How to succeed in PHY231
- Introduction: Physics is different - so your approach to learning has to be different
Learnig physics is different from learning in most other courses, including other science courses. Learning physics does NOT mean memorizing facts and processes. Learning physics means UNDERSTANDING a concept, and to be able to apply this understanding to solving any problem related to this concept - even problems you have never seen before. In many cases a linear step by step, follwo the instructions approach to problem solving is not sufficient - you need to think, try different things, use different resources, and be flexible. Often there are different ways to solve a problem. In additon, the application of physics concepts to problems requires some MATHEMATICAL skills - so fluency in basic algebra is also important.
You could memorize the entire textbook and would not have learned a thing - in fact, you are allowed to bring "cheat sheets" to the PHY231 exams with any notes you like, so almost nothing needs to be memorized in this course, except for some basic terminology.
So what is learning physics then like? How do you understand a concept? Unlike memorizing you cannot just read about the concept in the book or on the web, and you cannot just memorize what your professor said about the concept. At some point you need to sit down by yourself and spend some time thinking about what you have read and heard in class. You can test whether you understood by checking whether you can do homework problems or problems in the book by yourself. If you are stuck you need to read, hear, and discuss with others, but then again you need to think about it. This should be a continuous process after each lecture - if you start thinking about the material a week before the first exam it might be too late, and if you never do your homework yourself you might never know that you did not understand a concept until you get a low grade in an exam.
There are some more useful remarks in your textbook on page XXVII (Preface for the Student). Read those.
- Do the Homework
CAPA provides instant feedback and up to 20 tries, and therefore a score close
to 100% can be achieved. This is factored into the final grade scale. If you
don't get close to 100% of the homework you give away points you could
have managed to earn and it will be very hard to achieve a good grade.
Do the homework means DO the homework. We encourage group work to learn how to
do the homework but in the end you have to do it yourself and make sure you understand
it. If you have other people (e.g. via electronic means) do your homework for
you, it will be very hard to understand the material and get the problem
solving skills needed for the exams. You will then most likely not get a
grade that adequately reflects your abilities. Even missing out on a single set can have
consequences for your grade.
- Take the initiative
The only person in class that knows whether you understand the material,
whether you can solve the problems, and which information or skills you are
lacking is YOU ! You are also the only person that knows exactly how you learn
best - some people learn well by listening, others by reading, others by
It is most likely that what we offer
in the lectures and in the homework is not an exact match to what you need,
though we try very hard.
Therefore I strongly recommend:
Assess yourself constantly. If there is something you don't
understand or if there is a certain type of problem you can't solve TAKE
What can you do ? Depending on your needs you can:
- Think about the problem.
- Read the related chapter in the book.
- Discuss the problem with a fellow student, for example in the Physics
- or if that's not satisfactory ask a TA in the Physics Learning Center
- and if that doesn't help either ask your professor after class, or make an appointment
(preferably by e-mail)
- Take careful notes during class (some students learn best by writing)
- Find similar problems in the book and try them - to do a problem you
have never seen before by yourself is the only way to find out for sure
whether you understood a concept
If you are following all the advice, if you work hard and if you still don't seem to get anywhere, talk to your instructor as early as possible. Don't wait until right before the final exam.
focus completely on problem solving - try to understand the physics concepts
Often, memorizing how to solve certain types of problems seems to be the
fastest way to success - especially as we use the solving of problems as an
assessment for your understanding of the material and as a basis of your final
grade. Another common mistake is to frantically search through your complete set of notes for an equation that fits the givens and unknowns and just plugging in without understanding.
However, focusing too much on problem solving and equation plugging without having understood the underlying concepts will only make you an expert in solving the problems you practiced, but will make it very hard to do even only slightly different problems that deal with the same physics topic. You will very likely not do well in the exams.
A better approach is to first try to understand the concept and then practice by solving many different problems on your own without help. If this is not possible, try to read or get help, work some problems with others, but then again try to understand the concept and try doing problems on your own. Once you are able to solve several new problems completely on your own you know you understood something.
Having said that, general problem solving skills are also required and need to be practiced (see exam hints).
- Work in groups, but not only in groups
We encourage to discuss and learn the course material in groups, especially if you are stuck on a problem, or not sure about a physics concept. This
has been proven to be the most effective way to learn difficult material. Problems
are individualized and the grade scale is fixed so helping others does not
hurt your grade, but improves it as you get a better understanding of the
material. To facilitate group learning we offer you the Physics Learning
Center. See the PLC info for more information on successful group learning.
Most importantly, help others learn but do not do their work for them.
However, it is very important that you make sure that you learn the material. Therfore do not let others do the work for you, rather discuss the problem or the solution, ask for help when you are stuck, but do the problems yourself. We also recommend to do some problems completely on your own - this is the only reliable way to test yourself whether you really understood the material and are ready for the exams.
- Summary and practical advice: Things we recommend you do:
- Prepare for lectures by reading the relevant pages in the book and the posted lecture notes if available.
- Before doing the homework, make a 1-2 page review of the relevant chapter using the lecture notes or the book and think about the concepts. Include main conceptual points, basic definitions, and equations, but not specific problems.
- Use your 1-2 page review to do the homework. Update the review as necessary.
- Discuss concepts and difficulties with others .
- If you needed help doing a homework problem, find a similar problem and check whether now you can do it yourself.
- Don't let things slip but keep up with the material on a week by week basis - catching up is difficult as memorizing material is not sufficient!
- Summary: Things we recommend you NOT do
- Use any homework solution or hint postings before you made an extensive effort to solve the problem yourself.
- Focus on memorizing material or specific homework problems. Plug into equations without understanding why.
- Do all assignments with help of someone else. You must be able to do problems completely on your own - if you are not, you did not understand the material.
- By the time the first exam comes up the 1-2 page reviews (see "Things we recommend you do") will constitute a good summary of the material that you can use to prepare the equation sheet for the exam.
- Use your draft equation sheet to practice with old exams and update it as needed.
- Redo homeworks, quizzes, any extra problems, midterm exams (by yourself under exam conditions)
use class notes, book or work in groups to fill in apparent gaps
- Identify your personal problem areas (which homework problems were hard?). Redo homework problems in these areas, try to find other problems, discuss concepts with others.
- Pick a few problems per topic from the book and try to do them under exam conditions (only your equation sheet, put some time pressure on yourself, work alone). If you cannot do the problem, solve it using book, notes, or a group, and then pick the next.
- Be careful during the exam
All your preparation is useless if you are not careful enough during the exam. This means, among other things:
- Be there on time (which means ahead of time)
- Read the problem carefully. Make sure you understand the situation of the problem, the underlying physics concepts, and what is asked for. Ask if something is unclear !
- Check units and convert them where necessary
- Make your own neat and big drawings - this helps for ALL problems !
- Develop a strategy based on equations. We recommend to follow it step by step using algebra and plug in numbers only at the very end. It is easy to make mistakes with numbers, and sometimes quantities cancel, so this is the better approach, unless you have difficulties with algebra.
- Double check whether you marked the answer you wanted to mark.
- Use a smart exam strategy. Get an overview of the entire exam, and do the problems in the order of their difficulty, easy problems first. If a problem turns out to be harder than thought, or if you get stuck, move on to an easier one and get back to the hard problems at the end if you have time.