Sections below cover the topics of organisation and study skills.


For many students, university is a continuation of school. Nowadays, in Scotland at least, most of the class you were at school with over the last couple of years have probably gone to university, though not all to the same one. "I did pretty well at school, so I'm going to do pretty well at university, too". Right? No, wrong. Well, you might do pretty well but not by carrying on the same learning techniques most people use at school. In fact so many people have crashed out in first-year courses at university that I've been motivated to offer this page of study guidelines to physics students and anyone else who cares to read it. The guidelines aren't official policy, just personal advice based on the experience of your successful predecessors.

Books have been written on how to study. Some of them are in the library and a couple are referenced at the end. This page isn't a book, just a list of hints. Don't be too proud or know-it-all to read it. Maybe you do know it all, in which case you'll be looking forward to sailing into Honours with the minimum of effort. A good many students who don't score well spend just as much time on their studies as those who do score well. They just spend the time ineffectively, making life difficult for themselves. Before I get to the details, let me begin with an overview.

What are the really important differences between school and university? Here are some.

1) Independence and personal responsibility. You have to earn your degree. It's not going to be spoon fed to you. Yes, you'll be given notes, text-book references and so on but no-one is going to nag you into learning every week, no-one is going to organise your life for you; precious few people are going to tell you what you should do with lectures and lecture notes, what you do when you read books and articles. You're supposed to figure out for yourself how the system works. Too many people don't succeed, it seems to me. Realising very early on in your degree that you are in charge, that, by and large, you will reap as you sow, is a huge step forward.

2) Information in university comes in bigger chunks than at school. Individual lectures cover much more than a school lesson of comparable time. A single 24-lecture course can well cover a significant amount of a textbook and a lot of peripheral material too. If you start university by taking subjects you've covered before at school, the novelty of the material doesn't show up. A lecture is a condensation by the lecturer of a considerable amount of material and thought. If you miss a lecture, it will take you much longer than an hour to read up all that the lecturer has put into the lecture. A lot of people haven't worked this out. Another lesson people learn too late is that you can make up a large amount of lost ground on a school course in just a few days before the exam but you can't, unless you're exceptionally talented, make up enough on any university course you've let slip. There's too much of it. If you're talented enough to pull off the last minute revision trick, you're probably also clever enough to work out that missing lectures in the first place isn't a smart move.

3) The difficulty of the material at university is much greater than at school. This isn't so obvious in first year, where most topics dealt with are intelligible when you hear them, or should be. If they're not, it doesn't usually take much questioning at tutorial, asking the lecturer or talking it over with class-mates to sort out a difficulty. In later years, though, you'll have to work hard to understand some topics, or read and reflect extensively to weigh up opposing arguments and come to well-founded conclusions.

4) The level of understanding and competence required is far higher at university. At school, you could often get off with having just a vague idea of what something was about. At university, you are expected to be master of your subject. You don't get marks in an exam for waffle, or certainly not in physics exams. You get marks for knowing, and for doing correctly. Realising the level of knowledge expected early on in your student career should put you straight into the successful stream, so long as you follow up!

So much for the overview. What of the detail?


Ditch dithering. I borrowed this phrase from somewhere but it hits the spot. You need a plan. You need to fit in a social life, study and, perhaps, sport and a part-time job. You need to divide the day into sizeable chunks of time, like morning, afternoon and evening, when you know what you'll be doing. You need a flexible plan, because in my experience any rigid plan is bound to fail. Your plan shouldn't be too specific in the first instance and it must have built-in slack, so you can daydream a bit or take a break and have the space to make up for lost-time later. However, don't have such a loose plan that you're just winging it most of the time. Time management is today's jargon for a plan. Employ time management from the beginning of your student career. You'll certainly need good time management skills by the time you're in Honours. If you're trying to fit in a part-time job as well as study, time management is essential. You should choose the pattern of working that suits your personal style of learning. Do you know what that is?

