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How to Pass a High School Physics Exam: Tips From a Teacher

A calculator and a pencil are essential tools for passing a physics exam.

A calculator and a pencil are essential tools for passing a physics exam.

Physics Examinations

Writing a physics exam doesn’t have to be a daunting experience. I taught high school physics, biology, and chemistry for many years and have helped many students prepare for their graduation exams .My students did well in their exams if they prepared for the examination throughout their course and followed a few important strategies when they were writing the exam.

The students who did best in physics used an organized filing system for their assignments and study materials, did all of their assigned work, asked me lots of questions to make sure that they understood everything, took notes even when they weren't asked to, studied regularly, and solved many practice problems. The problems included ones that I assigned, ones that I recommended, and ones that the students found by themselves.

When they answer questions on exams, the most successful students make sure that they work carefully, show their reasoning clearly when solving problems, and check their work before handing in the exam. Usually, the students who get the best marks are the ones who stay in the examination room until they are required to hand in their work instead of leaving the room early.

Some people claim that they can work in a messy environment, but for most of us a tidy and organized one works best.

Some people claim that they can work in a messy environment, but for most of us a tidy and organized one works best.

Organize Information, Time, and Study Areas

Your physics exam will last for just a few hours on one particular day, but your preparation for the exam should begin when you’re buying your school supplies before you attend your first physics class.

There are a number of decisions that you need to make before purchasing school supplies.

  • Where are you going to store your notes, the handouts that your teacher gives you, your assignments, your lab reports, your practice problems, and your practice exam questions? Are these all going into the same binder or will it be more efficient to separate them into more than one binder or notebook?
  • Do you need dividers for your binders? They can make searching for information more efficient.
  • Where will you store miscellaneous information like useful web addresses, names of other resources that your teacher recommends, and test and exam hints?
  • Do you have an agenda or planner to record important dates, facts, a to-do list, and your study schedule? (You are going to make a study schedule, aren't you?)
  • Even if your teacher requires you to set up your binder in a specific way, consider setting up a second form of storage if you think that this will help you. You can organize a second binder or a file box in any way that makes sense to you.

You also need to create a neat and organized study area at home, with adequate lighting and no distractions. Your desk or table needs to have enough space for your writing supplies and calculator, your open textbook, your notebook, binder or paper, and your agenda and study schedule.

A computer is a valuable asset for a physics student, but it must be used wisely. A pencil (or pen) and paper are still important for students.

A computer is a valuable asset for a physics student, but it must be used wisely. A pencil (or pen) and paper are still important for students.

Computers are a wonderful resource for physics students. The lure of computers for other purposes, such as for entertainment or social media accounts, can be very strong. A successful student manages to (mostly) use a computer, laptop, tablet, or phone for the right purpose at the right time. Self-discipline is necessary.

Use a Computer or a Phone as a Learning Tool

Useful Electronic Organizers

A computer or a related device with an Internet connection can be a very useful learning resource. In addition, some people use an agenda program or app on their computer, łaptop, tablet, or phone and also create their study schedule on one of the devices. Back up your data regularly if you do this and only turn on the device or place it near you if you need it. It’s very easy to get distracted by the entertainment that computers offer.

Preventing Distraction While Studying

Though an electronic device can be very helpful for a student, you should be honest with yourself about whether it is helping or hindering you study sessions. If your phone or tablet is a frequent distraction for you, try setting an alarm and telling yourself that you won't look at the device until the alarm goes off. Putting a phone in a different room until it must be used may be a helpful tactic. If you live in a multilevel home, leaving your phone on a different floor when you are studying may also be helpful. The need to go up or down stairs to get the device might discourage you from using it.

Exploring the Internet

Searching for physics information and practice problems on the Internet is an excellent idea, but do this outside of your scheduled study time to avoid filling the time with Internet searches. You'll find that there are many physics resources online, including facts, explanations, videos, experiment demonstrations, graphing programs, podcasts, example problems, and practice problems. Bookmark useful sites when you find them and organize your bookmarks folder on your computer so that you can quickly visit a specific site again. If you don't have a computer or related device at home, make sure that you look at physics resources on a school or public library computer.

Do you really need your phone beside you as you study?

Do you really need your phone beside you as you study?

