Class average for my physics mid-term was 8/30, Seriously

In summary: I have no idea. I just kind of feel like I should be able to figure it out if I try hard enough. But I just don't know how.In summary, the student is struggling in a physics course and is unsure how to improve. The student has a strong grasp of the content, but struggles with understanding why the material is being taught and proofs.
  • #1
LuigiAM
55
7
Hi guys.

I would like to ask for a very general piece of advice.

Last semester I had my first introduction course, mechanics. The course was extremely hard, but I managed to get an A. I was one of only 4 students in a class of 108 who got A. I'm not sure how I did it considering that I came out of that class with the feeling that I understood absolutely nothing. I just memorized formulas. And I went through the practice problems so many times that I basically memorized the teacher's solutions. And in the exam, since the questions were from the practice problems, I just recopied the teacher's solution that was hardwired in my memory.

This semester it's electricity and magnetism.

It's the same thing. I feel like I understand absolutely nothing.

I know that power is P = dw/dt = vdq/dt / VI / I2R / V2/R. But I have absolutely zero intuition about what it means.

Last week on the mid term we had a problem that involved power, and we were given the potential difference and the resistance. I just recited the formula from memory and got the right answer.

The professor emailed us the results yesterday. I got 24/30 on the mid-term, which is not that bad considering the class average was 8/30. I would have had 30/30 if it wasn't for a stupid brain fart that cost me a question worth 6 points that I knew the answer to, but that in a panic I just forgot.

Yet I still feel like I have absolutely no idea what is going on. But I feel like a class average of 8/30 is absolutely insane. Last semester in Mechanics (same teacher), the class average after the final exam was D+. 41 students out of 108 failed the class. It was the same story in general chemistry 1 where over one third of the class failed.

There was a question on the mid term exam about Gauss's law. I have no idea what Gauss's law is. No idea at all. But I still answered correctly because I memorized the formulas. I have no idea what any of it means, but I just write down the variables and apply the formulas I memorized, and bang here I have the answer.

The teacher we have is a theoretical physicist. He spends all class time writing mathematical proofs on the board. I understand absolutely nothing of it. A lot of it involves integrals. Integral calculus is not a prerequisite for the two physics classes (although differential calculus is a prerequisite, just not integral). Even though this semester I am taking integral calculus, I still don't understand what the teacher is doing because he is doing things like integrals to infinity, multiple integrals, or multivariable calculus, which is way beyond the level of the class I'm taking. I have no idea what any of the proofs mean. But he gives us a lot of practice problems with the solutions, and I just memorize those.

I feel that all I can do is memorize the formulas and memorize the solutions to the practice problems he's giving us.

The teacher himself told us in the first week of class in january that we shouldn't expect to "understand" anything in the course. He said something like, paraphrased, "if you want to understand, read a book." Just like that. He said there was not enough class time to help us understand the material.

I mean, in 4 weeks of class (with 2 hours per week, that is 8 hours of class) we finished the electricity portion of the course and we are ready to start magnetism. We did coulomb's law, capacity, electric potential energy, current, Kirchoff's laws, etc... all of that in 4 classes.

The truth is, I'm really pretty scared. I want to go into software engineering next semester. So far my grades are more than good enough to get in. But I'm just afraid that at some point I'm not going to be able to just get good grades by memorizing formulas without having any idea what they mean or how to derive them. It just feels like it's going to catch up to me one day and at that I'm going to be completely lost in more advanced classes.

Does anyone have any advice for me?

What I really want is to be able to know what the class material is about without having to just blankly memorize formulas.

Another class I'm taking this semester is linear algebra. I'm doing pretty well so far. Ask me for the adjoint of a matrix and it takes me a few minutes to compute the cofactor matrix and do a transpose. Or multiplying matrices, or using gaussian elimination. All this stuff I can do very easily. But ask me to prove something and I'm completely lost. Ask me why something works and the truth is that I have absolutely no clue.

Is this normal at our level to have to do this? I mean, is this supposed to be like learning a language where you just memorize things until one day you wake up and you realize that it all makes sense? In other words, is it normal at my level that I'm just memorizing everything without having any idea what I'm doing?

Or am I heading right into a disaster?

I really wish I had an actual understanding of what I'm doing instead of just memorizing things. Honestly, what I really want is to feel like I know what I'm doing. But I just have no idea if I'm even supposed to at this point.

Does anyone have any advice? I would really appreciate it.

Sorry for this extremely long rambling topic.
 
