Chapter 13: OES Exams

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the role of examinations as part of the VCE OES course
  • Explain the structure of the externally set VCAA exam
  • Analyse the type of questions used in VCE OES exams
  • Evaluate strategies to help prepare students for internal and external examinations, including the extended response



13.1 Exams in VCE OES

This chapter explores the current use of exams in the VCE OES curriculum, including strategies to assist you as a teacher in helping your students prepare for their exams. The role and place of examinations in VCE OES include: externally set examinations at the end of units 3 and 4; other school-set exams in units 1, 2 and 3; and preparation tasks that teachers embedded throughout the course. The inclusion of the externally set examination is largely due to the system of ‘statistical moderation’ processes that Victoria uses to derive overall study and tertiary entry scores (Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, n.d.). This chapter explores the current use of exams in the VCE OES curriculum, including strategies to assist you as a teacher in helping your students prepare for their exams.

The impact of using examinations to determine student achievement has been widely critiqued in literature. For example, Cairns (2021), examined how VCE examinations disproportionately impacted History classrooms and shifted the focus from the overall learning and teaching of the subject to the ultimate examination of it. Although due importance to the preparation for examinations is important, this must be balanced with the overall teaching of the course and should not become the only purpose of the VCE OES curriculum. Two claims are worth noting to back this point. First, the latest VCE OES curriculum has moved away from structured questions as a school-assessed coursework (SAC) task within units 1-3 of the OVCE ES course (Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, 2023). This emphasises the need to accept different representations of key knowledge and key skills within VCE OES. Second, compared to other jurisdictions (interstate and overseas), Victoria’s senior secondary outdoor education course has a much greater emphasis on examinations (Ambrosy, 2021). To summarise, although the VCE OES exam is a pivotal component of the VCE OES course, a substantial component of a student’s overall study score is derived from it. A balanced approach to teaching and assessment should be taken throughout your program to ensure the student experience is not overly focused on examination results only.

It would be unusual for a school delivering the VCE not to have its own set of internally set and marked examinations. Typically, students will sit an exam at the end of units 1, 2 and 3. The school sets these exams, and are akin to other formative assessment tasks. These examinations are two-fold, to help prepare students for the end of unit 3 and 4 exams and assess students’ satisfactory/not-satisfactory (S/N) completion of the VCE OES course. If you use internally set exams to assess the S/N grade, it is important not to assign a numerical value that constitutes satisfactory results (e.g., 50%). Rather, students should be assessed based on their response to the individual KK/KS throughout the paper.

The use of commercial tasks is commonplace for internally set examinations. Although, as a teacher, it is ultimately your responsibility to ensure that all assessment tasks align with the curriculum, using commercial tasks that have been audited but not necessarily adjusted is acceptable as they are not used to derive a numeric score that contributes to a study score. Although the burden of uniqueness is lessened in internal examinations, you should still try to make the task ‘new’ to the students like you would within a SAC task.

The VCAA sets an external examination at the end of units 3 and 4. This written examination contributes 50% to a student’s overall study score in VCE OES. The examination is also used to statistically moderate the students’ school-assessed coursework tasks to ensure they have been marked fairly and consistently.


13.2 The Structure of VCE OES Exams

VCE OES exams typically follow a standard structure. They contain a series of short answer questions and an extended response. Multiple choice questions requiring comprehension of the KK/KS (name or recall style questions) are not used within VCE OES exams. Questions with multiple parts are common within the VCE OES exam, and these questions often assess students’ knowledge across multiple course outcomes. Likewise, the extended response will focus on multiple KK/KS and even multiple outcomes.

The externally set VCE OES exam will adhere to current specifications published by the VCAA. The externally set examination typically consists of short answer questions with multiple parts and an extended response. The total marks and time allocation are published in the specifications. You should check the specifications each year and prepare your students accordingly so they are aware of the structure of the exam.

Activity 13.1 – Current Examination Specifications

  • Locate a copy of the current examination specifications on the VCAA VCE OES webpage
  • Locate a copy of either last year’s exam or the sample exam prepared by the VCAA
  • Read the exam specifications alongside the exam and answer the following questions
    • What types of questions are common in the VCE OES exam?
    • What types of questions might require additional preparation by students?


13.3 Preparing Students for Exams

As a VCE OES teacher, it is imperative that you adequately prepare your students to undertake written examinations. As discussed above, this preparation should be done holistically and not overshadow the general teaching and learning within the VCE OES course. The following are examples of strategies that can be used to help your students prepare for their exams.

