1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Beginning Physics Undergrad Major

  1. Mar 7, 2014 #1
    Some background: I've never been good at math, although I'm finding that it doesn't necessarily mean I'll ever be good at it. However, when I was younger (US grade K-7) I was always an A+ student across the board; I've always loved learning and even though I experienced some turbulence, that has never left me. The more I think about it, the more I've realized that my disinterest in school after the 7th grade was due to terrible teachers. During that specific year, I spent my first semester at a private Christian school and we were doing math with Roman Numerals (not joking) before I transferred back to public school only to be thrown into the world of Pre-Algebra. I'd ask my teacher for help and she suggested I either take remedial classes or hire a tutor. Basically, she didn't do her job and was oftentimes rude...From there on I struggled with math and I honestly don't know how I managed to make a passing grade because I made a habit of skipping math class...

    Currently, I feel like I'm finally mastering math up to Algebra 2. I've been spending the last year or so basically teaching myself. Still, math is my main worry because even my introductory courses (i.e. Classical Mechanics) will be calculus-based. I know that I won't be thrown into these classes without preparation, but I'm still worried I won't get the hang of it on time, much less an intuitive understanding. However, I DO want to have a good understanding of the necessary math I'll need for school.

    I think the worst thing I've done is look ahead into some of those equations that contain half of the alphabet and then some...

    I guess what I want to know is are there any other people that have struggled with math in a similar way? I do want to be good at it; it's not something I look at as a chore, I just fear that my best won't be good enough.

    What are some great (preferably) free resources? Or has anyone tried one of those tutoring websites (i.e. ThatTutorGuy) and found it redeemable? Lol. My favorite method of learning is to spend time alone with a book, but I've come to find that using multiple resources has proven to work really well.

    I'm also worried that since I'll have to take pre-requisites before gen-eds, I'll end up falling so far behind that I'll give up altogether.

    This all looks so silly typed out, but it's a very real thing right now and some advice would be ever-so amazing.

  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 7, 2014 #2
    The Khan Academy has saved my life! I often find myself watching his videos when I don't understand.
  4. Mar 7, 2014 #3


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    This depends my friend. How willing are you to go the extra mile?

    Khan Academy for all things basic math. They have videos on trig/calc that I am using to supplement my school education.
    This site (physicsforums) offers a free 1 year membership to educator.org which has plenty of lectures.
    There is TONS of free information online, especially for math. It really depends on what kind of information you are looking for.

    I'm in this situation too. I'm 24 and going to a community college taking Trigonometry now (first I took algebra), and Trig + algebra won't even count towards my final credits, but you know what? I needed these classes. I am acing them at over 100% scores, but without these classes I would fall flat on my face in calculus.

    I would suggest just taking the courses, yes they will be easy, but needed. And just understand - hey, it may take you a touch longer than other students to get the degree. Consider going in summer school and such.
  5. Mar 7, 2014 #4


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Hi erbium-indium,

    For most of my life, I thought I was great at mathematics. It came very easily to me, until I took Abstract Algebra. It's interesting because I learned more about myself than Groups, Rings, and Fields that semester, but it has been extremely valuable to my studies and approach to life in general. It was a nice wake-up call, if you will, that humbled me into being okay with asking for help.

    Hard work, Patience, and Humility!

    Hard work: There is no shortcut, not that I think you're asking for one, to becoming proficient in mathematics (or many other fields, for that matter). Learning the "tricks" and/or methods will simply take time. Be patient with yourself and as long as you're diligent and careful, things will come together at some point and start to make more sense. For now, unfortunately, you're just going to have to take a lot of what you learn on faith; follow the rules and a lot of the "whys" will sort themselves out. When you feel the need to ask "why", try going over what you already know and coming up with an answer yourself, then go talk to a professor/grad student about it.

    Patience: There will be many times you feel ill-prepared for the material, and sometimes even unable to make any progress at all. Relax, don't get down on yourself, and methodically go back and look for some "clue" in your textbook or lecture notes.

    Humility: It will be a humbling experience. If you get stuck, you need to have someone you can go to for help; someone who won't spoon-feed you the answer or confuse you even more. Finding this person should be one of your first priorities! You will get stuck, and you'll need to ask for help even if you don't want it.

    A balance between hard work and humility must be established. You don't want to spend hours upon hours on a problem that should only take 30 minutes before asking for help. However, you also want to allow yourself to struggle a bit with the concepts as it's a part of the learning process. If you're intentional with your study time, and take ownership of your education, you'll find what works for you. I wish you the best of luck!
  6. Mar 7, 2014 #5
    The Khan academy covers more than just basic math.
  7. Mar 7, 2014 #6
    erbium-indium, believe it or not, I am in the exact same boat as you and I share your anxieties. Ive struggled with math and especially in the past two days, I have been really, really discouraged. I didn't pick up math for 5+ years so when I took my first semester of community college last fall (Im 23) I struggled with developmental math (radicals, quadratics, polynomials, etc not arithmetic). But that struggle paid off and two weeks ago I got permission to take the final exam of developmental mathematics and got a 97 on it so the struggle was worth it (and it will be for you too).