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  • #2
That is your side of the story and it sounds bad. You say that only 4/108 students got an A. Assuming your university is not deliberately trying to fail its students, it would seem strange if it is not already investigating that.

If what you say is true, then the first issue may be whether your professors are taking seriously their job to teach the students. That is something you and you fellow students would need to raise with your university.

Although, when you say things like:

LuigiAM said:
There was a question on the mid term exam about Gauss's law. I have no idea what Gauss's law is. No idea at all. But I still answered correctly because I memorized the formulas.

That is so full of contradiction that I'm disinclined to trust what you are saying.
 
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  • #3
LuigiAM said:
Hi guys.

I would like to ask for a very general piece of advice.

Last semester I had my first introduction course, mechanics. The course was extremely hard, but I managed to get an A. I was one of only 4 students in a class of 108 who got A. I'm not sure how I did it considering that I came out of that class with the feeling that I understood absolutely nothing. I just memorized formulas. And I went through the practice problems so many times that I basically memorized the teacher's solutions. And in the exam, since the questions were from the practice problems, I just recopied the teacher's solution that was hardwired in my memory.

This semester it's electricity and magnetism.

It's the same thing. I feel like I understand absolutely nothing.

I know that power is P = dw/dt = vdq/dt / VI / I2R / V2/R. But I have absolutely zero intuition about what it means.

Last week on the mid term we had a problem that involved power, and we were given the potential difference and the resistance. I just recited the formula from memory and got the right answer.

The professor emailed us the results yesterday. I got 24/30 on the mid-term, which is not that bad considering the class average was 8/30. I would have had 30/30 if it wasn't for a stupid brain fart that cost me a question worth 6 points that I knew the answer to, but that in a panic I just forgot.

Yet I still feel like I have absolutely no idea what is going on. But I feel like a class average of 8/30 is absolutely insane. Last semester in Mechanics (same teacher), the class average after the final exam was D+. 41 students out of 108 failed the class. It was the same story in general chemistry 1 where over one third of the class failed.

There was a question on the mid term exam about Gauss's law. I have no idea what Gauss's law is. No idea at all. But I still answered correctly because I memorized the formulas. I have no idea what any of it means, but I just write down the variables and apply the formulas I memorized, and bang here I have the answer.

The teacher we have is a theoretical physicist. He spends all class time writing mathematical proofs on the board. I understand absolutely nothing of it. A lot of it involves integrals. Integral calculus is not a prerequisite for the two physics classes (although differential calculus is a prerequisite, just not integral). Even though this semester I am taking integral calculus, I still don't understand what the teacher is doing because he is doing things like integrals to infinity, multiple integrals, or multivariable calculus, which is way beyond the level of the class I'm taking. I have no idea what any of the proofs mean. But he gives us a lot of practice problems with the solutions, and I just memorize those.

I feel that all I can do is memorize the formulas and memorize the solutions to the practice problems he's giving us.

The teacher himself told us in the first week of class in january that we shouldn't expect to "understand" anything in the course. He said something like, paraphrased, "if you want to understand, read a book." Just like that. He said there was not enough class time to help us understand the material.

I mean, in 4 weeks of class (with 2 hours per week, that is 8 hours of class) we finished the electricity portion of the course and we are ready to start magnetism. We did coulomb's law, capacity, electric potential energy, current, Kirchoff's laws, etc... all of that in 4 classes.

The truth is, I'm really pretty scared. I want to go into software engineering next semester. So far my grades are more than good enough to get in. But I'm just afraid that at some point I'm not going to be able to just get good grades by memorizing formulas without having any idea what they mean or how to derive them. It just feels like it's going to catch up to me one day and at that I'm going to be completely lost in more advanced classes.

Does anyone have any advice for me?

What I really want is to be able to know what the class material is about without having to just blankly memorize formulas.

Another class I'm taking this semester is linear algebra. I'm doing pretty well so far. Ask me for the adjoint of a matrix and it takes me a few minutes to compute the cofactor matrix and do a transpose. Or multiplying matrices, or using gaussian elimination. All this stuff I can do very easily. But ask me to prove something and I'm completely lost. Ask me why something works and the truth is that I have absolutely no clue.

Is this normal at our level to have to do this? I mean, is this supposed to be like learning a language where you just memorize things until one day you wake up and you realize that it all makes sense? In other words, is it normal at my level that I'm just memorizing everything without having any idea what I'm doing?

