physics study skills

Cynthia Arem, Ph.D., Chair of Social Sciences
Pima Community College

These physics study skills have been compiled
from interviews with Physics teachers.

1. Math is at the heart of physics. So the better your math, the better you'll do in physics.

2. Get a good overview of your physics textbook before tackling it in depth.

3. Read your assigned chapter BEFORE attending class and again after. You will get the most out of class if you read the material ahead of time. Notice that each chapter in your physics text has new vocabulary, terms, definitions, concepts, major ideas and many mathematical equations and practice exercises to be worked out.

4. Make problem-solving part of each study session. The more you work out problems and test yourself, the better your physics will get. Devote your time to learning how to do each problem rather than in obtaining the numerical answer given in the solutions' manual. Even if you do not have homework problems to do, try working out at least five new problems every time you study.

5. When working out a physics problem, determine what principal it is illustrating or what kind of problem it is. For example, is it a momentum problem or a force problem? This will help you to set up the problem.

6. When working out a problem, try to visualize what it is asking you to do. Draw it out and/or set up a chart, then identify the variables and set up the equation. Remember setting up the problem is the most important thing you can do. Next, solve your equation for the unknown, and substitute your numbers into the problem, to see if it checks out.

7. The true test for determining if you know your material is to do a problem you have never done or seen before. So when preparing for a physics exam, look for new problems. With each problem, ask yourself what kind of problem is this, and how are you going to do it? Then, do lots and lots of problems.

8. Take notes while you are reading and organize yourself well. Write down all new vocabulary, terms, definitions, concepts, equations, major ideas, problems types, and the do's and don'ts for avoiding mistakes.

9. Know your physics vocabulary. Practice using the words introduced in each chapter again and again, so they will start meaning something to you.

10. Use flash cards for learning terminology and for testing yourself on concepts. Put a difficult term or concept on one side and the meaning on the other. Carry these cards wherever you go and review them at odd moments - you won't even feel like you're studying.

11. To make physics more fun, keep relating it to your everyday life. Look for situations or occurrences that illustrate what you are learning. For example, what causes hairs to repel one another on a dry winter day? How does your engine use gasoline to produce motion? What causes the heat on a drill bit after drilling a hole in metal?

12. The physics lab is wonderful for setting up experiments to illustrate and practice what you are learning. Use it often, but why not make the whole world your lab? Set up your own experiments at home, at work, in your backyard, or in your workshop.

13. Form a physics study group to talk aloud and test yourself on your new learned knowledge. Explaining physics to others is an excellent way to reinforce new concepts. Study groups also help students to do better by increasing their motivation and confidence. If group is out of the question for you, try explaining new ideas to a family member, a friend or even your dog!

14. Research has shown that we remember 90% of what we say and do. So practice, practice, practice (do, do, do) physics and explain it to others (say, say, say).

15. Physics takes a lot of time and effort, so don't take it with a heavy course or work load or lots of family responsibilities. Give yourself time to really learn it and enjoy it. In addition to the hours you spend in lecture and lab, plan to spend at least 10 hours per week on homework problems and at least one hour for writing up your laboratory report.

16. Physics is cumulative; one topic builds on another - so don't fall behind. Attend every class if you can. Keep up with the material. If you need help, get it immediately. You can get assistance from your instructor, your classmates, family or friends, other physics texts, the internet.

17. Review immediately after class and again eight hours later. Most of the information we learn is lost within the first 20 to 60 minutes after learning. So be sure to review as soon as you can.

18. Begin studying for exams well in advance and avoid cramming. Throughout the semester, as you learn each new concept test yourself on it. The best students are testing themselves continuously throughout the learning process. In addition, make up your own difficult practice tests and practice working out all types of problems.

For specific suggestions on effective math study skills and overcoming test and math anxiety, read
Conquering Math Anxiety ­ A Self-Help Workbook 
  by Cynthia Arem Ph.D.
Brooks Cole Publishing Company, Pacific, California

To return to Frequently Asked Questions go to my Web site: Effective Math and Sciences Study Skills

© 2002 Pima Community College