Category Archives: HSC Physics – Exam Verb Guide

Exam Verb Guide

HSC Exam Verbs

In 2002 the Board of Studies introduced a glossary of verbs to make it easier for students to answer questions. This means that in any physics question there is a directive verb telling you what to do. To answer the question, you need to completely deal with the verb. Note that going beyond the verb doesn’t give more marks. This means that to maximise marks, you need to write as little as possible while ensuring that you cover all the relevant criteria for the question. This necessitates a highly targeted and logical approach to writing answers, a skill that comes through firstly knowing and understanding the meaning of all the verbs in the course, and secondly through plenty of practice.


Identify is the most basic verb encountered, and it requires you to merely state a fact. For example, Identify that moving charged particles in a magnetic field experience a force. All that is required is to state the fact that moving charged particles in a magnetic field experience a force. Identify questions are rarely used by themselves as they are effectively too simple to answer and do not differentiate enough between candidates. This means that if an identify question is encountered, it is most likely to be a 1-mark freebie. However, it’s hard to know how much depth to go into when answering an identify question. Often the identify verb is used to explore key concepts that are built upon by other dotpoints. It can be hard to tell which information is relevant to fully answering an identify question. Generally, you will need to carefully read the question and make a judgement based on how much writing space is available and how much time you have in the exam room. The more you write, the safer you are, but it comes at the expense of other questions and you don’t want to be wasting time on a 1-mark question.


Explain requires you to go into detail about the subject matter. Where identify is simply about the surface, explain is about the processes leading to it. For example, Explain that cathode ray tubes allowed the manipulation of a stream of charged particles. Often when approaching an explain question, it can be helpful to consider where you want to end up first, then structure your answer around that. In this case, the surface or end result is that cathode ray tubes allow the manipulation of a stream of charged particles. This is where the answer ends, and it needs to be clearly stated in your answer. However, explain needs to go into depth about how this manipulation is accomplished- the underlying processes. To answer this dotpoint will require identifying what a cathode ray tube is, especially that it provides a stream of charged particle, identifying that charged particles can be manipulated by obstructions and fields, explaining how this manipulation occurs (deflection and blocking in this case), and linking them together and explaining that cathode ray tubes allow this manipulation.


In a way, define is easier than explain because it’s a more complicated version of identify. Define requires greater depth of knowledge i.e. a longer, more detailed answer, but it still is essentially identify. Define Bohr’s postulates would be the same as identifying each of them with a high level of detail.


Compare is examining similarities and differences between things. Less detail is required in terms of identification and explanation because the focus of the answer is on the comparison. For example, Compare step-up and step-down transformers. The answer should be thought of in two parts- similarities and differences, and structured around these two areas. They are similar because they both have two coils where electron movement in one induces a current in the other. They are different because in a step-up transformer the secondary coil has more turns, whereas in a step-down transformer the secondary coil has fewer turns so that the step-up produces a higher voltage while the step-down produces a lower voltage than the input. “Whereas” is an important word in writing comparisons because it shows to the examiner that you are directly examining differences between two things. Whenever you examine differences, always use the word “whereas”. This will make it clear to both you and the examiner what you are contrasting.


Contrast is exactly half of compare. Where in compare both similarities and differences need to be addressed, with contrast you only need to talk about differences. This means contrast is effectively “show how they’re different”. Contrast is rarely used in the syllabus but can often be found in exam questions. For example, Contrast step-up and step-down transformers. To answer this, you now only need to “show how they’re different”. Step-up has more turns in secondary coil and higher output voltage, whereas step-down has fewer turns in secondary coil and lower output voltage. When answering contrast, to get more marks you show more differences. There were 2 listed in this example, the only way to get more marks is to add more differences. Providing similarities will give NO marks and is therefore a waste of your exam time.