Or am I heading right into a disaster?

I really wish I had an actual understanding of what I'm doing instead of just memorizing things. Honestly, what I really want is to feel like I know what I'm doing. But I just have no idea if I'm even supposed to at this point.

Does anyone have any advice? I would really appreciate it.

Sorry for this extremely long rambling topic.

I can relate, I’m in a year long physics course and this term we’re doing electricity and magnetism- nobintuition what so ever, mostly because I’ve never learned any of this in high school. Although, for us, we NEED to have an intuition, because the homework questions are difficult and very often use concepts from last term.

I usually go to my professor’s office hours- he’s extremely nice, ask questions here, or go to peer tutoring sessions. I don’t usually like YouTube videos because they condense a detailed explanation into a few minutes but those might help you out.

What I’ve noticed for physics too is that because I’m learning something that’s new, I’m overthinking and it’s harder for me to grasp the concept but after taking a break from it and coming back later, the concepts are clearer because my brain has had the chance to sort out the things that I have learnt. Another thing I do is look at textbook examples and do the steps my self and try to figure out the reasoning for those steps. For us, we come up with equations using equations that we already know and sometimes that involves us integrating - we need to know why we’re integrating- why certain variables in our integrals are constants given a specific scenario.so trying to understand the textbook steps and the reasoning behind them is important.
 
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  • #4
LuigiAM said:
The teacher himself told us in the first week of class in january that we shouldn't expect to "understand" anything in the course. He said something like, paraphrased, "if you want to understand, read a book." Just like that. He said there was not enough class time to help us understand the material.
Oh boy! If that (or something like that) is what your instructor said, then in my opinion he should not be teaching because teaching is a burden to him. This is what I suggest. Get together with 2-3 classmates who feel like you and first decide exactly what he said or you heard him say. Take this to the department chair, explain that you are not learning in the course and for suggestions. Be reasonable, cool headed and avoid being accusatory. Although you may feel that it's true, don't say things like "I am not paying all that money and I didn't get into debt to be told to read a book in order to understand the material." Your task is to convince the chair, without appearing to be whining about grades, that you are not learning and that the instructor is not helping any. The chair needs to know what's going on, if he/she is a good chair there will be an investigation or at least a discussion with the instructor. I know of an extreme case at my institution where the instructor was replaced mid-semester. I am not saying that this will happen in your case, but you may see some improvement if your delegation does its job right and presents convincing evidence. Department chairs are aware that students have certain rights and what those rights are.

Regardless of this, you need to finish the semester. My suggestion other than what the chair might suggest, is to form a study group with like-minded students and help each other out. You learn something better by having to explain it to someone else and, if you get stuck on something, you know already where to get online help. There is a fine line between where teaching stops and learning begins, nevertheless if your teacher doesn't teach, you still have to learn.
 
  • #5
Thanks for the replies guys. I'm not really looking to get the teacher removed though. I know for a fact that a group of students joined up to complain about him last semester and were brushed off by the faculty.

Basically, my story is that I'm in my 30s and I'm basically just getting back to school after a career in an unrelated field. I'm mostly looking for advice on what to expect and how to better understand the material. My goal is to finish the semester well, which I think I'm able to do, then I want to spend this summer doing some self study to make some sense about what I learned this year. Last year I had my first math class (differential calculus) in over 15 years of not doing anything math or science related. This is why I'm kind of lost about what is normal and what is not. Cheers.

Math and science still feels like an alien new world for me, and frankly I feel a bit lost in it.
 
  • #6
LuigiAM said:
He said something like, paraphrased, "if you want to understand, read a book."
Which textbook are you using?
 
  • #7
jtbell said:
Which textbook are you using?

The textbook is Physics for Scientists and Engineers by Serway and Jewett, but the teacher doesn't refer to it. It's just mentioned in the course outline
 
  • #8
I found Walter Lewin's MIT lectures on electricity and magnetism on youtube. It looks a lot more entertaining that what we're doing in class. I don't know if I have time to go through all of it, but it looks like it might help. I'm not just worried about going through this semester, I'm worried about being able to function later on as things get more advanced

PeroK said:
That is your side of the story and it sounds bad. You say that only 4/108 students got an A. Assuming your university is not deliberately trying to fail its students, it would seem strange if it is not already investigating that.

If what you say is true, then the first issue may be whether your professors are taking seriously their job to teach the students. That is something you and you fellow students would need to raise with your university.

