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.
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.
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.
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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