This is probably the most common verb used in tests because it’s comprehensive and really tests depth of knowledge. Broadly, it consists of two parts. The first is the simple verbs identify/explain, and so the first part of a discuss answer will involve identifying or explaining relevant issues. Though you need to go through this first step, think through your answer first because it is a waste of time explaining irrelevant issues. The second part of a discuss answer is provide arguments for and against the issues being discussed. This can only be developed by practice, since it its challenging to learn how to formulate arguments through analysis of issues (although you can memorise points for and against, it is essential that you can also make up points for questions that don’t directly match syllabus dotpoints). For example, Discuss the BCS theory. This answer would be divided into parts. The answer would consist firstly of “What is BCS theory? How does it work? What does it accomplish?”, then arguments for or supporting BCS theory, and finally arguments against BCS theory. Generally, any discuss question can be divided into these parts:

  • Identify what is being discussed, explain it, and identify the key issues
  • Provide arguments for
  • Provide arguments against

In some cases there won’t be arguments for and against. These cases require a structured comparison of all the elements of the question. For example, Discuss qualitatively the electric field strength due to a point charge, positive and negative charges and oppositely charged parallel plates. Point charge has a field that radiates outward with field strength obeying inverse square law. Positive charges repel positive, negative attracts. Parallel plates have a constant field strength with the field running in one direction between the plates.


Analyse is a more advanced version of explain. It requires you to not only explain what is happening in a system, but to also use data or process information in order to draw conclusions. For example, Analyse information to explain why a magnet is able to hover above a superconducting material that has reached the temperature at which it is superconducting. This dotpoint requires you to use provided information to explain the Meissner effect. However, even if no information is provided, answering this dotpoint will involve firstly identifying that a magnet can hover over a superconductor, and then explain why the Meissner effect occurs and how this produces hovering. Of course, if information is provided it will need to be integrated into your answer. Generally analyse isn’t used in exams as it is more productive for examiners to use discuss.


Evaluate is essentially a biased version of discuss. To answer an evaluate question, you need to firstly answer the question as if it was a discuss question, and then weigh up the for/against points you’ve provided and use them to draw a conclusion. Generally, less time will be spent on explanation in evaluate compared to discuss because the emphasis is on the conclusion and the issues, not explanation. Evaluation requires a clear, structured approach with a logical conclusion that flows from the arguments you’ve made. For example, Evaluate the relative contributions of electrostatic and gravitational forces between nucleons. As with discuss you first need to identify the two forces and explain their operation. As with a “comparing” discuss question, you need to compare their effects, particularly in terms of strength. But because this is an evaluate question, a judgement must be clearly made e.g. gravitational forces are insignificant in interactions between nucleons compared to electrostatic forces. Ensure that the conclusion you provide directly addresses the question. The essential part is to read the question and decide what needs to be done to completely answer it. Note that evaluate is very similar to assess and they can be considered the same.


Justify is pretty much “prove something”. Though it doesn’t appear in the syllabus explicitly, it can appear in exams, particularly regarding pracs. For example, in the pendulum prac, justify timing the pendulum over 10 swings. This is basically asking you to “prove why it is good to time the pendulum over 10 swings”. The argument you make must be clear and logical to fully answer the question. This would involve firstly stating its effect- timing over 10 swings increases reliability. Then you would need to explain errors that affect reliability- random influences and reaction time error to name two, and finally you would need to explain how timing over 10 swings minimises this error and is therefore why that was the procedure. The last step, explaining how timing over 10 swings minimises error, is the justification but to perform this final step the framework for your justification needs to be set up in your response beforehand.

General Tips

As can be seen, almost all the verbs require some degree of identification and explanation. When answering a question, make sure you set up your response by identifying and explaining relevant concepts. Don’t waste time by writing about irrelevant things, so before you start writing think about the answer in its entirety so you can decide what’s relevant.

Never write an answer that requires more than a basic degree of assumed knowledge- assume the marker only knows the bare minimum (i.e. terminology and basic concepts) and requires everything to be spelt out in terms of interactions and effects. Don’t assume anything.

Finally, don’t write simply anything, be concise and relevant. Don’t waffle- get to the point and show depth of knowledge. You’ll find it easier to think about the science behind your answer this way, and the examiner will find it easier to gauge your knowledge.