Work Effectively During Your Physics Course

Even if you use good exam-writing strategies during your physics examination, you’re unlikely to get a good result if you haven’t gathered information during the physics course and studied effectively. Here are some tips for gathering information.

  • Attend all of your physics classes.
  • If you have to miss a class due to unavoidable circumstances, get the information or assignment that you missed from your teacher or from a reliable student.
  • Complete all your assignments during the course.
  • When you receive your marked assignments, correct any errors that you made.
  • If you don't understand something, either ask your teacher or another knowledgeable person for help or check a reference source.
  • Copy example problems that are shown on the blackboard, white board, or overhead projector.
  • Make notes about the information that your teacher presents. You won't be able to write down everything that the teacher says or shows, so use point form and abbreviations, writing down just the key points. If a teacher is showing you a web page, write down the address so that you can visit the site later. Check your notes on the same day as the lecture, filling in any gaps, clarifying them, and rewriting them.
  • File all the information that you collect in the appropriate place and keep it organized in order to make studying efficient.
  • Become very familiar with how to use your calculator, as well as your backup calculator if you are allowed to take it into the exam room.
  • Don't simply copy answers from your calculator. Always take a quick moment to decide if the answer seems reasonable. If the answer is ridiculous, you know that you've either used the calculator incorrectly or the device is damaged.

Tips for Solving Physics Problems

Use Good Study Techniques

  • Study frequently for short periods instead of occasionally for long periods.
  • Create and follow a study schedule.
  • Most physics exams contain a lot of word problems. It's therefore very important to do active studying in physics. You need to solve problems and then check an answer key to see what your errors are, if any. You also need to correct any errors by solving the problems again. Simply reading through problem solutions (passive studying) is useful, but active studying is essential if you want to do well on your physics exam.
  • Collect practice problems to solve. Look in your textbook for problems, search on the Internet, and ask your teacher where you can get extra problems.
  • Don't forget to solve complex problems as well as easy ones. Working with harder problems is excellent training for your brain and gives you confidence that you can deal with whatever problems appear on the real exam.
  • If a practice exam contains multiple choice questions, don't simply circle the correct answers. Write down the solution method or relevant facts beside the questions so that the exam becomes a study resource.
  • If you are able to get copies of previous exams, once you have studied all the course material write mock exams with the same time limit as the real exam.
  • You will probably have to memorize facts even in a problem-solving course. Make notes about these facts based upon what you learn in class or what you read in your textbook. Study these notes.
  • Active studying is more helpful than passive studying when learning factual information. Try making up questions about the information in your notes and then answering the questions without looking at the notes. In addition, try explaining some information that you have just read without looking at the information. Talk aloud even if you are on your own.

You need to be honest with yourself about where you study best. Some people find that studying outdoors is helpful while others find it distracting. The same advice applies to studying in a coffee shop.

More Study Skills

  • Add group study time with your friends to your individual study time. Helping each other solve physics problems is a great learning strategy. However, in order for group study to be successful, you need to make sure that the group works on physics problems instead of socializing.
  • Try teaching a topic to your friends. Teaching something is another great way to learn.
  • If your school offers academic help time, tutorial classes, or homework classes, make sure you attend these events if you need help with physics.
  • Create diagrams to help you study. For example, draw flow charts that show the sequence of events in solving specific types of problems. Practice drawing graphs that show relationships. Draw sketches to represent facts, laws, and rules.
  • If you will be given a formula sheet on your exam, make sure that you can use each formula not only as it's written on the sheet but also in its rearranged forms.
  • Sometimes a teacher may let you bring one sheet of information into a physics exam. Start preparing material for this sheet well in advance of the exam date so that it can be changed and fine-tuned before you enter the exam room. Study this sheet even though you're allowed to have it with you during the exam.

Hints for Solving Word Problems

Practice the Steps for Solving a Word Problem

The basic steps for solving a word problem are described below. You may prefer to follow different steps, which is fine, but if your method for dealing with word problems isn't reliable you might want to try the following sequence of events.

  • Draw a diagram to represent the situation whenever possible.
  • Label the diagram with the data given in the problem or list the data.
  • Identify the information that you are being asked to find.
  • Choose an appropriate formula or formulas to find the required information based on the given data.
  • Substitute the data in the formula or formulas.
  • Solve for the required information.
  • Check your answer.

