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Difficulty of upper level physics

  1. Apr 19, 2009 #1
    I am physics major and just started taking my upper level physics course at the beginning of the fall semester. Obviously, the jump in difficulty from freshmen level physics is quite large, as I expected. However, on exams, many of the questions expect us to conjure up clever manipulations, or apply a basic concept to a question that is very "out of the box". My concern is that I am not sure how I can prepare myself for something like this. I've been reading the textbook, reviewing my notes, and reviewing our homework problems, but I am at a loss to figure out how to prepare myself for questions that are really out of the box. I can usually pull off a decent score on the exams (B/A-), but I would like to do better. Has anyone had similar experiences, or can anyone shed light on what I can do to improve?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 20, 2009 #2
    Good question, I've been asking this of many of my professors and not getting much of an answer out of them (in both physics and math). So I'm interested in hearing what more experienced people have to say on this as well.
  4. Apr 20, 2009 #3
    Well i'm a math major with a physics minor.. (almost done with my 3rd year), and I know what you mean. Often, I'm trying to prove some theorem, and it just takes some really slick trick.

    The answer that I get from asking professors is... experience. You just have to have the experience to be able to look at something and know the correct things to try.
  5. Apr 20, 2009 #4
    You really just need to know your fundamentals. Life will always give you way out of the box problems and most of the time no text book or class notes are going to help you. Being able to fully comprehend how nature behaves in the scope of the problem is really the only way to tackle problems like this.
  6. Apr 20, 2009 #5
    Forget about reviewing/reading your notes and counting that as studying. Do that for 30 minutes and move on.

    The trick to doing well in upper-division physics is to do problems. Lots of them. Go through your textbook, and look at each problem. If you don't think you would be able to that exact same problem if it were on the exam, then solve it and figure out the tricks. Repeat. Go through all the relevant chapters until you are fairly certain that you can solve most of the problems in there. There's only a limited number of problem variations that your professor can put on the test, so chances are you will have stumbled upon most of the tricks needed for the exam--or at least, exposed yourself to material that will make it more likely that you can figure out how to apply them when the time comes.
  7. Apr 21, 2009 #6


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    My 2 cents.... I would also advise looking into many of the video lectures available in the science and learning materials section. I found some videos very helpful in preparing for some challenging courses. I think simply another view on the topic from the video narrator or professor can shed a different light on the same topic.
  8. Apr 21, 2009 #7
    The above posters definitely have excellent advice. As far as where to find problems of appropriate difficulty, what I usually do to study for tests is search google for tests posted online from other schools, and do those. Another good source of problems is Schaum's outlines, though your mileage may vary on those.
  9. Apr 21, 2009 #8


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    Staff: Mentor

    And you can increase the chances that you'll see all of them, by looking at some other textbooks besides the official one for your course. This where your university's library comes in handy.
  10. Apr 22, 2009 #9
    Yep. Worth repeating.
  11. Apr 25, 2009 #10
    Thanks for all the tips. Does anyone know of a good textbook with challenging problems for Intermediate E&M? The one we are using in my class is "Introduction to Electrodynamics" 3rd ed. by Griffiths. I looked at the problems in the book, and they don't seem to be hard enough. Does anyone have any other suggestion?
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