How to Study Physics

Everyone learns in a different way. As a student, it is part of your job to learn how you learn. The following bits of lore are tried and true methods on how to study. Some of them may work for you and others may not. They all require discipline. If you're having trouble, try following this advice; your chances of doing better in the class will certainly improve.

How to make the most of your lecture notes:

1. Date your lecture page. Leave a small open section one or two inches wide down the left side of the entire page. Define this open section by drawing a vertical line down the page to define two areas: one area on the right side of the vertical line used for taking lecture notes and the other area on the left side of the vertical line for writing your own questions and comments when you review your notes after class. Write down what is put on the board and add to that what may be said in class more casually but not written on the board.

2. Review your lecture notes as soon as you can after class. Review to understand; take your time, be purposeful. Write down any comments and questions about your notes (in a different colored pen from that used in the lecture) in the open section on the left of you vertical line on your note page as defined above. Answer those questions during office hours or whenever you can.

Reading the text:

Reading a technical book like a physics text is not like reading a novel. To thoroughly digest the material you may have to read a chapter three or even four or more times; this is normal. The first reading of the text should be a light skimming; don't worry about all the details. This light reading should be done before the lecture! Subsequent readings should be in progressively greater depth. By the final reading you should understand what every sentence is trying to say. Assume that if the text is well written, every sentence exists for a reason. You may want to take notes on your text readings to summarize the material.

How to learn from doing homework problems:

It may seem strange, but to successfully do physics problems you must understand the physical theory you are trying to apply, but to understand that theory you must do problems! This cyclic procedure is a natural part of the learning process. Don't just do a problem to get the right numerical answer as quickly as possible. You must thoughtfully practice applying the theory to the problem. If you find yourself saying "If he asks this problem on the exam I've got it made.", you're employing a losing strategy. Don't memorize or mimic the solutions to specific problems, focus on applying one general method correctly to all sorts of different problems. Avoid doing problems by thumbing desperately through the text for the right equation to plug in your numbers. Doing problems the right way is the single most important way to learn physics.

When doing a problem if you already have the solution, it is important not to look at the solution until you have tried to do the entire problem by yourself - beginning to end; this applies to problems that have been done as examples in lecture as well as office hour and also to quizzes and exam problems. When you are done with your solution then check to see if it is correct. If you made a mistake, understand the nature of the mistake so you won't make it again. It is important to try the same problem again a few hours later or even the next day. If you make the same mistake, then clearly you didn't quite absorb the meaning of your mistake the first time. Again, wait a while, then try it once more from the beginning and keep trying, never looking at the solutions until you are completely done, until you eliminate all the mistakes from your solution. This means you may have to work the same problem several times over a period of several days to get it right.

If you have worked on a problem without progress for more than fifteen or thirty minutes, then you should move on to another problem and come back to that one later. If you have not made any progress on a problem you'll know because you haven't been writing anything down on your paper. Don't stall out; get things out of your head onto the paper. Don't just do problems, practice doing problems.

Don't kid yourself, just because you got the correct numerical answer to a problem is not justification that you understand the physics of the problem. You must understand all the logical steps in arriving at that solution or you have gained nothing, right answer or not.

Don't use numbers in your solutions until the very end of a problem! Using numbers too early makes it difficult if not impossible to trace the logical flow of your solution and robs you of crucial physical insights into the nature of your solution as well as making it difficult to "troubleshoot" your solution if you get the wrong answer.

Form study groups:

Share your agony. Make friends in lecture and lab and work on problems together. Try explaining how to do problems to them. Criticize each other. Meeting once or twice a week with a few other people to work on problems can be a refreshing boost to your moral.

Allocate your time:

A good rule of thumb is for every hour of lecture, you should put in two to three hours of quality study time. Study when you are mentally fresh, not at the end of the day when you are tired. Pace your study time through the week. Cramming can be disastrous.