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The Practicality of the HSC

By Inara Hossain

The HSC is the conclusive exam for our high school years. Almost everything we do is in preparation for these exams. We study, we stress and occasionally shed a few tears. All of our other exams seem to pale in comparison to the HSC.

Now for most, you have a while left before you reach this milestone. You’re probably more worried about NAPLAN or Preliminary exams and the HSC is just a far-off concern. However, for others, the HSC is like this looming storm cloud just beyond the horizon. Year 12’s probably are experiencing a bittersweet feeling, as while there is joy in concluding their schooling years, there is also worry and anticipation for the following weeks packed with preparation for what feels like the biggest test of their lives.

The one good thing about this looming experience is that you’re not going through it alone. Almost everyone in the state will be experiencing similar highs and lows. In a few short weeks when the HSC turns its head, you are expected to see year 12s scattered around libraries or at home, heads down in their books, with an urgency in every pen stroke.

While the importance of this exam is certainly not lost on us, I cannot help but question the point of it sometimes. I know others may feel the same exhaustion as they take a seat at a desk and learn about probability and think about how they could’ve gone their whole life without ever needing to know this, or when they learn about creative writing in English and question themselves on any realistic scenario outside of the HSC where you would be required to write a story in under 20 minutes.

Time restrictions seem like your biggest foe, being forced to sit in a place and prove to a random marker that you know your content. Unseen questions haunt you and you’re taught to expect the unexpected. More than 2 years of information being spilled onto a page for 3 hours.

For us students it may seem useless and a waste of time. We may become stressed and fearful that our academic capabilities might not shine through in this one exam. The culminating pressure of time limitations, unseen questions and memorisation stretching across all subjects rattle our brains as we prepare. But what if our stress blinds us to the positives of the HSC, and the effectiveness of their testing method?

So I posed this question to teachers and students alike.

Do you think the testing structure of the HSC is an accurate representation of a student's abilities in a particular subject?

Organised by subject areas, below are their responses.


For Maths the large amount of content is beneficial for students as there are enough topics so that if you don’t fully understand one, there are other sections for you to do well in. A limitation to the test structure, as pointed out by Year 12 student Josie Sims, is the challenge of handling multiple booklets for Extension 1 and Extension 2 maths which often results in confusion and adds an extra level of difficulty to sitting this test when going through questions. Another struggle is the multiple choice questions as they are increasingly difficult, however, they are only allocated 1 mark and therefore, you only have around a minute to complete it. Overall, the HSC is effective in its testing structure for maths as it tests a student's ability to interpret questions based on previous knowledge. The best way to study maths is through practice questions to fully understand the processes involved in different questions


English is often regarded as a subject of memorisation. For your essays, you are required to memorise quotes and techniques, and many students often memorise their creative responses. However, the question provided to you in English is significant as your marks are often based on how well you respond to the criteria that have been provided. While you are required to memorise evidence, and due to the repetitive nature of the paper students may pre-prepare essays that they memorise, flexibility and an understanding of the syllabus are required when answering the question.

Furthermore, creative writing is often criticised as your marks are based on how well you respond to the criteria in a short time, prompting students to memorise and copy their writing. However, the HSC is attempting to prevent students from memorising their entire piece, this is through their increasingly specific stimuli. You could be given a picture with a setting you have to include or even an excerpt of a story you are required to continue. For these questions flexibility is required, though teachers do recommend going into the exam with a brief concept that you can alter and shape into whatever the stimulus requires of you.

Additionally, for reading comprehension, you cannot memorise any evidence and rather are required to know techniques and have the ability to interpret texts to form an argument and answer questions.

Thus, while there is a degree of memorisation for English you are also required to be adaptable to the stimuli provided and specific questions asked.


For Physics, the HSC structure does well in testing a student's capabilities as students are required to understand content in order to interpret questions and use the appropriate equations. You can’t memorise equations as the data sheet has them all on there, thus you are required to understand how to use them. A bit of memorization for topics such as light and atoms may be necessary as they are more historical and theoretical, however, since they are expansive topics it’s better for students to just know specific experiments and ideas by heart, and to do this they need to understand their content. Additionally, theoretical questions further test a student’s understanding of content as students are required to logically explain the concepts behind equations or theories.