It's most important to finish the tasks you've set yourself. When you're putting some flesh onto a week's plan, set tasks that are achievable. Don't just say 'physics revision' on the plan but be specific, e.g. 'understand uniform circular motion and answer homework questions on this topic' or 'read course textbook section relevant to last Thu/Fri lectures and make notes'. Also very important is to include some active component in each task. This could be as little as highlighting key words in photocopy notes you have, or making notes of a textbook section you've read, making a summary of a major section of a course or, perhaps, 'just' something you've been asked to do, such as a lab report or tutorial examples. Being active while you learn is a well-established highly effective aid to understanding and remembering. Look around the library the next time you're there. You'll see some students reading with pen in hand, making notes as they go; others playing with their mobile phone, frequently looking up from the book in front of them at nothing in particular or out of the window if there's one in view. Who are you going to put your money on to score well in the next exam?

Don't forget the obvious points of being organised. Equip yourself with a suitable place to study. This may take some trial and error. Sort yourself out early in the academic year. Equip yourself with the tools of the student trade, such as folders, notebooks, pens, highlighters, memory 'pen', calculator, rubber and 'white ink', ruler and other drawing tools if needed. Keep course-work all together in suitable folders and wallets where you can find it. While I'm hinting at the dire consequences that can come of losing things, remember always to keep a rolling back-up of electronic work you prepare, be it essay, report, poster material, CAD drawing or whatever. Our advice is to keep the master copy on your H: drive, if you're using University facilities, and always make a back-up copy on your own memory pen or floppy.


Studying involves understanding, thinking, reflecting, remembering, analysing, composing and acquiring techniques (not in any special order). Academic study is a craft and you as a professional student are expected to be well skilled in it. Some are born with the inclination, just as for any other craft, but everyone has to learn most of what skill they have. Learning takes practice, lots of practice.

Go to lectures. Missing lectures deliberately isn't cool, just an advert for your poor judgement. If the lectures are demonstrably bad, complain politely through the proper channels. Have you thought how lecturers know whether they're giving good lectures or not? Remember, though, that not every lecture will suit your preferred style of learning and there are many different people in most classes, with different learning styles. I think that in a good lecture you should spend most of the time engaging your brain, not taking notes. Make a few notes, by all means, but there ought to be either adequate handouts, or access to notes on the web or at the least clear source material references to let you follow-up the arguments presented and put together a set of course notes for yourself.

As a student, you should do a lot of reading, not just to pass the time but because you're interested in the subject. Ask questions of everything you read. It's been said before that a textbook is a large number of arguments between two covers. When you read, don't just let the words flow past your mind but re-think for yourself the argument presented by the authors. In physics, at least, don't skim what you read. Make notes for yourself as you go. Physics deals with the real world, the real universe. The real universe is a complex place. That complexity is never far from the surface of material covered even in first-year courses and there's plenty of scope for thinking for yourself of the context and the validity of ideas put across in any physics course. Doing so will make you a better student of science.

Keep up with the course. Every year in revision classes shortly before the exams, students are trying to sort out concepts they should have sorted out two months beforehand. At least better then than never. However, a sure fire way of making a course hard for yourself is to let difficulties pile up. Try the homework examples, in time. Don't just wait for the solution sheet to be handed to you and read it over. If you do miss a class, find out if you've missed a hand-out too and collect a copy as soon as you can. Aim to hand in your assignment a couple of days before the final deadline. It cuts down on personal stress and gives you breathing space for contingencies.

When you get stuck, talk. Talk with your class-mates, engage your tutor, ask the lecturer, ask the lab demonstrator, as I've hinted above. A very effective way of learning is to form a self-help group with several in the class who are willing to talk about the course material over a cup of tea or coffee. Such groups often form naturally in smaller classes but if one doesn't seem to be forming with you in it, go out of your way to suggest the idea to a few others. All our physics courses have a class e-mail list associated with them and you can communicate with the whole class through this.

You have to work at remembering. Most people find mnemonics helpful. Make up your own. Make notes in a style suited to your personal memory. If you like bulleted summaries, make them. If you like 'mind maps' or similar diagrammatic aids, make them. Extract the key points of an argument and show how the whole argument brings together a range of information to reach its conclusion. Making notes focuses your mind on a subject, acts as a record of progress and to some extent is an external memory that you can use to refresh quickly your own less permanent memory. However, too much of a good thing isn't necessarily a good thing. You can spend too much time mechanically making notes. The activity itself can become a substitute for trying to understand what the subject is about.

