Study Tips for Introductory Physics Students
Compiled and edited by
Oberlin College Physics Department;
last updated 27 November 2007.
This World Wide Web page gives tips that Oberlin College Physics
faculty have found useful for their students, particularly for students in
introductory physics courses. If you have suggestions, please inform
Following these tips and suggestions will take more time and effort than
does a casual reading of the text, but they will pay off in a
savings of time when you do the problems, in a better understanding
of physics, and in increased confidence on exams.
- Keep up with the course. Once you fall behind it is very
difficult to catch up. If you ignore this advice and do fall behind
(it happens to the best of us sometimes),
and if you cannot manufacture
the time to do a thorough job of catching up, then skim
the passed-over course material for its most important points and move on
to a thorough study of the current course material.
Attempting a thorough study of last week's material usually results
in being one week behind for the entire semester.
- Do the reading before attending the lectures. This way
way you won't need to take notes on everything the lecturer says, because
you will already understand some of the material and you will know that
some of it is treated well in your textbook.
If you follow this advice, then you can use the lecture for what lecture
is good at: asking questions, following the demonstrations,
discovering how this week's material fits into the overall structure of
and gaining a conceptual understanding of the material under study.
At the same time you can use the text for what text is good at:
presenting derivations and sample problems, and getting the details right.
- Devote a little time to studying physics each day, rather than
a large amount of time once a week: this allows
the material to sink in.
- Make some friends in the course and work through the material in
small groups. Use these groups for discussion, problem suggestions, and
companionship. Throw ideas into the group's "pot" as well as drawing ideas
from it. Do not use your study group as a crutch.
- Attend the course's conference sessions to learn informal techniques that
are not well-taught through the lecture method.
- Do not memorize. In almost all cases, the temptation to memorize
indicates a simple a lack of understanding.
In the words of Charles Misner: "The equation F = ma is easy to memorize,
hard to use, and even more difficult to understand."
Tips regarding reading
- Read aggressively. The amount of reading assigned in a physics
course will be far less than the amount of reading assigned in a literature
or a sociology course, but the reading is much denser and
your teacher expects you to read it thoroughly,
thoughtfully, and critically. Read with pencil and paper in hand,
and follow the algebra yourself. Keep a list of questions and of
points that you don't understand.
- Take notes in your book.
Mark the most important points and record why they are important.
The act of deciding
what is important is the first step in turning reading from passive
page-turning into active, aggressive--and rewarding--penetration.
(Some students take notes by highlighting with a yellow marker.
This is all right, but don't fall into the trap of highlighting
everything in your book!)
- Examine the sample problems carefully.
- If the reading is too dense, try skimming it once to get an
overview of what's going on, then coming back and reading in detail
the second time.
- The active, aggressive reading advocated here is very
time-consuming. Reserve it for the most important parts of your textbook.
You might be able to get your teacher to list for you the most
important sections, or you might have to decide for yourself.
Tips regarding lectures
- Listen aggressively. What you get out of lecture is
proportional to what you put into it. If you follow the lecture,
think about the material, ask questions, and care about what's going on,
then lecture will
be an active, productive learning experience for you. If you sit slumped
in your seat, then lecture will give you a backache and little more.
- Come to lecture armed with questions for your teacher, developed from
doing your reading.
- Some students are used to rewriting their lecture notes or
taping lectures and then listening to them twice. We
discourage such practices, not because they are useless, but because
they are less profitable than other practices advocated here.
(In particular, taping a lecture does not record the all-important
- On the other hand, many students do find it useful
to review each lecture
by making a simple list of the most important topics, and also a
different list of the
puzzling aspects that need clarification.
This review can be done through your notes or in your memory or with
your study group, but it is best done soon after the lecture.
Tips regarding problems
- Do the reading and listen to the lectures before attempting
- Do not put off the problems until the night before they are
due. In particular, take a stab at the problems before conference sessions,
so that you can ask well-formulated questions there.
- Read the problem carefully to make sure you understand what
is being asked.
- Do not rush into solving a problem. Instead, first formulate
a strategy for solving the problem. Usually this is as simple
as classifying the problem according to its method of solution.
Is it a "constant acceleration"
problem? A "work-energy" problem? A "Gauss's law" problem?
- If you find yourself writing pages of words or working reams
of algebra, then you are off on the wrong track. Stop, reread the problem,
think, reformulate your strategy, and then start over again from the
- Think of the problems as mystery stories. How would Sherlock
Holmes approach this problem?
- Don't search through your book for "the right equation".
You will not be able to solve your problem by finding an appropriate
equation and then plugging numbers into it. No self-respecting
college-level teacher would assign such a problem.
- If the final answer called for in the question is
a number, then you will ultimately have to plug numbers into an equation.
But even in
such cases it is almost always easier and less error-prone to keep
the quantities as symbols until the very end.
(For one thing, it is easier to do algebra with the symbol "m" than
with the value "2.59 kg".)
- Sometimes the problem statement will give you more information
than is needed to answer the question. Sometimes it will give you
less information than is needed, and ask you not for an answer but for
a list of the unknown information
required to find an answer. Sometimes the problem will be a short
narrative from which you need to extract relevant information.
Students often find such problems exasperating, but in fact they
develop an important problem-solving skill called building a
mathematical model. Problems that arise in the
world outside of your textbook usually come with more or less
data present than needed to solve the problem.
The ability to recognize which data are needed and
which are irrelevant is an important practical skill.
- Review your problem solutions when they are returned
(or when model solutions are handed out).
Why did you make the mistakes you did? How could you have avoided them?
This review should be quick (after all, you have new material piling up)
but five or ten minutes spent in this review can save hours by preventing
similar mistakes in the future.
- More suggestions are available in the page
Solving Problems in Physics.
Tips regarding lab work
- Skim the lab instructions before coming to lab. You won't be able
to understand things fully without the equipment in front of you,
but you'll get a general overview that will serve you well and ultimately
save you time.
- Don't be afraid to fiddle with lab equipment unless you have been
specifically warned away from it. Many students are reluctant to
play with electrical equipment because they're afraid of being shocked.
Unless you are told otherwise, the stuff used in lab won't hurt you.
Tips regarding exams
- Keep up with the course. Don't cram at the last minute.
- Get a good night's sleep. Even if you ignored the advice above
and have to cram, limit cramming in favor of sleep.
- Prepare a one-page summary of the material being examined.
- Don't memorize. Your teacher expects you to work with ideas
and solve problems, not plug numbers into equations.
- Bring to the exam a calculator (fully charged) and several pens or
- As you read an exam problem, place a check mark beside the given data
and underline the unknown quantity to be found. This will help you
prepare a strategy and help you avoid answering a question that
is similar to but different from the one that is asked.
- Make a sketch or graph to familiarize yourself with the situation.
Make sure you understand the problem before plunging in.
- If you need help with mathematical background, consult either
Arthur Beiser, Essential Math for the Sciences
(McGraw-Hill, New York, 1969), or
Daniel Kleppner and Norman Ramsey, Quick Calculus
(Wiley, New York, 1985), or
Colin Adams, Joel Hass, and Abigail Thompson,
How to Ace Calculus: The Streetwise Guide
(Freeman, San Francisco, 1998).
- Guard against the two most common failings: reliance on memorization
and on "plug and chug" problem technique.