Managing Time

Students in the VCE OES exam normally have 120 minutes to respond to 90 marks worth of questions. Additionally, students will need some time for planning responses, a toilet/handwriting/drink break, reviewing the paper at the end and adding additional information as required. Thus, students must be prepared to answer their exam at approximately a ratio—1 mark: 1 minute of writing time. To help students write at this pace, you should use a timer when your students undertake practice responses during class time. To help them work toward the 1 mark: 1-minute writing ratio, the following times can be used when completing practice questions:

Unit Mark: Minute
1 1 mark: 2 minutes
2 1 mark: 1 minute and 30 seconds
3 1 mark: 1 minute and 15 seconds
4 1 mark: 1 minute

Table 13.1 – Adjusted times for practice questions across units 1-4.

Unpacking Examiners Reports

The VCAA publishes an examiner’s report each year that unpacks how questions from the previous year’s examinations have been answered. This report gives a high-level overview of the examination process and a question-by-question breakdown. As a teacher, the high-level overview is imperative for you to read, reflect upon and act within your VCE OES teaching. The question-by-question breakdown is useful for both teachers and students.

For each question, the report provides:

  • The distribution of student marks for the question.
  • A qualitative description of how the question was responded to and any common errors observed.
  • A sample of a high-scoring student’s response for each question.

Case Study 13.1 – A Sequence of Learning to Unpack the Examiners’ Reports

A possible sequence for unpacking a question(s) from the examiners’ report is as follows:

    1. Select a question from a past VCAA exam and have the students attempt it within a set timeframe.
    2. Discuss the following prompts as a class:
      • What was the question asking?
      • What key knowledge was being examined?
      • What key skill is being assessed?
      • What type of language is needed based on the key skill?
      • What outdoor environment that we have studied would you use to answer this question?
    3. Read the examiners report as a class and focus on:
      • Where marks would be allocated for the question.
      • Common mistakes to avoid.
      • The strategies used and the strength of the sample response.
    4. In pairs, have students mark their own, and then each other’s work. While marking, have students offer suggestions to improve their and their peers’ work.
    5. Discuss, as a class, the suggestions offered to improve their own and others’ work.

DIY Questions

Having students develop their own exam-style questions can help them understand how various KK/KS might be assessed in an VCE OES exam. This can happen using one of two strategies.

Case Study 13.2 – DIY Questions

Strategy 1: From KK/KS

  1. Assign students in groups of three a KK/KS from the outcome you are studying.
  2. Have students work as a group to develop.
    • A multiple part question that aligns to the KK/KS assigned.
    • A marking break down for each question.
    • A sample high-scoring student response to their question.
  1. Have two groups work together to peer review the question/marking scheme/response.
  2. Based on the peer review feedback, have students refine their work.
  3. Collect, edit and collate the students’ questions into a practice task.
  4. Set the student-developed questions as a revision task.

Strategy 2: From a sample response

  1. Students are given a sample response to an identified KK/KS.
    • The following response relates to 3.1.1
    • Biological isolation has helped shape the fauna of many Australian outdoor environments. For example, the Koala population that is found on French Island. Thousands of years ago, the ancient ancestors of Koalas were ground-dwelling marsupials that fed on the abundant flora of the time due to a much wetter climate and more vegetation. As Australia dried out, Koalas filled a feeding niche by climbing trees and eating eucalyptus leaves. This has resulted in Koalas having very small brains, despite their heads being the size of humans.
    • Have students develop a possible question and a marking break down based on the provided answer.
    • Question: Explain how fauna was influenced by a characteristic of Australian outdoor environments before humans arrived using an example from an outdoor environment you have visited or studied (3 marks)
    • Marking break down:
      • 2 marks are awarded for explaining how an example of fauna was influenced by biological isolation, geological stability and climatic variations before human arrival.
      • 1 mark for a specific example of fauna from an outdoor environment visited or studied.

13.4 Extended Responses

The extended response is a prominent feature of VCE OES exams, both internally set and those run by the VCAA. Extended response questions have a significant mark allocation (circa 15% of total paper marks). Accordingly, students who do not attempt or are not adequately prepared to undertake these questions are unlikely to do well in their exams. Thus, it is imperative to the success of your VCE OES students when completing both school-set and externally set examinations that you spend time preparing your students to undertake these tasks.

This section aims to help you better understand the types of extended responses that could be used for VCE OES and introduce strategies to help you develop your students’ abilities to complete these tasks.

