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Other Any physicists that struggled with intro physics?

I’m 3 weeks into my first physics class at college; honors physics 1. I really want to major in physics because it’s really interesting, but I’m finding the class very difficult. Trying to solve the textbook problems and follow the professor’s train of thought is very tough, which is frankly very new to me because I was always the top of the class in all my other college level math and science courses, like calc and gen chem for instance. There was never a moment that I didn’t understand what the professors were explaining, and I didn’t have to try very hard in the classes.

My physics class hasn’t even started newton’s laws, and I’m already lost when the professor is lecturing. I’m finding self-study(my usual method) to be very difficult as well.

Is there anyone else on the forum that went on to become a physicist that had a similar experience with intro physics? What advice do you have for someone in my position? Do I just not have the “right stuff”? If there are others, what did you do to overcome the obstacles? How did you fare in the more advanced physics courses?

Thanks to anyone with any input. I’ve been feeling very defeated lately and thinking that maybe my physics goals aren’t very realistic. Also, I really appreciate honesty, so tough love is recieved very well.
 
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fresh_42

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I think this effect is quite common. The way mathematics and physics is taught at school versus the way it is done at universities can be very different, so it means a kind of cultural shock. All of a sudden it is not primarily the procedures anymore which are on focus: learn a procedure and apply it again and again on certain situations. Now the procedures themselves are investigated and those situations, i.e. numerical examples, are widely disregarded. The only important numbers seem to be ##0,\pm 1,\pm 2##. In my opinion there is no work around, and you will have to adopt the new way of thinking. This can take a while and there is a reason, why the drop-out rate in the first year is higher than after that. In the end the entire process of studying will be driven by increasing levels of abstraction.

The best thing you can do in my opinion, is to ask questions, either by teamwork with others, e.g. to recap lectures, or here on PF. Reading other or more books will only help you if you understood how to read them: deductions replace applications and the question "how much" is replaced by "why". I find that a study of which area ever, is far more related to the learning of a new language than commonly thought - and I don't mean English. And vocabulary is only the first tiny step towards the usage of a new language. Try to use this language, even if it means to make mistakes.
 

gleem

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Specifically what type of problems are you having difficulty in solving?
 

Dr. Courtney

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My struggles with intro physics were mostly related to my weak math skills. I had finished pre-calc in 11th grade, and didn't take any math courses senior year of high school. So my algebra (which had never been strong) was rusty, my trig was a guessing game, and Calculus was an ongoing battle (a co-requisite rather than a pre-requisite for my 1st semester (college) physics course. Had I taken AP Calculus in high school (it was offered), my first year physics would have been much easier.

Most students are not self-aware enough to realize whether their real struggle is with the physics or the math. But as a teacher, I can see that it usually is the weak math skills. Here's how you might tell:

1. Forget your feelings about whether you "understand" the material. Focus on your ability to solve the assigned homework problems (or other problems in your book) and where you get stuck.
2. Don't just stare at a blank page of paper thinking, "I don't know what to do." Don't start problems by playing formula roulette. (Which formula do I need."
3. Start problems be reading the problem statement carefully and drawing a picture (even if there is one in the book.) Include all the given physical quantities as well as the unknowns in appropriate locations in your diagram. Choose a location for your coordinate system, and label your axes (which direction is x and y, and where is your origin).
4. Identify the general principles of physics needed for the problem and write them down. Common possibilities early in introductory classes are: definition of velocity, definition of acceleration, Galileo's law of falling bodies, relative velocity, vector addition, and so on. Express the general principles at this point without equations if you can think of how. If you can't get this far, your problem really is with the physics (interpreting the problem statements and identifying the needed principles for a solution.)
5. Outline a sequence of steps needed to solve the problem (in words, not equations). Be more specific than find the right equation and solve it. Something like: a) Use the kinematic equation for y to compute the flight time b) Use the kinematic equation for x to compute the projectile distance. OR a) compute the velocities to m/s b) compute the x and y components of all the velocity vectors c) compute the relative velocity by subtracting the vectors in component form.
6. NOW, go ahead and write down the equations and solve them (if you can).
7. Assess your solution for physical reasonableness, sign, magnitude, and units.

The stage where you usually get stuck tells you (and your teacher or tutor) a lot about why you are getting stuck. It also makes help sessions with a teacher or tutor much more productive, as they can probably help get you unstuck on 4-5 problems in the same time it would take to help you with 1 problem if you show up merely stuck ("I don't know what to do") without anything written down.

Most colleges and universities these days have tutoring centers where help is available. If your professor is unavailable or unhelpful, make use of the tutoring center and have someone help you.

Later physics courses were more of the same: always spent much more time wrestling with the math than with the physics.
 
Specifically what type of problems are you having difficulty in solving?
I’m having difficulty setting up the problems in two dimensional motion, and some acceleration and velocity vector problems.
I’ve never taken any physics before, so modeling word problems is turning out to be a big obstacle. The professor also mumbles when he lectures, so I can’t understand what he’s doing. I think a big issue I’m having is when trying to self-study, every tutorial online that I find seems to handle problems as each being unique in their approach, and therefore those methods don’t apply to other problems.
 

fresh_42

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I've written some tips to turn word problems into calculations here: https://www.physicsforums.com/insights/10-math-tips-save-time-avoid-mistakes/ Maybe it can help you. It also sounds as if you had some difficulties with coordinate systems or vector algebra, which you might want to relearn again. I don't think that online material can substitute a good book, so I would stay with written sources. At least you can expect that an author doesn't change his/her style with every new example. In any case, you should gather some examples which you have difficulties and post them in our homework section. Just do not answer section 3 of our template by "no clue".
 
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Some people I know had trouble in intro physics classes, but then did great in higher level classes.

In my case, physics 2 class was horrible. I didn't understand anything. I decided to talk to a professor at a different college I knew and got into that class with him instead. It made a world of difference! It was crazy how much easier it was to understand.

Sometimes the instructor just isn't very good. That could be the problem.
 

symbolipoint

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Some people I know had trouble in intro physics classes, but then did great in higher level classes.

In my case, physics 2 class was horrible. I didn't understand anything. I decided to talk to a professor at a different college I knew and got into that class with him instead. It made a world of difference! It was crazy how much easier it was to understand.

Sometimes the instructor just isn't very good. That could be the problem.
About that "physics 2" course ---
Sometimes the instructor is very good but the course material is just too difficult for you. If "physics 2" was Electricity and Magnetism, you might expect it to be much more difficult than some other courses.
 

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