Prepare for Writing Your Physics Exam

Pack what you will need during the exam (such as writing utensils, an eraser, a ruler, a geometry set, and a calculator) the night before the exam. Make sure that your calculator is in good working order and has a fresh battery if it needs one, or take a spare battery with you. Select the comfortable clothes and shoes that you’ll wear the next day and place them in one area for quick access. Pack other things that you might need during the exam and are allowed to bring into the exam room, such as a water bottle.

Try to get a good night's sleep before the exam and for several nights leading up to the exam. Don't get up very early on the exam day to cram. You will most likely be tired and mentally confused when you enter the exam room if you do this.

Don’t try a new food or drink right before the exam. Eat your usual breakfast or lunch, but don’t eat or drink anything that you know will cause problems while you are writing the exam. For example, don’t eat or drink anything that will make you want to visit the washroom frequently.

On the day of the exam, make sure that you leave home early in case you face a traffic jam or an unforeseen transportation problem. You need to arrive at school with enough time to go the washroom and gather your thoughts before the exam starts.

Preparing for a Multiple Choice Exam

Tips for Writing the Exam

  • Make sure that you only take approved electronic devices into the exam room. Don't forget to leave your phone outside the room or wherever the exam supervisor asks you to put it, especially if you're used to carrying it around in a pocket.
  • Read the exam instructions carefully before starting the examination so that you don't make procedural errors. This will also give you time to organize your thoughts and calm you down if you're nervous.
  • Answer the questions that you can do first. If you're spending a long time trying to answer one particular question, don't get discouraged. Leave the question and come back to it later after you have completed the rest of the exam. By then you may have realized how to answer the question that seemed difficult when you first read it.
  • Work carefully as you answer the exam questions, but keep track of the time so that you know when you're taking too long to complete a section of the exam. Some exams give suggested time limits for each section. Be aware of these limits.
  • Try to answer multiple choice questions in your mind before looking at the list of possible answers and then choose the answer from the list that best matches yours.
  • If you're having trouble deciding on the correct answer to a multiple choice question, try eliminating the wrong answers.
  • Follow the basic steps for solving word problems if you are finding a problem challenging.
  • For word problems that require a written response, show all your calculation steps clearly and in the order in which they're performed so that the marker can follow your reasoning. This will aid you in several ways: it will help you obtain the maximum number of marks for the problem if you complete the answer; it will increase the likelihood that you will get at least partial marks for the problem if you get stuck halfway through the answer; and writing the start of the solution may help you to think of the rest of the solution.
  • If you are given blank paper to use for rough work, make use of it. If you can't think of how to solve a problem, "play" with data, formulas, and facts, or use brainstorming techniques. These steps may help you to think of a solution for the problem.

Writing Multiple Choice Exams

More Tips for Writing Physics Exams

  • Write in all measurement units, not only in the final answer but in the calculations steps as well. You will likely lose marks if you don't do this. In addition, if you write in all the units you are more likely to notice when you have to do a unit conversion in order to get the correct answer.
  • Make sure that you use significant figures (or significant digits) if they are required.
  • Draw graphs neatly, using your ruler for the axes. Don't forget to label the axes and state the measurement scale that you are using.
  • Never leave blank spaces on your answer sheet. If time is running out and you have no idea what the correct answer for a multiple choice question is, circle any of the answers. If there are four possible answers, you have a 25% chance of being right. If you can eliminate an obviously wrong answer (or answers), your chance of choosing the right response increases.
  • If you can't solve a word problem, list the data, draw a graph or a diagram that you think might be relevant, or write a formula or fact that you think might be related to the problem. You might get partial marks for your answer.
  • Check all your answers before you hand in your exam. When you're writing the exam, make a note beside problems that you leave out so that you know you have to come back to them at the end.
  • If you have to answer multiple choice questions by shading in circles on a computer scan sheet, make sure that you've marked the circles that correspond with your intended answers.
  • If you discover that you've made an error in a multiple choice question, change the answer very clearly, especially if the answer is written on a computer scan sheet. Erase any stray marks on the answer sheet.
  • If you're not completely certain about how to answer a multiple choice question, it might be a good idea to go with the first answer that you chose instead of second-guessing yourself.

In British Columbia, where I live, the final year of high school or secondary school is known as Grade 12. Other countries may use different terms for this year.

