Transitioning from Physics A-Level to University level

Posted in: Undergraduate

The idea about progressing your studies into higher education can be daunting and is usually surrounded by a thick cloud of misconceptions and, primarily, frantic searching for information on student forums. With this post I aim to clear up the main misconceptions around this transition and hopefully give some insight and clarity to prospective Physics students.

1. You might not want to pack up that entire stack of Physics textbooks and notes.

The great thing about starting a new Physics module at university is that at the beginning of the course students are taken through the basics . This is to account for the fact the student demographic will be a diverse mixture of people with all kinds of scientific and education backgrounds. So, while some of the material taught might seem redundant and obvious coming from an A-Level student perspective, it could be entirely new information for a significant percentage of students. Moreover, the majority of the groundwork was taught and given to us in the notes, provided by the lecturers. Due to this I found myself to personally have no use of the A-Level textbooks and notes I brought along with me. This could, of course, be different from person to person, given the fact there are numerous exam boards and individual learning styles.

Vibrations and waves handout (provided by lecturer) and my notes

2. Shift of teaching dynamic.

The way you are taught will obviously change as you progress onto university. But not by much. Although daunting at first, I found the lectures were comparable to your average A-Level lesson. The lecturers are very approachable in the way they create an interactive atmosphere. Students can ask questions and/or seek further explanation at any time during lectures.

My notes on the Properties of Matter module, which we learn during the first semester of study

There’s also the option to talk to the lecturer after the lecture or outside of teaching time, i.e. visiting them during office hours or revision sessions. It is easy to assume that you’ll receive little to no one-to-one attention for help with assignments and problems. Speaking from my experience with the University of Bath Physics Department, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only do lecturers provide constant opportunities for support throughout the course, you also have a personal tutor with whom you meet at least once a week in a group. Moreover, there are more support systems in place, such as peer mentors and peer-assisted learning sessions.

3. You will need to step up your individual study game.

It’s an obvious fact that your studies will become exponentially more independent, but I’m here to explain just by how much. The biggest difference at university is that you don’t really receive prep/homework. What you do receive are problem sheets with no specific deadline, except maybe for the day the problems class regarding those questions is held. It is basically your responsibility to find time in your day to sit down and do those problems, and preferably not the day before your exam! So, although there is a well-built support framework set out for students, it is up to the student how big of an advantage of all of the resources available they’ll take.

4. Practical work

Probably the biggest change I had to adapt to- the laboratory work. This could of course have to do with the new lab atmosphere, but that is a factor in adapting to any new place. Within these lab sessions, typically 3 hours long, you are given a lot of responsibilities. Firstly, the safety of yourself and those surrounding you (i.e. don’t poke the cool-looking equipment) and secondly, having to adapt to brand new material, equipment, techniques and gathering data all within a set timeframe. Don’t let that come as a scare, because you are given a set of detailed instructions/background information and there are very friendly and attentive lab support staff. You will find yourself using some methods and knowledge covered at A-Levels, but you will mostly be building upon them. For example, you will learn new graphing methods, how to use other types of graphing paper, how to make more effective and efficient measurements, new types of data analysis, etc. You will also be faced with the challenge of starting to learn to do wordy writeups of those experiments, especially when it comes to doing your first lab project. But again, there’s a strong support framework set for tasks like this.

To summarize, although adaptation time may vary from student to student, you won’t be alone in this transition. You will be surrounded by fellow freshers in the same position as yourself and, speaking for the University of Bath facilities, with access to a support system all through your studies.

Posted in: Undergraduate

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