Of course you should read actively, but that is easier said than done. Write
questions in the margins about things you don’t understand. Don’t bother
highlighting — highlighting is useless for reading science textbooks.
One good active reading exercise is to take some general principle and try
to find your own example of how to apply it. This is especially helpful
if you can find an example where it seems surprising or wrong, or where
you’re not sure whether the assumptions behind the general principle are
valid. Research has shown that many of students’ conceptual problems
with physics occur because the principles of physics are surprising and
counterintuitive, so when the principle is encountered in a new situation,
they don’t even think to apply it because it wouldn’t seem to make sense.
The most important thing is to ask questions. The
class of my dreams would be one where the students set the agenda with
their own insightful questions.
Doing the Homework
Staring at a blank page and not knowing how to set up a problem is a very
inefficient use of your time. If you get stuck, try calling your lab partner
on the phone and discussing the problem, or come to Al’s Place.
Often we learn best by example. However, many students try to solve
homework problems by looking for an example in the book that will provide
a cookbook recipe, so they can just plug different numbers into the
same procedure. The problem with this method is that it doesn’t work.
For instance, you may find an example that uses a certain equation, but
that equation might not be true in the physical situation described in the
problem you’re working on.
Rather than learning problem-solving as a long list of recipes (which you’re
sure to forget soon), you’re better off learning more general problemsolving
skills that can be applied in many different areas of physics, and
also outside of physics. The MOB skills on ??, for instance, can be applied
over and over again. A good way to learn by example is to compare
examples from different chapters, and look for similar techniques that pop
up more than once. For instance, problem 11 in chapter 1 of Newtonian
Physics and problem 15 in chapter 10 deal with completely different topics
in physics, but they both require the same technique, ratio reasoning,
which is one of the MOB skills.
Method for Studying for
(1) Start by doing the things you should have done but didn’t have time
for. Read any parts of the book you didn’t have time to read when they
were assigned. Study any of the homework solutions handouts that you
haven’t studied carefully.
(2) Before dealing with problem-solving, try to firm up your conceptual
understanding in any areas where you feel weak. If you have bought one
of the suggested supplementary books, read the relevant sections.
(3) Write up a concise, organized set of notes. Next to each equation, write
the definitions of the variables and the physical situation that the equation
describes, and notes on under what conditions the equation would or would
not apply. I don’t think more than one page of notes is necessary for the
whole course; if you find yourself writing more notes than that, you are
probably overestimating the amount of memorization that is required and
writing down a lot of equations that can be derived from more fundamental
principles. Comparing notes with another student or going over them with
me can be very helpful.
(4) Once you feel fairly firm on the concepts, focus your effort on any
particular problem-solving techniques with which you are having trouble.
Look at the homework solutions and figure out what was going on in any
cases where you were unsuccessful in applying the technique in question.
Then work a new problem for which you have access to a solution .
If you faithfully apply these methods for studying but find yourself completely
confused on a certain point, it is not an efficient use of your time to
keep on staring at the same thing.
Ben Crowell, Fullerton College [Author of the Original Version of the Article]