Student Guide

Professor Richard Newbury talks to Hugo Hesse, who will study Advanced Physics as part of his Science/Commerce combined degree.

We wish you a warm welcome to the School of Physics. Please read through this guide, it contains important information about your first year Physics course.

To locate the Physics course appropriate to your main area of study check the Summary of Courses.



Where to Go in Week 1 of Session 1

The first week of Session is exciting - but it can be a confusing time, until you find your way around and settle into a routine.

Physics is housed in the Old Main Building (just South of the Red Centre) and the adjoining Newton Building (East of the Oval). There are maps showing the layout of the School.

In Week 1 of Session you will have lectures. Problem Solving Classes and laboratory classes start in Week 2.

For Lectures: find the time and location of your lecture in the course pages. Most first year physics lectures are in the Physics Theatre, Old Main Building, or in the Burrows Theatre.

For Problem Solving Classes: please go to the room assigned for the time given on your timetable in Weeks 2-12.

For Laboratory: in the second week of Session you should go to the Main Laboratory, Room 01 on the Lower Ground Floor of the Old Main Building, at the time given on your timetable. If you have no lab time contact First Year Office, LG03, Old Main Building before start of session. You must complete the safety test on blackboard before your first laboratory session.

If all else fails, come to the First Year Office, LG03, Lower Ground Floor, Old Main Building for directions.

What We Expect You to Do

Your formal class time in Physics each week of Session is a combination of lectures (normally 3 x 1 hour lectures), problem solving classes (a 1 x 1 hour) and for most courses, a 1 x 2 hour laboratory class for each of the 12 weeks. You also need to complete a number of online quizzes.

In the Summer Session: 4 x 1 hour lectures, 2 x 1 hour class problem solving classes and 1 x 3 hour laboratory class for each of the 8 weeks. You are expected to attend all formal classes in Summer Session.

You should plan to spend a minimum of another 6 hours per week outside formal class times in effective work on Physics. This will include work on reviewing lecture material, solving homework problems, and preliminary work for your laboratory learning program.

o Lectures

To derive full benefit from lecture classes you should prepare well before each of them. Use your syllabus (can be downloaded from Blackboard) to find out what material is about to be covered, and study the corresponding sections in the textbook before or soon after the lecturer discusses each topic. There is no need for you to write down everything your lecturer puts on the screen: you can consult a text for details and derivations. It's more important to listen and to understand. Taking brief notes will help.

What You Need to Do

o Problem Solving Classes

The homewok problems booklet contains all the problem sets together with the timetable. Each problem set relates to the topics, basic physical concepts and the ideas presented in lecture classes. It includes:

  • a list of these topics, basic concepts and ideas
  • references to the sections of your text which deal with them
  • questions to think about
  • problems to attempt to solve (with numerical answers given)

Well before your problem solving class the following week you should work through the indicated sections of your text and any supplementary notes you took in lectures. Summarise the main points, all important laws, definitions and relationships.

o Laboratory

The laboratory work in your course provides several important opportunities: you will have a chance to appreciate the experimental aspects of Physics by conducting hands-on investigations, to learn teamwork, to put the theory work you learn in lectures to work, and earn valuable marks towards your final grade. Most importantly, you will learn how to design investigations, to make careful measurements and to analyse them. These are vital skills in technical and scientific careers.

To earn these marks you are expected to

o prepare for each laboratory period beforehand by reviewing relevant theory. There are also videos you can watch which describe each laboratory.
o complete any preliminary work required.
o attend each of the laboratory periods throughout Session and participate fully in the experiments.

Failure to attend a laboratory Session will automatically score 0 (zero) marks for that week's lab. You need to attend all laboratory sessions to pass the course.

Managing Your Study Program

In first year University Physics, compared to HSC, you will find that the material is presented at a faster rate, and the depth of understanding you are expected to develop is greater. You will be expected to manage your own program of study with less direction and help.

Given the above, time management becomes critical, particularly if you have to spend considerable time each day travelling to and from campus, work part-time, or "get behind" for some reason. We urge you to start working from week 1, and to work to set goals following an appropriate study schedule.

