Studying for Mathematics & Physics Courses

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Mathematics and Physics may be difficult for many students, but with the right strategies, you can succeed.

Some instructors write very methodical notes, presenting step-by-step explanations and evidence for key concepts. These types of lecture notes are often ideal, and great for exam prep. In other cases, instructors like to jump between concepts, writing out only what they need to illustrate a given concept. Brief notes may be helpful, but it may be best to just follow along by listening in lecture, and then gaining a better understanding through the textbook before or after class.
There's lots of homework in Math and Physics courses, but problem sets are an excellent preview of exam material. Exam questions will likely test concepts similar to those presented in homework, but often in a more concise way. In general, if a single exam problem seems like it might take more than 20 minutes to do, consider your approach. Exam problems will generally be much quicker to solve.
It may seem daunting, but at office hours, you can sit with your instructors or TAs and go through difficult concepts at your own pace. Instructors of all disciplines, math and physics included, value the students that aren't afraid to ask questions. It is recommended to bring specific questions or concepts to the office hours.
For each formula, outline what it says, recall the over-arching concept it relates to, consider which situations it applies to, and recall an example or practice problem that relies on it. If a formula sheet is not provided, make your own!
Some of us are sequential learners, preferring to tackle large concepts one small step at a time. Others are global learners, preferring to scope out the entire landscape of a topic before delving into details. In Math and Physics, both views are incredibly important. Find what works for you - explore your learning style, talk to your instructor, and look at the course content.
Study well in advance to give yourself time to look through every concept that the course covers, then honestly assess your understanding of each. Make a list of concepts you have difficulty with and try to use available resources or alternative approaches to tackle them.
Aside from your instructor’s office hours, there are plenty of resources available. Check out the list at the bottom of this page.
Books written for the general population about mathematics and physics have inspired the imaginations of many, and may do the same for you. I wouldn’t recommend this in the middle of a term, but getting a general appreciation for the beauty of math and physics can help motivate you to study for future courses.

 

Math and Physics Resources

Many first and second year math and physics courses are posted on YouTube by universities around the world such as MIT, Caltech, and Stanford. These can be time-consuming to watch, but if you can scope out a concept you have difficulty with, they can provide a helpful third-party explanation. Other resources inlcude:

Partially adapted from Felder, R.M. (1996). Matters of style. ASEE Prism, 6, 18-23.