How to Pass a High School Physics Exam
Writing a physics exam doesn’t have to be a daunting experience. I've taught high school physics, biology and chemistry for many years and have helped many students prepare for their graduation exams. I’ve found that my students do well in their exams if they prepare for the examination throughout their course and follow a few important strategies when they’re actually writing the exam.
The students who do best in physics use an organized filing system for their assignments and study materials, do all their assigned work, ask me lots of questions to make sure that they understand everything, take notes even when they’re not asked to, study regularly and solve many practice problems. The problems include ones that I assign, ones that I recommend and ones that the students find 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.
Use an Agenda or Planner
Organize Your Information, Time and Study Area
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.
Computers are a wonderful resource for physics students. The lure of computers for other purposes, such as for entertainment or social media, can be very strong, however. 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 as a Learning Tool
A computer 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 these 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! Try setting an alarm and tellIng yourself that you won't look at your device again until the alarm goes off. Putting a mobile device in a different room until it must be used may also be a helpful tactic.
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 at home, make sure that you look at physics resources on a school or public library computer.
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, 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 it's a ridiculous answer then you've know that either you've used the calculator incorrectly or the calculator is damaged.
Teach and Learn!
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, then check an answer key to see what your errors are, if any, and correct your solutions. 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 but 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.
- There will be some facts to memorize 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, and 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.
How to Solve Physics Problems
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.
More Hints for Solving Word Problems
Prepare for 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
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, 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.
- Remember the basic steps for solving word problems: draw a diagram to represent the situation whenever possible; label the diagram with the data given in the problem or list the data; decide what information 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; and check your answer.
- 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.
Taking 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 too. You will likely lose marks if you don't do this, plus 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 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 the obviously wrong answers your chance of choosing the right answer 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's probably a good idea to go with the first answer that you chose instead of second guessing yourself.
Don't Be Intimidated by an Exam
A former principal of the school where I teach liked to give the following advice to students in their graduating year: "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 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 your efforts throughout the course.
Physics Practice Problems
These practice exams are based on the British Columbia Grade 12 Physics curriculum. 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.
Recent Physics Exam Resources from the BC Ministry of Education
Previous Physics Exam Questions and Keys
Multiple Choice Questions from previous exams
© 2012 Linda Crampton