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  • Diego

Exam Preparation Week 3

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

Hey everyone! I hope you’re all doing well in your History studies (and the rest of your subjects, of course). Make sure you’re drinking water, getting some exercise in, and spending (virtual) time with your friends. VCE is a marathon, not a sprint!

This week’s topic is prioritising during VCE and tackling extended responses. For many of you, the coming weeks will feel like some of the most important you’ve ever experienced. I know I certainly felt that way last year, when I was in Year 12. It’s the final stretch before VCE exams, and every single moment counts – every day could be spent studying, every hour on a practice piece, and every minute on revision.

But just because you could doesn’t mean you should. In fact, in this case you definitely shouldn’t – your performance in VCE won’t be determined purely by how much you study. How you study is just as important as how much you study (if not more!). And similarly important is taking care of yourself in these coming weeks, with regard to both physical and mental wellbeing. Burnout and stress are both real dangers that you’ll want to avoid or at least minimise.

This week I’m going to reflect on my own VCE experience, and my mindset and priorities at the time. I’m going to look back at how I spent my time, emphasising what worked and what didn’t, or what I’d recommend and what I’d do differently. Time is precious in Year 12, and how you spend it will directly correlate to your performance. Choose wisely!

PART 1- Prioritising subjects

One thing I did very early on in Year 12 was decide my subject priorities. What I mean by this is that I ranked my subjects from highest to lowest priority – from those in which I could see myself achieving the greatest results to those in which I expected to struggle. My aim was to maximise my scores, and the best way to do this was to spend my time where it would have the greatest effect. There was little point in studying intensely for Japanese when I knew I could spend that time in History instead and achieve a greater impact in my performance.

Some subjects I found vastly more enjoyable than others, which directly affected my rankings. For me personally, studying intensely for a subject I disliked was tortuous and ineffective. I knew that trying to force myself into it would be counterproductive, so instead I focused on the subjects I loved to maximise my overall performance. However, I was fortunate that my university course had no prerequisite scores in any subjects, and that I had completed a VCE English subject in Year 11. These are things you should consider in prioritising how you spend your time.

2. Studying smarter, not harder

Although I’m sure most of you have heard this phrase before, I would imagine fewer have successfully applied it. To study hard means to study more, but to study smart means to study well. The difference can be illustrated using a key study tool for VCE – practice exams.

In Year 12, I did dozens of practice exams. Across all my subjects, I would say I easily surpassed 50, although I knew people who’d reached the hundreds. I would do an exam, get it graded and receive feedback, only to rinse and repeat. This is an example of studying hard, effectively choosing quantity over quality. Working in this way meant that I covered a lot of breadth but missed some possible depth, because it was impossible for me to internalise all the feedback I was receiving. In the subjects that I studied like this, I ended up performing worse than I expected.

The subjects where I studied smart had one key difference – an exam tracker. I printed out a table where I could keep track of the exams I finished, the scores that I received, and the feedback I should focus on for my next attempt. This last part is crucially important – studying smart means targeting key areas to improve and build upon with each exam. So for example, if I received feedback that my topic sentences were weak, I made an active effort to improve them in the next exam. Lo and behold, in these subjects I performed better than I expected.

3. Spending time on yourself

Your own wellbeing needs to be a priority during VCE. Every year, too many students get burned out at the end of the marathon and stumble just before the finish line. The best way to prevent this is to take care of yourself.

Throughout Year 12 I maintained an active, healthy lifestyle. I exercised weekly, went on daily walks with my dog, and tried to eat healthy (with varying success). Frequent exercise was really important for me to relieve stress and feel good about myself, so I would definitely recommend it.

In addition to that, I spent time with my friends regularly (whether in person or online!) and allocated ‘me time’ every week. One key rule I had was that I would not do any study on Friday nights, leaving that afternoon and evening to watch my favourite show (RuPaul’s Drag Race, if you’re wondering) and stay up playing video games (DotA, mostly). It was important for me to maintain a life outside of VCE.

