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How to write the perfect VCE Physics formula sheet

James Bott

Starting your cheat sheet can be daunting, but follow these steps and you’ll be on track to make your perfect one.

So you find out you’re allowed to take your own cheat sheet into your VCE Physics Unit 3 and 4 exam, specifically ‘pre-written notes (one folded A3 sheet or two A4 sheets bound together by tape),’ according to VCAA. You’re even allowed to write notes on both sides of the paper! You’re thinking, that’s going to make the exam super easy...right?

Not so fast. A cheat sheet is an invaluable tool, but with the wrong approach it can be totally misused and neglected. While it will never give you all the answers, this guide outlines 8 steps to maximise the effectiveness of a cheat sheet, and ultimately boost your marks.

1. Use cheat sheet creation as a learning process.

Almost as important as the cheat sheet itself is the process of making it! Creating a cheat sheet compels you to revise content by collating everything you’ve learned throughout the year. By transferring information from scattered sources — textbooks, Connect VCE Physics Notes, past questions, past exams and most importantly your own notes — into one place, your brain cements essential knowledge deeper into its long term memory.

Also, the process of looking through these resources should help you become aware of your own gaps in knowledge. Brushing up on these weak points will definitely help you walk into the exam confident in all areas of the course.

2. Compare with a friend.

Comparing your cheat sheet progress with a friend’s is not only a fun way to revise, but also a valuable use of time. Another pair of eyes with a fresh perspective can help you identify what you may have missed in your own revision.

Plus, they may have some tips or tricks like pre-derived formulas that can come in very handy. However, do note that your cheat sheets will and should reflect your own strengths and weaknesses, and therefore be unique to you.

3. Choose what to include...

There are masses of information and masses of styles of questions in the VCE Physics course, so how do you choose what to include in your cheat sheet and what you simply need to memorise?

Cheat sheets are great at providing bite-size pieces of information to incorporate into your answers, a great example of which is formulae. Formulae, especially ones that you may have derived yourself from the equations that VCAA provides, take up relatively little of precious space on your cheat sheet while also providing important information. On top of these, any pesky hard-to-remember constants, variables or units not given in the VCAA handout should be noted down as well.

Other ideas include small labelled diagrams like that of an electric motor, and bullet point answers to common or challenging worded questions with key words underlined. For example, an explanation of clipping might read:

  • Distortion where top and/or bottom gets cut off
  • Amplifier working outside its linear range so the peak of the amplified signal exceeds the maximum voltage of the amplifier

4. And what to leave out.

Remember that VCAA isn't quite so kind as to allow you to bring a whole book into your exam (unlike for maths subjects), so including working out for long questions simply isn’t reasonable space-wise. Instead, you might just need to write down the relevant equations, labelling the units and revise that style of question before you go into the exam.

And a word of warning: try as people might, cramming everything from the study design into your cheat sheet in tiny writing is simply not a great idea. Your cheat sheet would become too difficult to read and, more importantly, tricky to extract information from quickly in an exam.

5. Hand-write to maximise efficiency.

While some people will choose to make their cheat sheet digitally, generally this move ends up being time-consuming with little reward (apart from giving you the nicest looking cheat sheet in the cohort).

On the other hand, handwriting your cheat sheet allows for much more flexibility, since you can include diagrams and easily incorporate equations alongside your notes, in a much more time-efficient way than if you had typed it up. This generally allows all the space on your page to be used effectively, too. It also saves you from the frustrations of Microsoft Word flipping the entire page on its head when you try and include a new diagram.

6. Group the topics into relevant sections.

Putting related items together on your cheat sheet allows you to save precious seconds in an exam, as can titling and colour coding certain sections (no, this is not an excuse to buy more highlighters from Officeworks!) It’s best to split up your cheat sheet into logical sections. This makes finding information as easy as possible when an oddball question is being thrown your way. For example, electricity, magnetism, classical physics, special relativity, sound, light as a wave, light as a particle, mass as a wave, mass as a particle and experimental design are roughly the sections I included in my cheat sheet.

The fact that the study design is split up into units and areas of study can simplify this task. However, the way VCAA divides topics might not make that much sense to you - for example, it splits up concepts like ‘force on a current carrying wire’ and ‘force on a current carrying loop of wire’. If this kind of compartmentalisation doesn’t sit well with you, don’t get too hung up on following VCAA’s format completely, and group concepts in a way that clicks for you.

7. Draft your cheat sheet to find mistakes.

They say practise makes perfect, so does that mean you should remake your cheat sheet 20 times? In short: probably not… but continuously revising and altering an existing cheat sheet is definitely a great idea.

In the process of looking over content, you might want to make notes on what you hope to include in your cheat sheet. From there you should be able to collate those notes into areas you want to put them on the pages, so your cheat sheet has a logical flow.

At this point, you might discover that you couldn’t fit everything on the pages, or the pages are half blank. And when you use your cheat sheet as you complete practice exams, you’ll get an idea of what it might be missing. At this point, the best idea is to make a new sheet, or perhaps just add to your previously half blank pages. In this way, you’ll probably end up with a cheat sheet that meets all your needs in the exam.

8. When should you write your cheat sheet?

The best time to start putting your masterpiece together is at the start of your revision period, as this is when collating information to find holes in your knowledge is most useful.

Plus, having your cheat sheet ready a few weeks before your exam gives you the chance to use your final cheat sheet on at least 2-3 practise exams. This means that you can make sure it has everything you need, and that and you know where to find everything on it.

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