Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Passing SM358 (Quantum Mechanics) at the OU

I received a note today from Dylan H. who works in defence R&D. She's studying quantum theory with the Open University and wrote:

"I read your blog from 2009 on QM SM358 having had my interest prompted on a Google search. I’m currently doing this same course and am already freaking out about the exam in October – do you have any study/revision tips you could pass on?"

Here are the blog references Dylan cited. Always keen to offer advice here's my reply.

"Hope you're finding the course interesting. I've subsequently been looking at Quantum Field Theory and found the OU course an excellent preparation. The exam is straightforward if you know the material but it DOES reward time assigned to revision.

My own approach was to read through the entire course again, all three volumes, doing the inline questions where I felt any puzzlement. It's amazing how much clearer it seems second time round. There was also a web-based series of revision tests which I faithfully did and although I found them both stressful and irritating they were worth it.

I assume you attended the summer school. If so, you will have been given a number of question papers together with the answers. I did these systematically as part of my revision.

Finally, one of the key issues in a beginning QM course is to figure out the many confusing concepts. SM358 doesn't do a particularly bad job at conceptual clarity [e.g. distinguishing between operators, eigenvectors, eigenvalues, amplitudes, superpositions, representations, observables, ...] but it sometimes helps to have a complementary book. My choice would be Essential Quantum Mechanics by Gary Bowman which focuses relentlessly on the key concepts and you might find it helpful too.

About a week before the exam I worked through three past papers under semi-exam conditions (I made sure I attempted ALL the questions where there were options). I did get a distinction, so I guess the answer is (i) revise ALL the material; (ii) do lots of questions, don't just read stuff."

To my embarrassment I then had to write her a follow-up email:

"In my haste to reply to you before dinner, I omitted to notice that you're just starting out on the course. Let me therefore add:

1. The course is very conceptually demanding in the first few months. If you feel you will never understand it, don't worry, I felt just the same. Stick at it and immerse yourself and it WILL become clearer by June!

2. Go to the Summer School.

3. The book I recommended is great to read in September when you’ve completed Book 2 of the course. It won't make a lot of sense at this stage and it's a waste of your time and money to look at it now. It's use is in revision for a 'second opinion' on the conceptual foundations.




We were in Taunton today, about an hour's ride from Wells. The expected torrential rain did not materialise but on the way back we saw a wind turbine spinning at a fantastic rate. It might, however, have been the result of the low-flying Chinook which was powering over the Somerset Levels dressed in its best camo. I'm glad they've finally got the software bugs out of that machine ...