Your aim must be to employ those methods which are both efficient and effective in helping you to develop understanding of the basic concepts and an ability to apply these in "problem solving" situations.

Course Availability

o In some programs, e.g. Science, Electrical, Computer, Telecommunications Engineering and the Photovoltaics/Solar Energy plans, students are required to achieve a pass in two consecutive Physics courses. The courses concerned here are:

  • Physics 1A and Physics 1B
  • Higher Physics 1A and Higher Physics 1B

1A and 1B form companion courses, covering a broad range of material in depth. Both Physics 1A, 1B and Higher Physics 1A,1B are available in consecutive session pairs, i.e. Session 1 + Session 2 or Session 2 + Summer Session.

o The introductory level course PHYS1111 Fundamentals of Physics is available in either Session 1 or Session 2 - students with little or no high school physics may need to enrol in PHYS1111 prior to studying the 1A/1B physics courses.

o Please note that many of the other physics courses are only available once (i.e. they are not repeated in a given academic year) in either Session 1 or Session 2 - for further details of course availability please see the individual course pages.

Choosing Your First Year Physics Course

The School of Physics runs several different courses at First Year level. These are summarised in the "Summary of Courses" link on the menu bar. We expand on these comments below.

A "Physics Bridging Course" is run over the summer session, prior to the start of the main university year. It provides a revision of the HSC syllabus in the areas of mechanics, electrostatics and electric circuits for those who feel that their preparation may not be adequate. It is not suitable as a first course in Physics, however.

The "Fundamentals of Physics" course (PHYS1111) is designed for Life Science students. It also serves as an introduction to physics for those who have not studied the subject before. The approach is algebra based, and does not involve calculus. This course is also taken by Aviation students.

Physics 1A/1B (PHYS1121/1221) and Higher Physics 1A/1B (PHYS1131/1231) are the main courses studied by most students taking the subject. They provide an all-round introduction to physics. They are each single session courses, with Physics 1A taken before Physics 1B. The approach is calculus based.

If your degree program requires you to take Physics 1A and you have not previously studied physics, it is worth your considering taking the Fundamentals of Physics course first. Physics is a challenging subject, and if you have not met the subject before you are likely to struggle with the Physics 1A course unless you undertake some prior study. This is best accomplished through the Fundamentals of Physics course the semester before you tackle Physics 1A. You might also attempt the Physics Bridging course in the summer session, however this is focussed on providing a revision on parts of the HSC syllabus, and not as the first physics course you study.

We also run an "Energy and Environmental Physics" course (PHYS1211). This is designed for environmental science students. It is also suitable for those looking to take a physics elective subject. It provides an introduction to how physics may be used to understand environmental issues, for instance some of the science relevant to alternative energy to combat global warming.

There are two special courses for Aviation students, PHYS1149 and PHYS1211. PHYS1149 is equivalent to the Fundamentals of Physics course.

'Astronomy and the Search for Life Elsewhere' PHYS1160, is an online-only course. It provides a non-mathamatical introduction to astronomy.

o Physics or Higher Physics?

The Physics 1A / Higher Physics 1A (and 1B) are taught with the same lectures. However, the assessment exercises for Higher Physics 1A/1B are more advanced than for the Physics 1A/1B course. Also, students in Higher Physics are generally kept together in the same problem solving and laboratory classes.

Most degree programs will specify whether you need to take the Higher Physics course. If not, you are free to choose. For instance, Advanced Science students should be taking the Higher course, as well as Electrical, Telecommunication, Renewable Energy and Photovoltaic Engineers. Many Double Degree students will also want to take the Higher Physics courses. You should check with your Program Authority if you are unsure of the requirements for your degree program.

In general, we encourage all students to take the Higher Physics 1A/1B courses if they have the choice. However, if you feel your physics is weak, or your background has not been adequate, you might want to take the Physics 1A/1B courses. You will not be able to obtain a higher grade by taking the Physics course over the Higher Physics course, however, as allowance is made for the extra difficulty in the Higher course. Your education will benefit by your tackling the Higher level course.

