How to Succeed in A-Level Physics
Is your child studying A-Level Physics? It can be an intimidating subject for some because of its heavy mathematical elements, but in practice, the subject encourages a whole range of other skills. These skills, alongside the mathematical modules, make it a great qualification to lead into university.
Here I share some tips on how to succeed in your Physics A-Level and get the most from your two years of study.
This is a summary of my conversation with physics teacher, Simon Petts. You can read the summary or use the podcast player above to listen. You can also find the podcast, The School Success Formula, through your podcast app of choice. Click here to find it on Apple podcasts.
How to Succeed in A-Level Physics
What’s a good attitude to A-Level Physics?
Physics is known for being a hard subject, so having the right attitude is key to success in your study and your exams. The rewards of the subject can open up your options to many science-based careers.
If you’re someone who likes asking questions physics could well be a good fit for you. A questioning mind is essential to gain a deeper understanding of the subject.
There’s a lot of analysis and research involved with the subject, so you need to be strict with your thinking and your study habits. A tenacious attitude to study will see the best students attain high grades.
A successful A-Level physics student will have a determined mindset and find motivation not just in getting the answers correct, but in getting them wrong too. Past failure feeds into your future questioning, so having the mental strength to see those failures as essential to your progress is really key.
How to Study A-Level Physics?
The jump from GCSE to A-Level is pretty big and there isn’t much that overlaps in the areas covered, so Simon's advice is to see A-Level physics as a journey from GCSE. View it as a progression rather than a repeat of what you already learned. Build your knowledge in small steps so you don’t get too overwhelmed.
Consolidate as you go along
Classroom lessons are the obvious starting point in your study and by getting the foundations right you will build a successful study habit to build on. Practice taking notes to consolidate your ideas and understanding. Read and review them and find a format that works for you. It’s a real skill that you will develop over time, so it’s worth practising early to get it right.
Memorising the routine elements will really help you when it comes to the analytical problems you’ll be asked to solve. It might feel bit boring at first, but by getting the base knowledge laid down you’ll be able to work quicker with more energy focused on the question.
The role of self-awareness
Be self-critical in your study and be aware of your progress. Use this self-awareness and find a way to communicate it to your teacher so they can help you push forward in the areas you need it most. What parts do you find easy or a challenge? Let your teacher know so they can help you fill the gaps.
Securing the vital knowledge
If there’s a topic that really motivates you, you might want to find resources you enjoy reading and explore that subject a bit deeper, but don’t do that as a substitute for working through your textbooks and working through problems. Studying textbooks will help you with your writing for the exam which is a crucial skill.
How to revise A-Level Physics?
Revise regularly to secure the basics
If you’ve memorised all of the basic formulae and you’ve consolidated your notes along the way, you’ll have a good base-level knowledge from which you can build and gain confidence when you answer questions. Revise the modules regularly throughout the year – not just in the run-up to the exam, and you’ll keep that knowledge fresh.
Break it down into bite-sized chunks
File your notes and mark them into categories so you can revisit them during your revision time. You’ll want to break the subjects down into manageable chunks, so getting your notes organised in a binder or folder right from the start will really help. Try creating a timetable or plan of the order you’ll revise them and tick them off so you can see your progress.
One topic at a time
Immerse yourself in one topic at a time, taking your time to break it all down. Make more notes as you re-visit your textbooks and keep practising problems for each topic. Your confidence to answer questions will grow the more you do. Practice, practice, practice! The more questions you do the more you’ll recognise in the future – you are honing your skill.
If you’re tackling sample questions as part of your revision, start with some warm-up questions to get you going. Plan these in advance and work your way through them before hitting the main problem.
How do you improve your exam technique for A-Level Physics?
The key to improving your exam technique starts, as in most exams, with accepting the pressure is on you and that it’s a stressful situation. You might make mistakes as a result but that’s ok.
You can’t escape the fact that the numerical aspects of the exam practice in your revision is key. If you do plenty of algebra work and become as fluent as possible, you’ll save energy in the exam by being able to focus purely on the problem, rather than having to work out the equation first.
If an answer isn’t coming to you as easily as you’d like, try finding a way to format your working so you can track the progress of your thinking. This could be highlighting sections or numbering parts of your answer.
Being concise in your answers is a really important skill for answering exam questions. Choose specific keywords and use your language carefully to keep sentences short and to the point, whilst still conveying the full depth and scope of the answer.
Why is A-Level Physics so hard?
Physics is a hard subject, there’s no denying that. You’re condensing over 300 years of learning and discovery into two years – that is no easy job! By putting that into perspective you’ll feel proud of yourself for the progress you make in a very short amount of time. Congratulate yourself!
The concepts are abstract. You’re learning lots of different skills – numeracy, data processing, rigorous thoughts about abstract concepts, 3d visualisation. There’s a high demand on your use of language to express complex things. It’s hard!
What do you need to do to realise your potential in A-Level Physics?
Determination, hard work, lots of motivation and a questioning attitude. Your teacher will support you to learn the foundations, but you’ll need to think independently to progress and excel.
It’s important to recognise when you’re making progress, but it’s even more important to be able to see your failures as opportunities to try again until you get it right. It’s a tenacious mindset that all famous physicists have in common, and one that will help you be successful in the exam and beyond.
Do you want to find out more?
If you'd like more detailed guidance on how to succeed in A-Level physics, Simon will be teaching the How to Revise A-Level Physics Masterclass on Saturday 12th June 2021. At the masterclass he will cover:
About Simon Petts
Simon Petts is an Oxford graduate who has been teaching secondary school physics for 30 years, including time as Head of Department. He is the author of A-Level material for the OCR and Pearson exam boards, question-writer for Cambridge Assessments and an A-Level examiner for AQA so he is fulled versed in how exam questions work and how to give the best possible answers.