The main lecture and laboratory courses educate you in the concepts and applications of Physics, but key skills enhance your marketability in whatever career you may choose. We encourage you to develop these skills throughout your studies and expect them to become evident in your essays, laboratory reports, "conference" presentations and so on. There are many opportunities to apply them in later years and once you master them you will have much more confidence when you commence work on your project or dissertation. We aim for you to become competent in:
A number of different tasks have been integrated into your work for each year to provide a progressive development of your skills to help you meet these aims. We anticipate that some of you will already have some or all of these skills, but we hope that all of you can develop and improve your expertise.
One vital key skill for students is being able to study effectively. Improving your study skills will help you make the most of your time at University and beyond. We recommend that you consult (and act upon) the Academic Skills pages produced by the University.
Using information technology is an important element of the key skills programme. You should be or become competent in using it in the following areas:
(a) Typing - Your typing skill will not be assessed. However, we strongly recommend that you make some effort to learn to touch type: it will greatly facilitate your use of computers.
(b) Using Windows or other operating systems - Create, edit, copy and move files and run programs.
(c) Word processing - A range of tasks will arise throughout your studies for which word-processed material will be required: for example preparing essays, reports and a CV.
(d) Drawing and graphing - Drawing packages allow you quickly to produce the diagrams you need for your work, whilst graphing packages allow you to produce plots of your experimental data.
(e) Presentations - Good presentational skills are vital for conveying your work to others. The skills required here involve both speaking to an audience and producing visual material. The rules of good presentation are, of course, completely independent of computer technology, but computers can help you to prepare clear, uncluttered visual material. Presentation packages can also produce speaker's notes and sets of handouts for the audience.
(f) Use of network resources - Most computers are now networked. You are probably familiar with electronic mail, the web and social networking tools. You should become competent in using networked resources for bibliographic searches, scientific information retrieval and perhaps remote collaboration.
(g) Scientific applications of computers - All scientists should be competent in using computers for analysing data and presenting it in graphical form, and for performing numerical calculations and simulations, using packages or by writing and modifying programs.
Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. So think what you want to say, then say it as simply as possible.
The Economist Style Guide, 6th ed (Profile Books Ltd, London, 2000)
Some resources you might try are report-writing tips from our own Tim Freegarde, the Writers Handbook from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Center and Writing Guidelines for Engineering and Science Students from Penn State University. If you are really pressed for time, here is a quick guide (With acknowledgement to David Markowitz, Physics School, University of Connecticut) ...
Rather more well-known are George Orwell's `six elementary rules' which appeared in his book Politics and the English language (1946).
In writing about physics you will need to use scientific words, so you should interpret rule 5 appropriately.
The One Minute Lecture was originated by Dr LA McGrew (University of Northern Iowa) as a novel ploy at cocktail parties. It has subsequently been developed as a technique for skills-based learning. In the Physics & Astronomy school we use One Minute Lectures in our First Year Tutorials.
You choose a topic from a list. Your tutor briefly discusses each chosen topic to put your thinking on the right lines. If the extra information needed for the lecture is not available in the text books that you have, then a reference is suggested or material provided. We appreciate that you have a heavy workload from lectures and labs, so preparing the one minute lecture should not require you to undertake a lot of work. There should be some discussion on how you are going to plan your lecture: deciding on the overall message and structuring it with headings and subheadings. You may be given a large sheet of paper on which to prepare a visual aid. In the following tutorial, you give your lectures. After each lecture there is a few minutes of discussion among the tutorial group. What points have been presented? Were they effective in telling the story?
The objectives of this exercise are to help you:
It may also help you to:
Remember, spoken language and written language have completely different structures. Never read aloud a lecture prepared in written language; the different sentence structure means that audience will inevitably get lost. Make a complete list of the points you want to say and practise speaking sentences making each point. Most beginners speak too fast; you have to leave pauses for the listeners to take in what is being said. If you are really not confident enough to give the talk from just a list of points then try speaking about each point in turn and write down exactly what you said. In this way you get a written version with the language structure of spoken English. Now learn what you have written and try delivering the talk from just the list of points.