Academic honesty and plagiarism

What is Plagiarism?
Plagiarism is the presentation of the thoughts or work of another as one's own.* Examples include:

  • direct duplication of the thoughts or work of another, including by copying material, ideas or concepts from a book, article, report or other written document (whether published or unpublished), composition, artwork, design, drawing, circuitry, computer program or software, web site, Internet, other electronic resource, or another person's assignment without appropriate acknowledgement;
  • paraphrasing another person's work with very minor changes keeping the meaning, form and/or progression of ideas of the original;
  • piecing together sections of the work of others into a new whole;
  • presenting an assessment item as independent work when it has been produced in whole or part in collusion with other people, for example, another student or a tutor; and
  • claiming credit for a proportion of work contributed to a group assessment item that is greater than that actually contributed.†

For the purposes of this policy, submitting an assessment item that has already been submitted for academic credit elsewhere may be considered plagiarism.

Knowingly permitting your work to be copied by another student may also be considered to be plagiarism.

Note that an assessment item produced in oral, not written, form, or involving live presentation, may similarly contain plagiarised material.

The inclusion of the thoughts or work of another with attribution appropriate to the academic discipline does not amount to plagiarism.

The Learning Centre also provides substantial educational written materials, workshops, and problem solving classes to aid students, for example, in:

  • correct referencing practices;
  • paraphrasing, summarising, essay writing, and time management;
  • appropriate use of, and attribution for, a range of materials including text, images, formulae and concepts.

Individual assistance is available on request from The Learning Centre.

Students are also reminded that careful time management is an important part of study and one of the identified causes of plagiarism is poor time management. Students should allow sufficient time for research, drafting, and the proper referencing of sources in preparing all assessment items.

* Based on that proposed to the University of Newcastle by the St James Ethics Centre. Used with kind permission from the University of Newcastle
† Adapted with kind permission from the University of Melbourne.

Further information on plagiarism may be found at:

Guidelines and suggestions for study in physics

You're studying so that you will become a professional: someone who is organised, capable, reliable and who gets the job done. Why not start by applying a professional attitude to your study? Those who do well in exams are not always the brightest students: often they are the students who have taken a professional attitude to the problem of study. Here are some suggestions.

  • Prepare sufficiently so that you understand the lecture in real time. There's little point sitting in a lecture being confused and making notes that you hope you will understand later. Try reading ahead. You know the order of the syllabus, so you can read the relevant chapter of your text book before the lecture: you'll be surprised at how much benefit you get from a couple of hours of painless reading each week. The technical terms will not be new in the lecture, and you will have already read the material, in someone else's words, at your own pace. (The text is big and awkward to read in the train. Perhaps it is worth photocopying a chapter so you can hold it in one hand?)

  • Really concentrate in lectures. If you have down loaded lecture notes beforehand, it's easy to think that you 'have' all the information. But buying a textbook doesn't mean that you have understood the subject. Listen carefully, and make your own notes, too. Forcing yourself to make notes means that you have to think what you will note down, and helps keep you awake and focussed.

  • Consolidate afterwards. Did you understand it? If parts were unclear, go back to the textbook and read carefully. You might also read the whole chapter from the text after your lecture - it ought to make more sense this reading. If you think you did understand, then you should be able to do the homework problems. So do them soon after the relevant lecture (more about this below).

  • Make a summary. A very useful way of consolidating is to make a summary of what you have learned. Revise as you go and beat the end of session rush! At each stage, check that you understand the material. It's not enough to understand why one step follows from the preceding one: you must understand the strategy of the development. This summary will of course be of great use in doing the homework problems and when you come to end-of-session revision. And perhaps beyond: the author of this document has on his shelf a row of exercise books - the summaries he made of his undergraduate courses. Further, in areas that he doesn't use regularly, such as statistics, he still consults them occasionally.

  • Follow tips and links. The lecturer may suggest observations that you can make outside the lecture, or even little experiments that you can do yourself. So do it: relating the material to the world outside and your own observations will make the material more real.

