Out with the old, in with the new: Changes to the HSC

Sam Di Sano

Teacher and School Enablement Leader at Atomi


min read

Change change change. BOSTES became NESA in late 2017 and new syllabuses were subsequently rolled out for implementation for the 2019 HSC. So what’s new? I thought I would look at the big changes in the English, Maths, Science and History syllabuses from Year 11 2018 over the course of a few Staffroom articles.

According to NESA, the overhaul, which is the first since 2001, has a renewed focus on "rigour, thoroughness and depth" in English and Maths and has also brought in major changes in year 12 Science and History courses. The new content and assessment criteria were first taught to Year 11s in 2018 who will sit the first HSC under this new syllabus in 2019.

The Mathematics Advanced, Mathematics Extension I and Mathematics Extension II subjects were unchanged in 2018 but are in consultation for change, along with the introduction of the new Science Extension courses.

Firstly: Why?

According to NESA, the aims of this syllabus change include the desire to:

  • Make the HSC more applicable to life in the real world;
  • Increase the focus on ‘acquisition of deep knowledge, understanding and skills for students’;
  • Move away from a "social context" approach that critics argue saw a "dumbing down" of the subject material.

What are the main changes?

There are four key changes to the syllabuses that will have a big impact on the way Stage 6 is taught. Let’s break down the main points:

1. Assessments

In an effort to combat assessment overload, NESA has put a limit on how many assessments a school can set for its year 11 and 12 students. That limit is now three per course in year 11 and four per course in year 12, including the trial exam.

2. HSC questions

In an effort to combat prepared answers, NESA says HSC exam questions will be less predictable.

3. In-depth knowledge

Some topics have been cut in order to shorten syllabuses and allow for more in-depth learning within each course. More depth, less breadth.

4. New Science course

In an attempt to round out the extension experience, a Science extension has been established focussing on advanced research and practice skills through three school-based assessment tasks covering a scientific research portfolio and report. This course will also be the first to experiment with an online computer based exam. As well the new Investigating Science course there are five new Life Skills courses to provide a broader range of new Stage 6 Science options.

Investigating Science provides students with the opportunity to develop an understanding of the various influences on science and scientific research in the modern world.

The five new Science Life Skills courses focus on the development of the knowledge, understanding and skills of scientific processes in each of the Chemical World, Earth and Space, the Living World, the Physical World and a general Investigating Science Life Skills course, providing students with opportunities to engage in scientific inquiry to make observations, ask questions, gather data and draw conclusions about the world around them.

How English, Maths, Science and History subjects have changed?

NESA described the changes as a "major shift towards greater depth, rigour, and mastery of content learning." More complex topics have been introduced to help prepare students for uni, in response to criticism that students were ill-prepared for tertiary Science, Engineering and Maths courses.

Maths syllabuses have gone back to the drawing board after a backlash from teachers and academics unhappy with the first draft. As a result, there will be a common syllabus introduced across maths, and the marking scale will be designed to reward achievement at higher maths levels. This is partly to stop the talent drain where more able students chose the lower level course in an effort to outsmart the ATAR process.

There is also a major overhaul in the Sciences to redress the dilution of scientific and mathematical bases. Criticism of the outgoing courses in the Sciences revolved around having too much of an emphasis on social contexts, literacy and the historical aspects of the Sciences, in particular in Chemistry and Physics, leaving students poorly prepared for tertiary science study, which is more mathematically directed.

The same basic redress has occurred in English and History. In English, the common thematic studies of Journeys, Discovery and Belonging have made way for a renewed focus on text, language, writing and vocabulary.

History has reduced topic options and increased depth in order to outline the development of modern liberalism and democracies, with more emphasis on Asian and non-Western modules, as well as a continued focus on Aboriginal history.

NESA has provided updated advice on new courses via its website in order to avoid confusion with outgoing Year 12 students.

In following Staffroom posts I’ll look at changes in each of the major courses, so keep your eyes peeled.


Published on

November 27, 2018

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