BlogStudyThe Criteria for a Band 6 HSC Physics Extended Response

The Criteria for a Band 6 HSC Physics Extended Response

The HSC Physics extended response is one of the most challenging aspects in the HSC exam.

It is often the hurdle that separates the Band 6 students from the rest. If you think you’re someone who struggles with the extended response questions and don’t know how to prepare, this article is for you!

The HSC Physics extended response questions are usually 6 marks, sometimes they’re 5 marks and rarely they’re 7.

Usually there are at least two extended response questions in the core and one in your option. That’s a lot of marks on offer, about 20% of the total marks to be precise!

But don’t fret! We’ve trawled through the archives, analysing the last decade of HSC Physics exams, so that we can give you a definitive list of criteria to hit and mistakes to avoid!

So, what are you waiting for? Jump in!

Purpose of Extended Responses
Three Styles of Extended Response Questions

The Purpose of HSC Physics Extended Responses

We can distil the difference between standard questions and extended response questions down to two things. You read correctly, just two things.

1. Synthesis

The extended response questions require you to pull from a vast pool of knowledge. They are rarely isolated to a single dot point. You need to have some awareness of the context in which discoveries were made, and the relationship between a syllabus dot-point, and the ones before it.

2. Opinion

They also require some genuine insight, and thoughtful opinion. You won’t be asked simply to recount an experiment or how a device works. You will be asked to evaluate, or to assess – they want your opinion on how something has changed society, contributed to science, or changed scientific thinking.

If you can get in the habit of doing these two things, you’re well on your way to writing a band 6 response. So let’s get started and see how you can put these two things in practice. What are some questions you can expect, and what approach should you take?

The Three Styles of HSC Physics Extended Response Questions

There are three styles of questions NESA has asked in the past, and they can be summarised as follows:

  1. “Interplay between physics and the scientific method”
  2. “Interplay between physics and the human world”
  3. “Use physics to explain this physics”

Style 1: Interplay between physics and the scientific method

This style of question focuses on how science is done. It explores how new hypotheses are developed, how they’re tested, and how they’ve resulted in future developments. They are generally phrased as follows:

How did scientist X verify the hypotheses of scientist Y?

How did scientist X contribute to Y?

Here are some questions of this style from previous years:

2015: In 1865, James Clerk Maxwell developed the theory of electromagnetism. This theory 6 explained the nature of light. It also predicted the existence of other electromagnetic waves. How did Hertz test and validate Maxwell’s theory?


2013: Assess Einstein’s contribution to quantum theory


2008: How did Einstein’s theory of special relativity and his explanation of the photoelectric effect lead to the reconceptualisation of the model of light?


2007: Analyse Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity and the evidence supporting it as an application of this model of scientific method.

If we have a look at the ‘notes from the marking centre’ and the ‘marking guidelines’, a few trends emerge. Here are some things to take note of:

Criteria 1: Detailed explanation of relevant experiments

Since this is the extended response they don’t just want a recount of the accepted theory. It’s not sufficient to say “when light hits a surface, electrons are ejected”. They want the scoop on the entire experiment from start to finish! As an example consider the photoelectric effect:

  • Can you draw a diagram of an apparatus which could test the photoelectric effect?
  • What were all the tests performed, and what were the results?

These are the sorts of things the markers are expecting to see.

Criteria 2: Explanation of applicable laws/theories of physics

You also need to know what laws and theorems are used to interpret the experimental outcomes. As an example consider Hertz’s experiment. For a band 6 response it is not sufficient to simply say a spark was produced in the secondary coil. You need to say why!

“Accelerating charges produce EMR, and EMR is able to cause charges to oscillate.”

A common criticism in the ‘notes from the marking centre’ is that many students jump from beginning to end, without explaining the intermediary steps. Try and use all the laws and theorems that are applicable.

Criteria 3: Awareness of the implications of an experiment:

What conclusions were made from the experiments, what was the context of the experiment? As an example let’s reconsider the photoelectric effect.

  • What conclusions did Einstein reach after observing the results?
  • What did scientists think about light before, and how was this view changed by Einstein.

This is another problem highlighted in the markers’ notes. Don’t forget to mention the context of the experiment, in particular any skepticism towards new ideas and the importance of experimental evidence in the acceptance of new ideas. This is a key part of the scientific method and often overlooked.

Style 2: Interplay between physics and the human world

This style of question looks at the relationship between the scientific world and daily life, how they influence each other and considerations that must be made. They are generally phrased as follows:

How does this piece of physics affect the environment and or society?