    Physics is about the world. Most of the material in the first year syllabus has applications that you can see all around you. Your trip to uni in the morning is full of mechanics experiments, usually involving electric, magnetic and thermal effects. Almost everything you see or hear can be an experiment in waves. The air you breathe and the water you drink are fluid experiments, everything you touch is a combination of mechanics and materials science. You're already living physics - why not be conscious of it?

    If your lecturer suggests web sites (there may be links on your course home page), then have a look.
Problem Solving Classes and practice.
  • Homework problems are where you learn. Many physics courses are primarily courses in problem solving. The laws and concepts are relatively easy: it is applying them to solve problems that is tricky. And that is what is often examined.

    Homework problems are like parts of exam questions. Doing them is rehearsing for the exam. No, they are not completely similar to the problems you did in lectures: if they were you'd be able to copy what the lecturer did and you'd learn nothing. There will be some similarity, but the tut problems do require you to think for yourself. You should have an honest try at every problem. If you want more, there are lots more at the end of each chapter in the text.

    Don't ever give up before (i) drawing a diagram (including before and after parts for many types of question); (ii) writing the unknowns and the given information in physical or mathematical form; (iii) writing equations that describe aspects of the problem and/or laws and principles that apply to it; (iv) really thinking about it, asking what work you have done could be relevant and, if necessary, going to your notes or to the text. And if you give up, ask your tutor for help with that problem in class.

  • Try working in a team. Get a 'study buddy', or form a team for doing homework. Working together is more fun, and you'll be able to help each other. The one who does the helping benefits at least as much as the one who is helped, because explaining improves your understanding. (And you can complain about your lecturer, which might be therapeutic!)

  • Trial exam. Early in the session, do the 'feedback test' on the web. Look at the marking scheme to see how it is marked. Close to the test, do a few past papers, perhaps under simulated exam conditions.

    Make a study plan and stick to it.

    It is really important to do well in this subject. Make a plan for what you are going to do, commit to it and tell your parents and friends. Ask them to remind you if you seem to be getting back into old habits.

Hints for doing tests

The semester before

Too late for this? If so, do remember to make a list of 'new semester resolutions' so you won't get yourself into this mess next time!
  • Keep up to date with homework problem sets, and honestly have a go at each problem. It's not enough to watch the teacher or a classmate do it on the board: it always looks easier than when you try to do it yourself.
  • Do enough preparation so that you can understand the lectures in real time. Obvious, really: there's no point sitting in a lecture being confused and making notes that you hope will be clear later. Try reading the relevant chapter of your text bookbefore the lecture: you'll be surprised at how much benefit you get from a couple of hours of painless reading each week.

The week(s) before

  • Make a summary of your notes. At each stage, check that you understand the material. It's not enough to understand why one step follows from the preceding one: you must understand the strategy of the development.
  • Spread your revision out. Don't aim to have one huge burst. Smaller bursts will be more effective. Plus, what if you fell ill on the weekend planned for a big burst of revision?
  • Go back over your old homework problems. Have another go at any that you found particularly difficult.
  • Have a look at some past papers. Usually there will be some available on the home page for your subject.

The day before

  • Get 8 hours of good sleep. It may help to get a modest amount of extra exercise the day before so that you sleep well.
  • Last minute cramming is not nearly as useful as feeling well and awake.

The hour before

  • Keep calm and relaxed. But not too calm: you don't want to fall asleep! In fact a bit of nervousness may be good: it gets the blood flowing to your brain. The adrenalin that your body makes is a quite legal mood altering substance and, in modest doses, it can be quite helpful. (It's good to be aware that nervousness is not bad for you - so don't be worried if you are a nervous.)
  • Talk with your friends if you like, but don't spend time with people who are panicking. Don't associate with anyone who is likely to make you worried by discussing all of the difficult things ahead.
  • Some people think it helps to listen to calming music before an exam. The research on this appears a little controversial and I have no opinion on whether or not it works.
  • Don't spend this time trying to learn facts. If you didn't learn it during your study, the extra tiny fraction of time won't help nearly as much as having time to clear your mind.
  • Some people think that it is helpful to 'warm up' mentally, thinking through things that you know. I've never tried this, I prefer relaxing. Breathe deeply, tell yourself that you are well prepared, and that you will be able to do most of the questions on this paper (all of which should be true).
  • Go for a short walk if you are feeling jittery.

