Physics, like many of the sciences, can be seen as a way of looking at the world. Some people are lucky and inherently see the world in this way, while others need to be taught or to learn for themselves. Like most things that are worth it, this shift in thinking will not come easy and will most probably be very time-consuming. However, as we’ve mentioned before, having another way of thinking or looking at the world is a very useful tool to have not only in academia, but in life. To teach yourself, or to learn how to think in a “physics” way, will require trying to imagine the ideas that are presented, a fundamental understanding of the mathematics behind the concepts (doing the practice problems), and knowing when to ask for help.
Now, before we dive into our tricks, you might find a lot of the ideas we present familiar (our Mathematics blog post for example). This is because mathematics and physics are intrinsically linked and in order to understand one, you should understand the other. This link between them means that, generally, if you train yourself to think in one of these ways, the other will be that much easier.
What we mean by imagining the ideas that are presented is being able to translate the word problems into an image of what is happening and what you are being asked to do. A great example of this is known as a riverboat problem (a boat tries to cross a river with a velocity of 4m/s to point A directly across the bank, but because of the river’s speed it drifts to Point B…). A great way to answer the problem incorrectly is to not take the time to visualize the problem and draw a picture. By drawing a picture you can annotate the diagram and you will be able to better understand what is being asked and what information is given to find your unknowns. This is a not an easy concept to learn. It will take time (and a lot of mistakes), but with some time and perseverance, the results will present themselves.
Once you understand a concept or topic, try to challenge yourself and complete some of the harder problems found near the end of the chapter’s problem set.
When asked, most high school students will claim that they have not completed their homework or any of the practice problems that the teacher had hinted would be very useful to know how to do. So, how then, can they hope to do well in the course when they do not put in the effort to understand and be able to complete the assignments or tests that the teacher assigns? One of the most important concepts a student needs to understand is that they will need to put in the work to be successful in most courses. Now, this can be daunting, but there are a variety of resources at your disposal from your teacher, your peers, a tutor or the Internet.
One of the most underestimated resources you as a student have is your teacher, professor or TA. They often spend their office hours/extra help time alone. If you do not understand a concept or feel you are falling behind because you have a gap in some part of your knowledge, do not be afraid to ask for extra help. Another very good resource can be your peers. They are often able to explain concepts in a way that can easily be understood by their friend. The Internet can be a good resource, but a word of caution, not every website is reputable, and not every website has correct information. If your teacher or professor recommends a website, then this is probably a resource you should at least skim. Everyone struggles with something, so it is not uncommon or unexpected for a student to ask their teacher, friend, tutor or to turn to the Internet for extra help.
Some people can imagine the physics problems and quickly come to the solution. Most people are not like that and solving the problem requires drawing and annotating a diagram, putting in the time and effort to complete the homework/extra questions and knowing when to ask for help (and who to ask). Just doing these simple tricks, you should feel your confidence and understanding of the material (and later, your marks) increase. As we mentioned earlier, this can have a cascading effect on your other subjects and can lead to increases in your confidence, understanding and marks.