Studying for Math and Physics Classes

While many students think studying begins and ends with reading and rereading their book or their notes, more efficient and effective studying involves a more active approach. This is especially true for mathematics and physics classes, where you are asked to demonstrate your understanding by solving problems.

Working through practice problems—ideally, A LOT of them—is the most effective way to learn math and to study for a math or physics exam. Taking the test without doing any practice problems is like taking the road test for your driver’s license without ever having driven a car. Consider this handout your driver’s ed class.

It helps to have some strategies as you approach practice problems. Below are some ideas to try.

Remember, no one can learn several weeks worth of material in one night! It’s important to space out your practice over time. This will allow you to commit information to your long-term memory and get a better understanding of complex concepts. The suggestions below can be used from when you first start learning a new concept and right up until you take a test!

Use Resources—Especially Worked Out Examples!

Look at your textbook, notes, online videos and other resources to understand concepts and learn how to work problems.

Use examples as a guide for how to solve problems involving the concept you’re trying to learn. You can follow the steps to learn the general process. You can also use examples to check your work when you are reviewing concepts before an exam.

Be Able to Explain "Why?"

When solving a problem, being able to explain why you’re doing each step will help you have a deeper understanding of the concepts. Don’t get so caught up in what you’re doing that you skip thinking about why you’re doing it. Thinking this way will help you remember how to get from one step of a problem to the next, rather than just memorizing a pattern.

Mix It Up

Although your homework assignments often only cover one concept at a time, exams usually cover multiple concepts, in no particular order; thus, you will need to know how to quickly identify types of problems and the methods to solve them. When studying for an exam, mix up the types of problems you’re practicing to practice identifying and solving different concepts quickly.

Combine Concepts

In math and physics courses, concepts and techniques you learn later in the course usually build upon things you learned earlier. Try to do problems that involve multiple concepts that are going to be on the exam.

Make Sure You Can Do It On Your Own

It’s easy to feel like you know how to solve a problem when you are looking at solutions, following an example, or watching someone else do it.

Before your test, you should be able to work problems without looking at solutions or using any resources you wouldn’t have on an exam (e.g. a calculator or formula sheet).

It’s also important to practice under time pressure, to get yourself used to solving problems more quickly than you might be used to.

Additional Resources

Developed and shared by The Learning Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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