Here is a list of things to think about when preparing a presentation, that is a set of slides which are to be viewed on screen before an audience.
|The laws of physics are the same for all observers in all inertia l reference frames|
You can always have extra notes or cue cards for your own use when making your presentation.
|Our value for Planck's constant
h = (6.626 ± 0.004) × 10-34 J s
Here we point you to How to Make a Great Poster by Dina Mandoli from the University of Washington, held at the American Association of Plant Biologists web site. We quote the following from this page: a great poster is...
Some of the general advice on preparing slides may also be helpful.
These hints were originally prepared by Mark Brummell to help students who were asked to write essays for the first year physics core courses.
The key to successful communication is to put yourself in the reader's place. Whenever you have to make an editorial decision, think `what will the reader want to know'.
[Mark Brummell 1999]
Word processors offer great control over your text, but that same control makes it easy to produce a terrible mess. The guidelines below offer some simple wisdom on laying out your documents. The basic ideas of layout apply even if you are using a typewriter or writing by hand. In what follows, however, I shall assume you are using at least a moderately sophisticated wordprocessor. Keep in mind that these are not unbreakable rules, although you should think before flouting them.
There are two broad classifications into serifed and sans-serif varieties.
Serifed fonts are sometimes said to be more readable when used in large sections of text because the serifs help link the letters into recognisable words. Sans serif fonts are very clear when used in titles and headings (as well as for presentations). A classic combination is to use serif and sans serif fonts in exactly this way: you may see it in textbooks, for example.
Another distinction between fonts is whether they are proportional or monospaced. In a monospaced font, such as the typewriter-like font Courier, all characters have the same width, and every line of text will therefore contain the same number of characters. However, making the letters "i" and "m", for example, have the same width is clearly a brutal thing to do. Proportional fonts address this by allowing different characters to have different widths. This makes text set in a proportional font easier to read.
Type sizes are usually measured in points (abbreviated pt). There are 72 points to 1 inch. The size of the typeface corresponds roughly to the height of capital letters like A, M and so on, within that typeface, although different typefaces with the same nominal size can look quite different in size when printed. Books are commonly set in 10pt type, whilst 12pt type corresponds more closely to the size of traditional typescript.
One more thing you should know about fonts is the idea of families. To illustrate, Times-Roman has upright (or roman) letter forms. There are other variants: Times-Italic has slanted, more calligraphic letters, Times-Bold has upright letters, but they are "heavier", with thicker lines, and so on. All these variants make up a font family. You can safely mix fonts from the same family with little risk of creating something jarring on the eye. For example, you might use Times-Roman as your basic font, with Times-Italic for emphasis, and different sizes of Times-Bold for titles and headings.
Word processors are usually set up to switch between members of the same family when you switch between styles like italic or bold. In general, you mix fonts from too many different families at your peril, although the combination of fonts from two different families for headings and body text, referred to above, works well.
Newspapers use many small columns for their text: it would be impossible to read them if you had to follow lines of print all the way across a broadsheet. If lines are too long, a reader will have difficulty tracking from the end of one line to the beginning of the next line. On the other hand, if lines are too short a reader will be forever jumping from one line to the next.
For maximum readability, try to use about 60 to 70 characters per line. In practice, if you're writing in single columns on A4 paper, you shouldn't really use smaller than 12pt type for your main body text. Your elders, whose visual acuity is not what it once was, will also thank you. You can increase the line spacing a little if your lines are a bit long, but word processors may not give you this much control.
When text lines up neatly at both left and right margins it is said to be justified. Word processors can do this for you, but they don't always make a good job of it, particularly if they don't do automatic word hyphenation. Your text may appear with white "rivers" running through it, where the word processor has stretched the space between words to make the lines have equal length. If this happens, you may want to use a ragged right or unjustified setting, where the right hand margin is jagged, but the interword spacing is constant.
Word processors are closer to typesetting than typewriting. In typeset material, emphasis is made by using italic or bold type. Beware of emphasizing large chunks of text: this can get tiring for the reader. Underlining and CAPITALS are hangovers from the days of typewriters when there was no other option for emphasis. I recommend that you do not use these, or at least be economical with them.
Your work may well be divided into different logical units. Each of these may require a separate section of your document, perhaps with their own subsections. Sections and subsections are normally indicated by a title in larger bolder type (perhaps from a different font). Leave a bigger gap above the title than below: this will give a visual clue that the title is associated with the text that follows it.
Should you indent (leave a gap at the start of the line) at the beginning of paragraphs? Should you leave a blank line (or other space) between paragraphs. It's up to you, but it's not recommended to use the combination of no indentation and no blank space. If you do indent paragraphs, it's common not to indent the first paragraph of a section. You choose.