Although, when you say things like:
That is so full of contradiction that I'm disinclined to trust what you are saying.

I'm not sure where you see a contradiction, but you obviously understand things much better than I do.

The Gauss's law question was relating to a cylindrical gaussian surface at the surface of the conductor. All we had to remember to answer the question was that the field inside a conductor is zero so there is no "flux" through the part of the gaussian surface that lies inside the conductor. Part b was about the magnitude of the field at the surface of a conductor, which I remembered was equal to the charge density divided by epsilon not, which is equal to 8.85 x 10-12. I probably sound like I understand way more than I actually do when I talk about it though (I guess??) We had the same question given to us as an example question so I just remembered what it said
 
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  • #9
Unless you can show that most students learned all they needed in their math prerequisites and prepared 2-3 hours outside of class for each class hour, you are unjustified in the implication that the professor is doing something wrong here.
 
  • #10
Dr. Courtney said:
Unless you can show that most students learned all they needed in their math prerequisites and prepared 2-3 hours outside of class for each class hour, you are unjustified in the implication that the professor is doing something wrong here.

Well obviously I have no idea how much time other students spent studying. The only math prereq for this course is differential calculus. I think integral should officially be made a prereq since a lot of the teaching involves integrals, though.
 
  • #11
Some advice:
Focus on yourself, not the class. Yes, it sucks some people are failing but, that's life.

There are going to be times in your academic career where you'll just have to take something on faith, and use it. It happens to everyone. Go back to those subjects when the semester is over, and with no pressure on your back. More times than not, the topic seems way simpler than previously thought!

Don't fret, and you're not alone. Many students have been in your situation, sometimes you have to memorize to survive. Is it ideal? No, but you got to do what you got to do.
 
  • #12
LuigiAM said:
He spends all class time writing mathematical proofs on the board. I understand absolutely nothing of it. A lot of it involves integrals. Integral calculus is not a prerequisite for the two physics classes
kuruman said:
Get together with 2-3 classmates who feel like you and first decide exactly what he said or you heard him say. Take this to the department chair, explain that you are not learning in the course and for suggestions.
I like @kuruman's suggestion, about going to see the department chair. If it's true that the math prerequisite is differential calculus, but the instructor is presenting a lot of material involving integrals, that seems like a disconnect to me, and a possible explanation for the high failure rate in this class. The instructor should be aware of what the prereqs are, and should be tailoring what he presents to align with those prereqs. That should be the focus of the discussion with the department head. Don't go in with the idea of laying out a laundry list of complaints about the instructor.
 
  • #13
Mark44 said:
I like @kuruman's suggestion, about going to see the department chair. If it's true that the math prerequisite is differential calculus, but the instructor is presenting a lot of material involving integrals, that seems like a disconnect to me, and a possible explanation for the high failure rate in this class. The instructor should be aware of what the prereqs are, and should be tailoring what he presents to align with those prereqs. That should be the focus of the discussion with the department head. Don't go in with the idea of laying out a laundry list of complaints about the instructor.

Yes, it's a big problem. I don't know why they did it that way.

In my school, Math 203 is Calculus 1, which covers limits and derivatives and ends at optimization problems and analyzing functions with first derivative test, second derivative test, etc. Math 204 is Linear Algebra, and Math 205 is Calculus 2, which covers indefinite and definite integrals and goes until convergence tests and Taylor and Maclaurin series.

Mechanics is Phys 204 and the prerequisite for Mechanics is Math 203, previously or concurrently. So you can take Mechanics at the same time as Math 203 (differential calculus). Electricity & Magnetism is Phys 205, and the prerequisites are Phys 204 and Math 203, but not Math 205.

Take as an example this solution that the professor posted to one of our homework questions. It's very obscure to someone who hasn't taken integral calculus:

fTU93vN.jpg
 

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  • #14
romsofia said:
Some advice:
Focus on yourself, not the class. Yes, it sucks some people are failing but, that's life.

There are going to be times in your academic career where you'll just have to take something on faith, and use it. It happens to everyone. Go back to those subjects when the semester is over, and with no pressure on your back. More times than not, the topic seems way simpler than previously thought!

Don't fret, and you're not alone. Many students have been in your situation, sometimes you have to memorize to survive. Is it ideal? No, but you got to do what you got to do.

Yeah that's what I'm thinking. I think I'll spend a chunk of the summer watching youtube videos or something to make some sense of what I learned.

