Preparing for Physics Exams
Preparing for an exam in physics has two parts. You must make sure that you know how to work problems given a list of formulae, and you must ensure that you can reproduce the formulae. These tasks are rather separate.
The first step in ensuring that you can work problems is to keep up with the assignments as they are due. There is simply too much to learn to postpone this work to the last minute. As you go along you should make sure that you have mastered each type of problem. You should review assigned problems that you got wrong and get help with those where you do not understand what you did wrong. You should know how to work all the assigned problems correctly soon after the marked problems are returned.
In preparing for the exam you should go back over the assignments and make sure you still understand them. Then work a few other problems from the book with the book closed (you won't have the text to browse through on the exam). It is OK to verify the details of a formula, but not to look for what the appropriate formula is.
At the same time you should be organizing your mastery of the formulae. Outlines are the best way to do this since the formulae form a logical pattern. It is best to organize the outline so that you can use it for "guess/check" learning. To do this make an outline of labels of formulae (Acceleration due to a given force, Energy conservation, etc.) and place the formulae themselves on the right-hand side of the page where they may be covered up. Then repeatedly go down the outline attempting to reproduce the formulae and working on those you cannot write down. Eventually you will know them all, usually faster than you will using any other method. Remember that most formulae need not be memorized: use units, qualitative arguments, linearity, and the like to aid your reconstruction of the formulae. The less you have to memorize, the more confidence you will have in the testing room.
Looking at old exams will help you to get used to your instructor's testing style. This will aid you in deciding which areas are important and what kind of skills your instructor wants you to learn. However, be cautious. No one exam can cover everything that an instructor considers important, so don't ignore a topic you think is important simply because it fails to appear on old exams.
Another good use of old exams is in testing your preparation when you think your study is finished. For this purpose work the problems on earlier exams without using your text or notes. If you can do this easily, you are probably well prepared.
During the exam read all the questions and answer the ones you know best first. If you have time, check all the problems at the end of the testing period. It is easiest to do this if you have plugged in numbers last. If you run out of time, outline quickly what you would like to do; many instructors give substantial partial credit for this. The instructor expects you to explain how you got your answer, not just what the answer is. You should therefore put on the paper relevant diagrams, all algebraic steps, etc.
With proper preparation, you should have enough confidence in what you know to tell yourself that "if I can't work this problem, no one else can either." If you are this well prepared, a difficult test should not cause you to panic.
Adapted from Professor Maurice Barnhill at the University of Delaware
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