It’s particularly important to keep this up as the exam season approaches. I myself faltered a couple of weeks before my first exam, and let myself be consumed by VCE. By the time my last exam came around, there was no gas left in the tank. My advice to you is to treat yourself especially well during the exam season. The last thing you want is to burn out between your exams.

PART 2 - The Extended Response

The extended response is a relatively short text type that relies exclusively on your own content knowledge. It comprises one page of exam writing in response to a given prompt on the consequences of a revolution, and should take roughly 15 minutes to write. On the exam, you will have to complete two of these.

The Prompt

Extended response questions generally begin with the command term ‘explain’, and will touch on one or more elements listed in the key knowledge and skills section of the Study Design. This usually means that each question will focus on one specific point of content – such as an individual, an event, or a concept – and will require you to draw on multiple pieces of related evidence to answer it.

An example question, taken from the VCAA sample examination, is as follows:

Explain how the New Economic Policy (NEP) changed Russian society. Use evidence to support your response.

Here, the question is clearly centred on the New Economic Policy and its effect on Russian society. A response to this question would explain the consequences of such event, potentially using the ‘scissors crisis’ or statistics of economic recovery as supporting evidence.

The Structure

In my experience, extended responses benefit from a minimalistic and controlled structure. They are definitely not essays nor source analysis responses, requiring much less framing than these two. The following is an explanation of how I personally structured my responses.

Extended responses need only consist of a one-sentence introduction, three body paragraphs, and a one-sentence conclusion. The one-sentence introduction should signpost the three key ideas of the response in quick succession, not any more elaborate than a list. Extra sentences for the introduction can be used if necessary, but I never found any benefit in a longer introduction.

90% of the time spent on extended responses should go to the paragraphs. Three to four paragraphs are recommended, but I literally never wrote four paragraphs for a response. My advice would be to stick to three unless some of your points are really weak. When it comes to topic sentences, these should be short and sweet. In order, I began all of my paragraphs with ‘firstly’, ‘secondly’, and ‘lastly’. This structure helped me get straight to the point of the response without unnecessary framing.

The conclusion resembles the introduction very closely. A one-sentence list of your key ideas, developed slightly from those in the conclusion after the discussion in the response. However, I very rarely actually wrote a conclusion while doing an exam. I mean, what does it really add? That precious time could be better spent elsewhere. If you’re doing well for time, I would recommend you write a conclusion. If you’re not, it should be one of the first things to cut.

The Content

The extended response is all about your own knowledge and your own evidence. Last year’s examination report explicitly noted that the highest-scoring responses gave precise evidence in the form of statistics, dates, policies, and names of legislation. These are the bread and butter of the extended response, which is why it is so crucial that you know the points on the Study Design inside and out. Include as much (relevant) evidence as you feasibly can, because this is the place to show off all that content knowledge.

Additionally, the report notes that the highest-scoring responses included primary sources and historical interpretations. This means that quotes are important for every single text type in History to achieve the highest tier of marks.

The biggest thing to avoid for this text type (and really, all History text types) is providing narrative. Your response should be a detailed and specific explanation of factors/consequences/causes and not a story. Do not write out the story of the event/individual/concept unless you truly have nothing else to give. It’s better to get some marks than no marks, but it’s better to get a lot of marks than some.

The Timing

Extended responses should be written in at most 15 minutes, but the truth is that they are the least essential text type. What I mean by this is that if there is any place to skimp out on time, it is here. Cut the conclusion, rush through smaller paragraphs, whatever it may be – it will be less noticeable here than anywhere else.

Half of a source analysis will be glaringly obvious and looked upon poorly. An unfinished essay is even worse, and will lock you out of a certain mark for it. But the extended response is so minimalistic that you can get away with a little bit less.

That’s not to say you should aim to write less. By all means, be prepared to write a killer response with all the evidence you know. But if time is ticking, I recommend you cut your losses.

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