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Electricity and magnetism are familiar phenomena, but they are not independent. In this module, you’ll discover how a single consistent theory known as electromagnetism unifies electricity and magnetism – one of the greatest achievements of classical physics. You’ll learn about Maxwell’s equations and how they describe the fundamental physics of electromagnetism using the mathematical language of vector calculus. Additionally, you’ll study the application of these equations to understand electric and magnetic fields in the world around us, including phenomena such as light. Along the way, you’ll gain an appreciation for the role of symmetry in physics.

What you will study

This module will give you a detailed understanding of the theory of electromagnetism, which is one of the cornerstones of classical physics and an example of a classical field theory. You’ll develop an understanding of a wide range of physical phenomena, from the behaviour of light to the electrical and magnetic properties of materials. In addition, you’ll develop your ability to apply advanced physics concepts and mathematical techniques (such as vector calculus) to describe aspects of the physical world and find quantitative answers to problems.

The module website will guide your learning. The website will explain the tasks you should complete in a particular week, including:

  • studying written material
  • completing self-assessment quizzes
  • watching videos about real-world applications of electromagnetism
  • carrying out online experiments.

The module is accompanied by two books. Each book chapter complements a particular week of study.

Book 1
The first book concentrates on fundamental aspects of the theory of classical electromagnetism. It explains the concepts of electric and magnetic fields and how they are related through Maxwell’s four equations (Gauss’s law, the no Monopole law, the Ampère–Maxwell law and Faraday’s law) and the Lorentz force law. It describes how the properties of electric and magnetic fields follow from the consistent theory formed by these equations and how to use these equations to understand physical situations. This book also contains brief revision material on the relevant mathematical concepts from Mathematical methods, models and modelling (MST210) / Mathematical methods (MST224). You’ll learn how to use these mathematical techniques to describe and explain electromagnetic phenomena.

Book 2
The second book starts by showing how the presence of matter modifies electric and magnetic fields and describes the tools and techniques needed to determine the behaviour of electromagnetic fields in such cases. The middle part of the book concerns electromagnetic energy and currents, particularly alternating current (ac) circuits containing electric and magnetic components. The last part of the book develops the theory of electromagnetic waves (including light) and the electromagnetic spectrum. It explains the propagation of electromagnetic waves in vacuum and their behaviour in matter, including the phenomena of reflection, refraction, dispersion and absorption.

Entry requirements

SM381 has no formal entry requirements; however, it is an OU level 3 module. Therefore, you need a good knowledge of mathematics and physics, obtained through OU level 1 and 2 study or another higher education institution.

We recommend you have completed:

The parts of MST224 or MST210 relating to partial differentiation, multiple integrals, vector calculus and complex numbers are especially important.

We strongly recommend you check your background and experience are sufficient to tackle this module. We’ve found that appropriately prepared students have the best chance of completing their studies and get the most enjoyment from the module.

Are you ready for SM381?

Talk to an advisor if you’re not sure you’re ready.

What's included

You’ll have access to a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • course-specific module materials
  • audio and video content
  • access to online experiments
  • assessment details and submission section
  • online tutorial access
  • interactive activities and quizzes for you to check your understanding.

We’ll also provide you with two printed module books with chapters that accompany weeks in the study planner.

You will need

Basic scientific calculator.

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS Monterey or higher.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop, as described above.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

Throughout your module studies, you’ll get help and support from your assigned module tutor. They’ll help you by:

  • Marking your assignments (TMAs) and providing detailed feedback for you to improve.
  • Guiding you to additional learning resources.
  • Providing individual guidance, whether that’s for general study skills or specific module content.
  • Facilitating online discussions between your fellow students, in the dedicated module and tutor group forums.

Module tutors also run online tutorials throughout the module. Where possible, recordings of online tutorials will be made available to students. While these tutorials won’t be compulsory for you to complete the module, you’re strongly encouraged to take part.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying SM381 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Electromagnetism (SM381) starts once a year – in October.

This page describes the module that will start in October 2024.

We expect it to start for the last time in October 2029.

Course work includes:

4 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)