STEP 1 Set Up Your Study Program
1 How to Approach Your AP Physics Course
IN THIS CHAPTER
Summary: Recognize the difference between truly understanding physics and just doing well in your physics class.
Focus on increasing your knowledge of physics, not on pleasing your teacher.
Don’t spend more than 10 minutes at one time on a problem without getting anywhere—come back to it later if you don’t get it.
Form a study group; your classmates can help you learn physics better.
If you don’t understand something, ask your teacher for help.
Don’t cram; although you can memorize equations, the skills you need to solve physics problems can’t be learned overnight.
Before I get started, keep in mind that with physics it is impossible to “snow the exam grader.” There are no shortcuts to doing well on a physics exam; you simply have to know your physics!1 Your grade on the exam is going to be based on the quality of your work. You will need to know physics so well that you not only are able to solve the problems given to you but can also explain what you did to solve them. So this book is designed to help you in two ways:
1. to teach you the ways in which the AP exam tests your physics knowledge, and
2. to give you a review of the physics topics that will be tested—and to give you some hints on how to approach these topics.
Everyone who takes the AP Physics 2 exam has just completed an AP Physics course. Recognize that your physics course is the place to start your exam preparation! Whether or not you are satisfied with the quality of your course or your teacher, the best way to start preparing for the exam is by doing careful, attentive work in class all year long.
Okay, for many readers, I’m preaching to the choir. You don’t want to hear about your physics class; you want the specifics about the AP exam. If that’s the case, go ahead and turn to Chapter 2, and get started on your exam-specific preparation. But I think that you can get even more out of your physics class than you think you can. Read these pieces of time-tested advice, follow them, and I promise you’ll feel more comfortable about your class and about the AP exam.
Ignore Your Grade
This must be the most ridiculous statement you’ve ever read. But it may also be the most important of these suggestions. Never ask yourself or your teacher, “Can I have more points on this assignment?” or “Is this going to be on the test?” You’ll worry so much about giving the teacher merely what she or he wants that you won’t learn physics in the way that’s best for you. Whether your score is perfect or near zero, ask, “Did I really understand all aspects of these problems?”
Remember, the AP exam tests your physics knowledge. If you understand physics thoroughly, you will have no trouble at all on the AP test. But, while you may be able to argue yourself a better grade in your physics class, even if your comprehension is poor, the AP readers are not so easily moved.
If you take this advice—if you really, truly ignore your grade and focus on physics—your grade will come out in the wash. You’ll find that you got a very good grade after all, because you understood the subject so well. But you won’t care, because you’re not worried about your grade!
Don’t Bang Your Head Against a Brick Wall
My meaning here is figurative, although there are literal benefits also. Never spend more than 10 minutes or so staring at a problem without getting somewhere. If you honestly have no idea what to do at some stage of a problem, STOP. Put the problem away. Physics has a way of becoming clearer after you take a break.
On the same note, if you’re stuck on some algebra, don’t spend forever trying to find what you know is a trivial mistake, say a missing negative sign or some such thing. Put the problem away, come back in an hour, and start from scratch. This will save you time in the long run. If you’ve put forth a real effort, you’ve come back to the problem many times, and you still can’t get it: relax. Ask the teacher for the solution, and allow yourself to be enlightened. You will not get a perfect score on every problem. But you don’t care about your grade, remember?
Developing this mentality of “don’t bang your head on the wall” is very important for AP exam day. Picture this: You are taking the AP exam. You are under stress. Your brain just went blank, time is short, and you’re stuck on a question . . . REMAIN CALM and move on to something you know. Remember, you are not trying to get a perfect score on the AP exam; your goal is to earn as much credit as possible. The student who earns 75% of the points on the AP exam will get the same score as a student who earns 95%. You might even pass the exam with a score as low as 40%! Earn half the points and you are sure to earn a qualifying score. It’s kind of liberating. Don’t beat yourself up.
Work with Other People
When you put a difficult problem aside for a while, it always helps to discuss the problem with others. Form study groups. Develop a team in class with whom you are consistently comparing solutions.
Although you may be able to do all your work in every other class without help, I have never met a student who is capable of solving every physics problem on his or her own. It is not shameful to ask for help. Nor is it dishonest to seek assistance—as long as you’re not copying, or allowing a friend to carry you through the course. Group study is permitted and encouraged in virtually every physics class around the globe.
Just one quick warning about group studying: you still need to spend time on your own solving problems and answering questions. Way too often, students only study with a group, and then when it is time to take the exam, they are so used to having somebody bring up hints and facts that nudge them along in problem solving that they have trouble during the test. Make sure you spend some time on your own working on physics. There is no substitution for some solo work to make sure you really understand what is going on.
Ask Questions When Appropriate
I know your physics teacher may seem mean or unapproachable, but in reality, physics teachers do want to help you understand their subject. If you don’t understand something, don’t be afraid to ask. Chances are that the rest of the class has the same question. If your question is too basic or requires too much class time to answer, the teacher will tell you so.
Sometimes the teacher will not answer you directly, but will give you a hint, something to think about so that you might guide yourself to your own answer. Don’t interpret this as a refusal to answer your question. You must learn to think for yourself, and your teacher is helping you develop the analytical skills you need for success in physics.
Keep an Even Temper
A football team should not give up because they allow an early field goal. Similarly, you should not get upset at poor performance on a test or problem set. No one expects you to be perfect. Learn from your mistakes, and move on—it’s too long a school year to let a single physics assignment affect your emotional state.
On the same note, however, a football team should not celebrate victory because it scores a first-quarter touchdown. You might have done well on this test, but there’s the rest of a nine-month course to go. Congratulate yourself, and then concentrate on the next assignment.
Yes, I know that you got an “A” on your history final because, after you slept through class all semester, you studied for 15 straight hours the day before the test and learned everything. And, yes, I know you are willing to do the same thing this year for physics. I warn you, both from my and from others’ experience: it won’t work. Physics is not about memorization and regurgitation. Sure, there are some equations you need to memorize. But problem-solving skills cannot be learned overnight.
Additionally, physics is cumulative. For AP Physics 2, not only do you need to have a good grasp of the materials you learned in September of this year, but the course builds on the materials you learned in Physics 1. If there was an area in Physics 1 that gave you a problem, it isn’t a bad idea to look it over early in the year to get a better grasp of it. Physics 2 is not about mechanics, but there is plenty of material in fluids, thermodynamics, and static electricity that is based upon the concepts you learned last year. It is a good idea to look it over. If you are not sure if something from Physics 1 is important to Physics 2, ask your physics teacher; he or she will be thrilled that you are taking the initiative to get yourself prepared.
So, keep up with the course. Spend some time on physics every night, even if that time is only a couple of minutes, even if you have no assignment due the next day. Spread your “cram time” over the entire semester.
1Which you already know from taking AP Physics 1!