Posts Tagged ‘exams’

Trial Feedback

It’s important to use the feedback you received on your Trial HSC responses to improve your HSC results. Here are some tips from a workshop I ran last week for Year 12s.

And the video…

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Everything is a test

So says Tiffany Aching of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and it’s certainly true of the HSC. Most students, while realising this, fail to wonder what exactly it is they’re being tested on.

The main skill you’re asked to demonstrate in HSC English is your ability to argue a thesis, using evidence, in a logical and structured manner. Let’s break that down a little:

ARGUE means to give reasons in favour of an idea, particularly for the purpose of persuading someone to agree with you.

THESIS is the core of your argument, your main point, your one sentence answer to the question.

EVIDENCE is your proof from the texts: quotes, descriptions, techniques.

LOGICAL is based on your links, your explanations that make the connection between your evidence and your thesis.

STRUCTURED refers to not only your essay structure (sentences, paragraphs etc) but also the framework within which you’re writing: the module.

If you can get on top of these elements, you are on your way to success in the HSC.


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A marker will spend around six minutes reading your essay. More than half of that time, and of the marker’s attention, will be spent on the first page. I’ve heard teachers say that they can just about predict the eventual mark from the introduction alone. So what are the ingredients of a good introduction?

Establishing statement

The first sentence of your introduction should show the marker that you have engaged with the syllabus. The best thing about this statement is that you can use the same one for each essay you write in a given module. Here are some suggestions for how to go about developing establishing statements.

Area of Study: your personal (not a dictionary) definition of belonging; an interesting quote about belonging; or a statement about why belonging is a significant concept.

Module A: a statement about the value of a comparative study; a statement about the significance of context or values; or a statement about why some themes endure.

Module B: a statement about why some texts remain significant; a statement about the significance of a particular composer; or a statement about how texts are open to interpretation.

Module C: a personal definition of conflicting perspectives or history and memory; a statement about representation; or an interesting quote about conflicting perspectives or history and memory.

An establishing statement can and should be prepared in advance. The other benefit of this is that rather than staring at a blank exam booklet, you have something you can write straight away.


This is your one sentence answer to the question and cannot be prepared in advance. The good news is that it’s usually embedded in the question. If you’re given a quote or a statement to respond to, you can just repeat it, word for word, as your thesis. If you don’t agree with it wholly, you can modify it to fit your argument. NB: you should never outright disagree with a question; however, you can give a “yes, but” answer.


Introduce the texts you’ll be discussing in the essay. Be sure to include the title, composer, and text type. It is also important to format the title correctly: underlined for whole texts, single quote marks for texts that are part of a larger text; for example:

These ideas are explored in Raimond Gaita’s memoir Romulus My Father, and ‘Iron,’ a narrative essay by Primo Levi.

‘Iron’ is in single quote marks because it is one section of The Table of Elements. Treat most short stories, poems, episodes of television shows, short films, and articles the same way.

Main supporting points

Briefly outline your main supporting points. Each point outlined here in your introduction will get its own paragraph in the essay. If you’re really struggling with structure, just write out your topic sentences. You may or may not mention your texts here.

Reinforce thesis

Remind the marker that you’re answering the question by restating your thesis using different words or sentence structure.

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Essay planning in an exam situation can be tricky. You need to ensure that your essay answers the whole question; however, you’re also pretty pressed for time. In the HSC, taking five minutes to plan is worth it and the first part of your planning time should be spent breaking down the question. Here are some examples of how breaking down the question can give you an essay plan.

2009 Area of Study: Belonging, Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson and The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan

“Understanding nourishes belonging … a lack of understanding prevents it.”

Demonstrate how your prescribed text and ONE other related text of your own choosing represent this interpretation of belonging.

Break down

  • Understanding nourishes belonging.
    • The persona in ‘I died for beauty’ finds belonging through a shared understanding of art (shown through the metalepsis of truth and beauty).
    • The bilbies in The Rabbits understand and therefore belong within their landscape (shown through their shape, which echoes the natural swirls of the setting).
  • A lack of understanding prevents belonging
    • The persona in ‘What Mystery Pervades a Well!’ is alienated from her surroundings through a lack of understanding (alternative: gender distance due to mutual lack of understanding).
    • The bilbies and the rabbits are unable to co-exist harmoniously due to language and cultural differences that prevent understanding.
  • A lack of understanding can lead to a different type of belonging.
    • The persona in ‘I had been hungry all the years’ fails to grasp the attraction of belonging to a community but finds a different type of belonging with nature.
    • Rather than learning to belong in a landscape they don’t understand, the Rabbits reshape the landscape and commodify it to belong to them.

2010 Module A: Texts in Time, Frankenstein and Blade Runner

Analyse how Frankenstein and Blade Runner imaginatively portray individuals who challenge the established values of their time.

Break down:

  • What are the “established values” of the times?
    • Industrialisation (progress and ownership) and Enlightenment (rationality) versus Romanticism (spirituality and Nature) and Morality (compassion and kindness).
    •  Capitalism (commodification and profit) and Technological advancement (pushing boundaries) versus Environmentalism (nature and conservation) and Ethics (humaneness).
  • Which “individuals” are “challenging” them? How and why?
    • Victor Frankenstein challenges traditional morality by usurping the role of god as creator, he does this because of hubris.
    • Eldon Tyrell challenges ideas of conservation and ethics by creating disposable genetically engineered “replicant” slaves, he does this for profit.
  • What are the consequences of these challenges?
    • For Victor the consequences are personal, the death of his family, friends, and himself.
    • For Tyrell the consequences are global, the destruction of the natural world, as well as personal.

