6 Common Mistakes HSC Physics Students Make in Exams

If you want to nail Physics for your HSC, you mustn't make these 6 common mistakes.

Written by:
DJ Kim

Read the 6 Common Mistakes HSC Physics Students Make in Exams. Learn the errors HSC students are making and avoid them.


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Mistake #1: Incorrect Interpretation of Key Verbs

Do you know how to respond to the key verbs correctly?

  • List
  • Describe
  • Compare
  • Explain
  • Assess
  • Evaluate
A large number of students fail to respond to questions involving ‘Compare’ or ‘Explain’ or ‘Assess’ correctly.

For example, in answering ‘Explain’ questions, most students are giving a description not an explanation. Learn How to answer ‘Explain’ questions present in the HSC Physics Exam.

Did you know the HSC Marking Centre advises the use of tables to answer questions involving compare, assess, discuss and evaluate?
Consider the Sample Responses to 2006 HSC question given below by the Board of Studies:

Assess the impact on society and the environment of the potential applications  of superconductors.

Sample Response 1

Application of superconductorImpact on SocietyImpact on EnvironmentAssessment
Maglev Trains
  • Provides faster, more energy-efficient transport
  • More expensive to build – i.e. higher fares
  • Less use of fossil fuels to power train, therefore less random emissions
  • Less coal needs to be mined for power stations
  • Beneficial to both society and environment – however, is costly
Transporting Electricity
  • More efficient transportation
  • Zero power losses
  • Safer as DC is used
  • No need to have expensive transformers
  • Cheaper to transport
  • Smaller cables means more aesthetic benefits
  • Less fossil fuels emitted into atmosphere – therefore, less air pollution
  • Reduced likelihood of acid rain
  • Beneficial to society as a cheaper, more efficient transportation takes place, less harm to society in the form of pollution
Superconducting Generation of Power
  • More efficient power production
  • No need for AC and transformers
  • Cheaper electricity
  • Cleaner energy
  • No fossil fuels used for power generation
  • Less environmental impacts, society gets cheaper energy
 Sample Response 2
Maglev TrainsSociety
  • Frictionless form of transport allowing super fast speeds
  • The costs of implementation are detrimental maintenance is a problem
  •  The costs of implementation are detrimental maintenance is a problem
  •  Does not use fossil fuels to provide transport
  •  The superconductors must be kept at a critical temperature which is difficult to maintain and uses a large amount of energy
  • Allows for large scale distribution of energy without power loss as there is no resistance in cables.
  • Replacement of manual labour causing unemployment lack of technology to maintain a large distribution grid
  •  Replacement of manual labour causing unemployment lack of technology to maintain a large distribution grid
  •  Power lines are not aesthetically pleasing
  • Large amounts of energy used to keep cables at critical temperatures costs and wastage of materials in creating cables for large scale supply

Mistake #2: Insufficient Workings for Calculations

Did you know that 2 marks are allocated in a simple calculation question?

  • 1 mark for correct formula and substitution and
  • 1 mark for the correct answer

In questions requiring numerical answers, you should always

  • show the working in a clear and logical fashion
  • round-off answers at the end of the calculation instead of during the parts of the calculation.


f you have made a calculation mistake, you may still be awarded marks for your working, so it must always be clearly shown. 


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Mistake #3: Write Units. I Mean Correct SI Units!

Students forget to provide the correct units with their numerical answers.

What is wrong with this student’s answer regarding the magnitude of acceleration?

“The acceleration of the rocket is 15 m/s.”

Make sure you know the SI units for the following:

  • mass
  • velocity
  • acceleration
  • force
  • momentum
  • energy
  • frequency
  • wavelength
  • current
  • potential difference
  • resistance


Mistake #4: Line of Best Fit?

When drawing a line of best fit, students must identify and eliminate any outliers before determining the trend. In the diagram shown below, if a student does not recognise the outlier then he/she will draw an incorrect line of best fit (dotted line). However, once you remove the outlier from the trend, then you can draw a correct line of best fit (solid line).




Mistake #5: Confusion About Validitiy, Reliability and Accuracy?

When students are asked how you would improve the accuracy of your experimental results, they often reply with a statement such as “repeat the experiment many times”. Does this sound like you? If so, then expect to lose at 3 – 4 marks in your HSC Exam this year.

Here is an outline of the differences between validity, reliability and accuracy:

DefinitionTechnique used in pendulum experiment
ValidityValidity is how appropriate the pro
cedure and materials are to achieve a desired experimental result.
Swinging the pendulum through small amplitudes to ensure the equation given could be applied.
ReliabilityReliability is how repeatable the experment is. Do you get very similar results every time?Starting and stopping the stopwatch at the extremes of the motion ensures more repeatability than trying to start and stop mid-swing.
AccuracyAccuracy is how close the value calculated from the experiment is to the accepted true value.Use of more precise measuring devices such as a data logger and a sensor would improve accuracy.


Mistake #6: Human Error Is Not a Valid Type of Experimental Error!

When students are asked about how to improve the reliability and accuracy of the experimental results, most state “reduce human error!” Human error is not a valid type of experimental error! The two types of experimental error explored in physics experiments are random and systematic errors.

Random errors are caused by unknown and unpredictable changes in the experiment, e.g. due to the instruments or environmental conditions. These arestatistical fluctuations in both directions about the true value thus repetition and statistical analysis can reduce the effects. To help reduce random errors:

  • Make sure you know how to read the scales on the instruments and that you align yourself properly each time you take a measurement.
  • Take multiple measurements (repetition increases reliability!) and then take an average for the result

Systematic errors are caused by measuring instruments being used incorrectly or problems with the instrument itself. Systematic errors limit accuracy. To help reduce systematic errors:

  • All instruments should be checked against a standard before use. Zero settings should be checked and adjusted (calibration!).
  • Instructions for the use of the instrument should be read and followed.
  • Corrections for instrument bias should be made (if necessary).

Written by DJ Kim

DJ is the founder of Matrix Education and has over 20 years of HSC Physics teaching experience. He is the co-author of the Matrix Science program, course materials and assessments. He is also renowned for his ATAR & Scaling seminars and development of the first ATAR Calculator.

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