How to Succeed in Physics Courses

Kevin Pitts

With finals recently behind us, this probably isn’t the best time to write a blog post about how to do well in physics courses.   On the other hand, success isn’t achieved overnight, so providing this advice the night before your final exam probably wouldn’t have helped either.   I hope it is helpful to students in the future, though.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to frame this in the context of introductory physics courses, although everything I say is relevant for upper level courses as well.
First of all, let’s acknowledge that physics is different than most other subjects you encounter in school because it is so heavily based upon problem solving. (For those who want to argue this point, I have a bit more detail on what I mean as an addendum to the post.)     That means physics relies less on memory and more on applying ideas and concepts to solve problems.     It also means that the question you see on the physics exam won’t be a homework problem with different numbers. So if you want to do well in physics, you need to understand *how* to approach problems, organize the information you’re given, apply concepts and utilize math to solve problems.
Students often tell me, “I understand the concepts; I just can’t solve the problems.”    I always interpret that to mean that the material and ideas presented in class make sense, but they are struggling with the application of those ideas in solving problems.     And this is where many students get derailed. They think that understanding the concepts is enough.   It probably is enough in a history class, but not in physics.
So here are my suggestions for studying physics:
  • Study every day.    Studying one hour per day for seven days is worth a lot more than studying seven hours in one day.   It takes time for your brain to absorb and process the concepts, you give it time by studying daily.
  • Read the textbook.    If you don’t like your textbook, go to the library and get another book. There are loads of textbooks that cover the topics of your class, find a different book if you don’t like your book.    I’m shocked at the number of students who think they can get by without the text book.
  • Read the textbook before class.   If you walk into class not knowing what will be discussed today, you are already behind.   Read the textbook before the lecture. It won’t all make sense the first time, but learning abstract concepts is about repetition and interaction. You will take more away from lecture if you read the book before class.
  • Don’t miss class.   Pay attention in class.   Think you can miss class because you already have the lecture notes? Think again.   Think you can multitask and check out facebook while in class? Think again.    There is a very strong correlation between attendance and grade. And there are a boatload of studies that show that we are terrible multitaskers.   Show up and pay attention.
  • Be an active learner.   Studies show that you learn more when you actively participate in class. Try to work the example problems. Talk with your neighbors during the ACTS.   Think of a question you would ask during class.   (You don’t have to ask the question, just write it down so that you can look up the answer later, or talk to the prof. after class.)
  • Work with others.    If you think you understand how to do a problem, try to explain it to the friend that you are studying with.   If you can’t explain it, then you don’t understand it as well as you think.    Working in groups is beneficial for everybody involved.
  • Take the labs seriously.   This goes along with being an active learner. Believe it or not, the labs provide an opportunity to actually see up close what’s going on. The labs are designed and developed to aid your learning. Try to predict what’s going to happen before you try an experiment.   If you sit back and watch, you aren’t going to get anything out of it.
  • Study solved problems.    This is important.    A great way to learn about problem solving techniques is to see how problems are solved.    Textbooks have worked examples. My suggestion is to cover up the solution, and try to solve example yourself. This forces you to think about how you would approach the problem *before* you see the solution. After you’ve given it a serious effort, then look at the solution.   If you don’t try it yourself, you’ll look at the solution and say, “Yeah, that makes sense…” and you’ve gotten almost nothing out of it.
  • Practice solving problems.    Do you know anybody who read a book about riding bicycles and then was immediately a bicycle expert? I don’t. Everybody I know had to practice, practice, practice to ride a bike. Same with solving problems in physics.    It’s true that some people can ride a bike with less practice than others, but everybody needs to practice.   Try to solve as many practice problems as you can.
  • Get help!    Often times, you can bang your head against the wall for hours and hours trying to solve a tough problem, or you can get advice from your prof or a TA in about 10 minutes.   Course instructors are there to help you, and they want to help you.   Their help is very efficient if you come in with concise questions. That means you should try the problems yourself, make a serious effort, and then go in and ask specific questions.   If you haven’t tried the problems, or if you go in and say, “I don’t understand anything.” Then it’s hard for instructors to help you.
On the point of getting help, I find this to be something that freshman in particular have trouble with. All of the students at Illinois were at the top of their class in high school. Things came easy and they didn’t have to study very hard in high school. (I’m over-generalizing here, some students worked very hard in high school.) Now they get to college and find the material challenging. Since they never needed help before, they don’t know how to get help now.   And they also don’t realize how effective and useful a modest amount of help can be.   So they study alone in their dorm room for hours on end, when 20 minutes of time with a TA or a prof could have cleared up their misconceptions.   When I teach an introductory physics course, I beg students to come to office hours and get help.   A few students take advantage of the help that is available, but most don’t.   When do they show up and start asking questions? Just before the final exam when they’ve already done poorly on three midterm exams. I hate to tell them that it’s too late, but it usually is.
What doesn’t work when it comes to studying physics?   Cramming at the last minute.    Are you staying up all night to get your homework assignment done on time?   Well, it might get you the homework points, but you aren’t learning the material like you would have if you’d worked for an hour a day for the prior week.   Are you cramming the night before the exam?    It probably isn’t helping very much, although I suppose it’s better than nothing.  
If I could teach one thing to college students, it would be to stop procrastinating.    In response to this, students tell me that they don’t have time to study every day.    But if you have time to study for 10 hours the night before the homework is due, then you have time to study every day. You just need to work on how you allocate that time. The most successful people I know (in academia, business, athletics) manage their time wisely.
Ok, sorry this post has gotten to be so long.   Everything I’ve written in this post I’ve told to students for many, many years.   As far as I can tell, a very small fraction of students follow my advice.   
One last point.    I’m not the only one offering up advice about how to succeed in physics. You’ll get plenty of advice from your friends.   I suggest you be careful when taking the advice of other students. For example, a friend of yours tells you she got an A in Physics 211 and she didn’t buy the textbook, so you won’t need the textbook either. She neglects to mention that she had AP physics in high school and the entire course was review for her.   Another student says that you don’t learn anything from lab and all you have to do is go and sit there. He doesn’t mention that he got a D+ in the course.    When it comes from advice from your friends, your mileage may vary.
In later post, I will talk about the importance of introductory physics. Most students don’t realize how central it is to your entire education.
Addendum: On the point that physics is different than most subjects.     I think it’s pretty clear that physics is different than subjects that require lots of memorization.    (In order to emphasize that we don't want students to try to memorize physics, we hand them a formula sheet for each exam.)  Physics requires logical thinking, a thorough understanding of fundamental concepts and the application of mathematics to solve problems.   There are, of course, other subjects that require problem solving skills.    Math and engineering fields come to mind.     In math, you are given an equation and asked to solve it. In physics, you are given information and asked to determine the equation and then solve it. The challenge of physics is determining the equation.    This isn’t meant as a slam against math, it clearly requires analytic and problem solving skills. And as I’ve posted before, math is the backbone of physics.   But students who sail through their math courses can get stumped in physics because of the differences I’ve outlined above.   Many engineering courses do require many of the same skills. In fact that’s why most engineers at Illinois have to take 3 semesters of physics.    Students take physics before they get into their advanced engineering courses.