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  @ Grenfell Campus, Memorial University

How to Succeed in Physics by Really Trying

Preparation for this Course

If you had high school physics, you will probably learn the concepts of this course faster than those who have not because you will be familiar with the language of physics. Also helpful will be the state of your mathematics preparation – if your mathematics ability is better than most, you will pick up the mathematical aspects of physics faster. If you find that your math skills are poor, do not hesitate to seek help from The Learning Centre in the Student Services annex as soon as possible.

Learning to Learn

Each of us has a preferred learning style and a preferred means of learning. Understanding your own style will help you focus on aspects of physics that may give you difficulty and to use those components of the course that will help you overcome the difficulty. Obviously, you will want to spend more time on those aspects that give you the most trouble. If you learn best by hearing, lectures will be very important. If you learn by explaining, then working with other students will be useful to you. If solving problems is difficult for you, spend more time learning how to solve problems. In addition, it is important to understand and develop good study habits. Perhaps the most important thing you can do for yourself is to set aside adequate, regularly scheduled, study time in a distraction-free environment.

Answer the following questions for yourself:

  • Am I able to use fundamental mathematical concepts from algebra, geometry and trigonometry? (If not, plan a program of review. The Learning Centre schedules seminars on these topics early in the semester.)
  • In similar courses, what activity has given me the most trouble? (Spend more time on this area.) What has been the easiest for me? (Do this first; it will help to build you confidence.)
  • Do I understand the material better if I read the book before or after the lecture? (You may learn best by skimming the material, going to lecture, then undertaking an in-depth reading.)
  • Do I spend adequate time studying physics? (A rule of thumb for a class like this is to devote, on average, 2.5 to 3 hours out of class for each hour in class. For a course meeting 3 hours each week, that means spending 7 to 10 hours per week studying physics.)
  • Do I study physics every day? (Spread that 10 hours out over the whole week!) At what time of the day am I at my best for studying physics? (Pick a specific time and make it a habit.)
  • Do I work in a quiet place where I can maintain my focus? (Distractions will break your routine and cause you to miss important points.)

Working with Others

Scientists or engineers seldom work in isolation from one another, but rather work co-operatively. You will learn more physics and have more fun doing it if you work with other students. You may wish to form your own study group with members of your class. Use email to keep in touch with each other and ask question about the day’s lecture or the upcoming assignments. Your study group is an excellent resource when reviewing for a test or exam.

Lectures and Taking Notes

An important component of any university course is the lecture. In physics, this is especially important because your professor will frequently do demonstrations of physical principles and work example problems on the board. These are learning activities that will help you to understand the basic principles of physics. Don’t miss lectures, but if you do, ask a friend or member of your study group to provide you with notes and let you know what happened.

Take your class notes in outline form and fill in the details later. It can be very difficult to take word for word notes, so just write down the key ideas. Diagrams should be sketched quickly, with the details added later. After class, edit your notes, filling in any gaps or omissions and noting things you need to study further. Refer to the textbook by page, equation number or section number.

Make sure you ask questions in class or see your professor during office hours (office hours will be listed in the Course Outline handed out at the beginning of the semester, and posted on his office door). Remember that the only "dumb" question is one that is not asked.

There may also be an SI (Supplemental Instruction) leader for your course – if so, watch for the posted meeting time. At the SI meeting the leader (who is an upper year student who did well in the course) will answer questions and try to clarify problem areas. If you prefer one on one instruction, Peer tutors are also available through The Learning Centre; check their schedule for times.

Using Your Textbook

You’ve paid a lot of money for that textbook – so don’t just carry it around – use it! All modern textbooks have been designed to be as interesting as possible and with many kinds of learning aids incorporated in them. In addition to reading the assigned sections of the text, be sure to work through all the examples, filling in any missing steps and making note of things you don’t understand. At the end of each chapter there is usually a series of non-mathematical exercises designed to test your understanding of the concepts covered in the chapter - try these regularly. Get help right away with the concepts that confuse you!

Tests and Examinations

Taking an examination or test is stressful, but if you feel adequately prepared and are well rested, your stress will be lessened. Preparing for a test is a continual process; it begins the moment the last test is completed. You should immediately go over the test and understand any mistakes you made. If you worked a problem and made substantial errors, try this: take a piece of paper and divide it down the middle with a line from top to bottom. In one column, write the proper solution to the problem. In the other column, write what you did and why. Also write why your solution was incorrect, if you know. If you are uncertain as to why you made your mistake and how to avoid it again, talk to your professor. Physics continually builds on fundamental ideas and it is important to correct any misunderstandings immediately. Warning: While cramming at the last minute may get you through the present test, you will not adequately retain the concepts for use on the next test.

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