How to learn physics?

25 January 2012 by Eric-Wubbo Lameijer, posted in Uncategorized

EinsteinTongue.jpg

Becoming a top scientist is not something that everyone aims for. Almost all of us, however, need to master some science, even if only to complete high school education. A while ago, for example, I met a high school student who was struggling with physics, which could become a major roadblock if she’d want to get admitted to studies such as medicine.

I guess some people would argue that she may have had too little talent, and that that’s too bad. However, the more I study the lives of top scientists, the more I notice that top scientists did not distinguish themselves from the masses by an extraordinary intellect or a special ‘gift’ for their field – they did however approach learning science differently than most of us do. So, can what we know about great physicists help even struggling physicis students get their bearing and become passable if not even excellent students?

How to learn physics?

High school, even at its best, can evoke mixed feelings in students; the fellow-students can be nice, interesting, or even sexy, some classes and teachers actually are fun, but learning is not always a smooth ride. In particular, one subject can be rather discouraging for students: physics. With lots of formulas and abstractions, it could be called the ogre amongst high school subjects, and not of the Shrek variety. However, physics can be necessary, and, at least in the Netherlands, good grades for physics can also be necessary if you want to go to a university study that selects on grades, such as medicine. So, how to become good in a difficult subject?

1) First of all, if you happen to be a girl, beware of ‘stereotype threat’, which is more or less the collective prejudice in a society about girls and physics/maths. In reality, there does not seem to be a noticeable difference between math and physics performance between boys and girls, at least when girls are tricked into thinking that a maths test is not about maths. Stereotype threat tends to give people a feeling of unease, which distracts from thinking about and paying attention to the questions. Quite a lot has been written about stereotype threat, for now the best solution seems to be to be aware of its existence (I’ve written something more elaborate down on my Dutch education blog, http://go2people.nl/weblog/2011/08/24/stereotypie-detox-ook-voor-hogere-cijfers/). Perhaps, if you follow a lesson or make a test and you feel nervous, it may help to briefly ‘talk’ to your nervousness to make it less scary, for example ‘Hello, stereotype threat, who happens to be in my head as I probably watched too many 1960s TV-shows, as you will be nagging and whining at me whatever I do, you may feel free to make me nervous, but it’s not useful for me to pay attention to you; much better to pay my attention to the lesson/test, where it is needed. And I don’t think I need to worry; I will get rid of you in a few months, as my understanding of physics and my grades will improve, to prove that you’re just prejudiced and wrong’. Feel free to think up of some other lines that more accurately summarize your feelings, my version may seem overly flippant, as stereotype threat is a serious problems for (western) girls in physics classes, just remember that humor is one of the best ways to handle fear.

2) Realize that it is normal to be bored by physics. While kids until 8-10 years old love science (just visit a science museum like NEMO in Amsterdam on a Wednesday afternoon), once puberty hits, normal adolescents start to find their peers and opposite-sex peers much more interesting than formulas. That’s quite logical, since it was not sensible in our evolutionary past to pay attention to formulas while your best friend was seducing that hot group member, especially if people generally were eaten or such before age 20. Being bored by physics is therefore natural, the way of life, unless you have a home environment or peers that just love physics, or you don’t have many social skills (like Newton and young Einstein did) so you don’t have exciting friendships to distract you from studying. You can make physics more fun (I’ll explain more about that below), but for now realize that if you are bored in physics class, it doesn’t mean that you are stupid or ‘have no physics talent’, it just means that you are a normal, healthy, well-rounded human being. Once you realize that, and still choose to master physics for whatever reason, you are better equipped emotionally to do the things that are not ‘normal’ or ‘average’, but which do work for learning physics.

3) Master your maths. I know that it’s not a nice message, but to be good in physics, first ensure that you’re good at maths. This is ‘parts-before-whole’-learning; if in physics class you need to learn both physics and the maths methods needed, your brain may be overloaded. So you may want to start by focusing on getting your maths up to date, physics will be easier then. Einstein started with maths, Enrico Fermi started with maths, and you yourself will also probably find that physics is easier if you have a solid maths background. Even for maths there are fun/interesting/inspiring books, one specific tip for maths would be to try visualize things: x^2+4=8 becomes less scary if you draw a diagram with a normal parabola (y=x^2), shift it up by 4, and then draw the y=8 line. It’s not too hard then to see and understand that the solutions are x=2 and x=-2. Most if not all math can be visualized, and if you find the right way to visualize a problem correctly, you’re already a long way towards solving it.

4) Read/do more than is necessary. Schoolbooks and lessons can be nice, but they’re not always clear, let alone inspiring. However, there are plenty of good, easy or ‘popularly written’ books on physics in the library, in second-hand bookshops (like the Dutch ‘De Slegte’), and resources like blogs and cheap e-books on the internet, or lectures by great physics teachers like Nobel-prize winner Richard Feynman. First of all, by having those books and youtube videos showing/telling about things in alternative and supplementary ways to your regular classes, you’ll have a greater chance to understand an idea, to feel the ‘click’. Secondly, good teachers and reading materials will increase interest by either linking physics to life, show surprising facts, or inspire through the enthusiasm and sense of wonder that good physicists have.

