Thoughts on English Advanced HSC Exams 2020

COVID-19 Updates: All lessons are delivered live online during the COVID lockdown period

English Advanced HSC Exams 2020

2020 HSC English Advanced Exams Review

by Tegan Schetrumpf, publised 22 November 2020

English 2020 is the second year of the New HSC rubric for English, and although some students were sorely stung by the exams’ content, they shouldn’t have been. A good rule of thumb for NESA is to remember that if the rubric says they are allowed to do it, they may very well do it, no matter what assumptions you or your school might have about what the papers usually do.

The most important thing for students going into 2021 to remember is, that the new 2 unit English HSC has about half the workload of the old one, with the workload of each student moving from learning 8 or 9 books or texts to just 4 or 5. The compensation for this lighter workload is a little footnote in the English Stage 6 syllabus that basically says NESA doesn’t have to focus the exam on ‘major content’. That is, you have fewer set texts, so you have to know them in better detail. Having a few essays prepared about main characters and major themes is not enough, because you might be asked to write a whole essay on a very minor character.

Reviewing this year’s papers—and all previous HSC papers—is a good way for students to get inside the mindset of HSC examiners. If you can learn to ‘think and speak NESA’ the battle is already half-won. 

Paper 1: Common Module, Human Experiences

Paper 1 reminded us of the flexibility of the New HSC exam format—last year’s paper offered individual questions for each prescribed text from the Human Experiences rubric, whereas this year had only one general question that all students had to make work for their individual texts. The essay question itself was a straightforward, specific question about two key aspects of the human experience 1) telling stories, and 2) the ‘personal and shared’ or, as the rubric puts it directly, the individual and collective nature of human experiences. No horrible surprises there.

The comprehension, or short-answers-based-on-unseen-texts section of the paper has received a bit of an overhaul in the last two years. First off, the Standard and Advanced sections are no longer identical, which makes the very term ‘common module’ inaccurate. The most meaningful part of the changes is that much shorter unseen texts, and therefore, less reading overall, is now required of Standard students, while the same amount of writing is expected from both Standard and Advanced. In my view, varying the comprehension is silly as Standard students are just as capable of reading longer unseen texts as Advanced students, but alas, I don’t run NESA.

Secondly, NESA has introduced lined segments on the answering booklet as a guideline for how much to write for each comprehension question. This is not NESA’s smartest move, as any English teacher can tell you that no two students’ handwriting takes up the same amount of space. The lined segments tend towards providing insufficient space for a good answer, too. Never be afraid to put your hand up and ask for more paper.

On the upside, this year’s comprehension section went with fewer questions that happened to be longer, with several 5 mark questions, which meant the lined segments were generous enough. This also reminds us that NESA exams can divide their 20 marks any way they choose – you could be looking at ten 2 mark questions, or 2 ten mark questions, since either is allowed, even if both extremes seem, at first glance, unlikely.

A cautionary note: there’s now a very popular bit of advice circulating that students should look at the number of marks the comprehension question is worth, subtract one, and provide this many techniques and quotes in their answer. (So, three quotes and techniques for a 4 mark question.) This is flat out bad practice—always provide at least as many techniques and quotes as a comprehension question is worth – so 4 marks means four techniques and quotes. Consider where else that subtracted mark could be addressed in the marking criteria? Err on the side of caution here—it’s not as if a student’s ever been marked down for giving more proof than required. 

Advanced Paper 2: Textual Conversations, Critical Studies, and Craft of Writing:

Just like the common module paper, Paper 2 held no particularly shocking moments. The Textual Conversations question was general, addressing the idea of intertextuality and appropriation from the rubric. It specifically asked the student to what extent ‘the later text is often seen as a shadow, lacking the originality and power of the earlier’. This meant students could take any stance on the question they wished, from a postmodern defence of the power of the appropriated work, to a measured critique of the value of the younger text. 

The critical studies questions were a little more challenging—but Module B is supposed to be the hardest question in the paper—NESA went with an excerpt question, asking each student to respond to an excerpt, or screen shots from their prescribed text. It should go without saying that for this kind of essay, your first paragraph should focus solely on this excerpt. The question was a basic textual integrity question, asking about the ‘aesthetic qualities’ that is, the text-type and genre conventions, of the text, and the ‘concerns’ or themes. If you knew your text in detail, this question was no problem.

There was a bit of noise from 2020 students about the Craft of Writing question. Hopefully no one was silly enough to think they’d always be given a choice between persuasive, discursive and imaginative styles of writing. The major complaint was that there was no reflection statement. But no one ever said you had to be asked for one. I had little sympathy for students that had never prepared a 1000 word story (I ask my students to prepare three!) but had stopped at 600 because they assumed they could pad out their answer with a reflection statement. Just remember, your mantra for the New HSC is, what the rubric says NESA can do, they might do.