Thoughts on English Standard HSC Exams 2020

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English Standard HSC Exams 2020

2020 HSC English Standard 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. 

Standard Paper 2: Language Identity and Culture, Close Studies, and Craft of Writing:

Just like the common module paper, Paper 2 held no particularly shocking moments. It was a bit unusual that the Language, Identity and Culture question was the hardest in the paper, when Module B: Close Studies is usually more challenging, but most 2020 students I spoke to afterward took this in stride.

The Language, Identity and Culture essay is always a technical essay, with the rubric focused more on language conventions than on Identity and Culture themes. This was evident in the 2020 question, which had specific questions written for each prescribed text, of the basic pattern: ‘[Text-type] relies primarily on [specialised technique] to create cultural tension.’ For example, the Contemporary Asian-Australian Poets students got: ‘Poetry relies primarily on symbolism to create cultural tension.’ This means their answers would have to have focused on only examples of symbolism as proof—a challenge for students who had only memorised a small handful of quotes on varied techniques. Just remember, your mantra for the New HSC is, what the rubric says NESA can do, they might do, and prepare accordingly.

Generally, in Module A, it’s a good idea to know your text-type conventions and jargon well—most students get poetry here, so know what lineation and enjambment is, and especially, know its function in controlling the poem. Likewise, know your narrative conventions if you get Henry Lawson, terms like protagonist, antagonist, unreliable narrator and dramatic premise.

The Close Studies of Literature essay question asked just one, general question directed toward the rubric: ‘Literature reinforces or challenges our understanding of ordinary situations.’ The ‘ordinary’ part might have been a cheeky question for people doing ‘Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ who were planning to talk about how different and special Christopher is, or about the murder mystery elements of the novel. So long as students had a few varied study paragraphs up their sleeve, maybe about family life or school experiences, they would have been fine.

The Craft of Writing section shouldn’t have been too painful. It was as 12/8 split between crafted writing and reflection statement, and there was an image stimulus, which had to form the end of the piece of writing, and the choice of whether to write persuasive, discursive or imaginative. Keep in mind that NESA doesn’t have to give you a choice about this, and show up prepared to write all three.