinction between year 11 and year 12, for mathematics.
One approach to maths tutoring or teaching at schools is to teach topics according to their relationship with each other, instead of whether the actual syllabus categorises them as preliminary or HSC topics. For example, we can teach year 11 Extension 1 probability, up to the harder permutations and combinations normally studied in year 12. This approach in studying is also advantageous, as it helps you consolidate and group relevant topics together.
An extreme example that may work for some is the anecdote of a private maths tutor that is reputed to teach year 7 geometry, then for the entire year, progress to harder and harder geometry topics, finishing off with Extension 2 style circle geometry. While we can see this approach may work for some students, the extreme case is not recommended for most students. Instead, we recommend students to study the relatable preliminary and HSC topics together. For example, the reason why the Fitzpatrick series of books (the yellow book for 2 unit, the green book for 3 unit, and the pink book for 4 unit) is split according to 2, 3 and 4 unit reflects this fact about HSC mathematics. The writer did not choose to split his books according to preliminary and HSC as he correctly identifies that it is more convenient and advantageous to student learning by making them learn year 11 and 12 topics together, where they are very related.
Recommended approach for HSC sciences
HSC sciences, unlike mathematics, have topics that are clearly divided as preliminary and HSC topics. For example, in Preliminary Physics, you learn about waves and communications devices in The World Communicates, resistors and using Ohm’s law in Electrical Energy in the Home, vector addition and movement in Moving About, and some basic astrophysics in The Cosmic Engine. Now, if we look closely at the topics taught in the Preliminary year, and compare them to the HSC topics, there is very little direct overlap. The main value in Preliminary Physics is for students to gain a solid grasp on the physical principles that are relevant to the HSC.
For example, in The World Communicates, knowledge of waves and how they propagate is important to many topics in the HSC. However, knowledge of mobile phones, fax machines, GPS and CD/DVD technology is irrelevant to the HSC. So the point here is: understand the physical principles (waves, electrical resistance, Ohm’s law, vector addition, forces, momentum etc) but don’t pay too much attention to the specifics (e.g. you’ll never be asked to calculate the resistance of a circuit in a HSC question, and you don’t need to know about Red Giants / White Dwarves if your school does not do the Astrophysics option module).
Ideal approach to studying HSC Physics and Chemistry
The ideal approach here is to learn the preliminary course as usual, paying close attention to the physical principles that are involved with the content. However, remember that you will not be tested in your HSC year on the specifics of the preliminary course. For example, you will not be required to know how to calculate resistance in series and parallel circuits in the HSC Physics course. In fact, the HSC assessments and exams will only test what is in the year 12 HSC syllabus. Therefore, you will definitely need to know the specifics of each dot-point in the HSC syllabus, but not the specifics of the preliminary syllabus.
A good approach is to start your learning early. Cover the preliminary topics as quickly as you can, (with the help of Chemistry tutoring or Physics tutoring, or from your school teachers) and move onto the HSC topics as quickly as you can. This leaves you with the maximum amount of time to study the content that is directly relevant to your HSC. Remember, only the content of the year 12 syllabi will be examined, so use this fact to your advantage when studying HSC sciences!
In this short article, we will outline some strategies to do HSC Physics and Chemistry exams.
Before you start
Before you start, you should use your reading time carefully. During the first minute or so, flick through the exam and get a feel of how long the exam is, where the long questions are, where does each section end, etc. This gives you a sense of how fast you’ll need to pace through the exam, at least at a subconscious level, and is a useful first action to take.
For the remainder of your reading time, start on the multiple choice (Section I, Part A). Obviously you will not be allowed to hold a pen / pencil during reading time, but that won’t stop you from reading through each multiple choice question and mentally deciding which choice is the correct one.
After reading time ends, you may already have completed up to the first 5 questions in your head, and all you need to do is grab your pencil and colour in the correct circles on your answer sheet.
You don’t actually need to read the entire exam during reading time. As mentioned, this time is better spent starting on the MCQ section. However you DO need to get a feel of how long the exam is, so you don’t get caught by surprise and find yourself working too slowly halfway through Section I Part B.