Reading time

  • Read the questions slowly and decide which are the easy ones. Only rarely are exam questions ordered from easy to hard. It is important to start with the easy questions: first, you want to make sure that you get all of the easy marks that are going and second, doing the easy ones first will improve your confidence. Finally, if you have read the difficult questions during the perusal time, your subconscious will have been working on them while your conscious mind was busy.

  • Don't get hassled if some of the questions look, at first, completely insoluble: ideas may well come to you while you are working on other questions. When you finally have to face the difficult questions, remember that something that you have learned will help you answer this question. What part (or parts) of the syllabus is relevant here? What principles from that section might help? Which laws might apply? Do the relevant conditions for those laws hold for any part of the problem?

  • Finally, there may well be one question, or one part of a question, that really is difficult: it's been put there to sort out the Distinctions from the High Distinctions. Maybe you'll be able to do it, maybe not. But there won't be a lot of questions like that.

Doing questions

This varies from one subject to another, and this document was written by a physicist.
In physics problems, it is very often helpful to draw a diagram, indicating the important effects. For many problems in physics, it is helpful to draw a sketch for 'before' and 'after', or for several different times during a process. The educationalists say that drawing the diagrams involves the visual part of the brain, and the more of your brain working, the better. And maybe there's a mark going for a clear sketch.
  • What is relevant. Collect everything that you know about the problem. Translate the words into equations and diagrams. Are any laws applicable to parts of stages of the problem? For instance, if there is a stage during which no external forces act, you can state this and then state that momentum is conserved during this stage, and an equation representing that conservation. Then translate the question into symbols, even if it is just x = ? where x is the thing to be found.
  • Check dimensions. The units or dimensions of terms in an equation should be the same. If not, then your answer cannot possibly be right. Sometimes just getting the units right tells you the answer. Suppose you want the frequency of a pendulum. It involves the length of the pendulum L, the gravitational field strength g. Does it involve the mass? Let's see. Now a long pendulum is slow, so let's put L in the denominator. The stronger we make g, the faster it will swing, so let's put that in the numerator. The units g/L would be (m/s2)/m = s-2. The units we need are s-1. So let's try the square root of (g/L). We are nearly there, apart from a dimensionless factor. (In fact sqrt(g/L) is the angular frequency of the pendulum. Note that there is no room to fit in mass, because its units cannot cancel out. (The cyclic frequency is sqrt(g/L)/2*pi. See how close we came with only the units?)
  • Does your answer make sense? Imagine the process you have just analysed and ask: could the answer be as big or small as you have calculated? Is it reasonable? Does the sign of the answer make sense? If there are problems, try to find a mistake. Even if you cannot find a mistake, make a note letting the examiner know that you didn't really think that the runner was generating 3 nW, or that the current in the motor was 20 GA.

What to do if you're getting no-where? You have generated a page of algebra and are no closer to your answer - what to do? Having marked a few exams, I know what happens if you plough on ahead, getting more and more confused. I've often read three or four pages of such confusion and rarely find things worth marks.

What you should do in this situation is stop and assess. Cool down. (Perhaps even come back after looking at another question.) Have you a strategy for solving it? Have you even found enough equations for the number of variables? And if you can't think of a strategy to get you there, cut your losses and concentrate your efforts elsewhere.

© Joe Wolfe /

UNSW Student Administration

UNSW Student Central is your first point of call for administrative tasks you need to carry out while a student at UNSW. Many of the forms you need
will be found there. For instance, those needed to request course enrolment variation (e.g. withdrawing without failure), for claiming credit or advanced standing, and for special consideration due to illness or mis-adventure.

Please follow the following link to UNSW Student Administration to access this information.



Further Information


Contact Details

First Year Coordinator
Ms Ranjinie Balalla 

Mail Address

First Year Teaching Unit
School of Physics
The University of New South Wales

Email Address

Phone Number

61 2 9385 4976

Facsimile Number

61 2 9385 6060