Physics Exam Advice
Physics Exam Advice
December, that magical time of year when people stop and reflect on...
whether they're going to pass Physics! Having marked Physics exams at
three Universities I've found a few general principles that seem to help.
If you'd like to do better in Physics than what you're doing right now, here
are some points to consider which may help in other subjects as well:
- Go for the part marks: too many students think its all or nothing.
they don't hand in imperfect assignments, and don't write down enough to give
them part marks on exam questions. Believe me, most teachers/professors are
looking for every opportunity to give you marks - and they don't watch you come
into class the next day thinking "there's Joe, boy was that a dim-witted answer
to number 5". We've seen it all, brilliantly good and incredibly bad.
If you're not convinced, consider which will look worse 4 out of ten, or zero
out of 10. If we look down on anybody, it's those who hand in nothing.
You're not going to get negative marks for writing down something wrong,
nor will marks be deducted from another question. The worst a bad answer
will give you is zero. So, your choice is a worst case of zero versus
a guaranteed zero on the question --- what to do should be a no-brainer.
Consider a couple of scenarios:
1) Jeff gets 5 out of 10 questions completely correct and puts nothing down
for the other 5 -- 50%, D minus.
2) Kim gets 5 out of 10 questions completely correct and puts down few
equations she thinks are applicable, a couple of free-body diagrams, and some
notes about how she thinks she should proceed - much of which is wrong, but some
of which is right... 60%, C minus (correlation between percentage and grade varies).
Run some scenarios of your own, figuring that you might get 1 or 2 marks
out of 10 for going beyond what you are sure of and writing in some stuff
that you think shows some correct understanding of how to tackle the problem.
Your 6 out of 10 on a question could become a 7 or 8 if you go out on a limb
on the part you don't know.
You will probably find differences like D becomes C, or B+ becomes A-.
- Make a crib sheet: perhaps you're even allowed a crib sheet. If so,
don't just copy your friend's to save time. If your professor provides one,
make your own even though you won't take it to the exam. The magic of a crib sheet is
not that it helps you with equations you couldn't remember, it is that making it forces
you to organize the course material in your mind. By the time you've made your own
crib sheet you probably won't need to look at it.
Some of my graduate courses would spend around 50 pages spanning several lectures to
derive a single result. I would look at this stuff and think there was no way I could learn
the details of the derivation, but then I would make the crib sheet. Typically I could
get the entire term's material down to about 30 pages on the first pass. I would chop,
organize, paraphrase, until I had about 30 pages that would suffice for notes
if it was all I was allowed to bring to the exam. On the next pass I might condense this down
to 10 pages, then to 3 then to 1. By the time I had gone over the course layout enough
that I had a single page which I thought would get me started sufficiently to
do everything else if asked... I didn't even need that sheet any more.
- Come in rested: this is easier said than done, but a Physics exam requires
being sharp. The odds are that if you are up late the night before cramming, the extra
information you cram in will be more than offset by the sluggish pace you answer the
questions due to being over tired. Get a good night's sleep, and the day of the exam
get into a good frame of mind: listen to music, go jogging, pray... whatever helps you
become mentally set.
- Practice Solving Problems: the vast majority of most Physics exams consists
of problem solving. You need to be good and fast at solving the type of problems
you will be asked. Doing all of your assigned questions during the term should be
the bare minimum you consider - redo them when preparing for the exam.
Do any supplemental questions given, look for
other questions of the same type in your text. Get another text from the library and
use the questions from the same sections (most introductory Physics textbooks are laid
out pretty much the same). If it helps, try my page
Practice Physics Problems. On the left you may see an ad for
books with titles like "3000 Solved Physics Problems" (the ads are random, so it may require some
reloading if you wish to see these ones). Books like this can be very helpful
Remember to do lots of these three things: practice, practice
- Learn to Recognize Problem Types: when you do an assignment you typically get a question
from a section of the book - so you flip to that section to check out the equations and
examples. On an exam, you have to figure out for yourself whether a ball hitting the ground
problem is: collision, gravity, trajectory, energy conservation... or a mixture of these.
In fact, it is the temptation to mix problem types on an exam that I think accidentally makes
many exams more difficult than intended. After a student uses energy conservation to find
how fast a ball hits the ground, why not get them to do an inelastic collision to find how fast
it rebounds and then do a trivial 1D trajectory to figure out how long it will be til it bounces
again? This train is easy to follow if you are practiced at figuring out for yourself
what type of problem you are dealing with, and recognize that in multistep problems the type
can keep changing. To look for examples in your text, this is often what gets labeled as the
challenge problems - they are a challenge because you need to go beyond what you could
immediately find in the same chapter.
- Take the Time to Write in the Units:
"Dimensional Analysis" is one of the easiest and yet most powerful tools for checking your work.
Far too many Physics Exams only have units written on the final answer. Consider the trivial
example of finding the speed of a car which travels 10000 cm in 5 seconds. Your work should
read something like:
v = 10000 cm/ 5 s =2000 cm/s
then, assuming you are expected to give the answer in m/s, your next line would be a
v = 2000 cm/s * 0.01 m/cm = 20 m/s
Notice that writing in the units will make it less likely that you make the mistake of
missing the cm -> m unit conversion that needs to be done. If you have the formula wrong
you would also discover that... if you get s/m it means you put each number in the wrong part of
the ratio. If you get m2/s it means you got an exponent wrong. Practice writing
units in all you calculations when you do assignments and it will become effortless quickly.
It will then guard you against many needlessly lost marks on exams.
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