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How do you guys learn Physics

  1. May 23, 2010 #1

    I was wondering if anyone could share how they go about learning new topics in physics.

    It is essential to read the textbook? I dont see the purpose of reading the textbook other than copying the formulas. This is how i see it, if you read the textbook and think you understand the theory but cant solve the problems, time was wasted reading the book.

    Any suggestions would be appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 24, 2010 #2
    Study groups wouldn't be a bad idea. But . . .

    "Learning how to solve problems is absolutely essential; you don't know physics unless you can do physics." (Freedman)

    You have to keep solving physics problems. The concepts will then stick in your head.
    1. Read the book
    2. Go to the problems
    3. Review what you don't understand
  4. May 24, 2010 #3
    When I need to learn new topics in physics, I read papers and/or go to colloquia. But I'm guessing you're thinking more about undergrad stuff. I can tell you what I did, but keep in mind that different people learn differently.

    I always paid attention in class, since I tend to learn better from a lecturer than a textbook. So like you, I didn't really feel any need to read textbooks all that much. I also did as many problems from the books as time allowed me, and worked with other people. That's about it. For me there were no tricks or anything; I found that my performance in class was pretty strongly correlated to how many homework problems I did.
  5. May 24, 2010 #4
    For my upper division courses, I usually start on the homework problems first and then go back and read when I get stuck. Reading the book before working problems is about the same as listening to a lecture; it can work (better for some people than others), but typically not nearly as well as working through problems and asking specific questions.
  6. May 24, 2010 #5


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    Regarding studying: No, reading the textbook is not essential. If you understand the concepts and are able to apply them without reading the text, then by all means, do not spend time studying something you already know how to do.

    On the other hand, the book is a resource. Don't ignore it. Physics requires one to see things from many different angles. Sometimes the text will give me other useful perspectives and methods for solving a given problem set. It'll do you well to be able to have many different ways of approaching a problem. I prefer to have as much information at my disposal as possible. I also thoroughly enjoy the subject, so increasing my knowledge is very satisfying.
  7. May 27, 2010 #6
    I like reading the book. I find it helps me to better understand the principles and prepares me for the lectures, which are then better cemented in my head. But then, I didn't call myself Girlygeek for no reason...
  8. Feb 10, 2011 #7
    ok, so how can i improve my understanding of a concept?
  9. Feb 10, 2011 #8
    Think about it. Literally. Don't just read the textbook -- attempt to synthesize what you know with the new concept. For instance, an obvious case in understanding Coulomb's Law is to associate it with Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation.
  10. Feb 10, 2011 #9
    lol, sounds like you need to learn how to learn before you can learn physics.
  11. Feb 10, 2011 #10


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    Once you've read the section and have an understanding, do lots of problems. As you do more, you'll learn the different subtleties that make solving physics problems easy. Things like knowing how to take shortcuts, bypass messy integrals, what formulas/laws apply to what situations, etc. You need to understand the concepts, but you also need to build up experience applying them.

    Textbooks are one resource; instructors are another, and of course there's PF.
  12. Feb 10, 2011 #11
    I am slowly realizing, I usually just keep drilling problems and feeling like I am getting no better, I keep getting help and reading up on the book more. Then the test gets closer and closer, I feel backed into a corner. Then I end up starting to tie off a little bit like a day or 2 before the test. Though I still feel underprepared for the test, I somehow during the test, end up doing well. Then look back and say, how in the world did that happen? So, really, I have no idea. I just keep doing stuff until test day and that seems to work.
  13. Feb 11, 2011 #12
    If you think you understand the theory but can't do problems then you like most people have an inflated view of your understanding. Fact is that people in general don't understand much at all in physics classes and instead just sees them as maths classes with more letters. I'd say that you don't understand a concept till you can use it to solve problems foreign to you, so basically once you understand all concepts in the book you don't need to study any more since you can solve the test problems just from the concepts.
    Last edited: Feb 11, 2011
  14. Feb 11, 2011 #13
    I usually don't read the book either. I pay attention and take good notes in class which I use for the homework problems. Occasionally there is something in the homework which was not covered in class, and then I will go to the book. I learn physics by doing a bunch of problems. When studying for a test, I just do the homework problems over (and over) again along with the examples done in class.
  15. Feb 11, 2011 #14


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    My standard method for studying physics usually goes like this:

    1. Read relevant section in text (ideally before lecture). Just try to get the broad picture and understand the importance of what you're reading. Details come later.

    2. If not self studying, go to lecture on that material.

    3. Reread relevant sections, filling in all missing details. If the author says, "it can be shown that..." I always , with a few exceptions depending on time constraints, try to show show it.