The Multiple Choice section (Section I Part A)
The first part of the Chemistry or Physics exam usually features the easiest questions. This section should be done as fast as you can because you can always use your remaining time to come back and revise your answers. In contrast, the later sections (Section I Part B and Section II) with the short / long answers are harder to change once you’ve written your answer (you definitely don’t want to be wasting time liquid papering the entire answer section of a 7 mark question because you decided you want to change your answer).
Ideally you should aim to be able to finish the MCQ section in 10 minutes or less.
An alternative strategy is actually to leave the multiple choice section absolutely last. This is because if you happen to be short on time at the very end of your exam, you could always quickly guess the rest of your unanswered multiple choice questions. There’s no ‘negative marking’ in the HSC (meaning if you give an incorrect MCQ answer, you don’t lose marks) so this strategy works. However we don’t recommend this strategy because leaving the multiple choice section last encourages students to spend too much time on Section I Part B and Section II, potentially forcing them to unnecessarily lose the easy marks that could have been gained in the MCQ (Multiple Choices Question) section.
Section I Part B
This is the core section of the exam, the one where you’ll be spending the most time and effort doing. This section is designed to take you 105 minutes (that’s 1 hour, 45 minutes) to do. You should aim to do this section slightly faster than the allocated time, but not significantly faster (unlike the MCQ section).
This is because HSC Physics and HSC Chemistry exams are not like HSC Mathematics exams where you could always come back and change your answers easily. The short / long answer questions require students to verbally answer the questions with full sentences. Basically, it would be impractical to cross out an ‘incorrect’ answer or liquid-paper the whole answer (this takes MUCH too long, not to mention the fumes).
Instead, students should work slowly and carefully through the short / long sections from Section I Part B to Section II, and aim to get their answers confidently correct the first time through. If you do find your answers need modification, if your answers were written carefully, you won’t need to liquid-paper the whole thing, only certain words.
This is the last section of the exam which deals with your option module. You will have a writing booklet to do this question. A writing booklet can be advantageous but for some students, this may be the first time they will be using an external writing booklet for a HSC Chemistry or HSC Physics exam (mainly because school trials may include the writing space of the option module within the exam itself).
Therefore, the first step is to check how long the provided writing booklet is. Scope out how much pages of writing space is available to you, so you have a feel of how much space you have left.
A writing booklet effectively gives you much more writing space. So for the ‘assess’ or ‘evaluate’ essay-type questions that require an extended response, the writing booklet can allow you to say more, reducing the risk that you may have missed something that would have been given marks.
General tips for short / long answer sections
Here’s a few more tips to help you with short / long questions applicable to Section I Part B and Section II
1. Write neatly and write small
The HSC exam gives you the writing space along with the question paper (except section II). This means the writing space is limited and ‘non-renewable’ – meaning you can’t simply cross out your old answer and opt to write your new answer somewhere else.
Therefore it is a good idea to write small and neatly, maximising the amount of words you can fit into your allocated writing space. Obviously don’t go overboard (e.g. do NOT write into the margin space – this is not intended by the HSC examiners and will be looked upon unfavourably).
2. Know your keywords
For our students, we would have taught you about what each keyword requires throughout your entire year(s) with us, and you would have had plenty of practice in the homework we give you.
For example, you should know exactly what ‘describe’, ‘explain’, ‘outline’, ‘justify’ etc means and what each requires you to write. You should also be very familiar with the harder, more complex keywords like ‘assess’, ‘discuss’, ‘evaluate’ and know exactly how to answer those, including a concluding assessment where appropriate.
3. Know alternative ways to answer questions
Just because there are writing lines drawn, indicating you should write prose to answer questions, doesn’t mean you can’t use an alternative format to structure your answer, for example by using a simple table.
A table is ideal for questions asking you to ‘compare’, or ‘contrast’ or ‘distinguish’ and there are multiple points / issues that can be compared / contrasted.
For example, if a question asks you to “Account for the differences of diamond and graphite in terms of their chemical structure”, you could draw a vertical line down the first half of your writing space to efficiently write up the actual differences between these two substances, then use the rest of your writing space to traditionally answer the second part of the question (i.e. explain in terms of their chemical structures).