The University of Southampton


Aims and Objectives

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:

  • written and oral communication
  • problem solving skills
  • numeracy and computational skills
  • information retrieval
  • information technology skills
  • interpersonal skills (groupworking)
  • time management and study skills

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.


Writing Style

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) ...

  • A sentence should have one idea or okay maybe two and not be too complicated but a little complication may not be such a bad thing.
  • The passive voice is not to be used.
  • Avoid cliches like the plague.
  • Define terms, where define = "give the meaning of" and terms = "words or symbols".
  • Never ever under any circumstances resort to a redundancy.
  • Do not utilize recondite terminology in preference to a simple mode of expression.
  • Oh yes, don't interrupt a train of

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.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word when a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.


The One Minute Lecture

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:

  • organise your thoughts (frameworking),
  • communicate in a clear, concise and effective manner.

It may also help you to:

  • develop listening skills,
  • develop note taking skills,
  • gather information,
  • select appropriate information,
  • analyse information.


How to Give a One Minute Lecture

  • Decide who the audience is. This determines the level of knowledge you can assume. Different audiences require different talks. You could design your talk for
    1. the man on the Clapham omnibus,
    2. someone doing GCSE physics,
    3. someone doing A-level physics,
    4. another first year student.
  • Decide the overall message.
  • Decide the key points necessary to get the message over.
  • Revise the message and key points if they cannot be got over in the time available.
  • Construct an introduction explaining, in language appropriate to the audience, what you are going to talk about and why it is interesting. For a one minute lecture this has to be short but should still be there.
  • Prepare the main material, making sure the key points stand out.
  • Prepare a summary of the main points. In a one minute lecture this can probably be omitted since the audience will not yet have forgotten the earlier parts.
  • Prepare a few concluding remarks.
  • Think about what you want the audience to go away remembering and talk about afterwards. This can be one or two simple points at most. Revise the lecture if it will not achieve this.

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.


Overhead Transparencies and Slides

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.

  1. Use big letters. Check by going to the back of the room to view the projected text. A useful rule is to have no more than 42 characters, including spaces, on a line.
  2. Sans serif fonts, like Helvetica or Arial, can be easier to read when projected, while lower case is more legible than CAPITALS.
  3. Don't try to put too much on a single slide. The audience have to divide their attention between what is spoken and what is written: if you overload them, they may lose the thread of your argument. Restrict the text on each slide to that which you wish to point out verbatim. For example:
    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.

  4. Make sure any graphs or plots are large, with large labels. Don't include information which you don't need, but do label axes and show the scales and units. A zigzag of lines joining data points is usually inappropriate. Lines on a graph should either be a best-fit curve or the prediction of a theory which is being compared with the data. Diagrams can help explain your experiment: a complicated diagram of apparatus may look impressive, but if you want to explain things, keep the diagram as simple and uncluttered as you can.
  5. When presenting a numerical value, label it and quote an error. For example
    Our value for Planck's constant

    h = (6.626 ± 0.004) × 10-34 J s

  6. If you want to show a table of results, include only the values you really want to talk about. There is little point in displaying vast ranks of numbers which you ignore in your talk. Please, please, please don't make the cardinal sin of copying a table straight out of a book or report onto a slide without enlarging it first.
  7. Aim to talk about each slide for a couple of minutes or more (remember those talks you have been to where the slides flashed past so quickly you didn't have time to read them).
  8. Some colours don't show up well when projected: be wary of yellow, orange and, sometimes, red. Give some thought too, to which colours you are mixing together.


Making a Poster

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...

Readability is a measure of how easily the ideas flow from one item to the next. Text that has lots of grammatical problems, complex or passive sentence structure, and misspellings is "hard to read".
If a text is legible, it can be deciphered. For example, an old book may not be legible if the paper has corroded or the lettering has faded. A common error in poster presentations is use of fonts that are too small to be read from 6-10 feet away, a typical distance for reading a poster.
Well organized
Spatial organization makes the difference between reaching 95% rather than just 5% of your audience: time spent hunting for the next idea or piece of data is time taken away from thinking about the science.
Studies show that you have only 11 seconds to grab and retain your audience's attention so make the punchline prominent and brief. Most of your audience is going to absorb only the punchline. Those who are directly involved in related research will seek you out anyway and chat with you at length so you can afford to leave out all the details and tell those who are really interested the "nitty gritty" later.

Some of the general advice on preparing slides may also be helpful.


Hints for Essay Writing

These hints were originally prepared by Mark Brummell to help students who were asked to write essays for the first year physics core courses.

  • Think carefully about what you want to say: what are the key points to be included, and what is unnecessary detail to be omitted.
  • Check this over to ensure that you are not assuming anything that the readers will not know, or needlessly repeating something that they already know (although you might want to remind them of key results).
  • Shuffle the sections around to find the best structure, i.e. the most logical order in which to make your points without having to `refer forward' too often to things that you have yet to explain.
  • Leave it overnight so that you can look at it afresh the next day. This helps spot glaring omissions and problems with your structure which you missed previously through being too close to it. This step is obviously impossible if you start on the day the essay is due!
  • Write the main text.
  • Write an introduction `selling' what is to come: the job of the introduction is to persuade the reader to read the rest.
  • Write a conclusion summing up the key results.
  • Leave it overnight again so that you can proofread it with a clear mind. If you proofread immediately after writing you will just see what you expect to see. You are looking for convoluted bits which you can rewrite more clearly and concisely, not just typing errors. This step is obviously impossible if you do not start until the day before the essay is due.
  • Get someone else to proofread it, preferably someone corresponding to the intended readership. You should be able to find someone who did physics A-level, but is not doing the course for which the essay was set.
  • Make the corrections, tidy up the presentation (which has a big psychological effect on the reader!) and hand it in.

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]


Basic Typography and Graphic Design

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.

Serifed fonts
These have bars or serifs at the ends of their strokes: a typical example is Times-Roman, which was designed specifically for the Times newspaper early in the 20th Century.
Sans serif fonts
The strokes which make up letters and symbols in sans-serif fonts are unadorned, giving them a simple, "modern" appearance: typical examples are Helvetica (or equivalents called Swiss or Geneva and so on); Arial, available in MS Windows; and Verdana, specifically designed for use on the Web. One drawback sans serif fonts often have is that some or all of 1 (the numeral "one"), l (lowercase letter "ell") and I (capital letter "i") cannot readily be distinguished.

Line Length and Readability

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.

Sectioning and Paragraphs

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.

Your Own Style

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.


Examination Technique

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:

  • Read the question. Think about what physics it is concerned with. Sketch and label a diagram if need be.
  • Define all appropriate symbols.
  • Make sure you know what values are known and what are unknown. If you are trying to calculate the values of 2 unknowns for instance, you are going to need 2 independent relations to define them.
  • Work through to an answer in symbolic form.
  • Check the dimensions of final answer; if they don't match, check back through your working. Have you dropped a square or square root for instance?
  • When all OK, substitute numbers.
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.


External Resources

Academic Skills (from the University)

Study Skills support provided by the University. Available on Blackboard under the course name Study Skills Toolkit.

TONIC: The Online Netskills Interactive Course

Guide to equations and formulae in physics

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