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Am I smart? Math and Physics

  1. Jun 26, 2012 #1
    I just finished my first year of college. I go to a great school but one that is not known for physics and has a small department. I placed into "sophomore" math (multi and linear) and physics (modern physics and math methods) with AP scores. I did well in math and very very average in physics. Even with an As in my math classes I still feel like I lack the inherent problem solving ability necessary to pursue degrees in these two fields. Perhaps I've been trying to learn things the wrong way for many years, but I still find myself relying on strict memorization instead of being able to apply concepts and think of the best way to do something. I'm pretty good at computation, but the setup of many problems is what gets me. If I am given a slight prod in the right direction I can generally go from there, but this ends up meaning (in physics mostly) that I do well on the homework sets, but when it comes to tests I end up trying to eke out as much partial credit as I can, and can never fully apply what I've learned. It's definitely partly anxiety, but also I might just not be working hard enough to nail down the material. I know I'm not a "math genius" but I always thought I was at least pretty well above average, but struggles in high school bc calc and recently in physics have shaken me. I've been very interested in physics for the past few years, but now that I think about it maybe more of a romanticization of it than anything. Do you think working harder can truly make me into a "real" physics and math student? I can't tell if my mind is working the right way or if I am just relying on my good memorization skills. I'm not sure I have the drive to continually pore over physics equations and lessons, so maybe inherent ability is key. It's hard to frame this question but any advice would be appreciated.
    Last edited: Jun 26, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 26, 2012 #2
    Anyone can do anything if they work hard enough. The best suggestion would be to immerse yourself in your subject. Read all the books on it you can find, study all research you can find.

    The bottom line is school typically just gives you the tools whether or not you can use them is up to how hard you intend to work. This however is less true for PhD students, and even some masters programs as they are expected to think on their own.
  4. Jun 26, 2012 #3
    Firstly, you're not the worst, I just got back from a freshman semester where I thought I'd be smart and take a bunch of advanced math courses (topology, abstract algebra etc) and discovered I was not nearly as good as I thought!

    But you know what got me over my... uh... not as stellar as usual performance? The fact that the whole point of university is about gittin me edimucated', that's what! Not succeeding at first is part of the process for most of us.

    So if you find that you're not whiz bang genius at something first go, well whaddaya know, you're not Richard Feynman after all, just practice it a lot like the rest of us schmucks!*

    I'll just give you one pointer which was vital for me; carefully observing a much better student in the topology course work out some of the devilish little proofs alerted me to my weaker points. I saw all sorts of nifty things he was doing which I was not, and improved quickly.

    *What did Feyman say about physics again? Oh yeah! An ordinary guy can do it, but only after a lot of hard study. And what did he say of himself? That he was an ordinary person, who got interested in this stuff and so he devoted a lot of time and study to it.
  5. Jun 27, 2012 #4
    I honestly think Feynman was afflicted with the Downing effect (to underestimate their intellect when in reality they are pretty much way above the normal average)
  6. Jun 27, 2012 #5
    It isn't as much working harder as working smarter. So, you're pretty good at math, but having issues in physics. Perhaps, you already identified your own lack of understanding the concepts (applying what you think you know) as an issue, and I would say that is "the issue". As much as math is a building from foundation up, much of physics is too. It sounds like there are some holes you need to fill in. When this happened to me in a subject, I'd try to figure out where I started to "miss the boat." I'd start on page one of my textbook and "study read" until I got to the parts that started to get fuzzy and then work on those (problems/concepts) until fuzzy turned to clear. Frequently, once fuzzy became clear, I would "see" things in further study reading that I didn't pick up on before. Ever experience 20/20 hindsight and wonder "That was so easy. Why was that ever hard for me?" It doesn’t mean somewhere along the way you got smart; it means somewhere along the way you learned. Don’t confuse the two. IMO, assume you are smart, and find and fill the holes in your understanding.

    Good luck.
  7. Jun 27, 2012 #6


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    Memorization is not the way to go in math and physics. Sure, you might have to memorize some formula's because it's easier that way, but don't start memorizing everything. Instead, knowing how to derive certain formula's is much more useful.

    How much exercises do you make on each topic?? How much time do you invest in your studies?? Do you make enough challenging exercises?? I think the problem lies there. You're probably quite smart, but you need to practice a lot. If you come on a test and don't know where to begin with a certain problem, then you haven't practiced enough. This is especially true for lower division physics.
  8. Jun 27, 2012 #7
    I think this is probably true. I'm definitely going to start doing a lot more practice problems on my own outside of required ones. I think part of my anxiety made me not like doing practice problems since if I was unsure how to do one I would get extremely disheartened.

    Can anyone suggest good sources of physics sources to practice on my own? (preferably with answers)
  9. Jun 27, 2012 #8
    I think your problem-solving ability may improve with time/practice. I always worried that I was not really good enough at math, and I did much better on the homework than the tests, but I kept going and I've gotten a lot farther than I thought I could. There are always going to be people who are faster/smarter/whatever than you are, and you just can't worry about it. You may not be a "genius" but if you did okay in mv calc and linear algebra, I'd say you're probably pretty smart. It can be hard to adjust from being awesome at everything in high school, but no matter what you study in college you're going to have to work for it. It's just harder than high school, period.
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