PHY 2048 and 2049
Study Suggestions

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Updated: 8/06/2015

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, who has now graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering and gone on to a research assistant job at CAPS and a regular job in Atlanta, shared some comments about how to solve an engineering problem that he picked up during his first semester in engineering. You ought to be able to see several places where my comments below apply to specific parts of that process.

My Comment: 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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. In addition, new in 2015, you should Watch the "flipped classroom" videos I am developing that give a short summary of key topics from the course. Some are a preview of a topic that will not be lectured on in class, but all can be used for review. Check your TCC e-mail (and possibly Canvas or LON-CAPA) for announcements of what you might need to do for the next class.

  3. 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 engineering faculty require in their classes. Thanks George.] Your career will consist of solving problems you have never seen before.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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:

  1. Attend class every day. Ask questions if something is not clear.

  2. Read the assigned section(s) before class.
    (Read it in the book, See it in class, then Apply it to the homework.)

  3. Review notes daily. Do not wait until the night before the exam to study.

  4. Check with your instructor as soon as possible if you do not understand a concept.

  5. 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.)

  6. 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.


 ?? Contact me if you have any questions.