    4. Do problems based on that material.

    5. Get some type of advice on any problems I'm stuck on, whether its from friends professors, PF, etc. etc. Then, I make sure I understand everything I missed.

    Its slow going but works for me. I've been using it to study physics since I was a sophomore and am now teaching myself some QFT and going about it the same way.
  16. Feb 11, 2011 #15
    This. I struggle with blindly using formulas without knowing why or how they work. I'm way too mathematical for that.
  17. Feb 11, 2011 #16
    I think this is what many people don't understand.When you read the book you must fill in whats missing from the derivations and also do whatever derivation the author asks.If you do this you usually find out that you solved most of the derivation type problems at the end of the chapter already.
  18. Feb 11, 2011 #17
    I'm confused by what you mean. Even my Halliday/Resnick physics book shows derivations of all kinds of formulas.
  19. Feb 12, 2011 #18
    A lot will not show it fully though. They will say, by doing this integral or something to the extent. They also say a lot of using these equations can be combined and turned into this other one.
  20. Feb 12, 2011 #19
    I've three things which I think help me, all closely related to repitition.

    1. Do things fast first to get a general idea and then go back and do things properly, filling in the gaps of the first run through.

    2. When solving problems I can sometimes see the point in sitting with the same problem for a long time. However, I've found that for me a good technique is to put the problem away. When I get back to it it is usually much easier even though I might not have studied in between.

    3. I've had the good fortune to have friends in lower grades and I've often tried to teach them what I remember thereby learning a lot.

    I would also like to add a comment on that I've found it very hard to evaluate my own performace exept in terms of grades, which I don't think is a great indicator but it has worked well in that respect. What I've found is that I think my long term retention is poor while my friends think it is good and that one should be cautious when listening to advice on how to learn based on people's experience.
  21. Feb 14, 2011 #20
    I try to find errors or contradictions in the book; if the book is good, then when I find one it usually means I've misunderstood something until I prove myself wrong.
  22. Feb 14, 2011 #21
    I can't believe I'm the only one who seems to think textbooks are not optional.

    There is just no way you can learn as much from a lecture you attend cold, than from reading a good textbook. If you think you can learn new material from a lecture, you are saying you could learn the same material from a textbook by reading it at the same speed you would read, say, a non-fiction magazine article.

    If you can do that, great, you're a genius. But I suspect that the reason people here don't seem to like physics texts is because they have to slow way down when they read them, because the material is so dense. So they cover much more material in an hour of lecture than they do in an hour of reading a text.

    But it just doesn't make sense that a prof who is writing as he talks, and spends five minutes talking about the logistics of the next few labs and exams, and ten minutes answering questions from people who missed the last class, can cover anywhere near the amount of material that you could read in an hour. If he does, then OBVIOUSLY he is just hitting the high points. You are not getting the depth you would from a text.

    Imagine that when you sign up for a physics class, you can also pick your prof -- not just from the two or three teaching that class at your school, but from the whole world. And that at each lecture, you're not getting whatever quality of lecture he happens to give that day, but his very best thoughts on the subject that he has revised and polished over many years. And that you never miss a word he says because you're taking notes or because somebody next to you asks to borrow a pencil, and you can make him repeat things as many times as it takes until you understand it.

    And if it's still unclear, you can get the second best prof to come in and explain it another way. And if you *still* don't get it, you can go down the line of the world's greatest teachers until you do.

    That's reading textbooks.

    The only thing a book can't teach you is the hands-on aspects of experiments, but that's what labs are for.

    Of course, I am assuming that your goal is to learn physics. If that is just a secondary goal, and your main concern is what grade you get, then I guess the books aren't as important. But even if you're just grubbing for grades and mentors, the books will help.

    You'll be able to ask much better questions in class, maybe even impress the prof and help your academic career down the road, if you've read a good text on the same material already. You can ask about nuances, instead of the basics. If you can't get the basics from looking at a couple or three texts, then you may not be cut out for physics.
  23. Feb 14, 2011 #22
    The best I can say, is keep rotating between working on problems yourself, asking a prof for help, reading the book, and just thinking about how it works and why it works. Rince and repeat until you know how to do them without any doubt.
  24. Feb 15, 2011 #23
    And don't underestimate the power of that "just thinking about how it works and why it works" part. Ask yourself a lot of questions. Make sure you know exactly why you're doing whatever method you're doing and why it works.

    And don't memorize formulas, think about where the formulas came from and try to derive them for yourself.
  25. Feb 15, 2011 #24
    Ding ding ding, we have a winner.
  26. Feb 18, 2011 #25
    Things didn't stick for me but I underestimated the power of textbooks, and I mean the plural. I read the textbook and then, if it doesn't stick, I go and read it in another, and so on. I was amazed at how this helped me.
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