How to Write Kick Ass Physics Revision Notes
Let’s learn how to write kick-ass revision notes for each topic in IB Physics in under 15 minutes...
I’ve met thousands of students over the years with very different attitudes to writing revision notes. Some students LOVE getting their multi-coloured pens out and creating a work of art using post-it notes and artfully labelled diagrams. Other students....? Well, they have some scraps of paper somewhere at the bottom of their bag?!?
Let’s start this chapter by answering a couple of commonly asked questions about revision notes:
Do I need to write revision notes?
Short Answer: Yes
Long Answer: It is important that you have the whole of your physics course summarised into condensed revision notes. Effective revision notes highlight the facts you need to memorise in a form that can be easily referenced when you move to the next phase of your revision (exciting, right?)
Do I need to write the revision notes myself?
Short Answer: Yes
Long Answer: It is important that you create your own revision notes. Writing notes makes you work through the whole of the course, forces you to identify your weaker areas and to capture it all in your own words.
Wouldn’t it be a better use of my time to simply practice past exam questions?
Short Answer: Yes (and no!)
Long Answer: Working through past paper questions (and learning from your mistakes) is the most vital element of your Physics revision. However, you can’t work independently on these without a sound understanding of the course. Comprehensive revision notes are the secret to your exam success. Don’t underestimate their importance. However... you shouldn't spend infinite amounts of time on them. Efficiency is the key.
Please don’t spend hours re-writing your entire class notes or marking up your textbook with a highlighter.
The trick is:
- Knowing exactly what to include in your notes, and in what order (spoiler alert: I’m going to help you with that)
- Trying to writing your revision notes throughout the year, as you complete each topic in class so you don’t need to set aside a block of time at the start of your revision to write notes for the entire course.
Your revision notes for each course topic should follow exactly the same structure – that way, you start to know instinctively where to look for certain types of information. The most efficient way to ensure this (remember, this book is all about efficiency) is to create a template with the following subheadings already mapped out.
You can then print, or photocopy multiple versions and be ready for action for every topic you study.
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The Importance of Learning Objectives
Once you’ve created your template, you then need to fill it with the right information.
The best way to do this is to get hold of the learning objectives for the IB Physics topic that you are revising.
These learning objectives must be mapped exactly to the IB or GCSE Physics specification.
The physics examiner who writes your exam will base it on the IB or GCSE Physics specification – if something’s not in the specification; it won’t be in the exam. This means that by focussing on the learning objectives outlined in the specification, you can save yourself some time without compromising your marks .
But where do I find the learning objectives and IB and GCSE Physics specification?
Option 1: Textbook
If you have a physics textbook, try going to the front of the chapter for the topic you are studying. If you’re lucky, you might find a set of learning objectives. If the textbook has been written well (and recently), you can be fairly certain that these will have be based on the physics specification.
Option 2: School (or Exam Board)
For GCSE Physics, getting hold of the exam specification is quite simple. Just head to the exam board you are currently studying (e.g. AQA, Edexcel, OCR, etc) and search for the GCSE Physics Specification. You can download it directly from them and for free.
The International Baccalaureate is different… Most exam boards across the world will allow anyone to download the specification for each of their qualifications. Not the IB..... Technically, you can only access the specification if you are affiliated with an official IBO School. You could ask your physics teacher for a copy or you could search the dark web!
Most physics specifications are not for the faint hearted!
They use convoluted language and include a lot of additional information (e.g. linked topics and relevant teaching methods). If you decide to go there, take a deep breath and don’t be overwhelmed.
Option 3: Online Revision Courses
What you ideally want, is to find a resource that has already done the chewy job of working through your exact physics specification. Wouldn’t it be great to have a set of learning objectives that you actually understood??
One of the best places to find an excellent set of learning objectives is an online revision course. There are lots of great online revision resources that you could use, e.g. BBC Bitesize, GradePod, etc.