2010 Module B: Critical Study of Texts, Hamlet

‘Shakespeare’s Hamlet continues to engage audiences through its dramatic treatment of struggle and disillusionment.’

In the light of your critical study, does this statement resonate with your own interpretation of Hamlet?

Break down

  • Who struggles? What with?
    • Hamlet struggles with the task of revenge laid on him by the ghost because of the conflict between his duty and his personal ethics.
    • Ophelia also struggles with the conflict between her role as a daughter and a sister (and the contextual expectations of woman) and her feelings for Hamlet.
    • Modern audiences continue to relate to this struggle because the conflict between family obligation and personal beliefs is a universal human concern.
  • Who is disillusioned? What with?
    • Hamlet is disillusioned with what he sees as a corrupt world; the corrupt court of Denmark is a microcosm of this.
    • Political and moral corruption are ongoing concerns that resonate with a modern audience.
  • What is the ultimate consequence of this struggle and disillusionment?
    • Tragedy.

Asking a few brief questions to draw out the key ideas in the question is a worthwhile use of your precious exam time if it means answering the whole question with a sustained, structured response.


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from master of the art, Kurt Vonnegut [with additional HSC specific comments from me].

  1.  Use the time of a total stranger [for you, this is the marker] in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. [In the AoS, your character should want some type of belonging, or not belonging].
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things-reveal character or advance the action. [Even descriptions of setting should do this in some way].
  5. Start as close to the end as possible. [Short stories should be short, and you only have 40 minutes for an AoS or 60 minutes for an Extension creative in an exam; also, a non-linear structure can be a good idea].
  6. Be a Sadist. no matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. [Keep the marker in mind here, they may not be your ideal audience but they are the one that matters in the HSC].
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselve, should cockroaches eat the last few pages. [To do this, I advocate setting up a central metaphor or motif that carries your story from the title to the conclusion].

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The ingredients of a strong essay are:

An Establishing Statement. This allows you to demonstrate your personal understanding of the module, and because it focuses on the module rather than on the question (we’re getting to that) you can prepare it in advance. This gives you something to write so that you’re not staring at a blank exam booklet or computer screen for too long. This should be the very first sentence in your essay and it should include key words from the rubric but also have a personal twist to show that you’ve thought about the key ideas in the rubric and gone further with them. A pithy quote can often make a good establishing statement. For example,

“Part of the beauty of literature,” argued F. Scott Fitzgerald, is that “you discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

I like this one because it’s about belonging through textual engagement, which, as an English teacher, is my favourite way to belong.

Thesis statement. This is your one-sentence answer to the question. A lot of essay questions will give you a thesis statement, others will give you more space to argue your specific interpretation. It should include key words from the question and appear early in your introduction. The thesis should be something arguable but it should be stated as if it is fact.

This question gives you a thesis statement:

‘An individual’s interaction with others and the world around them can enrich or limit their experience of belonging’

This one gives you space to write your own:

Explore how perceptions of belonging and not belonging can be influenced by connections to places.

Topic sentences. A topic sentence is a mini-thesis statement. It should support your thesis the same way that a beautiful corinthian column supports the pediment of a Greek temple: with elegance. It should be concept based rather than focused on a specific text or composer; this will allow you to write integrated paragraphs. Taking the above thesis here are some topic sentences:

1. An individual’s interaction with others can enrich their experience of belonging.

2. An individual’s interaction with the world around them may also enrich their experience of belonging.

3. However, negative interactions with the world and others can limit an individual’s experience of belonging.

These are obvious (and, to be honest, a little dull) however, they support the thesis, leave room for integration, and remind the marker that you’re answering the question. You may also notice that topic sentences 2 and 3 have linking words in them (also, however); this gives the essay flow and helps the argument to hang together. Without them, responses can sometimes read like three or four separate essays rather than a single sustained argument.

Concluding statements. Conclusions are the most difficult part of essay writing and, to make it even harder, they don’t just come at the end of a response. Each paragraph needs a concluding statement that explains how the evidence proffered supports the thesis. A popular way to begin is, “Thus it can be seen that…” however, I prefer something simpler such as a restatement, in different words, of the topic sentence. An example of a concluding statement for the first topic sentence above could be:

Through relationships, individuals find and nurture an enriched sense of identity.

Strong sentences make strong paragraphs, which make strong essays.

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Here is how I would approach Paper 2:

Tactic Time (mins) Count Down Clock
Reading Time
Read the questions for Modules A, B, and C. Make sure you check that you read the correct questionfor your elective/text. 5 2h
Writing Time
Annotate the question for Module A and plan your response, including a strong thesis statement and between two and four main supporting points. Remember the focus of this module is CONTEXT. 5 1h55m
Write your Module A essay. 35 1h20m
Annotate the question for Module B and plan your response, including a strong thesis statement and between two and four main supporting points. Remember the focus of this module is RECEPTION. 5 1h15m
Write your Module B essay. 35 40m
Annotate the question for Module C and plan your response, including a strong thesis statement and between two and four main supporting points. Remember the focus of this module is REPRESENTATION. 5 35m
Write your Module C essay. 35 0

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