Learning Physics

Physics is not a difficult subject to learn. Anyone of average intelligence could understand all the concepts in an undergraduate physics major. The difficulty in introductory physics courses is that they do require work.

A student in an introductory physics course should be focusing on gaining an understanding of the concepts. The examples worked out for you in the classroom and textbook demonstrate how the concepts apply to solving problems. The homework and recitation problems are to help you practice solving problems by yourself using the concepts. The quiz and test problems are graded based on how well you communicate your understanding of the concepts.

It seems to me (without having taken any engineering courses) that the focus of engineering courses is on getting answers to problems. In physics, this is NOT the case: numerical answers are nowhere near as important as expressing concepts.

A shortcut to learning the concepts:

Reading the textbook material on a given topic before the topic is discussed in lecture will save you time! Although the concepts are not difficult, students often get confused with them on the first exposure. After a few times thinking about the concept, most students learn it by having an epiphany. (The student thinks "Oh! That's what this is about. This is easy!" In my tutoring experiences, when explaining a concept to students, I've heard this many times.) If you read the material and are confused, don't worry too much: your epiphany may come during lecture. If you did read the material, then paid attention during lecture, and you still don't understand then raise your hand and ask the instructor! If you ask a specific question (e.g. "How did you get from the third to the fourth equation?") you show the instructor that you are interested in learning the concept, not that you are unprepared or stupid. Also, I guarantee you that, if you are still confused about a concept that you read and heard presented in lecture, you are not the only one confused. Your question will help your classmates, too.

This is the most common study advice and somehow URI students don't seem to use it very often. Most think that going to class and maybe paying attention will suffice. They read the material only for concepts they didn't understand in class (if at all). This takes more time, as you have to keep re-reading the same presentation and hope for the epiphany from that. There is no instructor present to get help from.

What not to do:

The worst approach to physics I have seen is to attend lectures and then take a plug & chug approach to the minimum required problems. The plug & chug approach is, after reading the statement of a problem, looking for a similar example and following similar steps to arrive at a similar answer. This approach ignores concepts and looks for answers.

A final thought:

The most important thing to keep in mind about taking a physics course is this:

You are showing that you have the ability to THINK!

I have heard many times (as a tutor or recitation pseudo-TA) "Isn't there just some formula we can use?" or something like it. The answer sometimes is no, there is no simple formula for this problem. PHY 203, 204 and 205 each have some problems that cannot be solved simply, but can be solved after some thought. If you cannot think or are unwilling to think, you should forget about any career or any major that requires physics (or any math above the pre calculus level, for that matter).