AP Physics Study Skills
(from the College Board website)
Physics is not a spectator sport. You cannot expect to acquire the understanding you need to do well on an AP Exam by merely attending class and listening to the teacher. Specialists in learning theory tell us that all people, as a result of their everyday contacts with the physical world, construct their own concepts about how the world works. Sometimes these concepts appear to conflict with the physics principles that you are taught in class. To resolve these conflicts and dispel any misconceptions that you may already have is not easy. It requires your active participation in the learning process. You should ask questions such as "Why do we think this?" and "What would happen if we did this?" and if you can't answer them, seek the help of your physics teacher or other students.
Having the opportunity to answer these questions by exploring phenomena and conducting experiments in the laboratory can often help you internalize the concepts and make them more concrete. Some computer simulations that allow you to set up hypothetical physical situations and observe the results of changing various quantities in the situations can also be helpful in developing conceptual understanding.
When studying physics from a textbook, it is a good idea to have paper and pencil close at hand. Sometimes the textbooks do not fill in all the details of a derivation or the solution of an example problem, leaving that as an exercise for the reader to do. You should work through the details, and maybe put the book aside and try to do it again. If you have completed the problems assigned by your teacher for homework and are still not sure of your understanding of the material, try some of the unassigned problems in the book on the same topic.
Many students have the impression that physics is merely a list of formulas to be memorized and recalled at the proper time. Of course, formulas and equations are important in physics, but that is because physics is a science that deals with principles that can be expressed quantitatively. The equations are merely a shorthand way of expressing these principles. A feel for the physical reality behind the equations will help you remember them better than just trying to memorize a list. For example, if you are not sure about whether a quantity goes in the numerator or denominator of a fraction in an equation, it may help to ask yourself which makes more sense in light of the way you know the world works.
You must study regularly. In a physics course, many topics are based on preceding ones. While one part is being studied, use is frequently made of the material that has come before it. Therefore, regular study is a necessary part of doing well. Students who study regularly have the added advantage of being able to reinforce and enlarge on what they already know while tackling something new.
A few other points should also be kept in mind by today's physics students. The study of physics, like mathematics, requires a high degree of concentration. Solutions to physics problems must be carried out carefully and in a precise, orderly manner. If an error is made in a mathematical expression, it may be carried over to the following parts of the problem. Solve your problems in pencil, neatly and methodically. At every step of the analysis, be sure that you know your reason for taking the step!