Well-defined physics

Whichever A level physics syllabus you are studying (with the possible exception of OCR specification B – ‘Advancing Physics’), you will find that you need to spend some time getting to grips with definitions. This is an all too easily neglected area of A level physics study, by students at all stages in their courses – regardless of ability.

Learning definitions is either looked upon as something that's either too boring or too trivial; ‘it's not real physics!’ – is what some of my tutorial students complain when I nag them about it. But in all cases I think you are missing a trick if you don't pay attention to this element of your work. (Actually I would broaden the term ‘definitions’ slightly to include all of those simple key facts, principles and physical laws that may be expressed in just two or three sentences, or via a word equation).

So why should you learn them? Well, first of all, I think that learning definitions is a no-brainer – if you do it then you are bound to pick up all those 1 and 2 mark questions in the exam, and for very little real effort!

Secondly, learning definitions generally means just committing them to memory. Now that's not very inspiring I know, but there are plenty of genuinely hard bits of A level physics – things you might well struggle to understand properly, even after a full two years of study – but here is something that you can just do. And the beauty of learning a definition is that when you know it, you know you know it – there's no doubt about it and you can safely tick it off your revision task list!

Thirdly, and I think most importantly, knowing definitions provides a solid structure around which deeper knowledge and understanding can be built. They act as sort of immovable, unvarying anchor points that will help you as you get to grips with more complex aspects of your A level physics course. (For example in electricity, knowing the definitions of potential difference and e.m.f. will remind you that what's going on in an electrical circuit involves energy transfers – and not just charge transfers – which in turn will help you to make sense of more complex topics such as internal resistance or potential dividers).

Yes, learning A level physics definitions can be a dull thing to do, but it is important and it will pay off in the exam. But don't neglect it until the exams are looming, get started now and it won't seem half as bad … and it might even help you along the way!

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