Revision Philosophy


For Physics, the single most important thing to do is to learn your formulae - both those that you will not be given and those that you will. Formulae form the bedrock of physics. They are the vocabulary in which everything is discussed. Relying on a formula sheet is like trying to read a French novel, but having to look up every single word in the dictionary as you go along. You need to know your formulae in the sense of being able to write them all out from memory with no prompts. This can only be achieved by practice. You will find that a practice run takes much less time if your pen writes the shorthand version using the standard symbols, while your voice mutters the words version under your breath.


The second most important thing is to establish a regime in which you write down those things you have got wrong in the past, but now understand, and will take care to get right next time. This should be a reasonably short list, and you should consult it before the next test. There is far too great a tendency for you simply to shrug your shoulders and say, "I expect it will be all right on the day". You have to approach your revision with the self-discipline that says that there is a job to be done, and that you are going to be pro-active in doing it.


Let me introduce you to the concept of a 'displacement activity'. It is a kind of burying of one's head in the sand. You know that you ought to do X, but instead you do Y, because Y is something you know how to do, whereas you can't quite face up to or see how to get a handle on X. You generally manage to convince yourself that Y is really important and that it's not, therefore, when it comes down to it, your fault that you haven't made a start on X yet, because you just had to finish Y first. And then - oh dear! - another Y presents itself just as you were about to turn your attention at last to X. And so it goes on.

Revising from Revision Guides can fall into this category. The possession of the book is comforting , partly because you chose it yourself, and partly because it is full of promise that everything is going to be OK. What is more, you can beaver away crossing bits out that belong to other boards, and highlighting other bits, confident that you are advancing the cause. What you don't notice is that a great deal of the material you are dealing with is already familiar to you. You know it anyway, and you are just wasting your time working on it. It's what you don't know that should be taking your attention and your time. And it's only that subset of unknown material which is in practice likely to crop in your exam that is of any consequence. The Revision Guide you have just bought can be a useful weapon in your armoury, but only as a second (or third) way of looking at a knotty problem that other books, people, etc have failed to make clear to you. For revision notes to be of any real use, they need to have been made by you. The revision sheets that we give you or the books that you buy can only be an indication of the sort of thing you should be doing for yourself.

But you haven't got time to prepare a full set of notes in all your subjects. And, in any case, most of them would consist of things that you already know, and so which do not need to appear. Old papers to the rescue ! - because old papers contain just the relevant parts of the syllabus at exactly the right level. And here is a way of using them both to revise the secure topics and to generate sharply focused notes on the dodgy ones.

If you are given an old paper to complete, it is important that you do your best to get it right, regardless of how long that takes and even if time constraints mean that you don't manage to do it all. Getting yourself up to speed doesn't become important until you can get it right! Use books, friends, dons, the internet, or anything else that can help you achieve this all-important aim. You should show up your work in the confident expectation that its correctness will be confirmed. Lost marks should be a source of real disappointment: they shouldn't indicate things that you happen not to know, but things that you have positively failed in the attempt to find out, even though you've tried.

When the paper is returned to you, the various sections of it will probably fall into one of three main categories (arranged here as an upside-down traffic light). If you have worked it properly, there won't be much in the red, and the quantity in the yellow will gradually diminish as your experience increases.

  • stuff that you wrote down from your head, and that you got right.
The good news is that you already know this, and do not need to do anything at all about learning, or (probably) even revising it.
  • stuff that you had to look up or ask other people about, but which you did get right in the end.
You sort of know this now. Hopefully, next time it crops up you will be able to remember it, get it right, and hence move it into the green category.

Until that happy moment, you need to keep it under review, so make brief notes on what you had to look up (not the whole topic), and keep them in a separate part of your file.

  • stuff that you wrote down from your head, thinking that you knew it, but which, as it turned out, you got wrong.
  • stuff that you had to look up or ask other people about, but which you still got wrong.
  • stuff that, even after asking around, you were unable to attempt.
These are the problem areas.  It is almost certainly the case the you have underlying misconceptions, or that the material is bewildering you with its complexity. You must make sure to quiz me (or someone else) on these points until you see the light. That may mean arranging a task-time, although it is generally better to use up-to-books time if possible, as others can then benefit from the discussion if it is a particularly thorny issue.

You need to make proper, full notes on this material. Next time you get stuck on a question, let these notes be your first port of call during the looking-things-up phase. If you subsequently get the question right, you may be able to make a fresh set of brief notes and put them into the yellow file, removing the fuller notes to a slush file, and thereby reducing the size of the R-file (R for red or revision).

To sum up, it's what you don't know that needs all your attention. The purpose of your revision programme should be to highlight those portions of the syllabus, and to do something about them. What you do know needs little attention, and should absorb none of your time. You need to exert extreme self-discipline over this. Don't let re-visiting familiar material, comforting though it is, become the displacement activity that prevents you getting on with the real job.


Some of you are musicians. When you get to a tricky passage, you do it again and again and again, until your fingers appear to have learned the moves.

Some of you are footballers. You probably spend a good deal of time practising ball control on your own, until your feet appear to have learned the moves.

Some of you do su doku puzzles. You may have tried, after completing a tricky one, repeating it to see whether you can make the logical moves more easily and whether you can improve your technique thereby.

Physics is no different, in that you can benefit by practising things that have given you difficulty, so that your brain learns the moves. When you have a question wrong, it is worth revisiting it time after time until you can get it right easily. Of course it's no use just remembering the answer: you need to re-puzzle it out each time if you wish to derive the benefit. But in the end you will by this means increase your repertoire of tricks you can do.

And that is part of the point of preparing for an exam rather than going into it completely cold.

Exam Technique

Some of the things you get wrong in practice are nothing to do with physics as such, but more to do with the way you have approached the task.  You need to keep track of these separately. Such things as

The key thing is to write down your personal list of 'Take care not to ...' things and to consult it just before taking a test/exam. That is what is meant by 'last-minute revision'. It isn't a question of last-minute learning but, rather, a quick refresher on all the danger points you've been accumulating along the way.