NCEA secrets - some top tips from exam markers

It's been a tough week for 141,000 of the nation's secondary school students. NCEA exams started last Monday and although the biggies - English and mathematics - are out of the way, the stress continues in other subjects for another fortnight.

To pass an NCEA level, students must gain a certain number of credits across all subjects. So for those students who aren't convinced they've aced it so far, we offer tips for success, based on what markers said last year. We hope these hints make the difference between "achieved" and the dreaded "not achieved".

HISTORY

Don't try to rewrite history. Markers will know if you're making stuff up. Don't give general, vague answers - most questions require specifics, backed up by evidence. Plan essays and structure them properly. Make sure your paragraphs follow the basic structure of a key idea, followed by evidence.

CHEMISTRY

Don't use words that attribute human feelings to atoms (a common mistake). Be familiar with a wide range of practical experiments, and use correct terminology. Make sure equations are balanced, charges on ions are included, and answers have the correct number (usually three) of significant figures and unit.

SOCIAL STUDIES

Don't make up quotes or give your opinion. Use the planning pages provided. When asked to describe consequences for a society, don't talk about consequences for individuals. Use New Zealand situations - not the US civil rights movement, or apartheid in South Africa - as examples of biculturalism.

ECONOMICS

Don't write everything you know about a topic in the hope of getting more marks - give a concise answer. Learn to read, draw and label graphs correctly. Don't use the word "money" - use "income", "revenue" or "profit". Use the name of whatever outfit you're discussing, not vague terms like "us" or "them".

SCIENCE

Bring a calculator and ruler. Swot up on the basics - almost all examiners' comments last year were about a lack of knowledge. Many students made silly mistakes like confusing atoms with ions, or magma with lava.

BIOLOGY

Brush up on both the digestive system and skeletomuscular system, not just one or the other. Don't humanise answers or chemical reactions.

PHYSICS

Learn to draw ray diagrams accurately. Know which formula to use for each type of calculation, and don't mix up terms such as atoms and nuclei, or force and energy. Understand the concepts of displacement and gravity, and use correct terminology - last year this was a particular problem for students writing about electricity.

GEOGRAPHY

Read the whole exam before starting to answer. Prepare more than one case study, and choose wisely - choosing Antarctica makes it difficult to answer a question on soil and vegetation, for example. Give facts, not opinions or stereotypes, and make sure your information is current. Know how to reset your calculator because examination staff will clear its memory before the exam.

ALL EXAMS

Don't assume the structure of your exam will be the same as it was last year - check with your school.

Read each question carefully and make sure your answer actually addresses the question. Answer as many questions as you can. Follow instructions carefully and use any resource material or planning space you are provided. Use proper language, like "increases" rather than "goes up". Avoid colloquialisms. Write legibly. Don't just learn some answers off by heart and hope those questions come up - be flexible, plan for a range of different questions. Try to understand the subject rather than rote-learning parts of it.

SLIP OF THE PEN FROM STUDENTS

What not to write - bloopers from the 2008 NCEA exams Biology student on genes: "Cloning mammals such as guinea pigs is  easy, cheap and quick." Mathematics students: Tried to draw bell curves with rulers. Health students' suggestions for how to limit HIV: Give out a cream or  gel that stops HIV; kill people who have contracted HIV; separate those  with HIV from those who are "clean". Photo: Kevin Stent  0.0

WEBLINKS: Full assessment reports, showing common mistakes for  each NCEA subject, are available from www.nzqa.govt.nz. (Click  "find assessment materials" under the "Quicklinks" heading, then  search by subject and level.)

Sunday Star Times