    Im learning college algebra on my own right now to prepare to take it during summer and I know the what it feels like to feel inadequate and unprepared. Everything in college algebra has been a breeze but now Im learning zeros of polynomials and I am struggling really hard and that negative voice in my head tells me that Ill never be an engineer if I cant even get algebra but I try not to listen to it anymore. It pains me to read " I just fear that my best won't be good enough." because that is an insecurity that I profoundly feel every day. I hope you dont give up even if it seems daunting. I've learned that people on this forum are truly helpful and understanding, they can and do help guys like us.

    As far as mechanics I feel the same way, Im not really worried about calculus but word problems in mechanics make me want to be an art major....I haven't taken that class yet either. As far as online resources go, I supplement learning out of the book with pauls online math notes http://tutorial.math.lamar.edu/ and patrickJMT. As for Khan Academy, I really am not a big fan, he uses really, really easy examples which frustrates me although he is great at explaining ideas.

    Anyway I just hope you know that you are not alone in your struggle, my predicament mirrors yours almost perfectly. I think hanging in there and struggling through it will be more worth it than not bothering to try at all. It will get better. Good luck!
  8. Mar 7, 2014 #7


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    ^ Finding the zeros of polynomials with Descartes's rule and all the other methods is probably the most tedious things in college algebra. Everybody hates it/struggles with it, so don't get too discouraged. It's one of the most common things I end up helping other students with in my peer tutor position at my CC so I might be able to help out if you ever need it. Shoot me a PM any time.
  9. Mar 7, 2014 #8
    Wait, please tell me I'm missing something. But you just mastered algebra 2 and you intend to take a classical mechanics class which uses calculus? If that's true, then I strongly advice against taking such a class. It will absolutely murder you.

    You're doing well though. Just keep taking math classes like trig, geometry, precalculus and the various calculus classes. You'll get there eventually.

    I do warn against tutor sites like KhanAcademy. They are awesome secondary materials, but don't use them as a primary resource. You absolutely still need to go through a textbook and work most of the exercises (especially the tedious algebra exercises at this stage). You can always ask for help at a site like this. And please do ask as many questions as possible (granted you did think about it for more than 5 seconds).

    Otherwise, Dembadon's post is spot-on. So read his post carefully and try to follow his advice.
  10. Mar 7, 2014 #9
    Good! Don't listen to it.

    I know it's very frustrating to stand at the beginning of learning mathematics. You see all these smart people playing with math and making it look like a joke. You have to realize that those smart professors have been doing math for decades. So it's pretty normal for them to be good at it. When they were younger, though, they went through the same thing as you.

    You see, many people think that being a good scientist or engineer is to be able to see math equations and understand it immediately. They think that they can't be a scientist if they don't grasp algebra immediately. This is a very flawed image. Everybody (except perhaps Von Neumann, but I don't count him as human) in their carreer hits walls sooner or later. For you, you have hit a wall now in algebra. For others it might take until grad school. But you'll hit a wall sooner or later. What makes a real scientist is that they have the passion and determination to run head first into the wall. They'll get injured, but still they run into the wall again and again. After a while, the wall crumbles down. Other people hit the wall and for some reason they give up. That's alright, nothing wrong with it. Maybe they're just not passionate about science, it doesn't make them dumb or anything. But those people will also never get to be scientists or engineers.

    In a sense, I think it's a good thing to hit a wall early on. This will teach you good study habits and determination. I've seen quite a lot of people who hit a wall late in undergrad and grad school. These people were not used to this and they dropped out. They weren't dumb or anything, they just weren't used to math being challenging.

    One thing you should learn is how to properly learn mathematics. Many people don't do this correctly. It's very easy in mathematics and science to make you think like you understand all the stuff, while you really don't. Of course, once you do exams, it will be a surprise to you that you didn't understand it all that well.

    Basically, you should see math as a fight. You can't just read math texts like an ordinary text, you need to fight it tooth and nail:

    - Why are they doing this step? Have they done this kind of thing before? Hmm... Maybe this trick is useful and I should remember it.
    - Draw pictures, make graphs, make schemes, make mind maps!
    - Do a lot of the problems (skip the easier ones if you know how to do those, there's no use in doing easy problems over and over again. Go straight for the harder ones if you're ready)
    - Make up problems yourself and see if you can do them.
  11. Mar 8, 2014 #10
    Well, before classical mechanics it's required that you take at least analytical geometry & calc 1 anyay. This, I'm really thankful for because a friend of mine is in engineering at a neighboring university and he's taking calc 1 and classical mechanics simultaneously. Utterly stupid, but he's pretty fluent in math I suppose, so it's not much of a problem for him.
  12. Mar 8, 2014 #11
    I appreciate it ensuna, Ill definitely take you up on that offer.

    Thanks, its encouraging to hear, I wont give up! I do need to learn how to learn math more efficiently going forward, Ill work on this.
  13. Jul 7, 2016 #12
    Omg. You sound like me!!! I think I just posted the same question! I’ve never been good at math (dyscalculia). Now I understand it better, and I enjoy it. I switched from bio to physics when brainwaves became my passion. I’ve always been an A student, 4.0 through trig. Now doing Calc 1 I’m terrified I might get a B. It sounds crazy, I know. But I feel like I should understand everything and get it perfect and if I don’t I’ll be a shitty physicist.

    I’m taking Calc before any physics, and now I’m scared that I made a bad choice. Part of me I wants to go back to bio because it’s linguistic and easy for me. I know I won’t be satisfied so I will trudge onion physics. I can’t provide insight or strength, only camaraderie. I’m right there with you!
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?
Draft saved Draft deleted