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Last Saturday I did a morning session with high-school students who are preparing to sit the NZQA scholarship exam in physics later this year. This exam is aimed at the top students in any year group – with an aim of rewarding them and recognizing excellence.

The questions are certainly hard – and to do well a student needs to have both a broad and deep grasp of the physics he or she learns at school, AND the ability to apply it to situations they haven’t seen before. (If you’re interested, you can download  last year’s exam from here.) This latter attribute leads to some nasty-looking questions. The first part of approaching a question is therefore always working out what kind of physics applies and what the examiners are wanting you to show/explain/derive etc.

I’ve been through the feedback I got from students after Saturday’s event. The most common theme was asking me to provide free food, which is duly noted for next year, though whether my head of department will agree to it is another question. However, one of the physics-oriented comments was suggesting I spend less time on how to work out what the question is about, and more on details.  I’m sorry, but I shall answer no to this one, for the following reason.

The examiners’ reports over several years have emphasized that students have struggled to interpret the question. Without fail, it appears on the list of attributes demonstrated by unsuccessful students, year after year. Whereas, for the successful students, examiners routinely comment that the students are able to apply physics in novel situations.  And that’s part of what scholarship is about. It’s also part of what working with physics in a research career is about. Research isn’t about applying physics to text-book situations, rather, about using it in ways that haven’t been done before.

So, I make no apology for trying to help students to identify the key physics happening in different situations. It will stay in my scholarship-preparation presentation until such time that the examiners stop talking about it in their reports. 

Related to that is simply reading the question properly. That’s true for any exam – if you don’t answer the question that has been asked, then don’t expect to do well in it. It’s one of the biggest single cause of losing marks in exams, and so is probably the best single piece of advice I can give. It would be good to pay attention to it.