How should I actually be studying during my undergrad physics course?

In summary, the student is a first year physics student who is struggling to study effectively. They have been trying to rewrite lecture notes using the textbook, but it takes up too much time and they are unable to do practice questions or reading. They are also worried about falling behind and not being able to catch up. The student is seeking advice on alternative study methods and is open to attending workshops or studying with other students. The conversation also highlights the importance of self-care and finding individualized study methods.
  • #1
im a first year physics student near half way through the year and I still cant get to grips with what how im supposed to study.

I try to rewrite my lecture notes using the textbook as the lectures seem to miss out a fair bit of information (and we were told to do this), but this takes me so long to do each day I don't have time for practice questions or to do much (if any) reading for the next days lectures. The way I'm doing it clearly wouldn't work for second year given the massive increase in content and difficulty. Plus the second I fall behind its very hard to catch up. Even when I do successfully make notes, when I go to do questions it apparent that I actually don't understand the content even though I thought I did.

What I'm currently doing clearly isn't working, maybe because im doing it wrong or perhaps its just the wring method. The only alternative I can think of is to just read the text and do the questions but I don't have a good memory and I think that that would make revising for test considerably harder.

If anyone has any advice/methods of study that would be greatly appreciated :)
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  • #2
There is no single "right" way to study. While re-writing lecture notes can help to learn the material, it can also be inefficient, particularly because you can spend a lot of time on the stuff that you already know and less time on the stuff you're struggling with. Some tips:
  • Your school probably has some sort of academic guidance office. Often these groups will run free workshops on honing your study skills. If your current methods aren't working, try attending a few of these.
  • Read ahead.
    Avoid going into lectures cold, where you're covering a topic for the first time. Even if you just skim through the chapter ahead of time, and try a sample problem or two. This will put you in a position where you attend lectures with specific questions and the professor can bring clarity rather than fire hosing you with new information. When you come to class prepared, you can ask intelligent questions.
  • Working through problem sets is the key to doing well in most STEM classes. Not only is this most often how you are evaluated in test and examinations, but it also develops your ability to apply the concepts you're learning in new ways and develop a deep understanding of the concepts. In general, I find the higher percentage of your study time spent working through problems, the better.
  • Spend time studying with other students in your classes, particularly those who have similar goals and who are doing well in each class. A lot of learning happens through informal discussion and debate, and you can see what they are doing to be successful.
  • If you are falling too far behind, don't be afraid to step back and look at the bigger picture once in a while. Are you taking on too much workload? Do you have habits that are making you inefficient? A big part of success is the "executive functions" where you decide where to spend the time you have.
  • Expanding on that last point, set SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound) goals for your studies.
  • Take good care of yourself. Get adequate sleep. Eat properly. Exercise. Socialize. Allow yourself some down time. Often we're told that the only way to do better is to push harder, but if you burn yourself out, you're not going to accomplish much of anything.
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  • #3
It is also very important to understand that people are different, the "right" way to study for you might be different from what works best for other people in the same course. Hence, be wary about listening to "generic" advice.
Many years ago I helped teach a course for undergraduate students which aimed to help them to find their preferred way of studying. I believe the two most important pieces of advice in that course were

  1. Do think about HOW you are studying, WHERE you are studying, WHEN you are studying and WHAT you are doing. You might e.g. find that the best way for you to study is together with friends in the library. Or you might find that what works best for is you to study at home while listening to music (the latter was -and to some extent still is- the best method for me)
  2. To help with 1 you could try keeping a "study diary" for a couple of weeks where you note down every time you do ANY form of studying, what you were doing, for how long, where you were and how well you think it worked. This would e.g. also include thinking about a lecture while on the bus.
    It is very important to be honest with yourself. Most people will find that they don't spend nearly as much time actually studying as they think (sitting at your desk with your book open doesn't actually help if you spent most of the time on your phone). You might e.g. conclude from this exercise that studying in smaller "blocks" of say 45 min and then doing something else for 15 min is the most efficient way.
One thing I learned from doing this myself was that writing my own lecture notes was simply not very useful for me. It is important to be ABLE to do so (it is an important skill in general), but in my case I found that focusing on what was being said while making minimal notes (things not in the textbook) was the best way for me to learn. I've never found that writing notes while reading a text has helped me in any way (although I use a highlighter, a LOT).
Again, this is what works for ME. For you something else might work, the important thing is to figure this out as soon as possible.
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  • #4
Do more problems. Working through a problem does more to clarify misconceptions than note taking. You can fool yourself, but you can't fool the answer key.
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  • #5
confusedandroid said:
If anyone has any advice/methods of study that would be greatly appreciated :)
The most important change (my standard admonition to students) is:

Read the associated textbook sections before the lecture.
If one of your lecture peers were to ask you "whats the lecture going to be about?", you should be able to provide a short synopsis. Then ask questions (as appropriate) at lecture and take notes only on the stuff not in the book. Go to office hours for further elucidation
Then review and do homework ASAP.

That's it. Guaranteed./
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  • #6
Learning/studying is very personal and some of my habits contradict some of the above suggestions so I will not give mine. Like you, my memory was not the greatest. However, let me make a few statements that might help. Don't think you understand the material until you have successfully applied it. Apply your knowledge a lot i.e. do as many problems as you can. Doing problems will help with the memory issue.

I redid my class note because they were often not written well and sometimes steps were skipped over so I made sure that the notes were written legibly and the missing steps were filled in. My notes and the text were completely separate.

Don't fall behind the new stuff. Make sure you keep up to date as much as you can. Go back as time is available to work on the stuff you didn't quite get or had skipped over. I said I didn't want to tell what I did but let me say that I got the main stuff first and then continually went back ironing out the wrinkles so to speak as time allowed each time picking up a few more bits of understanding.

Don't waste too much time on difficult problems. Put them aside and do something else for a while and come back fresh after a few hours or longer and try again.
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