The HSC Physics Syllabus Breakdown | Physics Study Guide Part 1

Here is the breakdown of the HSC Physics syllabus. Learn the 4 important elements from the Physics syllabus to gain an advantage over your peers.

What is the Year 12 Physics Syllabus?

The Year 12 Physics syllabus (referred to as Physics Stage 6 Syllabus by NESA) contains key information about the requirements in the Physics course.

The Physics syllabus is a large document and most students find it intimidating. I often find that students don’t read the syllabus until a few weeks before their HSC exam, upon discovering that the inquiry questions from the syllabus were used in their trial exams.

The Physics syllabus provides students with direction to better align their study efforts.

In this article, we discuss the most important and relevant elements of the Year 12 Physics syllabus:

Let’s discuss each syllabus element and gain a better understanding of what’s expected in the Physics course.

Having a clear understanding of the Year 12 Physics syllabus will give you the ability to anticipate your teacher’s intentions for assessments.


Course Structure and Requirements

What is ‘course structure and requirements’?

The course structure and requirements provide an outline of components of the course including:

  • A list of the modules with its indicative hours
  • Practical investigations requirements

The course structure for Year 11 and Year 12 Physics courses are shown below.

Year 11 Physics Course Structure

Physics Syllabus - Year 11 Physics Course Structure
Physics Syllabus: Year 11 Course Structure (Source: NESA Website)


Year 12 Physics Course Structure

Physics Syllabus - Year 12 Course Structure
Physics Syllabus: Year 12 Course Structure (Source: NESA Website)


Why is ‘course structure and requirements’ an important syllabus element?

Knowing the course structure and requirements provide students with the visibility and predictability for the Physics course. It gives you an idea of the order of modules taught as well as the emphasis placed on different parts of the course requirements.

For example, practical investigations are an important part of the course requirement. The syllabus states:

Practical investigations are an essential part of the Year 11 & 12 course and must occupy a minimum of 35 hours of course time, including time allocated to practical investigations in depth studies.


Course Content

What is ‘course content’?

The course content defines what students are expected to know and do as they work towards syllabus outcomes. It consists of:

  • Topic
  • Inquiry question
  • Students learn

A part of the Year 12 Physics course content on the topic ‘Projectile Motion’ from Module 5 illustrates this structure.

Topic: Projectile Motion

Inquiry question: How can models that are used to explain projectile motion be used to analyse and make predictions?


  • analyse the motion of projectiles by resolving the motion into horizontal and vertical components, making the following assumptions:
    • a constant vertical acceleration due to gravity
    • zero air resistance
  • apply the modelling of projectile motion to quantitatively derive the relationships between the following variables :
    • initial velocity
    • launch angle
    • maximum height
    • time of flight
    • final velocity
    • launch height
    • horizontal range of the projectile
  • conduct a practical investigation to collect primary data in order to validate the relationships derived above.
  • solve problems, create models and make quantitative predictions by applying the equations of motion relationships for uniformly accelerated and constant rectilinear motion

You should take the time to read the entire Physics course content.


Why is ‘course content’ an important Physics syllabus element?

The course content provides students with learning expectations in the HSC Physics Exam. It provides a rough framework for what questions will be asked.

Inquiry questions can be used as exam questions by teachers.

2019 HSC Physics Q22 shown below is derived from the following syllabus reference:

Module: The Nature of Light

Topic: Electromagnetic Spectrum

Inquiry question: What is light?

Students: Investigate how the spectra of stars can provide information on:

  • surface temperature
  • rotational and translational velocity
  • density
  • chemical composition
2019 HSC Physics Exam



Depth studies

What are ‘depth studies’?

A depth study is any type of investigation/activity that a student completes individually or collaboratively that allows the further development of one or more concepts found within or inspired by the syllabus. It may be one investigation/activity or a series of investigations/activities.

The requirements for depth studies are:

  • A minimum of 15 hours of in-class time is allocated in both Year 11 and Year 12.
  • At least one depth study must be included in both Year 11 and Year 12.
  • The two Working Scientifically outcomes of Questioning and Predicting, and Communicating must be addressed in both Year 11 and Year 12.
  • A minimum of two additional Working Scientifically skills outcomes, and further development of at least one Knowledge and Understanding outcome, are to be addressed in all depth studies.

Source: NESA Website: Physics Stage 6 Syllabus


Why are ‘depth studies’ an important Physics syllabus element?

All students must undertake a depth study as part of their Year 12 Physics course.

