How to Study Physics

"How to Study Physics" by David R. Hubin and Charles Riddell, was published by the Learning Skills Center, Univ. of Texas at Austin, in 1977. This revision is by Lawrence C. Shepley, Physics Dept., Univ. of Texas, Austin, TX 78712. (He gratefully acknowledges the advice of Leslie Dickie, John Abbott College, Quebec; Kal Kallison, Learning Skills Center, UT Austin; and John Trimble, English Department, UT Austin.) It may be found online at Please feel free to browse Larry Shepley's homepage:, and please do send him your questions and comments on this document. Version of 7 October 1997.

You, like many students, may view college level physics as difficult. You, again like many students, may seem overwhelmed by new terms and equations. You may not have had extensive experience with problem-solving and may get lost when trying to apply information from your textbook and classes to an actual physics problem. We hope this pamphlet will help!

It's designed to help you stay out of the difficulties that come when you think small and get too involved in memorizing formulas or other specific details without understanding the underlying principles. It will guide you in understanding how to apply specific knowledge to the problems, how to start, how to seek help, how to check your answer. In short, it will help you develop the study skills that are important not just in physics but in all of your courses.


Getting an Overview
Effective Participation in a Physics Class
Reading Your Physics Textbook
Problem Solving in Physics
Examples of the Application of the Problem-Solving Principles
Effective Test Preparation
Weekly Flow Chart for Studying Physics

Getting an Overview

It's important to recognize that physics is a problem-solving discipline. Your physics teacher will stress major themes and principles, and one major goal is that you, the student, will be able to apply these principles to understand and solve problems. You should focus on this fact, that in a physics course, you are expected to solve problems.

An overview of your course can help you organize your efforts and increase your efficiency. To understand and retain data or formulas, you should see the underlying principles and connecting themes. It is almost inevitable that you will sometimes forget a formula, and an understanding of the underlying principle can help you generate the formula for yourself.

Take these steps to getting an overview early in the term so that all subsequent material can be integrated into your overview:

  1. Examine the course outline (first day handout or syllabus) carefully, and read the official description of the course in the University Catalog. Look for underlying themes or a pattern on which the course is developed and how this course fits in with your other courses.

  2. Preview the textbook:

    1. Read the introduction and table of contents.
    2. Read any notes to the student (or teacher) that are included and the preface.
    3. Check the course outline to see what chapters are assigned and which are omitted. If they are not assigned in the same order as in the table of contents, can you see a reason for your teacher's decision to alter the order of presentation?

  3. As you preview the course from this perspective early in the term, look for important themes and principles. Glance at some of the problems. How are important themes illustrated in these problems?

Effective Participation in a Physics Class

It's important that you be well prepared for class in order to use its potential fully for integrating the course material. To prepare for the class, you should do the following:

Prior to each class:

  1. Check the course outline or reading assignment to see what will be covered. Prepare by briefly previewing the sections of the textbook that apply to the subjects to be covered. This preview will improve your ability to follow the class, for you will have seen the new terminology and will recognize signposts that will help integrate the classes into an overall picture.

  2. Read the introduction and the summary of the relevant chapter and look at the section headings and subheadings. Try to formulate questions in your mind about the subjects to be covered. This question-formulating helps you manipulate and therefore better understand the material.

  3. Examine the drawings and pictures. Try to determine what principles they illustrate.

  4. Make notes of new words, new units of measure, statements of general laws, and other new concepts.

  5. Do not underline or highlight the text, since you do not yet know what will be emphasized by the instructor.

  6. Right before the beginning of class, check your notes from the last class. Reading your notes will prepare you to listen to the new physics class as part of an integrated course and will help you to see the broad development of themes.

During class:

    Come to the class on time and stay till the very end. Often teachers give helpful hints in the first and last minutes of the lecture. Unfortunately, these times are when a lot of people are not listening.

  1. Take good notes. It's helpful to draw up a set of abbreviations and use them consistently in taking notes. Keep a list of them for later reference. Leave ample margins for later comments and for questions or write on only one side so that you can use the opposite side for comments and questions (see After Class, below).
  2. When you copy drawings, completeness is worth more than careful artwork. You should not only copy what is on the board but also record important points that the teacher makes orally about the diagram.

  3. If you get behind in your note-taking, leave a space in your notes and go on. You can fill in your notes later with the help of a classmate or your textbook. (Note: The Learning Skills Center can give you additional information on note-taking.)

  4. Ask questions. Don't be embarrassed to ask your teacher questions. Many teachers depend on feedback from students to help them set a proper pace for the class. And of course it can happen that the teacher does not explain a step he or she takes, or even makes a mistake when writing something on the board.

After class:

  1. Immediately after class, or as soon as possible, review and edit your notes. You need not rewrite them. Rather, you should look for important ideas and relationships among major topics. Summarize these in the margin or on the opposite side if you've taken notes only on one side, and at this time you may want to add an outline to your notes. Also, this would be a good time to integrate notes from your textbook into your lecture notes; then you will have one set of integrated notes to study by.

  2. As you review your notes, certain questions may come to mind. Leave space for recording questions, and then either ask the teacher or even better, try to answer these questions for yourself with your friends and with the help of the text.

Reading Your Physics Textbook

Reading the text and solving homework problems is a cycle: Questions lead to answers that lead back to more questions. An entire chapter will often be devoted to the consequences of a single basic principle. You should look for these basic principles. These Laws of Nature give order to the physicists' view of the universe. Moreover, nearly all of the problems that you will be faced with in a physics course can be analyzed by means of one or more of these laws.

When looking for relationships among topics, you may note that in many instances a specific problem is first analyzed in great detail. Then the setting of the problem is generalized into more abstract results. When such generalizations are made, you should refer back to the case that was previously cited and make sure that you understand how the general theory applies to the specific problem. Then see if you can think of other problems to which that general principle applies. Some suggestions for your physics reading:

  1. Make use of the preview that you did prior to the class. Again, quickly look at the major points of the chapter. Think back to the points stressed in class and any questions you might have written down.

  2. Read the homework problems first. If specific homework problems have not yet been assigned, select several and look these over. Critically assess what principles seem to be most significant in the assigned chapter. Based upon your brief review of the class and your examination of the problems, try to generate questions in your mind that you want the chapter to answer.

  3. Read actively with questions in mind. A passive approach to reading physics wastes your time. Read with a pencil and paper beside the book to jot down questions and notes. If you find that you are not reading actively, once again take a look at the problems and the lecture notes. Read to learn, not to cover material.

  4. Stop periodically and pointedly recall the material that you have read. It is a good idea to repeat material aloud and especially to add notes from the textbook into the margins of your class notes.

  5. During your reading you will notice sections, equations, or ideas that apply directly to assigned problems. After you have read such a section, stop and analyze its application to a homework problem. The interplay of reading and problem solving is part of the cycle of question --> answer --> question. It helps you gain insights that are not possible by reading alone, even careful reading alone. Passive reading is simply following the chain of thought in the text. Active reading also involves exploring the possibilities of what is being read. By actively combining the questions that are inherent in problem solving with your reading, you enhance both your concentration while reading and your ability to recall and to apply the material.

Problem Solving in Physics

You may now be like many students a novice problem solver. The goal of this section is to help you become an expert problem solver. Effective, expert problem solving involves answering five questions: