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Adjusting to university teaching and learning

  1. Aug 21, 2014 #1

    Just a bit of background, I'm preparing to go to Durham University in the UK, (I'm a UK student, did GCSEs, Alevel etc. Only mention in the vague chance there may be someone who has studied at Durham / studied in the UK and can give me more detailed advice / information)

    I am really concerned about how I would adapt to the lecture style of teaching. I have always been a sort of learner where I would copy as much as I can in order to try and learn afterwards but reading around this method is actively discouraged as it is time consuming as is of little benefit. Is there any recommendations on how to learn Physics whilst getting to know the material, before I start doing problems? Especially how to get more from a lecture, bar the essential read the topic before you enter the lecture, as I am not a good visual or auditory learner.

    Furthermore I am worried about how I will do. I will consistently argue that the reason for my good grades pre-University education is because of my very high work ethic and not my natural ability, is there a way which I can help nurture my natural ability and intuition towards Physics, especially as a student who feels / grades reflect is better at Maths than Physics.

    Many Thanks
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 21, 2014 #2
    If the website is anything to go by, it looks like you picked a good place to go!

    "The lecture material will be explicitly linked to the contents of a single recommended textbook for the module, thus making clear where students can begin their private study."


    I've never seen a "mode of teaching" better expressed; they look as if they really care about helping their students.
  4. Aug 21, 2014 #3


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    It seems like you will have access to the lecture material outside of the textbook, so there is no sense copying what you can read already.
    Lecturers are all different, and in a 100-lecture course you will probably have several for different topics. The skill is picking up the style of each one, and only making notes on what you really need, and what isn't available elsewhere.

    Don't paint yourself into a corner by giving yourself labels like "not a good visual or auditory learner". Better to discover how you can get the most out of any source of information. Unless you have been medically assessed as having special needs, the rest of the world won't always adjust itself to your preferences.
  5. Aug 23, 2014 #4
    Thanks for the help guys, sorry about the lateness, I'm all over the place getting ready for Uni.

    Would you have any tips on getting the most out of what you see / hear, such as the active listening idea?
  6. Aug 23, 2014 #5


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    The material in first year lectures will probably be available in textbooks. So note in advance that the opinions I'm about to express assume that students aren't desperately dependent on lecture sessions.

    In my experience you can't get any deep authentic learning out of math or physics lectures, and this can't really be helped. For example, if you're in your first year and you go into a 3 hour lecture about special relativity then the professor might do the following:

    [1] Derive the Lorentz transform: ##x' = {x - ut \over \sqrt{1 - u^2/c^2}}, t' = {t - {ux / c^2} \over \sqrt{1 - u^2/c^2}}##

    [2] Derive the relativistic velocity transform: ##v = {(v' + u) / (1 + {uv'\over c^2})}##

    [3] Carry out one of the many thought experiments that suggests ##p = mv/\sqrt{1 - v^2/c^2}##

    [4] Prove that under relativistic work is governed by ##W = \Delta KE = {mc^2 \over \sqrt{1 - {v_2}^2/c^2}} - {mc^2 \over \sqrt{1 - v_1^2/c^2}} = E_2 - E_1##

    [5] Prove that energy-momentum is Lorentz invariant: ##p^2 - E^2/c^2 = {p'}^2 - {E'}^2/c^2##

    Here are some of the pressures that students will be under when attending such a lecture:

    (1) The algebraic derivations of items like [1] and [4] are fairly involved, and attempting to copy them from the board verbatim will necessarily take your full attention, leaving no spare brain power for learning.

    (2) The thought experiments behind items like [3] are extremely taxing on a person's visual-spatial reasoning. The only way to wrap your head around visually intensive concepts is to give yourself 20-30 minutes of quiet time to think, draw, and analyze (which a lecture doesn't allow for).

    (3) Items like [2] and [5] lead to many interesting implications about the nature of mass and spacetime, but these implications can be subtle, and they might initially seem vague or borderline philosophical: "Energy and mass are the same," or "The Lorentz transform is like a rotation in spacetime". When the concepts at hand are authentically foreign a math or physics lecture can feel like an Italian history class, given in Italian.

    At the same time though, there are a lot of things that you can get out of a lecture:

    {1} You can remain more engaged if you give up on taking detailed notes. Instead of mindlessly copying a long derivation, try to just follow the mathematics in your head. When you're more engaged and less note-focused you'll be able to come up with interesting questions. For example, you can ask if [1] can be generalized to multiple dimensions, or why it is that all of the relativity equations seem to have terms which explode to infinity when ##v' \geq c## or ##v \geq c##, except for [2], which oddly seems not to have any such terms. These are all interesting questions that you might not think to ask if you're always trying to frantically keep up with copying long derivations. Engaging with the material is more likely to lead to mental breakthroughs.

    {2} Every professor will have his own personal take on a given subject, and they'll often share tricks and interpretations that won't be found in textbook material. The professor might mention that ##m = m_0/\sqrt{1 - v^2/c^2}## used to be interpreted to mean that mass grows with velocity, but that today the interpretation is no longer popular among working physicists, though it remains in textbooks, just because some textbooks haven't caught up yet. You might also If anything, write these insights down in your notes, because you won't find them anywhere else.

    {3} You can always just passively write down things like "Energy is mass (E=mc^2)" and "The Lorentz transform is like a rotation." But if you can keep your mind active then you can ask questions like "Is it just kinetic energy that has an associated mass, or can potential energy also equate to mass?" Or perhaps "Why exactly is the Lorentz transform like a rotation? What other sorts of transforms are rotation-like, and what fundamental property should a transform have in order to be likened to a rotation."

    {4} Lectures can be a good place to socialize. If you get there early and stay a bit late you can chat and get to know people, or find study groups.

    {5} Finally, and most importantly, a lecture can be great even if you come out of it slightly confused. You can treat your post-lecture state of mind as a skeleton upon which to then build a full understanding of the material (which usually has to be done via independent studying).

    In summary, you can get a lot out of lectures if you treat them as supplementary instead of primary. That's how I treat them, though some people might give very different advice. It's also true that for some courses with sparse textbook material the lectures might have to be treated as more primary.
    Last edited: Aug 24, 2014
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