Physics A-level in 1987 compared with today
I have been spending quite a bit of time looking at and studying recent A-level physics papers. They are different to the ones I did in 1987 in many ways. On the plus side, I find the papers more direct in testing comprehension, and little exam time is given to repeating textbook material. On the minus side, the level of sophistication in problem solving is much weaker. This is unfortunate because problem solving was the most interesting part for me (and I expect many others) when I was a student. I will write about exactly what I mean and wonder if the *complexity* of the problems is really that important (as opposed to learning problem-solving strategy).
Physics education and society
A society that is literate in physics and science will progress faster than one that is not.. Within any society there will be a range of people who need technical skills and one of the aims of an education system is to train people with technical jobs the appropriate skills. In a great many technical jobs, physics fluency is important. Not just in providing the technical knowledge, but in training people *how* to approach problems. My feeling is being that physics and science education is to a reasonable level. There are some issues I would argue with, like the lack of complex problem-solving in today's A-level physics syllabus, but these are relatively minor. I think this is much less true for mathematics, where I think the emphasis is far too much and techniques and far too little on understanding. Conrad Wolfram discusses some possible solutions.
Understanding physics concepts
I find it very surprising when people say in student chat rooms how difficult physics is at A-level, more difficult than most other subjects. Physics is a subject where the most important thing is being familiar with the basic concepts. If you understand the concepts, it will be very easy. If you do not understand them, it will be impossibly difficult. I can say that from my own experience w ith any piece of physics, when I "got it", it was fairly immediate that I felt very comfortable working on that subject. I would think that most people are the same. I will discuss possible ways in which people can learn the basic concepts more efficiently. Usually the most efficient way was having the piece of physics explained by somebody who knew the material thoroughly, but even this doesn't always work if you do not know the right questions to ask. Clearly, many people are not learning the concepts efficiently, reading the discussions in the chat room.
Learning physics through astronomy
Astronomy is a very interesting subject, both to myself and to many people. For people interested in astronomy, it is a very good framework for learning physical concepts. For example, Newtonian physics can be learned through the physics of orbits and gas physics can be learned by studying interstellar material. Understanding how a comet or asteroid might have killed the dinosaurs can demonstrate how simple physical concepts can be used coherently and logically to work out interesting things.
Physics exam technique and strategy
Most physics at A-level is taught at school, where students take exams. Students who understand the concepts well will be prepared, but it is a good idea for students to plan their time in exams. Most students know that it is a bad idea to spend a lot of time on a difficult question that does not give many marks. But what about a question of middling difficulty that gives many marks? A student who spends a lot of time on this question is taking a risk in that if they do not get the answer, they have wasted a lot of time and a lot of marks but if they get the answer they have made very good use of their time and will get many marks. I don't plan to look at the detailed mathematics behind this, but I will talk about practical strategies for maximizing your exam performance.