Physics Study Skills Guide

How To Study Physics

Physics can be a fun subject because it is such a wide field. Physics involves the study of motion, energy, gravity, fluids, and areas like thermodynamics and quantum physics. Because there’s so much involved in physics, it’s impossible to easily summarize every area of this field. However, at its most basic, physics tries to quantify different forces in the universe. For instance, we use number to describe electric fields and velocity.

After quantifying different parts of the natural world, physicists then try to understand the relationship between different quantities. For instance, physicists have quantified the rate at which objects fall due to the force of gravity and the object’s mass. These relationships can then be presented visually using charts, graphs, and model. Sometimes, equations are the best way of expressing these relationships.

There are many different questions that physics tries to answer. Physicists try to explain everything from why the stars shine to how the universe began. Physics is also applied to many different activities and helps in everything from the development of computer games to the treatment of diseases and the production of energy. From a look at how broadly physics can be applied, it should be clear that physics is one of the most applicable fields of study.

However, physics can also be very complex, so having effective study habits can help increase your chance of success. By using the following guidelines, you’ll increase your chance of success in this interesting field.

Calculators Won’t Solve Your Problems

It’s true that calculators can help you crunch numbers, but it’s important to understand why you’re punching in those numbers. If you just use your calculator to punch numbers without understanding what the formula is actually about, you’ll never completely understand what you’re studying. For instance, there’s a formula for understanding how fast an object will fall. However, it’s important to understand how that formula is applied and what it explains.

Active Learning

Part of being an effective learning is being active and engaged in your own learning process. How can you become an active learner? Well first, it’s important to move away from passive practices. Passive learners tend to avoid going hands on with materials and are content to simply learn through lectures and watching instructors solve complex problems. Active learning requires that you move away from these bad habits. You should transition toward being more hands on with problem solving, trying to solve problems independently with only minimal guidance. It’s important to tackle these problems as independently as possible.

However, active learns do more than just go hands on with their materials. They also stop procrastinating and get the learning process underway as early as possible. Instead of waiting until the day before an exam to study, active learners spend the days leading up to the exam reviewing their materials, including previous homework and quizzes. By staying engaged with their materials throughout the semester and regularly refreshing their learning, active learners are able to more effectively learn lessons that their instructors are passing along.

Note Taking

There are different types of note taking that are more effective in different circumstances. You’ll want to be familiar with these different forms of note taking if you want to become a more effective note taker.

The outline method is the first and most commonly used approach to note taking. This approach is best when learning concepts, not formulas. Using the outline method, you write the main topic first. For instance, your main topic might be movement. Your sub topic is where you record a specific idea that’s part of the main topic. For instance, a sub topic of movement is velocity. Finally, you’ll want to support your sub topic with specific details. For instance, under the sub topic of velocity, you might write the formula describing it or write times when you should apply the formula.

A second form of note taking is the two column method, which is best for math and formulas. Write your main topic at the top of your paper and pages in your book where you can review the topic in greater depth. In the left column, write the formula and then an example of a problem being solved, step by step. In the right column, write an explanation of what the formula means, including what the variables in the formula mean. Then, use words to describe the step by step solution to the example problem. Finally, write key ideas about the formula at the bottom of the page. For instance, you may want to write the appropriate time to apply the formula and what sort of questions it can solve.

The final part of note taking includes drawing out visual aids. You can use an approach similar to the two column method for this. Let’s use the example of kinetic energy. On the left hand side of your paper, you’ll want to draw an example of kinetic energy. For instance, you may draw a ball on an incline. In such a diagram, you’d also want to write the direction the ball will move in. On the right hand side, you can write the formula that applies and explain in detail what’s happening at every stage of movement, from the time someone pushes the ball to the time it comes to a rest.

Math and Problem Solving

A core part of physics is being able to perform the math that explains why the universe works the way that it does. For this reason, it’s important to make sure that you’ve refreshed your ability to perform math before taking your physics coursework. Most physics requires students to at least know trigonometry and algebra. More advanced physics coursework requires students to perform calculus. You’re going to need to be willing to brave math courses in order to succeed in physics.