Maybe part of the reason I'm feeling this way is that I'm not doing the labs in the physics class. Both Mechanics and Electricity & Magnetism have a companion lab class, but I'm not taking them because they are not mandatory for engineering
 
  • #15
It's a fair point that if you require integral calculus in a class, integral calculus should be a prereq. However, I don't think your beef is with the physics department. It's with the math department who has so watered down their calculus course that after a semester a student has not seen an integral and after part of the second cannot do one of the most elementary of integrals (the one in the solution).
 
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  • #16
Stop whining. It is not uncommon for physics courses to get ahead of the material in the calculus courses, especially in cases where they start the first physics course the first semester the first year of college.

The alternative is to wait until the second semester to let you take the first physics course. This solves the prerequisite discomfort, but then one only has 7 semesters for all the physics courses in a 4 year degree. The way the prereqs in the physics courses themselves stack up, it's harder to get all the good courses into be prepared for the GRE and graduate school in a timely way. Research opportunities also tend to be delayed at schools where you can't take the first physics course for physics majors until the second semester.

Suck it up. Physics is hard. You're going to need to learn to handle it. Why not start taking ownership of your learning now rather than blaming others?
 
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  • #17
Dr. Courtney said:
Stop whining. It is not uncommon for physics courses to get ahead of the material in the calculus courses, especially in cases where they start the first physics course the first semester the first year of college.

The alternative is to wait until the second semester to let you take the first physics course. This solves the prerequisite discomfort, but then one only has 7 semesters for all the physics courses in a 4 year degree. The way the prereqs in the physics courses themselves stack up, it's harder to get all the good courses into be prepared for the GRE and graduate school in a timely way. Research opportunities also tend to be delayed at schools where you can't take the first physics course for physics majors until the second semester.

Suck it up. Physics is hard. You're going to need to learn to handle it. Why not start taking ownership of your learning now rather than blaming others?

Look, I understand what you're saying, but I'm really just a panicked student asking for advice. I don't think it's necessary to be harsh.

As an example of the way I'm feeling, if you look at the homework solution I posted - I've been through it many times, so if that question had come up on the mid-term I would've been fine because I would've remembered what the integral was and what to plug where.

Still though, I feel like I have no idea why an integral is needed or even what is going on at all in the solution. I just remember what to plug in where and that's it. That's kind of why I'm really concerned. I feel like even if I had good grades, I still don't understand anything and all I'm doing is just memorizing solutions.
 
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  • #18
Dr. Courtney said:
Stop whining. It is not uncommon for physics courses to get ahead of the material in the calculus courses, especially in cases where they start the first physics course the first semester the first year of college.

True. However, generally speaking this happens if two courses are running concurrently; introducing the concept of integrals in a physics course seems really weird. To me this either suggests that the teacher either does not really know what his students have covered in previous courses or that he belongs to the category of people who thinks that "this must be obvious".

I understand the reluctance to criticize teacher on the forum; the vast majority of teachers are actually pretty good and at least try. However, it is also true that there are people who work in academia who have no real interest in teaching (but are required to teach) and who -in some cases- have really strange ideas about how to teach. Most of the time you will encounter these people in more specialized courses (graduate level) but if one of them is told to teach an introductory course things can go badly. If the person in question is someone with a quite a lot of influence (say a full professor in a small department) it can be even worse.

I had a couple of bad experiences myself when I was an undergraduate student. One of the less-than-great lecturers is someone I ended up collaborating with a number of years later; let's just say he wasn't' any better at explaining things to colleagues...
 
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  • #19
Dr. Courtney said:
Suck it up. Physics is hard. You're going to need to learn to handle it. Why not start taking ownership of your learning now rather than blaming others?

That might be tenable if the education was free. But, I assume the university is charging significant tuition fees and that changes everything. Certainly that philosophy wouldn't wash in any other service industry.
 
  • #20
f95toli said:
To me this either suggests that the teacher either does not really know what his students have covered in previous courses or that he belongs to the category of people who thinks that "this must be obvious".

To be fair to the physics professor, I don't think it's reasonable to imagine that a student who has spent around twenty weeks taking two courses called "Calculus" has not seen an elementary integral. I don't know what they are doing in Calculus class, but it's manifestly not teaching calculus!

Also, what is he to do? Does he water down his class to match the watering down of calculus?
 
  • #21
@LuigiAM : Are you able to paste the official course description on here?