Legal Studies

For Legal Studies, the HSC structure requires students to go above just memorising content, rather students need an in-depth understanding of the syllabus and legal terminology. Memorisation may fail students as it only prepares them for certain content as essays can be based on any syllabus dot point and thus students are required to understand their syllabus and have in-depth knowledge. Similarly, there are many cases and therefore students need to understand their cases and what they can be linked to in an essay. Additionally, evaluation is required to form arguments and must have clear links to the syllabus and question. Overall, due to the amount of content required for legal, the HSC does effectively test a student’s capabilities and understanding of the course.

Here is a response from Mrs Stanger in regards to the question:

I believe the HSC structure for Legal Studies is an accurate reflection of a student’s abilities.

  • The multiple choice questions for Legal Studies are often scenario based and allow students to apply their concept knowledge of the Human Rights and Crime topic.

  • The short answer questions cover a range of areas from the Human Rights syllabus and allow students to integrate real-life examples into their responses.

  • The essay questions for Crime, Consumers and World Order allow students to apply their knowledge of legislation, cases and media examples to a particular question. It’s important for students to have a comprehensive understanding of legal concepts and contemporary examples. The essay questions allow the application of knowledge and analysis of contemporary examples.

A key tip from Mrs Stanger is that it’s important for senior students to complete timed practice responses regularly throughout the year. This allows students to build their confidence and ability to work within a specific time limit.


As expressed by the Year 12 Josie Sims, the testing structure of the economics HSC exam can be difficult as you don’t know what topics will be assessed in what sections (e.g. essays, short answers or multiple choice). However, this means that students are required to have an understanding of the course over memorisation. While examples help to explain a concept, it is the understanding itself that gets you through the exam.


Some limitations to the testing structure of the Art exam are pointed out by Year 12 student Betty Wolkenstein. Mediums for submission are outdated, e.g. there are no ‘website’ or QR Code scanning possibilities, and most digitally interactive works have to be documented instead of assessed in real-time. Furthermore, expectations in Section I are high, especially as there is not a “learn the history of the art world” lecture in the syllabus, and even then most Contemporary works require an artist statement to fully understand, which is not given in the exam. Realistic art viewing and understanding in the Modern world is not limited like this. There are such widespread inspirations and influences of Contemporary artists which makes their works either specific or polysemantic. Perhaps some extra time taken by producers of the exams should be made to give a thought about whether there is enough information about the artwork to write about on the spot. This personal assessment should be taken with a grain of salt, as the questions for Section I do not always facilitate the need to find explicit meaning in the artwork.


As stated by the Year 12 student Josie Sims there are some limitations to the HSC history exam as memorisation is required to have a legitimate argument with evidence to back it up. However, a positive aspect is that for topics in Modern History, their similar time period is helpful as it allows students to understand the world at that time, and not just in the country you are studying.

Here is a response from Mr Scali in regards to the question:

I am not an anti-HSC person in the sense that I think developing written responses to unseen questions is a fair way of testing everyone because it creates a level playing field. I understand the pressures it causes, but in many ways every day real life requires you to respond to unseen problems so you need to develop this capacity. The HSC exam is like a match day in sport. You can train in sport, but playing an actual game requires you to respond to situations which you can’t predict and that you can’t completely prepare for. I think things that force you to improvise under pressure are daunting, but incredibly important for your development. Having said this, I think the HSC in History should have a spoken component. Some people can articulate their ideas in words better than with their pen so I think a viva voce component would add something. Project work is also good, but is more susceptible to people using tutors to help. Anything done live is best because it creates that fairness for everyone.

Overall, the testing structure of the HSC certainly has its pros and cons. While there are positives to its structure there are also improvements to be made in certain areas. As students, there isn’t much we can do with regard to the structure at the moment. All we can do is prepare to the best of our abilities for the conclusive exam to our high school years. It is important to remember that collaboration is key as your entire cohort is dependent on one another. I wish the year 12’s well as they take on this milestone and continue to the next chapter of their lives.


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