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, donít 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 donít 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 donít 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!
- 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 unitís 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. Donít 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 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.
- Read the assigned
reading before coming to class. If we are going to be discussing
Newtonís Second Law, you should have read that section of the text before
coming to class. You may not completely understand what the text
is saying, but this first pass will help to familiarize you with the
concepts and possible applications. I donít think this is too
revolutionary of an idea; after all, if your English literature class
is discussing Romeo & Juliet, you would be expected to read
the play before coming to class so you can participate in the discussion.
- 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
- 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?" Using "how, what, why" type questions
can help you better understand the reading.
(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 thereís a chance you aren't actually
highlighting the important parts.
- Take notes
in your book. Donít 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.
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 textís summaries are helpful, but
the process of making your own can be very beneficial to helping you
determine what you do and donít understand.
- Do not put
off the problems. You donít want to be doing them the night before
they are due. While the exercises usually wonít demand much of
your time, the problems tend to be more complicated (see the syllabus
for a fuller discussion of the differences).
- Donít 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. Donít down in scratch work.
When solving a problem it is inevitable that you will make some wrong
turns in your solution. Thatís okay; in fact, it is highly educational.
You just donít need to turn in all of those sidetracks in the final
- 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 textís 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.
- Begin studying
at the beginning of the unit. Donít 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.
I know this is easier said than done, but it is incredibly helpful.
Get some sleep the night before, donít stress out. The more relaxed
you are the less of chance there is for you do make mistakes on the
- 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 donít spend too much time on any one problem.
- Use your
problem solving skills. Drawing pictures, writing down the important
concepts and other steps might help to jog your memory while you are
working. These steps also make it much easier for the reader to understand