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HSC Physics – Tips for Success

Doing well in HSC Physics requires a good mix of different skills. You’ll mainly need to be great at understanding physical concepts, understanding their impacts on society / environmental issues, being able to form cohesive arguments to support your answers, and command some basic maths skill. There’s already a tonne of articles on the blog or forum posts dealing the more conventional study tips, so we thought we might cover some often missed points on the subject. So doing well in HSC physics involves:

Always refer back to the syllabus

All HSC physics exams, whether internal or external, will have to test students within the bounds of the syllabus. Syllabus dot-points are worded in a way that makes them look like exam questions (or the exam questions you get are simply paraphrasing certain syllabus dot-points). If you prepare brief notes covering every dot-point before each exam, you’ll guarantee yourself the knowledge needed to score a decent mark at the least. It is therefore a great idea to make yourself syllabus dot-point summary notes for this subject. Unlike English or Maths, the HSC sciences syllabi are extremely prescriptive, which means everything that can and will be examined are written in black and white on the syllabus for all to see. Know all your dot-points and you won’t go wrong.

One caveat to this approach however are sometimes school teachers may insert ‘creative questions’ that may exceed the bounds of the syllabus because it was covered specifically in class. Can’t blame your physics teacher if this happens (firstly because it’s hard to prove as the syllabus is open to interpretation and secondly the teacher has the last word anyway so even if you’re right, you still won’t get the marks). The best thing to do is to always pay attention in class in addition to knowing the syllabus back to front.

Don’t forget the prac exam

It’s easy to forget the practical / first-hand-investigation requirements of the syllabus. For most students, your internal assessment consists of: term 4 assessment, half yearlies, trials paper exam and prac exam (not necessarily in this order – the prac exam could be the first thing or the last thing you do in the year). The prac exam will be worth around 15-25% of your entire internal assessment mark, so it’s something worth studying for. The best way to prepare for this is to ask students in years above what their prac exam was. Because prac exams require equipment, (and unless you go to a private school with unlimited faculty budgets) chances are each year will be the same prac exam. So if you’ve got friends that graduated in recent years, ask them (if not, ask friends of friends – knowledge is power!) You can also deduce that some pracs won’t be the subject of your exam as they require dangerous activities (projectile motion – they don’t want 20 students in a class throwing projectiles around for 90 minutes) or costly breakable equipment (cathode ray tubes).

Once you know what experiment you’ll be doing for your prac exam (probably the pendulum experiment) you’ll need to familiarise yourself with every aspect of the experiment so that the day will go smoothly when it comes to actually doing the prac. You’ll also have written response questions as part of your prac exam, so prepare answers to the following questions:

  1. Were there any safety issues you needed to manage / be aware of?
  2. What about sources of error? How would you account for differences between actual and theoretical values?
  3. Identify the dependent and independent variables. Identify the control and test variables
  4. Think about any graphs you may need to draw. If it involves a line of best fit over collected data, would it make sense to pass through the origin or any particular data point?

Power of the thought experiment

One of the most important factors to any part of HSC Physics is your ability to conduct thought experiments. Thought experiments are when you play a scenario out in your imagination to test the validity or absurdity of a concept you want to test. This technique is useful in many parts of the course. For example, suppose you forgot details of the effects of re-entry (Space module). You could derive everything again on the spot just by thinking it through step by step:

  • The shuttle begins in space, and as it enters the atmosphere, friction with air particles slow it down. The friction heats up the air particles to a plasma (and we should know ionised gas blocks radio waves) so this leads to the loss of radio communications during re-entry (called ionisation blackout). The extreme heat of re-entry requires deflection (shuttle needs heat shields). Also the rate of deceleration depends on the angle of re-entry, so there must be an optimum angle.

Another useful application of this is where you forget how to use a formula because of some minor confusion. All you need to do is to apply a hypothetical situation to how you think the formula works – if it leads to an absurd result, you’ll know it’s incorrect and that you should apply the formula differently.

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!



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