Don't Be Intimidated by an Examination

A former principal of a school where I once taught liked to give the following advice to Grade 12 students: "Don't be intimidated by the exam. You intimidate the exam." He certainly wasn't encouraging students to be overconfident, but he was encouraging them to be confident in the fact that they had studied well and that they would pass the exam if they made an honest effort.

"Intimidating" an exam might be not be possible if you haven't worked during the course or have left studying until the last moment. A physics exam will be much less intimidating for you if you prepare for it instead of thinking about it shortly before the exam date. Working conscientiously and efficiently from the start of the course will give you the best possible chance of understanding your physics curriculum and having a good exam experience.

While many people feel a little tense when they start an exam, if you've prepared properly your nervousness should soon fade and you will be able to not only pass your physics exam but also get a good mark to reward you for your efforts throughout the course.

A Useful Resource: Physics Practice Problems

The questions in the resource mentioned below are based on the British Columbia Grade 12 Physics curriculum. Answers are provided and can be checked once the quiz is finished. Even though the curriculum may not be identical to yours, some or many of the questions may be useful to you. Try to find practice exams for your own curriculum as well.

Multiple Choice Physics Questions (Choose "Physics 12" from the drop-down menu.)

Questions & Answers

Question: How should I study for a Physics exam?

Answer: To some extent, the answer depends on your schedule and the physics curriculum that you are following. I suggest that you do the following, however.

1) In your textbook, read the chapter introduction and/or the review at the end of the chapter for each topic that you need to know.

2) Answer a few of the questions at the end of each of the relevant chapters to refresh your memory. Try to choose the questions that you feel are most important, since there probably won't be enough time to do them all. You can solve additional problems if there's time left at the end of your review.

3) Read the notes that you made during the course.

4) Try a few questions from each worksheet or lab report that you completed during the course. Once again, choose problems that you feel will be most useful or that cover the most points that you need to know, since your time is limited.

If you decide to follow these suggestions, you need to apply them to your particular situation. If your course didn't use a textbook or your instructor rarely referred to it, for example, you will probably have to ignore the first two suggestions. If you have a huge binder filled with your work, you need to think about whether the notes or the worksheets are the most important sections to review.

One thing that I noticed is that you asked how you could understand the subject in a week. If you are very confused and feel that you've learned nothing in the course, I'm afraid that one week is almost certainly not enough time to understand the course. If you mean that you want to know how to refresh your memory about topics that you do understand, then a lot can be done in a week (though the results probably won't be as good as they would have been if you had started to study earlier).

You should study physics every day. Make sure that you get enough sleep, though, or you will be too tired to write the exam. If there are a few topics that confuse you, make sure that you get help from your instructor well before the week is up.

Remember that my ideas are only suggestions. The nature of your course and your knowledge of the study techniques that work best for you will affect your plan.

Question: I try so hard to pass physics but I always get a C. What should I do to improve?

Answer: I suggest that you get individual help. First, see if your teacher can help you either during class or outside of class time. Next, see if there is a physics tutor available in your area. If you can't afford a tutor, try asking another student who does well in physics to help you. Perhaps you could offer to help them in another subject in return for their aid. You should also consider whether a relative or family friend has studied physics and could help you with your course. You might be able to get online help, too, but you need to find a site that covers your curriculum well and allows students to ask questions and receive answers (and is free to use).

Question: I try so hard to practice questions for my Physics exams, but all I get is a B. What should I do to get an A?

Answer: One step that might be helpful is to get a tutor or attend a tutorial session. You may or may not have to pay for academic help. Some schools offer free help sessions after classes have finished for the day. Also, many teachers are willing to assist individual students outside of class time, provided they know about the visit in advance.

You might be able to get help from a fellow student who finds physics easy. Perhaps you could offer to help them in another subject or activity in exchange for their aid. If you do need to pay a tutor, university students often charge cheaper rates than professional tutors.

Question: I find the turning effect of force hard to understand. How can I improve my knowledge?

Answer: Many sources of information are available and may be helpful for you. First, if you haven't already done so, ask your teacher if they can help you or if they know about some good websites that match your curriculum and discuss the turning effect of force. The teacher may also have some extra problems that you could try. You could also explore the Internet on your own. I just did a search for "turning effect of force" and found informational websites, example problems, quizzes, and YouTube videos that might be helpful for you. A good friend of yours or a relative who understands the topic may be another source of help.