If your class is using the Serway text as you have stated, then I would guess that the course ASSUMES that you do already know basic calculus, which means using derivative and integrals. So these are the prerequisites for the class, AND, the professor isn't responsible to teach these techniques to the students teaching the class since they should already know how to deal with such mathematics.

So is your complaint here that he's presenting the physics using the mathematics that you don't quite know, but is required for the class, or that he's not teaching the physics? These are two separate issues. The professor can't be faulted for whizzing through the mathematics that you should already know, and know well. This includes an insight into what the "integral" means. If you are having issues with understanding the physics concepts, then have you seen him during his office hours and sought help one-on-one from him?

Zz.
 
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  • #22
PeroK said:
That might be tenable if the education was free. But, I assume the university is charging significant tuition fees and that changes everything. Certainly that philosophy wouldn't wash in any other service industry.

I see you are laboring under the delusion that students are the customers in higher education. Progress is impossible until you free yourself from that misconception. The student is the value added product. Future employers are the customers. Start by saying out loud ten times:

I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS
I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS
I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS
I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS
I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS
I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS
I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS
I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS
I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS
I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS

As education systems move toward business models of operation, there is a strong tendency to misidentify the student as the customer. Misidentifying the student as the customer leads to interpretation of the course credit or degree as the product. The true product is the additional knowledge, skill, and ability that course credit and degree should represent. Consequences are potentially disastrous, because the notion that "the customer is always right" can lead to the perceived product (course credit or degree) meeting the desires of the misidentified "customer" (student) rather than the real product (value added to student) meeting the standards of the properly identified customers (future employers and taxpayers).

See:
https://arxiv.org/ftp/physics/papers/0612/0612117.pdf
 
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  • #23
LuigiAM said:
Hi guys.

I would like to ask for a very general piece of advice.

Last semester I had my first introduction course, mechanics. The course was extremely hard, but I managed to get an A. I was one of only 4 students in a class of 108 who got A. I'm not sure how I did it considering that I came out of that class with the feeling that I understood absolutely nothing. I just memorized formulas. And I went through the practice problems so many times that I basically memorized the teacher's solutions. And in the exam, since the questions were from the practice problems, I just recopied the teacher's solution that was hardwired in my memory.

This semester it's electricity and magnetism.

It's the same thing. I feel like I understand absolutely nothing.

I know that power is P = dw/dt = vdq/dt / VI / I2R / V2/R. But I have absolutely zero intuition about what it means.

Last week on the mid term we had a problem that involved power, and we were given the potential difference and the resistance. I just recited the formula from memory and got the right answer.

The professor emailed us the results yesterday. I got 24/30 on the mid-term, which is not that bad considering the class average was 8/30. I would have had 30/30 if it wasn't for a stupid brain fart that cost me a question worth 6 points that I knew the answer to, but that in a panic I just forgot.

Yet I still feel like I have absolutely no idea what is going on. But I feel like a class average of 8/30 is absolutely insane. Last semester in Mechanics (same teacher), the class average after the final exam was D+. 41 students out of 108 failed the class. It was the same story in general chemistry 1 where over one third of the class failed.

There was a question on the mid term exam about Gauss's law. I have no idea what Gauss's law is. No idea at all. But I still answered correctly because I memorized the formulas. I have no idea what any of it means, but I just write down the variables and apply the formulas I memorized, and bang here I have the answer.

The teacher we have is a theoretical physicist. He spends all class time writing mathematical proofs on the board. I understand absolutely nothing of it. A lot of it involves integrals. Integral calculus is not a prerequisite for the two physics classes (although differential calculus is a prerequisite, just not integral). Even though this semester I am taking integral calculus, I still don't understand what the teacher is doing because he is doing things like integrals to infinity, multiple integrals, or multivariable calculus, which is way beyond the level of the class I'm taking. I have no idea what any of the proofs mean. But he gives us a lot of practice problems with the solutions, and I just memorize those.

I feel that all I can do is memorize the formulas and memorize the solutions to the practice problems he's giving us.

The teacher himself told us in the first week of class in january that we shouldn't expect to "understand" anything in the course. He said something like, paraphrased, "if you want to understand, read a book." Just like that. He said there was not enough class time to help us understand the material.

I mean, in 4 weeks of class (with 2 hours per week, that is 8 hours of class) we finished the electricity portion of the course and we are ready to start magnetism. We did coulomb's law, capacity, electric potential energy, current, Kirchoff's laws, etc... all of that in 4 classes.

