As students prepare for their exams, questions that only assessors can answer often pop into mind. Unfortunately, most students don’t have access to assessors in most of their subjects, so we took your questions and presented them to a senior VCAA assessor who has extensive experience in marking the VCE exams that you will soon sit. Here are his/her answers.

We hope that your exam preparations are going well.


The study design mentions the “role of cortisol” do we have to know in detail the HPA axis?

Teachers, including myself, often teach about the HPA axis as it contains an explanation of how the process of releasing stress hormones takes place. However the HPA axis is not mentioned on the study design and therefore should not be specifically asked about on the VCAA exam.

With reference to the 10 marker at the end of the exam, is it best to be clear, precise and concise or to write down as much relevant information in regards to area of study the question is asking you about. In my SAC’s, I tend to write down relevant information, but my teacher always tells me to define everything I add in. Do I have to do that?

The simplest response (which applies to any question) is to answer the question (rather than just writing everything you know). Be clear about the task you are given. For example, in 2018, the task was to write a “detailed analysis” and in 2017 students were asked to write a “detailed and clearly organised set of notes”. There should be enough information in the prompt to give you an idea of the structure for the extended response. Use this as your “plan” as you would any normal essay. Make sure you use relevant psychological concepts and language to display your understanding and, most importantly, apply your response to the scenario that is provided in the prompt.

When questions ask how will this work in this, is there always a mark allocated to providing the definition of that process or thing first? In some of the practice exams I have been doing there are but I’m not sure if this is what is expected.

Unless explicitly asked, do you need to define the key terms to get the mark?

Once again, the best advice I can give is to answer the question. Mostly it is implicit that you would need to demonstrate your understanding of a concept by defining it, but it is also highly likely that you will need to do so in the process of relating it to the prompt you are given. Generic definitions tend to attract very few (if any) marks. So, for example, on Question 1 of the 2018 VCAA exam, students needed to demonstrate their understanding of the lock-and-key process, but also apply it to the role of glutamate in neural transmission. Just providing a definition would not have been enough.

Do we need to know how to link the Different models of stress to key knowledges in other AOS’s

The VCAA exam can require you to make any relevant links between different parts of the study design. There have been very few short-answer questions about either the Transactional Model or the GAS model over the past two exams in this study design, so make sure you know these well!

For PART C, the extended response 10 marker, can we write in dot points and use subheadings?

I have heard that some teachers encourage their students to use dot points in the extended response. I strongly recommend that you don’t do this. The best responses are written in well-structured essay format. If the task is one that would be relevant to divide into separate sections, then it may be fine to use sub-headings, but generally this is not required.

How do we use abbreviations, if we write it in brackets once in the question can we just use the abbreviation later on?

There are a couple of principles to adhere to. Firstly, if an abbreviation is used on the study design (such as GABA, EEG etc.), you can use these abbreviations on the exam. Secondly, as an assessor, if we understand the abbreviation (such as UCS or STM), we will generally award marks if what you have written is accurate. But it is also a good principle to use a full term (as you’ve suggested) and then abbreviations thereafter.

Is it alright to write on the side and under the lines given?

The short answer is “yes”. Whatever you write will be included in the scans that are used by VCAA assessors. As a general principle though, if you run out of lines you have almost certainly written too much! Part of the process of writing excellent responses to exam questions is to be clear and precise.

How much time should I be spending on extended response and what do I need to do to get at least 8 out of 10?

How is the 10-mark question assessed and how can I go about answering it? Also how much time should be spent on it during the exam?

I would encourage you to structure your time on the exam at roughly 1 minute per mark. If you can be slightly quicker on the multiple-choice questions (perhaps about 45 minutes) that is also helpful. If you are disciplined in your use of time, you should get to the extended response in under 120 minutes. this would leave you 30 minutes, 20 of which can be spent on the extended response and the remainder having a quick proof-read. I don’t suggest you need to write any more than about 500-600 words to have a strong extended response. It’s all about the quality and relevance of your writing. The extended responses are marked differently to other questions in that they are marked holistically. I teach my students an approach called “What? Why? Apply?” Make sure you explain clearly what psychological concepts are relevant, why they are relevant, and continually apply these to the scenario or prompt you are given. If you can do this is a way that is relevant to the task, using psychological language and demonstrating a sound understanding of these concepts, you will do well.

How many practice exams should I be doing and what commercial exams would you suggest? e.g. Insight, TSSM, etc.

There are lots of exams on the market and I’m reluctant to recommend particular ones over others. They all have value in that they encourage you to practice applying psychological concepts to a range of different scenarios. None of them are perfect either, so don’t be too put off if you encounter errors or content that is different to what you’ve been taught. Just check these with your teacher. In summary, the more different exams you do (regardless of which ones they are), the better prepared you will be. Make sure that you mark them thoroughly or get someone to mark them for you to ensure that your answers are on track.

How long should I spend on the multiple-choice section?