For now, all you need to know is that a high-quality online revision course will provide a complete set of learning objectives for each topic and that these will already be mapped exactly to the IB and GCSE Physics requirements of the course.
Below shows an example of a set of learning objectives from the GradePod online course so you know what to look for:
You can see that the example learning objectives are:
- Mapped exactly to the exam specification
- Easy to understand, with the correct terminology use
- Set out clearly to allow you to track your progress
Once you have your Learning Objectives, you are ready to start writing your revision notes.
Your revision notes for each course topic should follow exactly the same structure. That way, you start to know instinctively where to look for certain types of information.
The GradePod revision notes template looks like this:
What To Write - Formulae
In the following sections, I’m going to talk you through exactly what to write under each subheading of your revision notes. I’ll include plenty of worked examples as we go along.
My examples are all taken from Thermal Physics.
The first section we’ll complete is the “Formulae” section. Quite simply, look through your list of learning objectives and write down all the formulae.
If you understand each formula and how to use it – you only write the formula down. If you’re a little less confident with any of the formulae listed, you might want to include a couple of notes to remind yourself – see my example:
You can see that there are some formulae without any accompanying notes – these are the ones that I’m very comfortable with (both the formulae and the concepts behind them).
Yet there are others that have bullets or explanatory notes next to them, such as:
Ideal Gas Equation (pV=nRT)
I’ve noted down the necessary conditions for this formula to be used:
1. low pressure
2. moderate temperature
3. low density
This little note might come in useful for answer exam questions later on.
I’ve labelled this to help me remember what NA stands for.
I’ve drawn lots of stars around one formula! That’s because this formula is not in the data booklet. The stars remind me that I must memorise this before my exam.
IB Physics Data Booklet
You will be given a data booklet in your exam. This helpful little book contains things like important constants and some of the key formulae needed to help you answer the questions, meaning you don’t need to memorise every single formula by heart.
Download your copy of the IB Physics data booklet and cross-check it against the formula in your revision notes. You should memorise any equation that doesn’t appear in the data booklet and label with a star - you’ll know which ones to memorise.
I’ve written a blog post on GradePod detailing the formulae that don’t appear in the data booklet.
GCSE Equation Sheets
You will given an equation sheet in your exam.
Get a copy of your equation sheet and cross-check it against the equations in your revision notes. You should memorise any equation that doesn’t appear in the equation sheet – label them with a red star in your revision notes so that you know which formulae to focus on when doing your final revision.
What To Write - Required Definitions
Definitions (and basic recall of facts) can account for around 10% of your final exam mark, so take care when completing this section – there’s huge potential to improve
your marks here with limited effort. A handful of definitions can make all the difference when you’re looking to achieve top marks.
The best way to learn definitions is by separating them by topic, so grouping them all under a single section in your revision notes for each topic is half of the battle – see my example:
Once you’ve written down all your definitions, mark those that you need to memorise for the exam with a red star. To figure out which ones you need to memorise, look for words like “define”, “state”, “memorise” in your set of learning objectives.
If it’s not immediately obvious which definitions you need to memorise, try an online search for your topic, e.g. “Topic 2 IB Physics definitions”. Sometimes you’ll find that someone’s done the hard work for you, but... caution: these lists can be a little over-eager and sometimes include hundreds of unneeded definitions.
A good quality online revision course (like ours!) will have done all this work for you.
Otherwise, you can use past papers to help you identify which definitions are consistently examined. This is a little time-consuming, but it’s time well spent. When you come to doing past paper questions, try to remember to mark up commonly examined definitions in your revision notes so that these are clearly identifiable when you come to doing your final revision.
What To Write - Common Diagrams
Our brains capture information in a number of different ways and a diagram can be both memorable and informative, so this is an important section of your revision
Simply take your learning objectives for the topic, open your textbook (or class notes) at the correct chapter and look for diagrams that match the learning objectives. Then copy those diagrams into the Common Diagrams section of your topic revision notes.