Make sure your numerical skills are up to those needed in a physics course. You should know the purpose of writing results to an appropriate number of significant figures. You should know the role of numerical approximations. You should know how to present and interpret numerical data in the form of graphs, histograms, pie-charts and similar visual aids. You should know the SI units and their symbols for quantities encountered in the course. You should be used to applying 'reasonableness criteria' to your own numerical answers. You should know what the buttons on your calculator do and be careful enough using them that making mistakes is rare.

You need to develop your maths skills so that they can be applied to physical problems. Physics uses the logic of maths at the heart of most of its explanations and as a basis for prediction. You can go to maths lectures, think you understand a maths technique, even pass maths exams but not really know what to do next when a physical argument needs some mathematical development. This is a significant problem that several physics courses will address. However, just realising that the problem exists and that you will have to work on it is a big step forward.

Develop your writing skills. Writing is a craft. Writing calls for originality, inspiration, putting across a coherent argument that people will read until the end. Your lecturers will read your reports and essays to the end because they have to. You should make it such that once they've started, they will also want to. When you read someone like Charles Dickens or Robert Louis Stevenson, the words seem to flow effortlessly from the author's pen, as inevitably as a burn cascading down a hillside. The effortlessness is an illusion. Good writers work hard at their craft. Making notes of physics lectures isn't good practice for writing. A lot of physics related writing involves the presentation of facts and the logic of explanation. The quality of explanation certainly improves with practice. Over the four years of an Honours degree, there will be various written exercises, as well as exam questions requiring descriptive answers. Don't forget to practice written work as well as numerical work. Make sure you know enough grammar to avoid serious grammatical errors. Read feedback you get on written assignments. Science student reports and essays can be stiff and formal in style; they use circumlocutions where simple phrases would do, they avoid using the first person when clearly the essay is about what the writer did. Guidance on writing is given in several of our courses.

Don't kid yourself you're working when you're not. You won't have to look far to find students with textbooks in front of them, notes spread out, playing Su Doku or filling in the easy crossword; students who have gone to a computer class-room to write some more of their assignment playing on-line poker or browsing pop web pages. I'm not talking here about 10 minute breaks but about spending hours a day on these activities. If you've been guilty of this you'll know that at the end of the day you think you've been sitting with your notes beside you for many hours and are mentally in need of a break but in reality you've probably barely done half-an-hour's useful work. Yes, we all need time-off but don't kid yourself you're working when you're not. If you're bored, then you probably haven't been asking the right questions, or any questions at all. You probably haven't been discussing your courses with others in the class. Just remind yourself what you came to University for and why you're getting yourself deeper in debt and sacrificing years of your life without a decent income. It's really sad to see students with ability fritter away their opportunities. You'll probably see some of your friends doing just this.

A degree programme should be built around what educationalists call 'progression', namely a progressive expansion in the breadth and depth of your skills and knowledge over the four years of your degree. The improvement of your skills in writing reports, essays and articles, in speaking to small and large groups, in making scientific posters doesn't come automatically by simple repetition of these tasks. Neither is it magically absorbed from academics. You yourself have to work consciously at improvement. Listen to the feedback you get from assignments but be your own strongest critic, so that next time you'll deliver something that bit better and, by being better focused, perhaps do so in less time. There is an old adage that the best education is the one you give yourself. There's some truth in this, too.

The largest part of the assessment for most degrees is the requirement to perform at a set time, either in a written exam or in giving a presentation. If you're only going to remember one piece of advice, remember this: preparation, preparation, preparation.

If you follow all the advice above, you’ll implicitly bring to your degree the essential characteristic of perseverance.  Thomas Edison, one of the world’s most successful inventors, was well acquainted with the value of perseverance and commented on one occasion “many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up”.

This 'page', actually at least four pages of A4 when printed out, has gone on long enough for the moment. Follow the advice above and you may surprise yourself how well you get on. Every topic above is worth more than I've given it. See the references below for further treatment and you'll notice that I've used some of their expressions in the hints above. See also some of our guidance on passing exams, writing lab reports, giving talks, preparing posters and writing popular articles. Remember, you're in charge of your own degree.



Andrew Northedge The Good Study Guide [Open University, Milton Keynes, 1990] library: SES 378.17 Nor

Andrew Notthedge, Jeff THomas, Andrew Lane and Alice Peasgood The Sciences Good Study Guide [Open University, Milton Keynes, 1997] library: OU S103.SGSG

Time management - University of Surrey's web-page