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Study tips

         Here are some suggestions on how to study physics (as well as other sciences).  I'm not offering you a guaranteed "A" with these hints, but after many years of teaching (and gathering ideas from other teachers and students) I do think these hints will help.  Since each of us learns differently some of these ideas may not be great for you.  Also, if you feel comfortable with your current study habits, continue them- if it isn't broken, don’t fix it.
         I hope these suggestions help you understand the physics we will be studying and perhaps lower the stress level associated with many college courses.  I don’t mean for these hints to sound preachy, sorry if they do.  Also, many of these are general studying hints that might be applicable to other courses.  I know this list isn't complete.  For example, I don’t mention the all-important topic of time management.  If you have any other suggestions to add to this list, let me know so we can share them with your classmates!


General Guidance

  • Keep up with the course.  Do your best to not fall behind in reading and/ or homework as new material builds on previous material.  I know this is easier said than done as there will be some weeks where you will be busy with other class projects and papers, in addition to non-class activities.  I just urge you not to fool yourself into thinking that you can learn a unit’s worth of material in one night.
  • Avoid marathon study sessions.  Devote a little time each day to studying physics, rather than keeping your books & notes closed except for one weekly study session.  Also, take brakes while studying.  Most of us start to feel mentally fatigued after nonstop studying.
  • Ask for help when you need it.  Always try to figure out any difficulties on your own first, but when you are truly stuck, find someone to help you.  There is little benefit from feeling frustrated or lost.  Feel free to visit Dr. Jeff, the physics study room (Seaver 109) where the physics majors often run study sessions, or work with your friends.
  • Form a study group.  Make some friends in the course and work through the material in small groups.  Don’t let these study groups become a crutch- be sure to participate equally in the discussions.  If you need help in locating some classmates with similar schedules contact Dr. Jeff (or see the course web site) and he'll try to connect you with others in the class.
  • Do not memorize.  Often people think that memorizing 50 formulas from various example problems in the text is sufficient.  I assure you that this "shortcut" will not help you in the course.  With the combination of problems and conceptual questions, the exams will test your understanding of physics, not your ability to memorize.  Instead of memorizing formulas, work on understanding concepts.
  • Rewrite your notes after class.  After class (perhaps also after rereading the text or coming to office hours), you probably have a better understanding of the material and can organize it in a clearer fashion.  These "second generation" notes will be much more organized than ones you take in class as you are learning the concepts.

Reading Recommendations
         Reading a science or engineering text is much different than reading a sociology text or novel.  You need to read actively not passively.  The following are ideas on how you can get the most out of the text.


  • Take your time.  Science books tend to be very densely packed with information.  If you are only skimming the text, you will likely miss some of the information.
  • Reread the text several times.  The first time might be to skim for basic vocabulary, but the second (and perhaps third) should be slower and more thorough.  This multi-pass method of study is usually best for most students.
  • Ask yourself questions.  As you read the text ask yourself "What does that mean?"  "When is that concept applicable?"  "Where does that concept stem from?"   "How does this chapter relate to the previous ones?" Using "how, what, why" type questions can help you better understand the reading.
  • Highlight (or underline) sparingly.  If 99% of the text is highlighted, how will this aid you in locating the core concepts later?  First, read the section without highlighting.  Then return after you have understood the material to highlight (or underline).  If you are marking before you understand, then there’s a chance you aren't actually highlighting the important parts.
  • Take notes in your book.  Don’t simply highlight.  Writing the ideas out in your own words can help you understand them better.
  • Work out the drill problems.  These can serve as checkpoints on your understanding as you read.  Also, before reading the solutions to the examples, try working them out on your own.
  • Translate equations and concepts into your own words.  Often it is too easy to read an equation without understanding it. 
  • Create your own chapter summaries.  The text’s summaries are helpful, but the process of making your own can be very beneficial to helping you determine what you do and don’t understand.

Homework Hints

  • Do not put off the problems. You don’t want to be doing them the night before they are due.  While the exercises usually won’t demand much of your time, the problems tend to be more complicated (see the syllabus for a fuller discussion of the differences).
  • Don’t rush into the problem.  After reading the problem or exercise, set your pencil down for at least ten seconds and think about what it is asking and plan your solution.  The setting up of a solution is usually the most difficult part of a problem, so it is worth spending more time thinking about the first few steps.
  • Rewrite your problem solutions.  Just like you wouldn't hand in an essay with crossed out sentences and illegible words, a problem solution should be just as presentable and legible.  Don’t down in scratch work.  When solving a problem it is inevitable that you will make some wrong turns in your solution.  That’s okay; in fact, it is highly educational.  You just don’t need to turn in all of those sidetracks in the final draft.
  • Know your math.  Like the syllabus mentioned, mathematics is the language of physics and engineering.  Knowing the vocabulary and basic syntax of a language will make it much easier to understand a novel written in that language.  Similarly, knowing algebra, trigonometry, geometry and calculus will make it easier to understand some of the concepts and problem solutions.  (If you feel as though you need a math review see the text’s syllabus or dig out your old math texts.)
  • Read the feedback given to you.  Exercises and problems offer a mechanism for a teacher to give students feedback (also the teacher receives feedback from the students).  Look over any corrections or comments on your homework.  Also, check out the posted solutions.

Test Tips

  • Begin studying at the beginning of the unit.  Don’t wait until the night before the test to start studying.
  • Focus on the concepts.  Understanding the physical concepts will not only help you on the qualitative questions, but also the exercises and problems.  The first step in solving both is identifying the principle in action and determining how to express this concept in mathematics.
  • Relax.  I know this is easier said than done, but it is incredibly helpful.  Get some sleep the night before, don’t stress out.  The more relaxed you are the less of chance there is for you do make mistakes on the test.
  • Spend your time wisely.  If the test has five questions, it would probably be a bad idea to spend forty of your fifty minutes on one of those questions.  Not even beginning some of the problems would be detrimental.  A useful time management technique is to make multiple passes on the test.  First, do the questions that seem transparent to you.  Then return to the start and make another pass to tackle the slightly more difficult ones.  If you need to, make another pass.  The idea is that you don’t spend too much time on any one problem.
  • Follow the problem-solving algorithm.  The algorithm is there to not only make your solution easier to understand for a reader, but also to help you work though a problem.  Drawing pictures, writing down the important concepts and other early steps in the algorithm might help to jog your memory while you are working.