Being able to solve math problems means more than being able to punch numbers into a formula. You’ll also need to be able to be a creative problem solver. Sometimes, physics problems can require innovative and creative approaches to find a solution. You’ll need to learn how to think outside the box and look at problems from different perspectives.

Independent Study

You’ll need to be constantly refreshing your knowledge of physics in order to succeed in your coursework. Physics lessons build one upon the other, so it helps if you’re regularly refreshing your knowledge and connecting previously learned ideas with new ones.

You can take certain steps to make sure your independent study time is more effective. For instance, you’ll want to give yourself as much time as possible to study. Waiting until the last minute to get your reading in is an easy way of making your study time less effective. Not only does procrastinating stress you out, but it also leads to you missing important information. This combination of missed material and stress combine to make it harder for you to learn.

You’ll want to constantly be reading throughout the year to make sure you’re not missing important information. Another reason this approach helps is because the reading helps you to better understand what’s going on in your labs and lectures. Reding ahead of time will help you better understand what you’re teacher is communicating, but the reading will also help you to better understand what you need to do in your labs.

When you’re reviewing your texts, you’ll want to be on the lookout for the following.

Terms

Whenever you’re reading through your physics textbooks, you’ll want to be on the lookout for key terms. Physics uses specific phrases like speed and velocity. While these two terms are related, they’re not identical. It’s important to learn the specific meaning of each term, how they differentiate from one another, and how they’re applied. You’ll benefit from learning these terms in advance, that way you won’t get lost on the day of your lectures.

Concepts

Concepts are different from terms because they explain in more depth certain physics principles. For instance, velocity is speed with a direction. However, speed and velocity are used when describing larger ideas, like motion. When you’re reviewing your book, you’ll want to look for the titles of new section to get an idea of what the central concept is. Then, as you’re reading through the materials, pay special attention to the first sentence of every paragraph. This will help you more easily identify the core ideas the paragraphs is trying to communicate.

Visual Aids

Another thing to look out for as you’re reviewing your materials are the visual aids provided. Your textbook will often use diagrams, charts, and other visuals to help illustrate concepts. For instance, visuals can help students more easily understand how an object increases in velocity as it falls from various heights. Feel free to copy these charts and draw your own versions, which can help you to better understand the concepts that the visuals are meant to represent.

General Tips

Remembering that physics is a cumulative subject, it’s important for you to make sure that you’re going to every class. The information you learn in one lecture will build upon previous lessons. Missing just one class is harmful, but your chance of effectively learning gets smaller with every class you miss. When you are in class, make sure that you’re taking effective notes. You’ll want to document important concepts and supporting facts, or even draw your own diagrams to help with your notes.

As the semester moves forward, take the time out to quiz yourself independently, outside of class. Make yourself a series of flash cards with questions on one side and answers on the other. These flashcards can include key terms or ask for complex answers about critical concepts. You might even want to pair up with other classmates to make these independent quizzes even more effective. Finding additional help can be a key means by which you learn your materials.

Additional Help

Physics can be a complex subject, so it’s not unusual for students to need additional help, even if they’re taking the best notes and attending every class. If this is the case, then you’ll want to find additional help. Your first resource will be your own teacher. At the high school level, you can often find your teacher at the end of the day. They might even have after school tutoring sessions. At the college level though, teachers are required to have dedicated office hours. You’ll be able to meet with your teacher during these hours. Commonly, you’ll be able to find these office hours included in your syllabus.

It’s also fairly common for students to seek help online for complex physics topics. Google is often the first place that students look for help. However, textbooks very often include ways to find additional online help. Publishers over the last few years have started including digital codes that unlock online help. This online help can come in the form of additional text, visual aids, and even movies. Publishers have started including online video and animated visual aids as a way of communicating complex topics.

However, your best resource may be your fellow classmates. It’s important to create a study group at the beginning of the year that you can work with throughout the semester. Your fellow classmates can provide notes from the course on days when you miss class due to sickness or emergencies. You can also compare your notes with your group to make sure that you haven’t missed important terms and concepts. This can help you learn more effectively and can help you prepare for your exams more effectively.

More Resources

You might also be interested to take a look at our Study Skills resource hub for more study guides. Below you'll find more editor and user recommended study skills resources, guides and learning tutorials that will help you learn Physics and improve your study skills.

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