Suggestions for Physics Students

by Dale D. Long

The chances are pretty good that you have heard a number of rumors about the perils of taking a physics course, and may already have experienced some of these trials and tribulations. I want to make a few suggestions that, I hope, will make your future study of physics more productive. And what's more, you might even find it fun.

You might have the impression that studying physics involves the memorizing of zillions of formulas, and then mastering the art of pulling the right formula out of the hat at the right time. Some physics courses, no doubt, are taught as if that were the case. However, the goal of physics is to describe the maximum number of things going on in our universe in terms of the minimum number of general principles. Furthermore, these principles should be as simple as possible. with that idea in mind, I want to suggest one general guideline to use throughout your study:

Try to identify the basic general principles and look at the other ideas discussed as extensions and applications of these principles.

Do I Read the Textbook or Do I Study My Notes?

In most physics courses, the primary source of your information is the textbook. The instructor is there to put the textbook material into perspective by amplifying, clarifying, demonstrating, and illustrating the ideas in the text. Your time in class will be spent best if you already have become moderately familiar with the material of the lesson by reading the appropriate sections of the textbook beforehand.

What about note-taking? Some students attempt to write down everything the instructor says or writes on the chalkboard. If that's helpful to you, then by all means do it! But I would like to suggest that sometimes you just stop taking notes, watch, and listen, especially if the concepts are covered in the textbook. If the instructor is explaining a complicated figure, doing a demonstration, or otherwise carrying out something hard to capture in notes, just try to absorb it as it is taking place. In this situation, the chances are your notes won't make any sense when you get home anyway, and the textbook will probably refresh you on what was done. Knowing when to take notes and when just to look and listen is something you'll have to learn from experience with each instructor Your before-class study will help immensely with this problem.

General Study Procedure

Since every individual learns differently, feel free to modify these suggestions to suit your style. However, I urge you to give the following general guidelines, or something close to them, a serious try.

They are listed in the suggested order of attack.

  1. Before a topic is to be discussed in class, read the relevant textbook material seriously enough to get an introduction to the principles and the phenomena they describe.

  2. After the class on that topic, carefully reread the appropriate sections of the textbook. "Carefully" means sentence by sentence, being sure that you understand sentence 93 before going on to sentence 94, for example. (There, of course, will be occasions when you'll need to move on and come back to that idea later.) Convince yourself that you understand the topic of the lesson before you even look at the assigned problems or questions. As you read the textbook, compare and study the corresponding topics in your class notes. When you come to an example in the text, before reading the solution give some thought to how you would answer the question or solve the problem. As you read over and study an important relationship, say the words that go with the symbols, not just the symbols. Verbalizing the words that are used for the quantities in a relationship helps to embed the meaning of that relationship in your brain.

  3. Pay careful attention to the definitions of new terms in the chapter and learn them. Don't just memorize them, understand them! Some things can't be derived from simpler ideas; they are defined and you just have to remember them. If it's going to make any sense when the instructor or textbook uses these terms later, you need to know them.

  4. After you have grasped the details of the chapter or topic, look back over the section and ask yourself: "What is the one primary thing this section/chapter is trying to tell me?" Once you have picked that out, look at the rest of the material as extensions or applications of that central idea.

  5. Only after you feel that you have the best possible understanding of the physics principles in the chapter, go to your assigned questions and problems. Refer back to the text sections only as necessary and to confirm that you indeed are proceeding correctly. This way, working problems and answering questions solidifies the principles in your mind. Remember that the problems are merely specific applications of the general principles, and it is those general principles that you need in order to understand a broad range of situations. In solving a problem, try to go back to the basic principle, and avoid "plugging into" some "formula" already derived for you. Don't forget to read, think about, and discuss the qualitative questions, whether or not they are assigned. They help you to interpret and understand the meanings and applications of the principles.

  6. Make a note of your questions and get them answered right away by your instructor or another source of help. Failure to resolve a question merely results in more questions on subsequent topics.

When test/exam time comes, if you have followed the above procedures regularly and in step with the class schedule, you will need only to review the material briefly and refresh yourself on problem-solving procedures.


As you study, remember that there are only a few basic principles that you need to know. It is a waste of your time and energy to clutter either your mind or your notecard with every equation in the textbook. There are only a few that are fundamental. They are the ones to understand thoroughly-- both what they mean and how to apply them. In most textbooks, each chapter is centered around one or two main ideas. Work at picking them out and understanding them.

Distinguish derived results from definitions and assumptions. Learn the definitions of the terms being used. You cannot hope to understand a principle if you do not know the meaning of the words used in that principle.

Notice that I did not claim in the first paragraph that your study of physics would be easy. The program I have outlined is a rigorous one. But it is one that will make your course both satisfying to your intellect and rewarding at grade time.

[From The Physics Teacher 34, 3 (March 1996) p. 186-7. ln accordance with TPT's statement of "fair use" printed on the title page of each issue, instructors may copy and distribute this article to their students. As a matter of courtesy, the name of the author and the source (footer) should remain visible on all copies. This list of suggestions comes from Dale D. Long, Department of Physics, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA 24061-0435.]

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