The truth is, I'm really pretty scared. I want to go into software engineering next semester. So far my grades are more than good enough to get in. But I'm just afraid that at some point I'm not going to be able to just get good grades by memorizing formulas without having any idea what they mean or how to derive them. It just feels like it's going to catch up to me one day and at that I'm going to be completely lost in more advanced classes.

Does anyone have any advice for me?

What I really want is to be able to know what the class material is about without having to just blankly memorize formulas.

Another class I'm taking this semester is linear algebra. I'm doing pretty well so far. Ask me for the adjoint of a matrix and it takes me a few minutes to compute the cofactor matrix and do a transpose. Or multiplying matrices, or using gaussian elimination. All this stuff I can do very easily. But ask me to prove something and I'm completely lost. Ask me why something works and the truth is that I have absolutely no clue.

Is this normal at our level to have to do this? I mean, is this supposed to be like learning a language where you just memorize things until one day you wake up and you realize that it all makes sense? In other words, is it normal at my level that I'm just memorizing everything without having any idea what I'm doing?

Or am I heading right into a disaster?

I really wish I had an actual understanding of what I'm doing instead of just memorizing things. Honestly, what I really want is to feel like I know what I'm doing. But I just have no idea if I'm even supposed to at this point.

Does anyone have any advice? I would really appreciate it.

Sorry for this extremely long rambling topic.
If it's a question of what an integral means,. I suggest you get a copy of a very old book, Mathematician's Delight, by Sawyer. It's has chapters explaining what various elementary mathematics subjects are about. Most of it is grade school stuff, but it does get into calculus. It won't teach you how to evaluate all those integrals, but it will tell you what an integral means.
 
  • #24
Vanadium 50 said:
To be fair to the physics professor, I don't think it's reasonable to imagine that a student who has spent around twenty weeks taking two courses called "Calculus" has not seen an elementary integral. I don't know what they are doing in Calculus class, but it's manifestly not teaching calculus!

Also, what is he to do? Does he water down his class to match the watering down of calculus?

True, this would suggest that something had gone wrong even before the course had started.
However, if I was teaching a course and the students told me that I was using math they had never seen before I would certainly do something about it; at the very least talk to whoever taught them calculus to make sure I had a good understanding of what they are supposed to know. If there is problem the university should be expected to do something about it.

When I had a somewhat similar problem the math department organized some extra support for us (a couple of extra lectures etc) to make sure we were introduced to the concepts the "problematic" lecturer had decided not to cover. That said, in my case it was at least clear from the prerequisites (and the curriculum for the problematic course) what we were supposed to know, whereas in this case there seems to be some disconnect between what was advertised as a prerequisite and the math that is actually used.
 
  • #25
Dr. Courtney said:
I see you are laboring under the delusion that students are the customers in higher education. Progress is impossible until you free yourself from that misconception. The student is the value added product. Future employers are the customers. Start by saying out loud ten times:

I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS
I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS
I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS
I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS
I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS
I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS
I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS
I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS
I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS
I AM NOT THE CUSTOMER IN MY PHYSICS CLASS

As education systems move toward business models of operation, there is a strong tendency to misidentify the student as the customer. Misidentifying the student as the customer leads to interpretation of the course credit or degree as the product. The true product is the additional knowledge, skill, and ability that course credit and degree should represent. Consequences are potentially disastrous, because the notion that "the customer is always right" can lead to the perceived product (course credit or degree) meeting the desires of the misidentified "customer" (student) rather than the real product (value added to student) meeting the standards of the properly identified customers (future employers and taxpayers).

See:
https://arxiv.org/ftp/physics/papers/0612/0612117.pdf

There's no delusion. Whoever parts freely with their money for goods or services is the customer, by definition.

In particular, inasmuch as a contract exists between a university and a student, it is clearly (legally) not a contract between an unspecified future employer and the university. That notion is entirely fantasy on your part.

The subtler question, as it is in cases like health care as well, is what is the appropriate customer-supplier relationship in each case.

You say "the customer is always right", which almost never applies. The truth is that balancing the needs of customers and suppliers is a delicate and complex issue in most service industries.

Education in that respect is no different. There is certainly no 'the supplier is always right" in education.
 
  • #26
Yes, memorizing and regurgitating the professor's problem and solutions is the best first approach. Every example the prof did, I did three times from memory. This worked for every technical class. I had a stack of sheets with the problem set up, one for each quiz, midterm, and final. Did every one the hour before the exams. I got straight A's and was the first one done. It all made sense after the following semesters next course in the sequence. You're doing great. Keep up the good work.
 
