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Get Ready - Top Skills for Success in a Physics Course!

To start learning physics concepts, you need to have a solid foundation of physics skill sets. Too often students can't focus on the new physics concepts that are presented to them because they are too confused by terminology and skills that are used during the learning process. Some of the skills they have been taught in years past, while they are expected to learn others on the fly.

Below is a list of eight skill categories that I have found to be key for success in the physics classroom. I will spend the next eight weeks focusing on these skills to prepare physics students to start the school year with confidence.

Algebra Skills For the most part, the algebra used in physics involves solving for a variable that is located anywhere in an equation. Students entering physics typically have had significant exposure to algebra, but they STILL always stumble. Brushing up on your algebra skills is a must!

There are many questions in a physics classroom that are similar to, "If x doubles, what happens to y?" We are looking at how changing one variable will affect another without doing a detailed numerical calculation. Use algebra skills here to solve the equation for y and see how changing x impacts the overall answer. Does y double, quadruple, get cut in half?

Trigonometry Skills

Most students have taken a trigonometry class prior to physics. The trigonometry skills used in a basic algebra-based physics class are typically limited to right triangle trigonometry. This includes sine, cosine, and tangent functions as well as the Pythagorean theorem. We use these A LOT! (I will explain why later.)

Occasionally, a problem can be solved using the Law of Sines and Law of Cosines, but this typically isn't mandatory since you can "rebuild" the problem using right triangle trigonometry. The higher the level of physics you are taking, the more likely you are to use the Law of Sines & Cosines.

Unit Conversions

Most values that we deal with in physics have units associated with them. These units identify how the quantities have been measured as in meters, kilograms, seconds, etc. Typically, units in physics are from the metric system (SI), but sometimes the English system is also used. Students need to know the difference between these systems and how to convert from one to another.

It is also important to realize that the units on either side of an equation are equal to each other. Sometimes the units will be fundamental units (there are seven of these in the SI system), but other times derived units are used to represent a certain combination of fundamental units. I often call derived units a "nickname" for a certain clump of fundamental units! It's just easier than writing a bunch of fundamental units over and over.

Metric Prefixes

Since the metric system is the preferred measurement system in science, students must understand not only what the metric prefixes signify, but how to convert between them. The metric system was created to make writing and comprehending large and small values easier, not harder! Once you become familiar with the metric system and the use of prefixes, it will make your problem solving experience go much smoother.

Problem Solving Method

I am a big fan of systems! If you follow a sound problem solving method, you can attack any problem confidently in physics. Typically, I follow this method: 1) read the problem, 2) draw a diagram or sketch, 3) list known & unknown variables, 4) list a helpful equation or two, 5) manipulate the equation to solve for the desired variable, 6) plug in numerical values for the variables and solve, 7) communicate your answer effectively (including units).


I always expect students to come to my class with the knowledge of how to make a graph using a spreadsheet program... they never do. The skill of creating and analyzing a graph in physics is critical. Graphs are a great tool for visualizing relationships between different quantities. Not only can we see the trend between independent and dependent variables, but we can also gather important information by analyzing the slope, area, and y-intercept of the trendline. Maybe I should have a month long workshop only on graphing! It is by far one of the greatest deficits that most students have.

Vector Analysis

This is a big one that ties back into the trigonometry skill set. Students typically are not exposed to the terms scalar and vector until they enter a physics class. There is a huge benefit to learning about these terms and their implications ahead of time. While others are being introduced to this topic during the school year, you will be mastering it!

In physics, we classify all quantities as a scalar or vector and mathematically treat them very differently. If you are dealing with vectors, the direction of the quantity is a key component (No pun intended!). This often leads to implementing trigonometry in the problem solving process.

The Lab Experience

In short, you need to 1) be able to read directions and execute a lab (often in a group), 2) design and write your own lab, and 3) write-up your results in a formal report. Different courses and schools typically have a specific format that they prefer, but the overall structure for a lab design and write-up is quite common. There are key components that a quality investigation must include. Data needs to be recorded and analyzed properly so you can communicate results with the reader. Labs are not to be taken lightly since they are often a large portion of the physics course experience.

Do you need to master all of these skills prior to entering a physics class? No! Will a solid foundation in these skills prior to entering a physics class be beneficial? Absolutely! It is up to you on how you want to scaffold your learning. My advice is to take action now so you can have a more meaningful experience once your physics course starts. You got this!

Sign up for the Physics Skills Summer Series with Finding Physics to work on each of these skill sets this summer!

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