Physics is viewed as a difficult field of study, especially for those who encounter it at the university level for the first time as a one-semester to three-semester requirement for other majors such as engineering, computer science, or astronomy, or in preparation for medical school. The following are important issues and tips to help learn physics.
I speak from experience as a student myself who earned a doctorate in physics after publishing nine peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals, and who taught nine semesters worth of physics in labs, lectures, and open discussion sessions at the undergraduate level. I focus here on those who are encountering physics for the first time, but some of these ideas are still applicable for more advanced students.
1. Do Not Be Hard on Yourself
This proper mindset is very important since it forms the foundation for everything else. Physics is usually among the toughest classes someone may encounter in their academic studies, since it requires conceptual understanding of physics concepts, along with both mechanical application and conceptual understanding mathematics. These are all difficult independently, and even more so when combined, especially when these are the very first time you encountered these physical concepts or mathematical techniques. Add to this homework sets, exams, grades, and comparing yourself to others, and it becomes a stressful nightmare.
It’s okay to be slow in understanding since you may be overthinking some issues, or the lecture or book did not explain in a way that was easy for you to understand. Give yourself plenty of time.
It’s okay to be partially wrong, or even “completely” wrong at first, since being wrong helps in learning and reinforcing the concept from another angle that you will know is wrong. Just as important as being correct is knowing what is wrong, so being wrong is not a wasted effort.
Just think of the first time you tried to learn anything new, such as how to ride a bicycle, how to swim, how to ski, or even how to control a new video game. You had no idea and were slow learning the first movements. You made tons of mistakes. Then after some practice, you could move a bit faster and made less mistakes. After a while, seemingly impossible or complex tasks were effortless. This is the same thing in learning physics. In both the physical cases and in learning physics, you just need to let the neurons in your brain be exposed to patterns of firings to solidify their connections.
Do not compare yourself to others. You’ll encounter others who can pick it up faster or make less mistakes. They might have taken these classes before, or have been exposed partially to these concepts or math. It is not a competition to see how fast or easily you can learn. Just strive to move a bit forward in your understanding each time. Sometimes this may involve stopping and doing something else, such as sleeping, to let your brain absorb and process these ideas.
2. Is Your Math Background Sufficient?
Many times difficulty in physics comes from not having enough math background. At the introductory levels, math “ability” is usually not the issue compared to mathematics “education.”
Make sure you have the math prerequisites stated for the course. If you feel you are having trouble with the math, consider spending extra time learning those math concepts independently, so you are free to apply them in physics.
3. Allow for Multiple Passes of Material
When encountering physics material in lectures, it’s 100% okay if you do not fully understand the ideas. You just want to get exposure to them. This also applies to reading the material in a textbook or lecture notes. Your first reading should be fast. You can skim or even skip parts if they are too difficult since you do not need to worry about fully understanding all of it.
I like to think of it as a four-part process to first get started.
First, get exposed to material through the lectures and a first fast reading of printed material. (It’s OK if you don’t fully understand.)
Second, try to follow some specific problems. (It’s OK if you can’t fully solve it.)
Third, read more deeply and slowly. (You will have the experience of a first pass through and an attempt at solving a specific problems, so this reading will be more valuable.)
Fourth, try the problems again.
Usually at this time, you would’ve understood it enough to work through the steps. If not, reread and try again, as many times as you feel is necessary, but only as long as you feel you are making progress. If you are stuck and you feel extra effort won’t help, then that’s the time to seek help from other students, the teaching assistant, or the professor.
4. Solve Beginning and Representative Problems
In any new topic, make sure you have some beginning and representative problems examples to start with, about 3–5 problems. If you have much more than this, it’s usually split into more lectures or chapters. If it’s less than this, you might not have enough useful problems from which to learn. You want to be able to fully understand these problems, since they’ll allow you to understand more complex problems in that area.
It is not enough to understand physics concepts at a high level, but to work through specific problems with the actual calculations. The actual mechanical calculations will give you a deeper appreciation of the physical concepts.
5. Try to Understand Instead of Memorize (A Bit of Memorizing is OK)
Whenever you understand a physical concept and how to work through an actual problem with equations and numbers, try to envision the problem-solving process from beginning to end. Start with the problem definition. List what the known parts of the problem is. List what you are trying to figure out. Now go walk through it step-by-step in your mind. You can go slowly at first, but it’ll get easier.
6. Try to Visualize Problems
For example, let’s consider projectile motion. Visualize yourself throwing a baseball away from you. What’s happening? It arcs away from you. There’s a component that’s going up in the air (usually denoted by the y-direction) and a component that’s traveling away from you (usually denoted by the x-direction). Does the baseball go up forever? Of course not. It must come back down until it hits the ground.
This seems like a simple tip, but it’s important. It’s easy to get lost when cranking through equations, and forget that the physics problem that can be visualized.
7. Think of Extreme Cases: What If?
A physics problem involves defining specific variables with specific values. Take the projectile motion with baseball case from above. What happens if you throw it straight up and there’s no horizontal motion? What happens if you throw it horizontally only with no upward motion? What if you had great strength and can throw it up at a high speed? What if there was no gravity? What if gravity were very strong?
You want to check these extreme cases, or edge cases, to see what happens.
8. Does It Make Sense?
After you’ve completed the calculations of your physics problem, you will get a number that is the answer. Does that final answer make sense compared to your everyday experience? Are the units correct?
If not, step through and think through your problem solving process. Did you make the right assumptions? Can you walk through each of the steps? Did you skip a step?
9. Retention: Revisit Material and Problems
After you’ve learned material and successfully solved problems with actual calculations, it’s very easy to forget it. So that you don’t waste all the hard work, you can retain the learning with just a bit more effort to revisit the material and redo the problems. Ideally, you’d do this a few days after, then a couple of weeks after, then a couple of months after. Each time, you’ll find that it’ll be a bit easier and you have to go walkthrough less of it since you’ll intuitively feel like you understand deeper. Practically, you may only revisit once more, which is better than not revisiting.
If you’re studying physics for a major, you’ll return to encounter the same concepts later, but with more advanced mathematics, such as partial differential equations instead of algebra or simple derivatives and integrals. In fact, higher level physics in classes can be viewed as revisiting material with more math using more powerful mathematical notation.
I hope this article was enough to get you started. If you have any other tip, comments, or feedback, please let me know in the comments section below.