Find out more about the VCE physics course, exam and advice from a high achiever in VCE physics!
VCE Physics is one of the most challenging VCE subjects that falls under the STEM category. From being able to complete calculations in a limited amount of time, to explaining key physics concepts, this subject challenges you to think outside the box and apply the ideas you learn throughout the year. In this blog post, I will be discussing the different types of assessments you may come across in VCE Physics, exam advice, as well as my own tips and tricks to ace the subject!
The assessments for VCE physics will cover the different areas of study for the subject, which are (as of the 2024 Physics study design):
- How do physicists explain motion in two dimensions?
- Newton’s laws of motion
- Circular and projectile motion
- Energy and its relationship to force
- How do things move without contact?
- Electric, gravitational and magnetic fields
- Applications of fields (e.g. DC motors, planetary motion, particle acceleration)
- How are fields used in electricity generation?
- Magnetic flux and generation of electromotive forces
- Transmission of electricity
- Power generation
- How has understanding about the physical world changed?
- Light behaving as a particle or wave
- Matter behaving as a particle or wave
- Einstein’s theory of special relativity
- Mass energy
- How is scientific inquiry used to investigate fields, motion or light?
- Scientific investigation (based on one of the areas of study mentioned above)
Assessments will usually be a typical test-style SAC, or a practical investigation covering the areas of study mentioned above. However, your class may complete different types of SAC assessments for the different topics depending on your school and teachers.
The physics exam consists of 20 multiple choice questions, and around 15-20 short answer questions. The short answer questions you may come across in this subject range from simple calculations, “show” questions, more challenging applications of calculations, “explain” questions and an experimental design question.
“Show” questions will give you a calculated value, and ask you to use calculations or apply theory to show that your answer is the same as the one given in the question. My piece of advice for these questions is to show every step of your working out: make sure that you write down every formula and substitution you use, and write short explanations for your working out if needed. These questions are worth a few marks and are not usually challenging, but it is very easy to lose marks if you do not show all of your working!
Calculation questions are typically straightforward, as you will often only need to apply formulae based on the question. However, there are still some things to look out for in these questions:
- What units of quantities have you been given? Do you need to convert any of these values to SI units?
- What units are you asked to answer in? Do you need to convert your final calculation to these units?
- Are you using the correct values of constants? For example, Planck’s constant, h, can be written in units Js or eVs, so ensure you use the right one based on the units of other values in the question.
- How many significant figures or decimal places are you asked to round to? And if there is no indication, what is the minimum amount of significant figures in values given by the question? This will tell you how many significant figures to round to.
In an “explain” question, we need to take our understanding of a certain physics concept and use it to explain a scenario. For each mark allocated to these sorts of questions, there is a certain concept or connection to the scenario that you have to mention to earn those marks. A typical “explain” question in the physics exam is question 8c from the 2022 physics exam which is worth two marks: “explain why the racing car needs a net horizontal force to travel around the corner and state what exerts this horizontal force” (in relation to a car travelling at a constant speed around a circular track).
From the context of the question, we know that the car is travelling in circular motion, hence, the net force of the car is given by . We also know that the net force of an object in circular motion acts perpendicular to the direction of the object’s velocity (towards the centre of the circular path). We will then need to analyse the forces acting on the car; the gravitational force acting downwards on the car, the normal force that acts in the equal and opposite direction to the gravitational force, and a frictional force acting on the tyres of the car. Hence, as the net force in the vertical direction (the gravitational force and normal force) is 0, friction is the only force acting in the horizontal direction of the car. Therefore, the car requires a horizontal force to travel around the circular corner since objects in circular motion need a horizontal centripetal force acting towards the centre of its path (perpendicular to its velocity), and this horizontal force is exerted by friction acting on the tyres.
