How to survive a Physics GCSE/A level?

Whenever I mention to anyone what I do for my degree I receive one major response “Physics! Oh I hated that at school!”. Not only does this tend to kill the conversation but it is fundamentally interesting to know why a majority of people dislike physics at school. I think the main reason is that there is more pressure on students to perform well in this key subject in order to move into a better job, college, sixth form, university etc. The stress of education due to these factors means that students are blindly learning about the fundamental (sometimes tedious) laws of physics and not stopping to realise what these laws connect to.

So for all you pupils starting school this year with your GCSE or A level physics fresh on your mind I am going to write my few steps to a successful qualification;

1. Read around the Subject: This is something which I feel is the most important step, as getting bored of the in class content is a slippery slope towards hating the subject. At school you are probably taught the core lessons in physics such as electric circuits, gravity, quantum effects, waves etc. It is important that you know this stuff and I am not deterring you from spending a large amount of time learning this, but looking at the wider picture can help you keep enthused about the subject.

An example at GCSE is that when your sitting in the classroom and your teacher is telling you about nuclear fusion just think about how the countless number of stars in our universe are powered by this effect. The hydrogen fusion at the core keeps are sun in balance against gravitational collapse. However once the fuel runs out then the star collapses in an explosion and you are eventually left with a white dwarf, neutron star or black hole!

An example at A level is whilst listening to your teacher about the refractive index of material you could be thinking what if two objects had the same refractive index? The idea you have just conceived is currently being applied to try and create real invisibility cloaks (no wizardry needed!). In fact you can do the experiment for yourself by pouring vegetable/baby oil in a glass flask and then placing a glass tube in the oil. As these have essentially the same refractive index (experiment with mixtures of oils for the best effect) the inner tube should appear invisible to the naked eye. If you haven’t done it in class why not ask your teacher if you can bring the experiment in to show your peers?

Just a small amount of reading around what your learning in class can make the subject come alive in a new way! If you live near a university who teach physics or science museum keep a look out for days out and activities that will be run. I was helping out with the British Science Festival last week in Birmingham and the amount of interesting stuff for all sciences on show for all ages was incredible. One thing that stuck out was that the computer science department had a number of robots that they were showing off to the public, how about looking into that next time your learning circuit theory.

2. Maths is Important: Now this could be a issue for a few people as maths is not everyone’s strong point. If you understand and get maths this is great and all you need to do is refine your knowledge, if you and maths don’t get on let me pull out what you really need for your physics learning (but please focus on maths aswell…it is possibly the most important subject).

The important factors to know from mathematics is the technique of rearrangement of algebra. At GCSE this useful, at A-level it is essential. Being able to rearrange formulas seems hard but with a little thought can be quite easy. Lets take first equation most people are taught speed equals distance over time.

s = d / t

Here I have used algebraic symbols to denote speed (s), distance (d) and time (t). The / means divide. Contrary to what is taught at GCSE of using a divide symbol I think it is more instructive to write the equation using fractions as it makes it easier to see where the rearrangement is going. So if we had the constant speed and the amount time already how do we work out the distance? We want to get distance (d) on it’s own and equal to something. One important point in maths is that whatever you do to one side of an equation you have to do to the other side. What if we multiply both sides by time (t). We get:

s x t = (d x t) / t

where the brackets symbolise what is on top of the fraction. Now the right had side has a time (t) term on the top and bottom of the fraction so these can cancel out to give us:

d = s x t

Eventually you should be able to just move the t to the other side without worrying about multiplying both sides. Keeping up a good self-teaching of maths like this through books or online websites (Bitsize, Mymaths) will make them much easier when you are faced with the problem in a physics exam.

For those at A level who are taking A level Maths as well why not try thinking about how your other subject feeds into physics. Your teacher will probably not tell you about the use of differentiation or integration in A level physics because there may be some students who haven’t learnt this. But it doesn’t stop you thinking about how the rate of something is actually differentiation. Take the equations of Simple Harmonic Motion of a pendulum you will be taught that;

y = Asin(wt)

v = wAcos(wt)

a = -w^2Asin(wt)

where y is displacement, v is velocity and a is acceleration. Once you have come across differentiation of trigonometric functions look back here and you will see these equations in a whole new light!

3. Revision, Revision, Revision: It’s crunch time! The exams are around the corner and your future hangs in the balance. What can you do? The most important thing is to realise that everyone learns differently some are visual, some auditory and some kinesthetic. You need to find your effective way of learning, something which you should try and hone long before you get to your GCSE or A level finals.

Regardless of what learning style you are though I have a few rules to follow to get the most out of not only your physics exams but all your exams.

  • Planning is key, sit down at the start of your exam season and write a timetable. Decide how many hours you are going to do and stick to it. Keep track of your progress and most importantly make sure you give each subject its healthy proportion. No point in putting all your time into your physics revision if you are going to drastically fall down on your Maths or English.
  • Do the past papers! I always found it crazy how when I was at school fellow students didn’t utilise the previous exam papers. There are only a finite number of topics that the exam board can ask you about and if you do all the past papers you will probably cover them all. But the most important thing with this exercise is to use the marking schemes! These tell you exactly what the examiners want from you, how they allocate the marks, what points to make, what language to use, if you have all that in your head on the day then you can optimise the marks.
  • Use the time you have. Start your revision early and do a lot of it. A month of hard revision everyday for qualifications which will have a positive effect on the rest of your life seems like a good deal to me. Now my friends tell me I revise too much but that is just my way of doing things. To give you an indication at GCSE for 5 weeks before the finals I would have done ~5 – 7 hours of outside revision a day, for A level for 7-8 weeks before the finals I would have done similar moving up to ~9 – 10 in the last weeks. This hardcore revision schedule has also paid off for me at university where I can now for the 10 weeks of easter break/exam period revise for 10-13 hours per day. This might sound excessive… and it kind of is. But this is what I need to do to get the results I get and you need to do as much as you need to as well.

Using these steps will open up the path through physics A level and onto a set of good qualifications. Using this method I managed to get an A*A*A*A at A level and am currently set for getting a 1st in my Masters of Astrophysics at University. Try out my strategy and get enthused about the subject… who knows where you will be in 4-5 years time!



3 Comments Add yours

  1. that picture isn’t a level physics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s