I would generally encourage you to allocate about 1 minute per mark on the exam, with perhaps twice that (20 minutes) to the extended response. Having said that, if you work a little more quickly on the multiple-choice section (about 45 minutes or less), you can “buy some time” for other parts of the exam. The key message is to not spend too much time on any single question.

How do I prepare for my Unit 3 and Unit 4 psychology exam? Any past exam tips?

This is a pretty general question, and the response is dependent on how well you’ve consolidated your learning thus far. So let’s assume that each of the concepts have been well learned and that your task now is to prepare yourself as best as you can for the exam itself. The key is to do as many practice exams and exam questions under timed conditions as you can. If you are doing single exam questions, time them to allow one mark per minute. This is a useful thing to remember in short-answer questions. The number of marks allocated tells you two things. The first is how much time to spend on the question, and the second is how many separate pieces of information the assessors will be looking for. So when you are reading an exam question, you should also be asking the higher-order question “where are each of the marks likely to be allocated?”. As for general exam tips: Devote your reading time to carefully scanning the short-answer questions. In writing time, do the paper in the order presented (multiple-choice questions first). Read each question carefully so you respond to what it is actually asking (rather than what you think it is asking). Always relate your responses to the scenario or prompt given. Work efficiently and don’t spend too much time on any single question.

When is it appropriate to use dot points when answering a psychology exam question and when is it not?

It is almost never appropriate. Ignore the advice that some teachers give to use dot points in the extended response. Perhaps if you are listing some items (such as the five elements of observational learning) it might be useful to provide dot points, but generally you don’t need them.

Is there a specific manner in which a psychology short answer question must be answered? Is there a general structure that needs to be adhered to maximise marks?

The structure is determined by the question/prompt itself and the number of marks provided. If you ask yourself the question “Where are the marks likely to be allocated” when you’re responding to a short-answer question, you should be able to work out a relevant structure. To use Question 1 from the 2018 VCAA exam as an example, I would allocate each of the four marks to:

  1. Describing glutamate as an excitatory neurotransmitter that is released into the synapse, making it more likely that the post-synaptic neuron will fire
  2. In the lock-and-key process, glutamate acts as a “key”, with a particular molecular shape
  3. It seeks to bind with a receptor point on the post-synaptic neuron
  4. If the post synaptic neuron has a similar molecular shape, it is more likely to bind, acting as a “lock”.

Could you please re-explain why 2018 exam multiple choice question 36 is A, because it’s still unclear.

This question confused a few people! Remember that a double-blind procedure is one in which neither the experimenter nor the participants are aware of who is exposed to the IV. In this case the experimenter is effectively the research assistant (to ensure that no bias is involved). Because the researcher was not involved in the conduct of the study, this is a case in which they could know who was expose to the placebo. This is also one of those questions where the other responses are clearly incorrect, so ‘A’ is the only possible correct answer (but only because the researcher was not directly involved in the conduct of the experiment).

At which stage in Selye’s GAS are individuals likely to exhibit symptoms like sore throats and colds? Is it during resistance (given these are minor symptoms) or is it during exhaustion?

I actually think that symptoms like that can happen at any time, so I wouldn’t be using them as examples. It’s safest however to group any physiological signs of illness in the Exhaustion stage. I teach my students to link some of the symptoms of fight/flight/freeze with eventual outcomes if there is no relief from the stressor. Increased heart-rate over extended times increases the likelihood of heart disease or heart attacks. Increased muscle tension can eventually result in hypertension. Inhibited digestion over time may lead to stomach problems such as peptic ulcers. They are the sorts of psychosomatic illnesses associated with Exhaustion.

Out of free, serial and cued recall, which is the least sensitive measure of retention? (do I need to be that specific or can I just say recall is the least sensitive?)

I don’t think you’ll be asked to distinguish between different types of recall as far as sensitivity is concerned. But if you do, serial recall would be the least sensitive (because of the lack of access to a recency effect) and cued recall would be the most sensitive.

Regarding Alzheimer’s disease, do I need to mention Amyloid plagues and/or neurofibrillary tangles or just damage to the hippocampus?

Knowing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, why they occur and the effect on memory, is important. It’s reasonable to know that amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles are among those symptoms, caused by increased proteins in the brain that inhibit neural transmission associated with memory.

How much should we know about the structure and function of the brain that are not specifically on the study design? (frontal, temporal lobes and primary motor cortex and primary somatosensory cortex, for example).

You don’t need to know anything about these specific brain structures. They used to be on the Unit 3&4 Study Design so you’ll find them on previous exams, but this content has since moved to Units 1&2. You need to know the general function of the brain as part of the Central Nervous System, as well as the brain areas associated with memory such as the cerebellum, amygdala and hippocampus. The reference to the cerebral cortex in the study design is a very general one, referring to its role in storing explicit memories and implicit emotional memories. (Implicit procedural memories are both encoded and stored in the cerebellum).