First Year Success

Keeping your Physics Sudies on Track

Why are you here?

Remember your goals...

  • graduate school or professional school?
  • to prepare for a job?
  • developing and mastering skills?
  • curiosity?

...but don't be afraid to adapt.

The Stakes

Good time to review some common goals:

Average Requirements
Grad. School Typically 75% or higher
Grad. Scholarships Realistically, 90% or higher (2nd and 3rd year typically) with evidence of non-academic excellence and leadership
USRA Summer Jobs Minimum 80%
URA Summer Jobs Minimum 70%, req. financial need
Jobs No implicit grade requirements

Please note that the above requirements are bare minimum:  in many cases, you will need to exceed these substantially.  For example, a student with a 75% average may find it exceedingly difficult to secure a graduate school supervisor despite meeting the minimum cutoff.  Graduate and professional schools are competitive, and you are competing against the best students.

NSERC USRA and Dept. of Physics URA summer jobs will be posted early in the winter semester; some universities will have already posted their own jobs. All strong academic students are encouraged to look into these options as they are a great opportunity for research-minded students to try out a particular field of physics for fit.  

There is no switch

I hear some variant of this idea every year:  “I’ll be fine.  I know I haven’t been working as hard as I should, but I will just flip the switch next year and get myself back on track”.

Students who say this fail to acknowledge that our brains are not simple little machines with an on/off switch.  It is very hard to change behaviours that have become habitual.  Look no further than the smoker desperate to quit, or the individual trying every diet fad with little success.  Poor academic performance is more often than not related to poor study habits and poor ineffective time management.  These traits are often entrenched, and changing them requires focused and continued effort.

Students cannot generally afford to delay this transformation, however, as the foundation for your physics degree is being laid down this year.  The skills and concepts you are expected to master in Mechanics, Electricity & Magnetism, Thermal Physics, and the Experimental Techniques course will be built upon next year in Quantum Mechanics, Advanced Mechanics, Mathematical Physics, Optics, Science Communication and the Intermediate Laboratory.  Remember that your courses are not individual entities that can be discarded at their conclusion; a curriculum constantly draws upon previously developed skills and concepts.  Your brain cannot be a mental Etch-a-Sketch, to be shaken and deleted at the end of each course – we expect you to remember key concepts and skills. 

  • Identify the behaviours and practices that are limiting your performance and work to change them.
  • Your physics curriculum builds on the concepts you are learning this year – make sure you do not start next year with a flawed foundation.

What doesn't work

Many students walk into a final exam feeling ready but walk out feeling not so sure…why?
For most students, there are more realistic explanations for poor performances on exams:

  • poor conceptual mastery
  • false confidence
  • cramming doesn’t work
  • poor study habits throughout the semester

If you suspect you have a learning disability that limits your performance on assessments, please consult Student Accessibility Services – they have excellent resources to help you!

An 80% on assignments can easily translate into a 50% on a final exam!  Instructors expect you to return to the work and make sure you master those concepts, whereas students often forget about that previous block of work as they turn their attention to the current block of work.  This is often where the notion of “not testing well” arises – students were too focused on the 80% “mastered” and not the 20% “failed to master”.  This is exacerbated if that 80% mastery was achieved with the help of the internet or your peers – remember, we are being brutally reflective here!

On the topic of cramming, we need to understand our brains.  They are not wired to “cram”, so it won’t work.  Your brain requires time and sleep to properly “learn” something.  You need to combine periods of intense focus with periods of more relaxed learning.  Barbara Oakley called these modes “focused” and “diffuse” in her book “A Mind for Numbers”, whereas Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work” frames these as “deep work” and “shallow work”.  In both cases, they highlight that the brain cannot hold up to much more than about 4-5 hours of intense focus per day.  After that, your productivity tanks.  You cannot fight this – it is hard-wired into your biology.

Sleep is absolutely required.  Your brain needs to wire new neural pathways and convert information from the inefficient short-term memory storage “cache” to the much more efficient long-term efficient memory storage.  

Help is Available!