5) Consider to read a book also on the history of physics. High school physics can easily be confusing or boring since you don’t know the background of the formulas and concepts. It’s like what would happen if you watch an episode of a soap series without knowing that in the past, the stunt double of the secret protege of the evil (presumed dead) twin sister of the former fiancee of the illegitimate son of the main character with her main competitor is trying to get her hands on the money robbed by the second-cousin twice removed of the third husband of the neighbour she had when still living in Arizona. Understanding how physics has grown, from the basics like ‘why do apples fall to the ground’ and ‘do sound and light go infinitely fast’, will not only help to clarify where all those abstract, weird concepts come from and why they’re useful, but you may also get sympathy for the lives and problems that the great physicists faced.

6) Ensure that you have sufficient time for studying, preferably sometimes even a longer time block; if you want to keep up with physics, it can be a good idea to spend an afternoon, a day, or even an entire weekend reading through your physics books; since you’ll brain be stimulated then by all different concepts, it will be easier for you to see the links than if you spend just 5 minutes a day on physics. This is also why crash courses for example exam preparation can help people understand a subject better; the closeness in time of refreshing your memory on all different concepts makes it easier to connect concepts which are related but are treated in different chapters.

7) Nevertheless, don’t overstrain your motivation. As soon as your attention wanes, take a break or try something else. If you can’t pay attention anymore, learning stops automatically anyway. Your attention span will automatically increase anyway the more you learn and understand of physics. A useful trick may be to bring yourself in a good mood before you start studying, for example by listening to your favourite music or whatever gives you energy; your motivation and attention will last longer that way.

8) While many maths and physics teachers discourage memorization and emphasize that you need to grow understanding, in reality it helps to know facts, often, understanding will automatically follow if you have accumulated enough relevant facts in your brain [and understanding is kind of a fact as well, as it can be forgotten]. There has been quite some research on how to learn facts in an efficient way, I myself use a spaced respetion system of my own design. Basically, I create a text file in advance containing definitions and useful facts, like “force Usually designated by the letter F, the unit of force is Newton, which is kg.m/s^2, as according to Newton’s third law F=m.a. You usually see that an object is under the influence of a (net) force if it is accelerating or decelerating in some direction” The system then presents me with “force”, I try to answer the question, and press a button to see the answer. If I answer incorrectly, I press ‘n’, and the question will be asked ijn the next repetition I take (for example, the next day). If I press ‘y’, the question will only be asked in a day, a week, a month or a few months. While this may seem lots of work, it is actually the most efficient (least in seconds per fact) way currently to get knowledge memorized; and the more you know, the more easily you will understand physics, and the more ‘aha’ moments you’ll have. Complementary to spaced repetition systems and ‘rote memorization’ you can also strengthen the memory of physics concepts by using questions, such as ‘what does this mean exactly? How does it work? Where do you see it/what are examples of it? By what can it be counteracted? Are there counterexamples? When learning things about physics, you will make learning new things about it both easier (because there are more ’hooks’ to attach the new knowledge to) and more fun, as the connection of new with old knowledge stimulates the mu-opoid receptors.

9) Seek difficult problems, not only mere exercises. Exercises from physics books can be useful, but can also be boring. So keep an eye on truly complex high school problems, for example in the physics olympiad (like at http://www.physics.ox.ac.uk/olympiad/Downloads/PastPapers/Olympiad%20Paper%201.pdf) Yes, struggling with those problems can be hard, but it can be quite fun exactly because it’s difficult. 11-year-old Einstein spent a few weeks trying to prove Pythagoras’ theorem by himself, which was of course not necessary as Pythagoras and his friends had done all the necessary work to prove it already, but it was fun and challenging to young Albert. Challenges help motivation and can make learning more fun (if physics olympiad questions are yet too hard, start with easier ones, but whatever you choose, choose challenging/hard problems once in a while, it helps concentration, and it also makes regular school and exam questions seem trivially easy).

10) Surround yourself with physics/seek the physics in everyday life. When in high school, I collected periodic tables, and had a large periodic table (on radionucleids) hanging on the wall opposite my bed. While most people would never be that ‘nerdy’, such symbols can help jog your memory on the importance or interestingness of a subject. A less visible but probably more powerful method is to look for physics in everyday life. If you walk the streets on a winter evening, you can feel gravity pulling your weight downward, and the normal force of the tiles pushing you upwards in response; the cold wind biting your face, making sure that you lose heat to your environment not only by infrared radiation (which you always do, unless it’s so hot outside that you receive more infrared radiation from your environment than you emit yourself), but also through the convection through the air currents. You can hear the doppler effect of sirens in the distance, and the higher refraction of light with shorter wavelengths in the blue of the sky. While this may not make physics easier, it will make it more impressive and memorable and relevant, which may help your study.

Final remarks

Many students regard high school physics like a kind of curse, one can however also see it as a blessing, especially if you’re not naturally enthusiastic for the subject. Physics forces you to deal with complicated, boring stuff, and thereby can push you to refine and improve your study strategies. Besides, in whatever profession you’ll be later, you’ll occasionally need to learn boring, complicated things. I wouldn’t want to be operated upon by a surgeon who told me that he ‘kinda skipped’ the appendicitis instruction ‘because it was kind of boring and difficult, you know…’ And who knows? You may discover that physics is not as boring as most people think it is…


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