Understanding the Extended Response

The extended response assesses a student’s ability to respond to a selected number of key knowledge and key skills drawn from across the curriculum. Such responses can come in many forms, for example, asking students to write a report, develop a timeline, or discuss a broader issue. Students may need to respond to stimulus material or other prompts within the VCE OES extended response. An extended response in VCE OES will often set students a meta task (write a report, etc.) and provide them with a series of prompts they should include as part of their response. Extended responses can be marked using either a holistic marking scheme or a marking guide; these are normally formatted in the same way as discussed in Chapter 12 (see 12.3). The below case study demonstrates the style of question that could be included in as an VCE OES extended response.

Case Study 13.3 – Sample Extended Response Question

Question 10 (15 marks)

Outdoor environments in Victoria vary from those with minimal human interaction to those significantly impacted since the arrival of humans. All environments have been impacted to a degree since the arrival of Australia’s first people thousands of years ago.

You are required to construct a timeline of events that details how two outdoor environments you have visited or studied have been and could be impacted by changing human relationships now and into the future.

In your timeline:

  • describe the changing relationship with one of your outdoor environments held by a specific Indigenous peoples’ community before and after European Colonisation
  • compare Indigenous peoples’ custodianship of one of your outdoor environments with another relationship with your outdoor environment during the last decade
  • describe how one Indigenous people’s and one non-indigenous people’s management strategy could be used to manage the health of both of your outdoor environments
  • propose how changing an act or convention could help manage both outdoor environments’ ongoing sustainability.

Strategies for Answering the Extended Response

When teaching students about the extended response, there are several strategies that you can teach them to help them be successful in their exams.

Planning for the Extended Response

Clear and concise writing skills are essential to demonstrate the achievement of learning outcomes. In the case of an exam, students who write clear and well-structured responses can better convey their knowledge of the key skills being assessed. In particular, through a planning phase, a student can ensure that their response addresses all components of the question. Planning the extended response can be a good strategy for students to employ in the last part of the reading time. The following checklist can be used to help plan an extended response.

  1. Read and re-read the question.
  2. What KK/KS is the question asking about?
  3. Where are the marks distributed?
  4. Is there a stimulus? How will you respond to it?
  5. What outdoor environment(s) will you base your response on?
  6. What key examples (names, dates, places) will you use in your response?


Activity 13.2 – Planning an Extended Response

  • Use the above planning checklist to make a mental plan for the extended response above (case study 13.3). You should do this in your head as if you are a student completing this at the end of reading time.
  • Based on your mental planning, jot down 4-5 dot points to help you remember your plan.
  • Write out a response to the above using your plan.
  • Reflect on how your plan helped you structure your response.



13.5 Strategies of High-Scoring VCE OES Students

Students who write high-scoring responses in their VCE OES exams commonly use the following strategies. These strategies can be used in both the extended response questions and in other VCE OES exam questions.

Signposting and Subheadings

Signposting and subheadings help students demonstrate how their longer responses address different parts of the required criteria. Signposting is the process of underlining key terms or components of an answer to demonstrate their importance. Students should be taught to use a ruled line under certain words. Although signposting can be an effective strategy, a less is more approach should be used to avoid overcrowding the page. Subheadings help break up a longer task. Again, these should be used sparingly and to signal to the person marking the paper where certain components of a response are.


Most students handwrite exams, other than those deemed to require an adjustment to use a computer. To ensure that a response is examinable, students should pay attention to the legibility of their response. To help students write legible responses, they should experiment with different pens and find a type that suits their handwriting. In addition, students should be coached to use sufficient space between words to not overcrowd the page. Additional pages at the rear of the exam book or additional booklets should be used for students with larger fonts or additional ideas to respond to. Students must ensure all responses are clearly labelled when using additional pages and booklets.


Students should be taught to re-read their responses and ensure all criteria have been addressed. When re-reading, they may want to use the expanded dot points of inclusions as a checklist to ensure all KK/KS in the question have been responded to. Students can add further details during this time or re-write if time permits and they are not happy with parts of a response.

Reflection questions

  • Where are exams used as part of the VCE OES curriculum?
  • How do exams constitute to a student’s marks and overall completion of the course?
  • How is the VCAA exam structured? What types of questions does it contain?
  • What strategies can you use to help students prepare for internal an external exams?
  • Which strategies would be the most effective and why?


Ambrosy, J. (2021). Benchmarking Report: Senior Secondary Outdoor and Environmental Studies 2022. Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

Cairns, R. (2021). Exams tested by Covid-19: An opportunity to rethink standardized senior secondary examinations. PROSPECTS, 51(1), 331-345.

Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. (2023). Outdoor and Environmental Studies – Study Design.

Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. (n.d.). Statistical Moderation.



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A Teachers Guide to Outdoor Education Curriculum: Victorian Edition Copyright © 2023 by Federation University and Australian Catholic University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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