  • #28
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  • #29
<Moderator's note: I removed personal data in this image. The relevant facts remain visible.>

ZapperZ said:
What is the syllabus for the physics class that is the subject of your posts?

Zz.

We don't have an electronic copy so I had to take a picture (sorry for the quality)

The syllabus is different for every teacher in the physics department unlike in math where there is one unified syllabus for all sections regardless of the teacher.

The first chapter of the syllabus talks about review of vectors, but that part was skipped and we started at chapter 2 (since the review of vectors was done in mechanics)

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  • #30
That still doesn't say much. I've taught a similar class for Life Science majors that looks like that description, but without any need for calculus.

Is there any place where the prerequisites for the class are listed?

Zz.
 
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  • #31
ZapperZ said:
That still doesn't say much. I've taught a similar class for Life Science majors that looks like that description, but without any need for calculus.

Is there any place where the prerequisites for the class are listed?

Zz.

Well the prerequisites are listed on this site:

http://www.concordia.ca/academics/undergraduate/calendar/current/sec31/31-230.html

For electricity and magnetism it says this:

PHYS 205 Electricity and Magnetism (3 credits)
Prerequisite: MATH 203; PHYS 204 or equivalent. Electrical charge and Coulomb’s law. Electrical field and potential. Capacity, steady state, and transient currents. Electromagnetic induction and alternating currents. Lectures only.

Like I posted before, Math 203 has no integrals
 
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  • #32
LuigiAM said:
Well the prerequisites are listed on this site:

http://www.concordia.ca/academics/undergraduate/calendar/current/sec31/31-230.html

For electricity and magnetism it says this:

PHYS 205 Electricity and Magnetism (3 credits)
Prerequisite: MATH 203; PHYS 204 or equivalent. Electrical charge and Coulomb’s law. Electrical field and potential. Capacity, steady state, and transient currents. Electromagnetic induction and alternating currents. Lectures only.

Like I posted before, Math 203 has no integrals

Did you have to use calculus and integral (such as in finding work done or using area under a curve) in PHYS 204?

Zz.
 
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  • #33
ZapperZ said:
Did you have to use calculus and integral (such as in finding work done or using area under a curve) in PHYS 204?

Zz.

Some explanations were made using integrals, for example with gravitational potential energy. But the exam didn't ask for proofs using integrals, so it was possible to get through the course without knowing integrals and just memorizing the equations.

We didn't mention area under a curve in phys 204. As for work done, I just memorized FxDxcos(theta) so you could find most answers using that formula
 
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  • #34
LuigiAM said:
Some explanations were made using integrals, for example with gravitational potential energy. But the exam didn't ask for proofs using integrals, so it was possible to get through the course without knowing integrals and just memorizing the equations.

We didn't mention area under a curve in phys 204. As for work done, I just memorized FxDxcos(theta) so you could find most answers using that formula

So then it WAS assumed that you know what the mathematics of "integration" is even in that course.

To be clear, when using Gauss's law, ALL of the situation that you encounter will have high-symmetry confugurations. This means that the Gaussian surface that you construct will result in having a constant electric flux, or a zero electric flux. You don't actually have to do any mathematical integration, because the E-field with either be a constant across a surface, or the dot product of the E field with the area vector is zero (perpendicular). I'd be surprised if you actually have to perform an actual mathematical operation of integration in this topic. So this is very similar to what you encountered in your earlier physics class.

Zz.
 
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  • #35
ZapperZ said:
So then it WAS assumed that you know what the mathematics of "integration" is even in that course.

To be clear, when using Gauss's law, ALL of the situation that you encounter will have high-symmetry confugurations. This means that the Gaussian surface that you construct will result in having a constant electric flux, or a zero electric flux. You don't actually have to do any mathematical integration, because the E-field with either be a constant across a surface, or the dot product of the E field with the area vector is zero (perpendicular). I'd be surprised if you actually have to perform an actual mathematical operation of integration in this topic. So this is very similar to what you encountered in your earlier physics class.

Zz.

Yes, the teacher assumed in Phys 204 that we knew integration. There were some example questions that we were given that required the student to perform integration but it was never given in a homework or an exam.

I didn't really understand Gauss's law much, but the way the question was done you just needed to know about the surface of the conductor. I didn't really understand when the teacher did the proof of Gauss's law but I'm not even sure if I needed to understand it to be honest
 
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