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Information for First Year Physics Students

This document provides information for first year students taking either the BSc or MPhys Physics degree courses, which are identical in content for the first 2 years. It should be read in conjunction with the general teaching documents here.

We hope that you will find this document useful, and it will help you to complete successfully your first year at University. If you consider that there is information which could usefully be added, or if you discover an error, please inform either Nicholas d'Ambrumenil, who is in overall charge of the teaching, or Michael Pounds who is the Senior Tutor. Tom Hase has oversight of first year physics teaching.


Most university-level physics demands a significant level of prior knowledge and understanding, which is why admission to the degree requires good A-level grades in Mathematics and Physics (or their equivalent). Even so the knowledge students bring to university varies greatly. A key requirement for the first year course is therefore to consolidate the A-level knowledge base in Physics and Mathematics, and to ensure that you have the ability, especially in differentiation and integration, to apply this knowledge routinely. Part of the first year requires overlap with A-level material and some repetition for some students (although in general not the same areas of repetition for all students).

A second aspect of the school-university interface which must be addressed by the first year course is a more complete integration of Mathematics and Physics. The A-level Physics syllabus is designed to be taught in isolation from (and without dependence on) A-level Mathematics. At university you will find that Physics is an intrinsically quantitative subject which exploits Mathematics routinely. Mathematical modelling is a key ingredient of almost all first-year Physics course components. You will also find yourself covering material you have already met at school but in a different (more mathematical) form.

A third area of consolidation, which is addressed in the first-year, is experimental work. Schools and colleges vary considerably in terms of equipment and other resources, and most students have had relatively little hands-on experience of many items of quite routine equipment. The first-year laboratory therefore ensures that all students have a reasonable familiarity with some routine physics instrumentation and experimental methods, such as using an oscilloscope or the aligning of a simple optical system.

To instil good learning habits, the first year also has the tightest structure of integrated lectures and problem solving of any of the years. The 60-lecture Mathematics for Physicists module has its own weekly examples classes at which you can discuss with a tutor in small groups your attempts to solve the weekly problems. The Physics modules are also supported by separate weekly examples classes. Prior to each examples class you must hand in your written attempts to the problems for marking by the tutor. The marks you obtain are being accumulated into the final mark for the year. Finally, of course, the examinations provide a quantitative test of your learning; strictly these test your ability to reproduce and use, generally in rather simple problem-solving situations, the material presented in lectures.

In brief this year's course has been designed with the following aims and objectives.


  • To introduce the core areas of physics (Quantum & Classical Mechanics, Electricity & Magnetism, Thermodynamics, Waves and experimental work) which are the basis of many future modules.
  • To introduce the mathematics required for the study of undergraduate level physics.
  • To introduce computers as an essential tool in any scientific environment.
  • To revise the key elements of the A-level syllabuses in Physics and Mathematics.


At the end of the first year you should

  1. Be competent with the following techniques and their use in physics contexts: partial differentiation, vectors, multiple integration, differential equations.
  2. Be familiar with concepts in quantum mechanics, classical mechanics, waves, electromagnetism and thermodynamics.
  3. Have developed laboratory skills and understand how to write a scientific report.
  4. Be able to use computers to process data, type reports and be able to program in Python.
  5. Have explored through your choice of options some of: particle physics and astronomy.

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