PHY 2048 and 2049
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There are many different skills you need to develop or refine
to succeed in this class in addition to the facts you need to
learn. Different students will have to focus more effort on
some topics than others, so no single set of advice applies to all.
Added: A student perspective from one of our graduates.
George Heller, now a student in the mechanical engineering program
at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, shared some
comments about how to solve an engineering problem. You ought
to be able to see several places where my comments below apply
to specific parts of that process.
A key thing to learn in physics is how to ask
yourself the questions required to address a broader, not-so-well
focussed question. Thus part of answering a question is to ask
yourself "what question might I answer that will help me to deal
with this one?". The organization that George outlines above is a
way to focus on those questions. During 2007 I discovered some
interesting connections between this key skill and the ideas behind doing
"critical reading" in a literature course. For example, both require
that you go through the steps of expressing the material in your
own words without changing its meaning. A paraphrase will not do,
because that will change the problem.
Your goal should be to develop high level critical thinking skills
directed at solving problems. The suggestions below are only the
starting point, but they cover most of the basic skills you need
before you can attack more complex problems.
Here are some of the things you might need to work on:
- Organizing your knowledge.
You should maintain a master list of equations in the form you
normally use them, grouped by topic,
and work problems from this equation list
rather than from some equation you dredge up in the textbook.
You should not have to open your book to find the equations needed
for a homework problem, because they should already be in this list
when you encountered them reading the text or after I presented
them in lecture. Only key equations belong on this list!
(See item 6.)
When this list gets too "bushy", you should "prune" it by removing
minor equations that you can easily and quickly get from another one.
- Preparing for Class
You can build this organization of your knowledge by using the
suggested study techniques at the bottom of this page.
Read the chapter before class and start your
outline for that chapter or section. You might come to class
with a list of the concept(s) you think are important from
the section, or a question about how it fits with what has
been done already. If you don't have any of those questions,
I may start by asking you some of them. See it in class,
which you can only do if you attend. You can expect to see a
demonstration of each new concept, which can mean one every day.
We will also work examples and homework problems.
Then you need to go home and Apply it,
doing some homework problems or examples and making a new outline
that summarizes what you really need to know from that section.
- Adopt "expert" problem solving methods
For reasons that remain a mystery to me, students seem to assume that
the way I do problems in class and try to get them to do them in their
homework (whether it is turned in or not) is somehow different from
the way I solve a new problem. It isn't. I always draw a picture,
usually more than one picture, and define what I know and what I
need to find as well as the principle(s) that are likely to apply
in that situation. Textbooks often omit the extra diagrams because
those are expensive to produce, but expert problem solvers never leave
them out. Our textbook is pretty good about showing the initial
thinking steps in its examples, steps students seem to think get in
the way of writing down the (specialized, hence generally useless on
its own) equation to be solved. Exactly the opposite: you can do
problems more quickly if you start at the beginning.
You might be confusing the way an experienced person can
obtain the answer to a problem s/he has done dozens or hundreds of
time with the way an expert solves a problem they have never seen.
[See also items 4 thru 6, and the
methods an engineer like Doug Jones promotes in his math classes.]
Your career will consist of solving problems you have never seen before.
- Classifying a problem
You need to know how to identify what physical concepts are involved and
what equation(s) apply to each kind of problem.
One way to attack this is to start each homework solution with a
picture plus a list of the key words from the problem and the
physical concept that those words tell you has to be used.
List the basic equations after the concept is identified and
before applying the equation(s) to the specifics of the
problem. This will also help you learn the equations.
You can also read other problems in the text that are in the same
section and see what key words they have in common that tell you
they are all about, say, conservation of momentum.
- Dealing with more than one unknown.
This can be a significant problem for some students.
The warning sign is if you think a homework problem does not
contain enough information to solve it.
Part of what you have to realize is that when you know a relationship
between one variable and another, then you "know" that variable if
you can find a way to determine what the other one is.
There are many problems where a drawing, or a second drawing,
will show the relationships you can use to get another equation.
Write down everything you know, including all relationships between
what you know and what you could determine from what you know, and
you can then explore the web of relationships between variables
to eliminate extraneous unknowns by using algebra.
- Avoiding "equation grabbing".
I am always disturbed when I see students using a very specific
equation from a worked example in the book, an equation that I
don't know and would never bother to memorize. When you work
problems starting from the main concepts and your short list
of basic equations that you have learned, you will need to know
fewer equations and the problems will all seem the same rather
than different. For your convenience, I provide pdf files
containing a course overview of PHY2048 that includes all of
the main equations (although not always organized in the way
that I recommend keeping mental track of them, you will see
that in class) and almost all of the others you might need to
do a homework problem. I also have a pdf file
summarizing the main topics in PHY2049 along with a short version
of Maxwell's equations that is also included in my syllabus.
- Reviewing and practicing algebra and trig skills.
We assume you can solve any small system of equations
(two or three unknowns), and also assume that doing so will
only be a minor part of the problem. You may never need to
be fluent in calculus (although some of your majors will require
this), but you will all need to be fluent in algebra.
The following advice comes from the PSC1121 syllabus, but it
applies to this class as well:
How to succeed in Physical Science:
Attend class every day. Ask questions if something is not clear.
Read the assigned section(s) before class.
(Read it in the book, See it in class, then Apply it to the homework.)
Review notes daily.
Do not wait until the night before the exam to study.
Check with your instructor as soon as possible if you do not understand
Set aside two hours per day for studying:
1 hour for reviewing or homework and 1 hour for reading the next chapter.
(Read it in the book, See it in class, then Apply it to the homework.)
Form a study group.
Teaching each other is an excellent way to learn, and group members
can help fill in gaps in each other's notes from class.
(You can use the physics area in the Learning Commons.)
Studying a lot does not always equal studying effectively. Like it
says in the title of the textbook for PSC1121
(Conceptual Physical Science, available in the L-C and highly
recommended), this course is as much about learning concepts
as it is about learning facts. This makes science (and math)
classes different from history or humanities classes.
if you have any questions.