Word processors often have built-in styles or templates for various kinds of document, which give you a predefined choice of fonts, line length and so on. Some of these may meet your needs. If not, you may be able to define a style of your own. Even with a basic word processor, you can create and save your own template document once you have developed a successful style that you want to use repeatedly.
These exam tips were originally written by Tom Marsh for a course called Introduction to Astronomy, but the advice is good in general
I can't guarantee you success in the exam but year after year I see the same basic mistakes in tackling exams. Very often I am left thinking if only candidate X had done Y, they would have got enough to pass. Here are my tips based upon common mistakes I have seen.
First four basic but general tips:
|Write something||Failing to write anything at all is a common way of failing exams. Even if you don't know the whole answer, writing down what you do know may earn some marks. Similarly don't walk out early as how can you be sure that another few minutes of thought won't be enough to solve the problem?|
|Answer the question.||e.g. If asked about neutron stars don't talk about white dwarfs; you will get nothing, even if it is all wonderful stuff. Therefore make sure you understand what the question is getting at.|
|Attempt all the questions required||It is usually better to do something on all questions required of you than trying to do a perfect job on some sub-set of them (except perhaps in maths exams). You can only ever get zero for a question not attempted, whereas it is rare to get full marks. This is associated with keeping an eye on the clock.|
|Pay attention to the marking scheme||In other words, don't write 10 pages on a section worth only 2 marks; vice versa, a couple of sentences are unlikely to match up to a 10 mark section.|
Next some specific tips for descriptive/essay-type questions:
|Identify and cover the main points||When answering a descriptive question such as "Describe what happens in a core-collapse supernova", first of all write out in rough the most important points you can think of. Next frame your answer to cover these. If in time trouble, you could just answer in note form: e.g. (i) star develops onion structure with an iron core, (ii) iron core collapses when it exceeds 1.4 solar masses, etc.|
|Use figures where appropriate||It is often quicker and easier to sketch something than to describe it. For instance, it is easier to sketch the onion-like structure prior to a supernova with the appropriate element names than to specify them and their relative positions one by one in writing.|
Now tips for numerical parts of questions. The first of these cannot be emphasized enough!!!!:
|WORK IN SYMBOLIC FORM, CHECK DIMENSIONS||Dimensions are a very useful way of checking equations. You should make a habit of checking them prior to substituting in numerical values. You can only do so if you have not substituted any numerical values in already. Therefore work in symbols right to the penultimate step. This will allow you to spot simplifications and cancellations as well. The very last step should be the substitution of numerical values. Do not be afraid to define any symbols that you need in addition to any that are defined in the question. Working in symbols is much less error prone than dragging unmemorable numerical values through several lines of working. On top of this it is much easier to check symbolic working, and so if you make a minor error you won't incur much penalty.
Thus you should work as follows:
|Check your calculations||When you finally substitute numerical values, repeat the calculation until you get the same answer at least twice. My guess is that any calculation involving more than about 3 operations on a calculator has a 50% failure rate. You really would be staggered at how many times numbers are added when they should be divided, square roots are missed, exponents dropped, etc.
It can often help to write out explicitly the equation with all the numerical values put in to save your brain effort when using your calculator. It is also worthwhile to estimate very roughly in your head what the final value should be. After all, a number quoted to 3 decimal places is not much use if it is 1010 times too large.
|Think about your answer||Once you have your answer, you should ask yourself "Is this reasonable?". e.g. is 1012 m a likely answer for the distance to a galaxy? (No, it is a solar system dimension). Is 1040 m/s a likely velocity? (No, it is greater than the speed of light.) If you can't see your mistake, writing "This can't be right but I can't see my mistake." could well get you some credit.|
|Write out intermediate steps||If you make a mistake in algebra, and write down the final answer incorrectly without intermediate steps, the examiner cannot tell whether you have made a trivial or fundamental error. If you don't include such steps, the assumption is likely to be that you don't know them. Thus try to ensure a logical progression from start to end.|
|Draw sketches to visualise problems||Just as a sketch can save descriptive effort, it can work wonders when tackling a problem. Don't think you can keep everything in your head.|
Last but not least, make sure you know when and where your exams are to take place and get a decent night's sleep beforehand.