How did external factors influence X?

Here are some questions of this style from previous years:

2014: Explain how the adoption of AC as the dominant electricity supply benefits society in terms of the advantages of AC over DC.


2013: Explain how changing the electrical properties of materials has led to the development of new technologies which can benefit society.


2011: Discuss the effects on the environment of the development of AC generators.


2010: Magnetic resonance imaging is a current technology that uses superconductors. Identify two OTHER technologies that use superconductors. Evaluate the impact of these technologies on society and the environment.

Once again if we have a look at the ‘notes from the marking centre’ and the ‘marking guidelines’, there are a few common trends:

Criteria 1: Detailed understanding of the physics involved in the operation of a device:

You need to know what laws and theorems are used in the operation of devices. As an example consider AC energy supply. You need to be able to explain why AC is able to be used at multiple voltages and DC is not. You need to actually say that AC is able to be transformed and DC is not. Do not assume the marker knows the answer, the whole point is that you are able to explain it.

Criteria 2: Acute awareness of the implications of a device:

You need to be very comprehensive in your explanation of how various aspects of a device affect the environment and or society. Many students are too vague, and do not explicitly state the relationship. e.g. “AC can be used at any voltage whereas the voltage of a DC supply cannot be changed, this is an advantage of AC over DC supply”

A better response would be: “Unlike DC, AC supplies can be transformed to any voltage. This is very advantageous to society as it facilitates the use of a multitude of devices requiring different voltages in people’s homes.” Be sure to make the link between the device and the environment/society very clear.

The ‘notes from the marking centre’ mention that responses are difficult to follow, and the links students are making are unclear. Questions involving comparisons or implications, I find are best answered through the use of tables and dot points, where you can make the links very obvious.

Style 3: Use physics to explain this physics

This style of question makes no reference to external factors like society or the environment, and they rarely reference experiments, they are very focused. They just want you to explain how something works. They are generally phrased as follows:

How are these physics phenomena/Laws used in X?


Consider these options, using physics principles explain which option is the best.

Here are some questions of this style from previous years:

2015: Explain how Newton’s Laws of Motion and Universal Gravitation were applied to the Cassini mission.


2014: How does doping affect the way a current is carried in a semiconductor?


2012: How is the motor effect used to produce different sounds in a loudspeaker? Include a labelled diagram.


2012: Using physics principles and appropriate calculations, evaluate each design to determine the best way of transmitting power from the power station to the substation.


2010: Two significant problems that will affect a manned spaceflight to Mars are: the changes in gravitational energy, and protecting the space vehicle from high-speed electrically charged particles from the Sun. Use your understanding of physics to analyse each of these problems.

As before, if we have a look at the ‘notes from the marking centre’ and the ‘marking guidelines’, we can learn a lot!

Criteria: Detailed understanding of the physics involved in the operation of a device:

This style of question although seemingly simple due to its focus, is arguably the hardest. There are 6 marks on offer just to explain how something works, as a result the marking criteria is looking for you to mention a very specific list of facts.

For example, consider the question from 2014: How does doping affect current in a semiconductor? You may think a good place to start would be the fact that doping results in the creation of a hole or a free electron due to the addition of a foreign atom and then proceed to exploring those two possible cases and the resulting effects.

However, one of the marks in the marking criteria is simply that: “students mention that a semiconductor has a band gap”. As you can see jumping to the point like you would with a three marker can cause you to miss things.

I find the best approach is to explain things in chronological order. The marks could be awarded for any specific part of the explanation, your best bet is to say everything you know about how it works from start to finish. For this question that means starting with explaining just what a semiconductor is! Remember assume the marker knows nothing, and that you’re teaching them about semiconductor physics.

And there you have it! You now know exactly what to expect when you begin your exam, and exactly what they’re looking for! Now you just have to practice!

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Vamsi Srinivasan is looking to uncover the next hidden truth of the universe. He was so fascinated by the beauty of Physics and Mathematics during his HSC that he went on to study Physics at University. He is now in his second year of a dual degree in Physics/Computer Science. He loves physics and maths so much, he wanted to share his passion and has been an Art of Smart coach for the past 2 years. He’s helped coach students in physics as well as all ranges of HSC Maths from General to Extension 2. In his spare time you can find him watching Tennis or Formula 1 or perhaps listening to his favourite podcast ‘Hello Internet’.

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