Hints for studying physics

Get value out of lectures

Think of all the hours you spend in lectures. If you spend that time thinking "gee, I'll understand this later when I cram before the test", you are wasting your time. To get maximum value out of those hours, you must do enough preparation so that you can understand the lecture in real time. What sort of preparation?

  • Read one chapter ahead. You know the syllabus, you've got the lecture notes, you know what's coming. Perhaps you can do this on the bus, but in any case, make a regular slot for it. Modern text books are really very good and can even be interesting to read. Then, even if you don't understand when you've read it, you will be in a much better position to understand the lecture. The new vocabulary will no longer be unfamiliar, nor will the new ideas. (Yes, I know how expensive text books are, but I really doubt that you can get by without one. Get one second hand (in most ways, it doesn't even matter which one--they're all good and they all cover most of the syllabus.) How about sharing one? (You buy the physics book and your friend buys the maths book.) Or using the reserve copies in the library?

  • Make up a summary afterwards. Get an exercise book and summarise your notes, or the text book, in a way that makes sense to you. Go through the logic of the development. Don't just follow the algebra, ask why we took that step. Where were we going? What assumptions had we made?

    These summaries will be great for revision, and useful beyond that too: I occasionally still look up the old lecture summaries I made as a student. (For instance, apart from the odd t-test, I don't need statistics often in my work. When I do, if I can't remember some details, my old summary of "Stats IIa" is usually the first place I go.)

  • Learn stuff! Learn the definitions and the laws. Here is a simple example: when studying electricity, you must know the definition of electrical potential or voltage. What is it? (No, it's not IR. For certain gadgets called pure resistors, V=IR, but that's not the definition: if it were, Ohm's law would be a tautology.) The lecturer will have defined this and given some examples of its usefulness. Imagine now that you are in a subsequent lecture and the teacher uses the phrase "electrical potential". If you don't know what it means* (ie don't know its definition and don't have some familiarity with using it), then of course you won't understand a sentence in which it occurs. If the lecturer uses that phrase say 20 times in a lecture, each time building upon it, and if you don't know the meaning of electrical potential, then you can hardly expect to follow the lecture. Similarly, a lecture may say something like "using the law of Biot-Savart". For you to follow that step, you need to know what that law is, and some typical ways in which it is used.

    Okay, you chose physics just because it doesn't require much memorising of things. Not much, but some. It's not like learning Mandarin, for example, where you might have to learn hundreds of new words and phrases each week. But physics has a language, the lecturer is using it, and it is your job to know that language.

Get value out of tutorials

    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

    Tutorial problems are like parts of exam questions. Doing them is training or 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 give up easily. Don't give up until you've drawn a diagram and written down relevant laws, definitions and tried to devise a strategy for solving it. Don't give up until you've gone back to the relevant section of your notes and/or the text book.

  • At least sometimes, write answers in full as exam rehearsal. Because you won't get full marks for just a few equations and the answer. You must justify the assumptions required for the use of some principles. e.g., before you use the principle of conservation of momentum, you must establish that any external forces that act have negligible effect.

It's more fun in groups

  • Get a 'study buddy' and work on it together: working bees are more fun than solitary toil. If your friend can help you understand, great. If you help him/her, then that's even better: your understanding will be increased by the process of explaining it. (Trust me: as a teacher, I can assure you that explaining something helps me understand it!)

Some questions for you

  • When are you going to develop a professional attitude? Some time between school and when you graduate, you have to become professional. Someone upon whose answers we can rely. It's possible that people's lives will depend on your solving a problem well. This requires solid understanding.

  • When will you become professional? There is no subject called "Becoming a Professional PROF1000". At some stage, your attitude has to change. You decide when. Why not now?

    As a teacher, I remember students who weren't particularly gifted, but who were very well organised and methodical and who worked hard. They often did surprisingly well. Of course, if you are smart and organised, well the sky is the limit. Which brings us to the last question:

  • Do you want to be a 'scrape-through' graduate or a good graduate?

    Let me help you decide. A manager has on her desk a pile of 25 job applications from new graduates. She needs to make a short list of five to interview. She doesn't have much time. The ad has asked for their transcripts. She picks up the first one. "Adam Aardvark: First year: pass, credit, pass, credit, pass conceded, credit.... Sorry Adam, let's see who's next."

* And just in case: the electrical potential difference between points a and b is the work done per unit charge to move a small charge from a to b. Vab = Welec,ab/q. And a volt is a joule per coulomb. Write it down, concentrate, and revise it so you don't forget it.
Tips for doing physics tests.

A list of some of Joe Wolfe's educational web sites.

Joe Wolfe


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