How do you study physics most efficiently?

In summary, the conversation is discussing different methods for effectively studying physics material in a limited amount of time. The participants mention approaches such as briefly reviewing theory and then diving into problem solving, or continuously reviewing theory until it is fully understood before practicing problems. They also suggest finding a logical and well-structured textbook, taking notes and making summaries, and using problem sets for exam review. Ultimately, the key to success seems to be deeply understanding the material and thinking about it from multiple perspectives.
  • #1
So how do you all learn/understand and be able to recall the material with using the least amount of time?

How do you approach the material, how do you practice, what do you ask yourself when understanding?

I'm currently in an E and M calculus based physics class, and we've been going over the E and B fields, and there's a lot of information to muster. I don't know exactly how I study right now, it just seems convoluted, but if I tell myself to work in a system I think it'd help me, and I thought of a couple methods.

Is it better to go over the theory briefly and have a okay understanding of it, then go directly into quite a bit of problem solving by having itself logicially make sense afterwards (hands on approach). Or is it better to continuously go over the theory until you have a solid understanding, then do a couple problems where you apply it.

What do you think's the best way to balance your time out when studying physics?
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  • #2
I'm not sure if my way is for all people, but at least I had a big success with a minimal amount of time (people were betting I would be beaten by various fellows judging by the amount of work I did - however I came top of the total year):

Never do exercises after reading the theory just *briefly*! You might pick up a lot of misconceptions or get stuck with patterns. Exercises are only there to show you where you have gaps in your knowledge.

So if you can't do the exercise, go back to theory. If you can do the exercise, you don't really have to do it (unless you want to check that you really know what's going on)

First, go to the library and look through all books in the shelf, skip through it and pick the one that is most logical. Most of the time teacher recommendations are close to the syllabus, but not very well structured.
I'm not entirely sure what your class is about, but maybe
helps. A standard reference is
but not sure if the latter is good for studying.

Read the book and take notes. You should be aware of that you learn nothing from just reading. You only learn by thinking about it and structuring the information.

So first, when reading the book take notes. Then look at your notes and make a summary. Find connections. And here comes the most important trick: Make summaries of summaries. This way you keep thinking and structuring the material.

If you can, leave your notes for a few days and then look at them again. If you don't know what's going on at the very first glance, then you have to restructure the notes and make them clearer. You can find a way to use colours to emphasize key concepts and formulas.

Always try to think what algorithm you would use to solve the most general question possible. You need a full plan in advance to solving actual questions.

So basically at first problem questions only show you what you haven't learned, later - after enough theory - they show you little gaps and make you think again, and in the end problem questions let you practice your structured concepts.

But by the time you switch to practicing, you should have though so much about the theory, that you hardly have to practice anymore.

PS: in my view it's the key error in some countries that pupils at school are taught by example rather than abstract theory. For example see
and related links. In Germany it's especially bad in natural sciences. And I agree, when I get students for private math lessons, the hardest part is usually to make them forget all their rigid misconceptions about pseudo-math rules.

PPS: I made some EM notes for myself. It might be useless for you as it's only an outline to my own thoughts, but maybe you pick up and interesting idea or question from it. I can send you the PDF if EM Physics is your topic. And btw, I use LaTeX to type my notes, because the "leave notes alone - then look and rearrange if they are not clear the first glance" is the crucial step and with computer written notes you can modify easily. It looks like a lot of work, but on the other hand I did hardly any exercises and you never will forget what you've written down.
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  • #3
The way I've always done it is to read through the section quickly without spending too much time on anything that confuses me, then working some problems. Usually I find that I didn't absorb the material and I don't know how to do the problem, so I go back and read the sections that I need and this time spend as much time as necessary to complete the problem.
  • #4
A lot of people don't like doing this, but I just soak in the physics. You really need a good book to be able to do this, the kind of book that can raise questions involving *details* in your mind. No, not directly ask you them, but the book ought to be written in such a way that you naturally stop and think about the implications of some statement or graph.

The moment you get those little questions, don't dismiss them. Soak in them.

Of course, you have to do your problem sets too, and for exam review the best method is practicing problems. But for insight, soak in the physics.

Grab a copy of the Feynman Lectures (pirate it, buy it, or grab a library copy). They're written in an informal style that's very conducive to what I was speaking of.
  • #5

everybody is different. I usually use a couple of books on the same subject: one for priamry reading and the others for clarification. It turns out that actually doing every problem at the end of chapter isn't necessary if you have intimate knowledge of the subject. What I have done in the past is look at the problems in the back of chapter and do the ones that I don't know how to do.

  • #6
JaWiB said:
The way I've always done it is to read through the section quickly without spending too much time on anything that confuses me, then working some problems.
I would strongly advice against such learning, but as said, maybe people are different and need are successful with different styles.

In my view "anything that confuses" is the actual key to understanding physics. You should concentrate on exactly these bits.

And never agree if someone says that are two incompatible models. All models in physics can be connected. For example there is no such thing as a wave-particle duality in quantum mechanics. It's all just one thing, namely a wavefunction with all its implications.

PS: Well, actually JaWiBs style is probably most efficient for passing a single exam after which you do not need that knowledge again.

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