© 2012 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 01, 2014:

Thank you very much for sharing your experience, Glenn. You've left a useful comment for physics students to read! Active and frequent studying and trying many different kinds of problems are very important for success in physics.

Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on November 01, 2014:

I had an experience with my physics final exam many decades ago where I knew I got the wrong answer but I got an A+ in the course anyway.

Although I knew that I passed because I was able to explain why my answer was wrong, I learned from your hub the one important reason for my success... I did active studying throughout the semester. That gave me the knowledge to check my work and determine that it was wrong.

Without having time to do it over, I explained this in my workbook and that is all the teacher wanted to see. I actually wrote a hub about this experience. But you made it clear how important it is to study and solve many problems, both those assigned and those found on our own.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 17, 2014:

Thank you so much for the very kind comment and the vote, m abdullah javed! I appreciate your visit.

muhammad abdullah javed on October 17, 2014:

Hi Linda, its simply awesome. Being a teacher you have done justice in dealing with a subject, which is thought to be a nightmare for many students, it covers both theroritcal and practical aspects and inspire students to apply themselves. Thanks for the share. Voted awesome.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 12, 2014:

That's a good point, Israel Luckie! Good luck with your future physics studies.

Israel Luckie on February 12, 2014:

I would like to upgrade my physics and change my study approach to physics. Physics is simply making sense of the world around us and everything that exists on the physical plane

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 24, 2013:

Thank you so much for such a lovely comment, madscientist12. I appreciate your visit. It's very nice to meet you!

Dani Alicia from Myrtle Beach, SC on November 24, 2013:

Great hub! The advice and information that you've given can be applied to any subject. I bet you're a great teacher!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 04, 2013:

Thank you for the comment, leonida! I hope you do well in your physics course.

leonida,from Nairobi, Kenya on January 04, 2013:

thank you because you helped me a great deal.i am now confident that i will pass in physics as i am gonna use the tips u have given us,! thanks again!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 13, 2012:

Thank you very much for such a lovely comment, Rusti! I appreciate it very much.

Ruth McCollum from Lake Oswego, Oregon on May 13, 2012:

I don't know much about physics but if I did ,I would want you to be my teacher!!!! This was easy to understand and a good read.I learned from you today!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 10, 2012:

Hi, b. Malin. Thank you very much for the visit and the comment. I like your idea about learning often being easier when we're older. I agree!

b. Malin on May 10, 2012:

I always learn something from your well written and Informative Hubs Alicia. I too love Physics, but wish I had your helpful guide back then. I think the older we get the more the mind is able to take in and learn, not as much distractions as when we are younger. "Quantum Physics" does sound Fascinating. Thanks for sharing!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 08, 2012:

Thank you for the comment, mwilliams66!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 08, 2012:

Thanks for the comment and the vote, Nell! It's never too late to study something that you're interested in. Quantum physics is fascinating, although it's a difficult subject to understand!

mwilliams66 from Left Coast, USA on May 08, 2012:

Fantastic article. Very informative. Thank you.

Nell Rose from England on May 08, 2012:

I love physics, especially Quantum physics and really wanted to go on to study it, but sadly it wasn't to be. Your tips and ideas are so helpful, and I am sure they will make passing the exams so much easier, voted up! cheers nell

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 08, 2012:

Thank you for the lovely comment, drbj!! I appreciate it very much. We didn't have computers in my high school, either, and I when I took my first computer course at university the computer that we had to use was a giant device that filled a room! I love the portable devices that we have access to now.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on May 08, 2012:

Dear Alicia - How I wish I had this extremely valuable information back in the Pleistocene Era when I took physics. I didn't have an iPhone or an iPad or even a PC then, either. Magnificent presentation, m'dear - voted a great big Up.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 08, 2012:

Thank you very much for the comment, CMHypno. I'm sorry that you had a bad experience with physics when you were in school!

CMHypno from Other Side of the Sun on May 08, 2012:

I could have done with this information several decades ago as I was thrown out of the physics class when I was 13! Very well presented, interesting stuff Alicia

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on May 07, 2012:

Thank you for the vote and the comment, teaches. I appreciate your visit!

Dianna Mendez on May 07, 2012:

This is quite detailed and very informative. I was never very good at this subject, but it is really a help to those that need the support. Voted up.