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Studying Bad Problem-Solving Habits

  1. Mar 20, 2017 #1
    Hi all, I am an undergraduate Physics student.

    I have recently realised that I am extremely bad at solving "new" problems related to the topics I am working on. Trying to do any question that deviates slightly from the norm will cause me to be stuck on that problem for hours, usually to no avail. I have told myself the usual cliches of "take a step back" and "try it from another angle", but none of these seem to work. It's gotten to the point where I'm wondering if Physics is the right path for me as I know being a physicist requires one to be able to solve novel problems, not just chugging through stuff you've learnt before. My results, as they stand, are fine but I believe unless I sort this problem out they will slip as the work gets harder.

    I'm working extremely hard, but I suspect, not extremely smart. Does anyone have any advice? And also, is this something normal in the course of studying physics?

    Thanks in advance!
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 20, 2017 #2
    If you are asking whether you are smart enough, only an IQ Test can tell you. Physics is all about solving problems. But do not panic, the ability to solve problems is not inherit, you can learn to do so. Calm yourself and try your best. Many people can do Physics, you'd be surprised. It's something normal to get stucked as the problems are thought to be challenging, because it is the whole point. If you pursue on your career as a physicist, you'll have this feelings all along you life.
  4. Mar 20, 2017 #3
    The worst habit I see is asking, "What formula do I need?" too early in the problem solving process. Colleagues and I refer to this as "Formula Roulette."

    Start by drawing a picture and trying to identify the general principles of physics that are in play and likely to be involved in solving the problem. Then write down an orderly sequence of steps you might need to execute in solving the problem. Also consider how you might double check your answer once you have it? How might you get an upper bound and a lower bound on the right answer using simpler considerations than the more precise solution?

    Courtney's Law: The correct answer to most complicated physics problems is bounded by the solutions to two much simpler physics problems.

    Usually, in the above process, the path to identifying the needed formulas becomes clearer to you.
  5. Mar 20, 2017 #4
    WWCY, when I started studying physics I felt exactly the same way you felt; from speaking to colleagues who entered college with me, this is an extremely usual scenario. The only way out of this situation is to keep doing problems until they become almost routine.
  6. Mar 20, 2017 #5
    Thanks for all the replies,

    This, somehow, didn't cross my mind. Thanks for the insight. Perhaps I'm more worried that some of these feelings don't get resolved.

    I used to be guilty of this when I first started, but I believe i am starting to move away from this habit. My main problem now is that I keep "missing a trick", be it mathematical or physical. There's aways an extremely simple and elegant way to work things out that I'm always not getting. I do try to write down and visualise the "big picture", but it's always the small gaps within that picture that elude me. After I'm pretty much walking into a brick wall until a peek at the solutions manual saves me.

    I do try to work on as many as time allows, but it always seems that I get stuck on the new ones. Is there a way of working on problems such that you not only reinforce your basics but also develop the ability to solve novel ones?
  7. Mar 20, 2017 #6
    This could be. As a prof, I always tried to avoid problems where students needed to see one specific trick. I preferred bread and butter type problems that could be solved correctly with several different approaches. Many books have a mix of problems requiring "tricks" and problems with straightforward recipes, allowing the professor to balance the homework sets according to their preferences.

    But I recommend an intentional approach to determine if you are just missing tricks or if you are missing more important principles. For example, when working a problem with a ball rolling down a plane seeing that you need to substitute in the expressions for moment of inertia and angular velocity in terms of velocity, mass, and radius is more of a computational trick. Seeing that you need to use conservation of energy is the big picture. You might even visit your professors during their office hours and go over where you were stuck on each homework problem to have them help diagnose whether you were stuck in a minor trick or an important principle.

    Many times students get stuck because they are trying to use conflicting approaches at the same time: Newton's second law and conservation of energy, for example. This is a big picture perception issue, not a computational trick. Likewise, trying to blend Newtonian, Lagrangian, and/or Hamiltonian mechanics in a single problem is a big picture misunderstanding.
  8. Mar 20, 2017 #7

    Vanadium 50

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    Are you sure these are tricks? A "trick" used more than once isn't a trick anymore. It has become a "technique".
  9. Mar 20, 2017 #8
    As has been stated, it generally helps to write down what general laws or principles seem to be relevant in the problem. Even if the problem requires some obscure "trick", there is no way it can deviate substantially from an astute application of one of these general laws or principles.
  10. Mar 22, 2017 #9
    I'd say one of the worst common habits I see is students who go straight to the solutions manual if they don't understand the problem initially. Rather, it is better to think about it, drawing pictures and the like and thinking about the physics concepts you know, and then sleeping on it after you've worked on it for a bit and trying again the next day. Oftentimes, things suddenly become clearer because your mind has been processing it in the back of your head. But when students go for the solutions manual right away, they don't get used to the process of problem solving and it always hurts them in the long run.
  11. Mar 23, 2017 #10
    Thanks for the advice. I must say I'm guilty of referring to the solutions manual within 30 minutes of frustration. I'll be sure to give what you mentioned a proper go!
  12. Mar 23, 2017 #11
    This exactly. Its the same thing as a sprinter deciding to hop on a car because he ran over 11 second. It really helps to struggle with a problem, because thats the time when you learn the most.
  13. Mar 24, 2017 #12
    Good analogy.
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