The first exam, 2006
Long and hard. That would summarise the first level three examination in this year’s exam period. The volume of questions of explanation in the physics examination was such that I remember not one numerical answer; though one thing I did notice was that our supervisor stopped us twenty seconds early, while I was trying to figure out how to perfect an explanation of why laser beams from a diffraction grating are narrow, and just two minutes and fifty seconds after I had finished filling in the spaces for each question.
The waves paper, whose recommended time was 35 minutes (reduced from last year’s 40) took me 45 minutes to complete. This wasn’t worrying; I’d been in this position before and I knew I’d make up for it in mechanics. I made a confident prediction before the exam that there would be a standing wave on a string present, and I was right. The questions, as usual, were interesting; indeed, one of the things I like about physics exams is that the questions are always situational and require proper application of concepts, that don’t seem to be the same from year to year (unlike, say, chemistry).
This does not mean, though, that this year’s questions were easy. In all papers, there was a general tendency for first criterion questions, that is, explaining questions, to dominate, meaning that there was lots of writing and lots of thinking. The tactic of memorising answers from previous years does not work in physics; they have better things to test than things they tested last year (admittedly, I didn’t see the question on timbre coming and I had no idea how to fill up that half-page with an explanation beyond “the wave shapes are different”) and other ways to test it. Physical explanations in NCEA are a rather fussy business, and I spent a fair amount of time thinking about how to best approach explanations.
Mechanics was not so bad, though it took me longer than I expected (but still shorter than the recommended time); I remember little of that paper which is a good sign, because it means I wasn’t frustrated by it.
Particles was an absolute nightmare. How we’re supposed to know why things need to be heated to 100 million degrees Celsius (okay, granted, that’s probably something I was meant to know but didn’t) or why certain wavelengths of the sun’s light are missing (meh… ditto) is (I was going to say “beyond me” here but I guess that’d be a lie) probably known by some people, but not me. I managed to an excessively roundabout approach to one calculation before realising that there was a far easier way.
Electricity was interesting in the same way that waves was. I was somewhat amused by switch-bouncing being in it, as I’ve learnt about this in electronics technology and it was interesting to see it in another application. I didn’t say it was easy, just interesting. I ended up completely crossing out and rewriting my explanation of why the time constant of a resistor-capacitor-inductor-switch DC circuit needed to be very small. More pressing was the snubber circuit. By this time, I was running short on time and ended up skipping a question to come back to it. I don’t remember much of what I wrote, but I do remember that I had no idea what I was talking about and sort of wrote something that seemed reasonably logical and hoped for the best.
As they all say, one down, six to go. For me, what was meant to be a confident start on my strongest subject ended being a little bit frustrating. It didn’t help that I was starting to get somewhat dehydrated and drowsy through the exam; I am still unwell from three weeks ago and my four glasses of water before I left home wasn’t sufficient. My time, though, is to be spent far more productively on the following examinations, and I suppose that’s where my focus should lie.