If you like maths like I did in high school you probably like the fact that all you really have to do is practice in order to eventually get good. You might also have picked physics thinking, ‘oh sweet, two more units of maths.’ But can you get by in physics just by practicing, like you can in maths? Well I’m going to try and answer that for you.
The harsh reality is that a good deal of the physics exam involves writing. But fortunately, while there is some content that must be memorised, very little of these writing questions involve just regurgitating memorised facts. It’s about understanding the concepts and being able to explain them and apply them to new scenarios.
Doing past papers is obviously going to be a huge help in testing your understanding, however they won’t necessarily ensure your understanding is as good as it could be. While comparing with sample answers and marking criteria can help to identify the gaps in your understanding, these sources aren’t always going to be perfect, especially if they aren’t from NESA.
In my opinion, aiming to have a rock-solid understanding to begin with is probably a more fruitful and efficient strategy, and there’s no better way to do this than writing syllabus notes. If you write these the right way, there should be no question you can’t answer confidently or without a quick glance to your notes. This means writing them based on the syllabus, ensuring that your notes include all relevant information and only relevant information.
When I wrote mine, I used each syllabus dot point as a heading. This also means writing them using multiple sources, like notes from class, textbooks, and ATAR Notes notes. This also means working on them consistently throughout the year so they’re sufficiently detailed, and you’ve preserved your understanding of concepts from when you first learned them. What results is your own personal textbook that covers everything you need to know about the syllabus, and you know and understand the whole thing, because you wrote it!
All of that being said, past papers are still an awesome and necessary revision technique for physics! They can even go towards improving your notes by pointing out areas you might not have covered.
I kind of learned all this wisdom the hard way. Having done mostly trial papers in the lead up to my Physics HSC I was shocked at how unique each of the questions were, particularly the longer ones. I realised that, sadly, the HSC doesn’t recycle questions – they’re more concerned about testing your understanding rather than your memory or how many questions you’ve already seen. They dig deeper than the trials do.
For this reason, I think that in the lead up to my HSC, I would’ve been a lot better off spending more time editing and refining my notes and making sure my understanding was rock solid, and maybe trying more old HSC papers even though they used a different syllabus.
So, don’t make the same mistake I did. Make sure your understanding is top notch. Get out there and write some textbook-grade notes.