Once you’ve copied the diagrams into your notes, take time to label them and annotate them with explanatory notes to help you remember what they are illustrating. When it comes to making these annotations, you should ask yourself questions like:
- What scale is the diagram? (e.g. micro-metres, kilometres, light years, etc.)
- Are any of the sections of the diagram moving? (e.g. molecules in a gas)
- Have you labelled all the parts? Do they need any explanation?
- Are there any formulae associated with the diagram?
- Would you associate any keywords or phrases with the diagram?
Look at my diagrams (above). The one on the left-hand side diagram is simply copied from the textbook. The one on the right-hand side has been labelled with annotations prompted by my questions above. You can see how helpful these sort of annotations can be when it comes to last-minute revision.
Concentrate on copying down the correct diagrams and using my prompt questions to help you label them as fully as possible.
What To Write - Common Graphs
The Common Graphs sections follows the same methods as the Common Diagrams section. Open your textbook (or class notes) at the correct chapter and simply copy out the graphs that you see referenced in your topic’s learning objectives into your topic revision notes.
Once you have a section of graphs you can start to analyse the relationships between the variables represented in your graphs and to annotate them with useful reminders and notes. You can use the following questions to as prompts:
- What mathematical relationship is shown between the two variables in the graph? (e.g. are they directly proportional, indirectly proportional, etc.)
- What does the gradient of the graph represent?
- Is the gradient constant or varied? Why?
- What does the intercept of the graph represent?
- What does the area under the graph represent – if anything?
- Are there limits to the graph?
- Does the graph extend to infinity? Why?
This section is more helpful in exams than you might expect. Annotated graphs are a way to cover the important relationships between key variables in your topic in a very concise way. Simply sketching out a graph can be a huge help when figuring out how best to structure a detailed and precise extended-response answer in an exam, but more of that later...
What to write: Experiments
The IB and GCSE specify that you should carry out required practicals as part of your two year course.
Most exam boards have a list of experiments (or practicals) that you need to carry out during your course. If you look through your exam board specification document, it will be clear which experiments are a mandatory part of the course.
For now... don’t worry if you haven’t done these in class yet, they will be summarised in your textbook and your job is simply to open your textbook to the correct topic, identify the experiments that are related to the topic you’re working through and to summarise them in this section here.
Use the following prompts to help you capture all the important points:
- What is the title of the experiment?
- What are the independent, dependent and control variables?
- Draw a brief sketch of the apparatus
- Give an extremely brief method (no more than two sentences)
- What table should you draw?
- What did the graph look like between the independent and the dependent variable?
- What conclusion was drawn?
- Where did errors occur? Were the errors systematic or random?
Remember! You don’t need to include a complete write-up of the experiment and you shouldn’t go into too much detail here. My example above should give you an indication of the approximate level of detail required.
What to write: Other Notes
In the ‘Other Notes’ section of your revision notes, you’ll include the learning objectives that haven’t been covered by the previous sections of your notes (formulae, definitions, diagrams, graphs, experiments).
You can also include any insights that you’ve gained by completing past papers. This part can’t be filled out until you’ve done a few past papers, of course, but it’s important to include here any lessons you learn when doing example questions, especially where you lost marks so that you can avoid repeating the mistake in the real exam.
My example shows you the sort of things that might end up in this section.
If you use my free revision note template and complete the sections methodically, you’ll end up with the entire IB Physics course condensed into just 10–15 sides of A4. How much more manageable does that seem than an entire textbook?
As if that wasn’t enough... in the process of writing the notes, you’ll also find you’ve (fairly seamlessly) learned a good chunk of the course content along the way.
You can now pat yourself on the back for the awesome pile of notes you’ve created, set aside your textbook and now focus on practising exam questions and improving your exam technique. The enormity of the course now fits into your pocket and, more importantly, into your head!
Check out this complete set of notes for Thermal Physics!
Honestly? I think watching the video on this blog post will explain everything much better than writing it all down! Watch the 4 minute video with your revision note template to hand.
Hope this helps
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