Key Verbs in HSC Chemistry & Physics Exams

Navigating the challenging landscape of the NSW Higher School Certificate (HSC) exams for Chemistry and Physics can be a daunting experience. One crucial yet often overlooked aspect of effective exam preparation involves understanding the key verbs utilised in exam questions. They guide you towards the expected response and help in forming an answer that effectively addresses the question. In this blog post, we'll explore some of the most common key verbs including: outline, describe, explain, compare, discuss, justify, analyse, assess, and evaluate.

1. Outline

An 'outline' question typically requests a brief and concise summary or overview of a topic. For instance, in a Chemistry exam, you may be asked to "outline the process of electrolysis". Here, a successful answer would involve highlighting the primary steps in electrolysis without delving into detailed explanations. Answers to outline questions can be written in bullet points.

2. Describe

'Describe' questions require a more detailed response than 'outline'. It requires you to convey the significant features, processes, or characteristics of a concept. For example, in Physics, a question might ask you to "describe the principles of an AC induction motor". A good answer would encompass the fundamental physics principles and how they are related to the structure of an AC induction motor. 

Typically, you should write as many points as there are marks for a describe question. For example, if a describe question is 4 marks, then you should include at least 4 features, processes or characteristics in your answer.

3. Explain

When a question asks you to 'explain', it requires you to clarify the cause or reasons why something is the way it is. This type of question often involves demonstrating understanding of a process or phenomena and the underlying scientific principles.

To explain is different to describe. Describes only requires the what, but explain requires both the 'why and what'.

For instance, "explain the process of radioactive decay" requires you to shed light on the mechanics behind the process, including the reasons why a nucleus would decay.

Students often struggle with explain questions not because they do not understand the concept, but rather they cannot express their ideas in a logical and concise manner.

A general approach to constructing answers to explain questions in the HSC is to start with the cause, followed by the effect. It is also important to include the relevant concept or fundamental principle to aid your explanation. For example, the net force causes the mass to increase in velocity due to Newton's second law. 

If you're a HSC Chemistry or Physics student, you can improve in writing answers to explain questions by practising explaining concepts to your peers in class or study groups. This method of verbalising your explanation will help you find the right words and expression when constructing a written explanation in an exam.

Of course, practising explain questions from past exam papers will go a long way as well. However, it is important to make sure you seek feedback for your practice answers. 

4. Compare

'Compare' questions necessitate an exploration of similarities and differences between two or more concepts or phenomena. For example, "compare covalent and ionic bonds" demands an examination of both types of bonding, identifying what makes each unique, and the ways they are similar.

Although compare entails similarities AND differences, in some cases, you will not be able to provide both.

It is a good idea for you to present your answer to a compare question in a way so that your similarities and differences can be easily identified by the marker. This can be done by using headings or presenting the answer in a table format. 

5. Discuss

When asked to 'discuss', you are expected to examine different aspects of a topic, often considering various viewpoints or interpretations. For example, "discuss the implications of quantum physics on our understanding of the universe" would require an exploration of several perspectives on how quantum physics has influenced or shifted our understanding of the world around us.

'Discuss' questions demand a higher level of understanding than questions with aforementioned verbs because it requires a student to think critically and from multiple perspectives.

In most cases, you can approach a 'discuss' question by breaking down the concept or stem into two sides including one or more of the following:

  • arguments for and against
  • advantages and disadvantages
  • two or more differing views

6. Justify

'Justify' questions demand an argument that supports a particular standpoint, decision, or course of action. They require a well-structured response backed by evidence, logic, or reasoning. For instance, "justify the use of bioethanol as a replacement for conventional fuel in transportation". 

In some cases, 'justify' questions may offer a statement related to the question stem or a concept in the HSC syllabus.

This type of question requires you to think of supporting points, either from the question stem or from pre-existing knowledge to back up the statement offered in the question. 

'Justify' questions are usually simple and straightforward if you manage to recognise the supporting points and link them to the question. In most cases, students find these questions difficult because they do not understand the underly concept of the question. 

7. Analyse

When asked to 'analyse', you are expected to break a concept down into its components and explore each in detail. It involves scrutinising the topic to understand how each part contributes to the whole. 

'Analyse' questions incorporate aspects of every key verb mentioned above. You are required to outline, describe, explain, compare, discuss and/or justify where possible and suitable. 

In HSC exams, 'analyse' questions almost always contain a detailed stimulus for you to break down. Qualitative analysis involves application of theoretical concepts while quantitative analysis requires calculations related to these concepts and using numbers presented by the stimulus. 

A good approach to these questions is to take a piece of information from the stimulus (this could be an observation, a numerical value etc) and ask yourself what theoretical concept or calculations can be applied to it.

8. Assess 

'Assess' questions require you to make a judgement or form an opinion about a topic, based on criteria. This could involve determining the significance, value, or importance of a concept or process. For example, the question "assess the importance of a buffer in a specific biological system" asks for a judgement about the degree of importance, backed by examples and explanations. Not making a judgement or making it clear will likely result in the deduction of a mark. 

'Assess' questions demand more than just the regurgitation of a particular concept. To do well in these questions, you need to first become confident in your knowledge of content across the HSC syllabus and spend time thinking about the usefulness, validity, accuracy, significance as well as relevance of information.

9. Evaluate

'Evaluate' questions are similar to 'assess' questions in that you must make a judgement and provide reasons to back up this judgement. However, the 'evaluate' questions are more complex in that you must also provide counterarguments. 

For example, if you are asked to "evaluate the useful of the Brønsted-Lowry theory" and you judged that it is highly useful, you still need to talk about the limitations of the theory. This certainly seems counterintuitive - why would you want to argue against yourself? However, the reason for it is that markers want to see a more detailed rationale behind your judgement. They want to see that you acknowledge the limitations, but believe that they are outweighed by the advantages, causing you to nevertheless conclude that the theory is useful.

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