Most depth studies will be a practical investigation and will have a weighting of minimum 20% of your overall assessments.

Understanding the requirements for a depth study is critical to success in your assessments.

Read this article to learn how to write a depth study report.


Performance Band Descriptions

What are ‘performance band descriptions’?

Performance band descriptions provide a list of competencies that a student must demonstrate in order to qualify for a performance band:

  • Bands 1 – 6 for 2 unit courses such as English and Mathematics Advanced
  • E1 – E4 for Extension courses such as Maths Extension 1 and 2

They contain insightful competency descriptors regarding the knowledge, understanding and skills you are expected to demonstrate.

Band 6 Performance Description in Year 12 Physics course is outlined below.

  • demonstrates an extensive knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts, including complex and abstract ideas
  • communicates scientific understanding succinctly, logically, and consistently using correct and precise scientific terms and application of nomenclature in a variety of formats and wide range of contexts
  • designs and plans investigations to obtain accurate, reliable, valid and relevant primary and secondary data, evaluating risks, mitigating where applicable, and making modifications in response to new evidence
  • selects, processes, and interprets accurate, reliable, valid, and relevant qualitative and quantitative, primary or secondary data, and represents it using a range of scientific formats to derive trends, show patterns and relationships, explain phenomena, and make predictions
  • designs solutions to scientific problems, questions, or hypotheses using selected accurate, reliable, valid, and relevant primary and secondary data, and scientific evidence, by applying processes, modelling and formats
  • applies knowledge and information to unfamiliar situations to propose comprehensive solutions or explanations for scientific issues or scenarios

Source: NESA Website: Physics Stage 6 Syllabus


Why are ‘performance band descriptions’ an important Physics syllabus element?

Performance band descriptions provide students with clarity on the depth of knowledge and understanding as well as other skills required to quality for different performance band.

To determine your performance band, you’ll be assessed on all of the competencies during the course.

For example, one of the band 6 performance requirements are that you must demonstrate extensive (not thorough which is Band 5) knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts.


How You Can Apply the Physics Syllabus Breakdown

4 actionable tips that you can apply to your learning are outlined below.

#1. Talk to your teacher to find out the module order that you’ll learn at school in advance.

This will give you the visibility and predictability of the learning expectations in the Physics course. Despite the modules being numbered, some schools are teaching the physics in a different order. For example some schools start the Year 12 Physics course with module 6 Electromagnetism rather than module 5 Advanced Mechanics.

If you have a research task on a topic/module you haven’t learned at school, you’ll find Learnable very useful resource for this purpose as each topic is covered thoroughly.


#2. Familiarise yourself with the scientific method. Know the skills required for planning and conducting practical investigations.

Practical investigations are compulsory and weigh up tp 60% of your overall school assessment mark. To ace your practical assessments, it is critical that you are highly competent in demonstrating the scientific skills required for planning and conducting practical investigations.

Read this article to learn how to plan and conduct practical investigations.


#3. Use the course content to identify your knowledge gaps.

Course content is a useful reference for checking your depth of knowledge. You can use a table like the one below as a checklist to identify knowledge gaps for each topic. The ratings for your depth of knowledge can be:

  • Highly competent
  • Competent
  • Needs improvement
  • Developing

Topic: Circular Motion

SyllabusDetailDepth of Knowledge
Inquiry questionWhy do objects move in circles?Competent
Students:Conduct investigations to explain and evaluate, for objects executing uniform circular motion, the relationships that exist between:

  • centripetal force
  • mass
  • speed
  • radius
Students:Analyse the forces acting on an object executing uniform circular motion in a variety of situations, for example:

  • cars moving around horizontal circular bends
  • a mass on a string
  • objects on banked tracks
Needs improvement
Students:Investigate the relationship between the total energy and work done on an object executing uniform circular motionDeveloping


Any syllabus reference points with a qualitative rating of needs improvement or developing are classified as knowledge gaps and will require additional work.


#4. Use band 6 performance descriptions to assess your exam readiness.

Use band 6 performance descriptions as a litmus test to assess your exam-readiness.

For example,

  • Can you demonstrate an extensive knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts?
  • Can you communicate your understanding logically, sequentially and succinctly using the correct scientific terms?


What Next?

Read this article to learn how to apply the scientific method to design, conduct, and analyse any Physics practical investigation.


Written by DJ Kim

DJ is the founder of Learnable and has a passionate interest in education and technology. He is also the author of Physics resources on Learnable.

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