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Practical Tips for Your First Physics Class – Part 1

Tips from a Private Irvine Physics Tutor: Practical Tips For Your First Physics Class


The internet is full of tips and tactics from bloggers, tutors, and teachers about how to excel in physics. Unfortunately, the predominant advice is the ever-prevalent generic comments that students have been hearing about every class in every subject for years: “go to class,” “do your homework,” “do extra practice problems,” “take good notes,” etc. If you’re lucky, your basic physics tips might also include some points about being good at math and trying to understand the concepts instead of just memorizing – book your private Irvine physics tutor.

You already know these things. These tips are continuously repeated and are not helping you better prepare for or succeed at physics. Here, we will cover six specific and practical tips that can help you get through your first physics class, whether it’s high school, AP, or college.

1. Be an expert at formula manipulation

Formula manipulation is typically an algebra 2 concept where you have an equation with multiple variables that you can alter to solve for specific variables or plug-in specific values. For example, the volume of a pyramid is V = 1/3 A H where A is the area of the base and H is the height of the pyramid. However, we can manipulate this equation to instead give us height instead of volume by dividing both sides by A and multiplying by 3: H = 3 V A

This skill is essential in physics where you constantly move variables from one side of an equation to another and substitute numbers and variable for other variables. In our pyramid example, we might have to substitute in an area equation to find the height: A = L W where L is length and W is width. This could give us the new height equation: H – 3 V L W

If this example did not seem very easy to you, you need to go back and practice a lot of these types of problems. Take equations with many variables and practice isolating each individual variable one at a time.

2. Be an expert at basic trigonometry

Your physics class likely won’t require you to know all of the identities and properties of trig functions that you may have learned/are learning in your precalc or trigonometry class, but you do need to be very good at your simple sine, cosine, and tangent definitions with right triangles, as well as the Pythagorean theorem. Don’t forget your SOH-CAH-TOA, make sure you can do a2+b2=c2 in your sleep, and practice finding missing angles and sides of right triangles even when they’re upside down or inside out.
Basic trig is vital for early vector problems. It is also common to break diagonal lines into their x and y “components.” Don’t fall for it if someone tells you to “just use sine” “or just take the cosine” when you’re doing these problems. Draw the triangle and figure out why you’re using that trig function. It will save you when the problems get harder later.

3. Know your units

90% or more of your physics work will revolve around only three basic units: the kilogram (kg) for mass, the meter (m) for length/distance, and the second (s) for time. You can break up almost everything you do into just these three simple components. The unit for speed is m/s. Think miles per hour translated to meters per second instead. Being an expert with your units can help your understanding of the equations and help you check your answers.

For example, a basic physics equation is the definition of force: F = M A where M is the mass of an object and A is its acceleration. The unit for mass is the kilogram, and acceleration is meters per second squared. Multiplying these we get kg*m/s2. In class, they will call the unit of force a Newton, but we now know that a Newton is just a kg*m/s2. When you hear new units like the Hertz, the Joule, or the Pascal, remember that you can break them up into these basic parts. This can help a lot with topics like conservation of energy. (Note that the units for temperature, Kelvin (K); current, ampere (A); and amount, mole (mol) are also fundamental units that are used to a much smaller extent in physics 101).

The first three tips can help you prepare for physics and understand what’s going on. You will be very confused if you don’t know your triangles and basic trigonometry. You’ll also be very behind if you can’t quickly modify equations and substitute variables. Finally, understanding the units and their basic components can set you up to actually understand some of what you’re doing when you do examples.

Michael C. is currently a private math, science, and standardized test tutor with TutorNerds in Irvine and Anaheim.

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