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How to actually read the syllabus

By Lauren Condon on 13 November 2017Study tipsGeneralNSWblog

There are so many different ways to use the syllabus to study smart and be in the best possible position to smash the HSC. We raved on about those over and over in the past but what we also need to look at is how to actually read the syllabus.

Seriously, like we know you know how to read but the syllabus of each subject is pretty long, looks pretty boring and there are a few different parts to it.

Of course, the syllabus for each subject is going to look a bit different but there are a few key elements they all have in common like the: aim, objectives, course structure and course content. You can seriously just read the contents page of each one to see how they’re laid out. Here’s an example from the Extension History syllabus. It’s a bit of a random example but the contents page is pretty short and gives you a good idea of the other subjects (just imagine that under the ‘content’ point there were hundreds of subpoints).

Even if you’re a keen study bean, it’s pretty likely that you only ever jump straight to the course content and use the syllabus dot points to write notes, study or suss out practice questions. And yeah, that’s a really great approach but let’s actually break the whole syllabus down into three sections to see where the super useful gems of information lie and what’s just trash 🚮 .

1. The pre-content section of the syllabus

So this first section is everything up until the ‘content section’ and we can see from the Extension History example that it’s going to include:

  • Purpose of the HSC
  • Rationale of the subject
  • Continuum of learning
  • Aims
  • Objectives
  • Course structure

A lot of this section is super high level and sounds a bit like a year 12 English essay when the student is trying to sound fancy and impressive but you know… not actually saying anything?

🤔 🤔 🤔

Okay so it does actually contain some useful information like key themes that will keep cropping up in the subject and important subject keywords but you will also find these later on in the syllabus.

The key sections to read are the objectives and the course structure.

Otherwise, the whole thing is definitely worth a skim read if you hit a wall with a subject and need some perspective on what NESA really wants from you. But fair warning, you might find things like one of the aims of studying biology is to “develop positive attitudes towards the study of living things.” Like, it sounds nice but let’s be real, our goal for biology is probably more like ‘getting a Band 6’ 🎯.

2. The objectives, outcomes and content

So this middle section of the syllabus really is the big hitter and tends to be the most useful part of the whole thing. In fact, we have a whole post about how to use this section so feel free to get amongst that.

First, NESA sets out the objectives and outcomes of the course and this is probably the part that you’re most tempted to skip over and should seriously not skip over.

These are probably going to be set out in a table like this:

(From the Studies of Religion syllabus… if you couldn’t guess)

So the objectives were actually listed earlier in their own section and they are basically the big goals that are the whole point of the subject but they can sound a bit vague as a list. This table is always useful because it breaks them down into actual steps (called outcomes) for us like: describe the influence of religion and belief systems on individuals and societies.

Then we have our holy grail - the content.

So the content is arranged under each topic (which are all outlined in course structure earlier on) and is going to usually be split up into ‘students learn to’ and ‘students learn about’.

Some syllabuses do this in columns but some will just list them. These are the two sections you work through to create your notes but let’s just tackle a few specific tips for the whole objectives/outcomes/content section:

  • Under each topic of content, NESA lists the outcomes that are relevant to that topic and it’s seriously important to make sure that, once you’ve finished a topic, you can test yourself against those outcomes.
  • Don’t make the mistake of only writing notes from the ‘students learn about’ section. You’re going to have to work with both sections because the ‘students learn to’ section tends to give a bit more detail and actually tells you how you will be using the content.
  • Some syllabuses - like Geography - will also list all the skills that NESA wants you to be a pro at. You can use it like a bit of a checklist to suss out how prepared you are for different assessments and exams.
  • Even in the content section, the dot points can sometimes sound a little vague so your best bet is to write out the dot point in your own words to make it clear every time you come back to the syllabus.
  • If you’re still a bit confused by the whole relationship between outcomes, objectives and content then check out page 32 of the English syllabus because it’s broken down into a super clear table.

3. Aaaaand the rest of it.

Don’t skip the rest of the syllabus! We’re probably feeling 100% done by this point but some subjects have absolute gems at the end of their syllabus. So we usually have:

  • Course requirements
  • Assessment and reporting
  • Post-school opportunities

Most of this is more relevant for schools and teachers BUT if your subject has a major work or project then definitely check the course requirements. There will likely be awesomely detailed information about the specifics of that project that will make your life SO much easier.

The really cool news is that some syllabuses have extra sections at the end. Just like the scene after the credits of a marvel movie, you’re going to want to stick around for this. It varies between subjects but some examples are a glossary of definitions and a breakdown of the exact structure of the final HSC exam. Okay so maybe that’s not as exciting as I hyped it up but seriously at least skim read to the very end of the syllabus just in case you find something super useful 👍 .


So there you have it. A somewhat boring post about a mind numbingly boring document that is unfortunately, actually super useful. The main takeaways here are to look at the objectives and outcomes as well as just the content dot points to make sure you are covering all the content and actually covering it properly. Other than that, there are a few gems in the beginning and end so make sure you at least give it a skim read with a highlighter in hand. Have FUN.

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