The last type of question you may come across are the experimental design or scientific investigation questions. An experiment is given, as well as some raw data, and you will need to manipulate the data to answer further questions about the experiment. These questions will typically ask you to identify independent, dependent and controlled variables, plot a graph to show the relationship between two variables (including uncertainty bars) with a line of best fit, and identify relationships between variables. You may also be asked to explain some of the sources or error in the experiment, or justifications for experimental choices.
Question 10 in the 2022 physics exam gives you a projectile motion experiment, where a tennis ball is launched at different angles and the horizontal distance travelled by the ball is measured. You will be asked to plot the data for the range vs launch angle, draw a curve of best fit, and then identify the maximum range and angle for maximum range of the ball based on your graph. The last question asks you to explain whether air resistance can be ignored.
Exam preparation and advice
Exam preparation begins from day 1 when you start VCE physics unit 3 and 4! Taking notes and completing practice questions from your teachers in class, completing textbook questions and frequently revisiting your notes are the best ways to ensure that you are understanding the content. Additionally, it is important to make sure that you retain your understanding of the topics you learn in class. I would often complete questions from past VCAA exams, however, you can also find more helpful resources from Excel Academics, where we offer free resources such as practice questions and notes! Completing a few practice questions each day really makes a big difference when you are in the exam. If you ever find yourself struggling to understand a concept, always make sure you ask for help from your teacher, tutor or friends and ensure that you understand that concept! “Explain” questions will challenge you by asking you to link a concept (or multiple concepts) to a situation in the question, and the only way to be able to explain the situation is by having a firm understanding of the concept!
Towards the end of term 3 when I was familiar with the course’s content, I began completing previous VCAA exams from the current study design in exam conditions. Completing these practice exams is especially important, as they familiarize you with the types of questions you may come across in the exam, as well as introduce you to the time pressure of completing the exam. My term 3 holidays consisted of completing practice exams every two days. Of course, finding the motivation to complete practice exams can be difficult, but they are the best way to study and prepare for the big day.
In the exam, you will be allowed to bring in a double-sided A3 sheet of notes or two double-sided A4 sheets of notes, and you will also be provided with a formula sheet. This is something that you can begin preparing from the start of the year. From my experience, as I made my way through the physics course, I added any useful explanations for concepts, formulae, and example questions to my notes sheet so that by the time I had learnt all of the course content, my notes sheet was completed. Handwriting your notes sheet (rather than digitally making it or using a pre-made version) is also a brilliant way for you to study, as it will help you remember your course content and you can always add to it whenever you learn something new!
However, keep in mind that when you are in the exam, copying example “explain” question responses from your notes sheet might not get you the full marks for the question; always link the physics concept back to the situation you are given! Also, ensure that you are familiar with where everything on your notes sheet can be found. Since the time limit you are given to complete your exam in is very short, you don’t want to be spending that precious time searching for certain notes and equations. I would recommend keeping all the notes for each area of study in one section, or colour coding each point on your notes to match a respective area of study.
Additional tips and tricks!
As mentioned above, if you ever find yourself struggling to understand a concept, always ask for help! Unlike other STEM subjects such as Mathematical Methods or Specialist Maths, solely knowing formulae and how to apply them will not help you get through Physics! Fully understanding a concept can help you get through those tricky “explain” style questions or help your understanding of the experiment in the experimental design questions.
Also, VCE physics is highly competitive subject, and losing a few marks can lead to you losing several points from your study score. Hence, accuracy and speed are both equally important if you want to achieve high scores. Especially with the time pressure, completing the entire exam with accuracy is difficult, so ensure that you are getting enough practice with past year exams or exams from external companies to improve your accuracy and time efficiency. Additionally, if you ever complete the exam early, be sure to double check your answers!
Hopefully you learnt something new from this blog, and best of luck with your physics studies!
This blog was written by our tutor, Leonie. You can find her profile here.
“My name is Leonie and I’m currently studying a Bachelor of Engineering and Arts at Monash University! Having recently completed VCE, I currently tutor physics, chemistry, maths and Japanese SL, with the hopes to help students make the most out of their studies and achieve the marks they are aiming for. “