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Testing Failed an (actually) easy exam, need study advice

  1. Mar 25, 2016 #1
    I've recently failed my first physics exam at a German university and would like to ask for some advice here.
    I understood 90% of the course content and was able to solve most of the problems, but in the exam, I was often confused and obviously too slow. I ran out of time just as I started doing one of the last three problems. After the test I reflected on some of the problems and realised some of the answers I provided were wrong. I now see the exam was actually quite doable, which I find frustrating.

    Now, my grade was just a little below the passing grade, which makes me think I should pass the retest (six months from now), but if I fail the exam again, I get kicked out of the physics course and can't study the subject at any other German university ever again. This would be terrible, because I'm really enjoying physics.

    It'd be great if somebody could give me tips on how to study and improve my problem-solving skills. I usually manage the problem sets, because I have one week to solve them and so I have time to think and rethink my solution, find mistakes, try new ways, etc. But solving a bunch of problems in two hours was nothing like that...

    Also, should I focus on building a large repertoire of solved problems ? I realised that, with some problems which sounded familiar, I almost instantly knew what I had to do, whereas with others I read the question over and over and was simply stuck.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 25, 2016 #2
    I'm pretty bad at timed exams too. The advice given to me was by a professor a few years ago so I'll share it with you ( it has helped me improve).

    In addition to your homework problems you need to spend time solving additional problems. You will start to improve your techniques and you might even figure out short cuts that keeps the correct physics/math but makes the problem doable in a shorter amount of time. The way to build that intuition is by solving a lot of problems. Start from some basic ones that test your understanding of the concept then climb up to the difficult ones ( sometimes they are only difficult because of a lot of tedious math or that you do not understand the concept enough to figure out what the question is asking).

    Find a good textbook that you are comfortable with or ask your professor for suggested books to use, in addition to your course book, and spend time solving problems. Ask for help when you are stuck, but otherwise keep going. It actually gets fun once you pick up momentum.
  4. Mar 25, 2016 #3
    When you get confused during the exam, that means you don't understand the material well enough to be confident in yourself.

    When you take too much time, it shows you don't have the rigor when solving the problems. Understanding the equations is one thing. Solving the problem by doing the math without mistakes and hesitation is another.

    Solving problems is very important. But don't forget about understanding equations, where they come from and their intuitive, or not so intuitive, consequences.

    It is hard to give concrete advice. Your brain is your brain, and we don't know the exact subject.
    I can't tell from your story if why you are doing is working overall, but failed just once, or what you are doing is wrong and should be changed.

    Also, if you go to bed early and if you do sports, statistics say that on average your grades will improve. Some studies claim up to 0.5 point (out of 10).

    You can't memorize problems. You have to master the material enough to understand the novel nature of the problem.
    Usually an exam will include stock general problems, exactly the same as you have seen many times during the course, and some that require some intuition or understanding of the nature of the problems and the math involved, to solve.
  5. Mar 25, 2016 #4
    Thanks bluechic92, that with finding shortcuts makes a lot of sense. When I started the course, for instance, I was often solving for single variables in multi-step problems, doing the computation between the steps and wasting time with it. Later on, I quit the computations and started substituting variables with whole equations until I got to the final step and finally inserted the numbers. It's something ridiculously simple I wish I'd known before.
    And yes, it sometimes sucks to be stuck, but I have a lot of fun solving problems!

    I fully agree with your first remarks, I still haven't acquired enough rigor and intuition. I see the way these have developed over the past months, but I also realise I sometimes fail to see things (patterns, clues) which some of my more experienced classmates recognise much more quickly. I think (and hope) this is indeed something that comes with experience, isn't it?
    I've been out of school for ten years and had had pretty much no formal instruction in physics before last semester. I got into university and sort of crammed the maths (algebra, trig and some calculus) needed to start the course (which consisted of largely algebra-based mechanics and thermodynamics) in about 1-2 months. I also need to major in two subjects to get the degree I'm aiming at, meaning I wasn't doing physics only. Needless to say, I was a bit overwhelmed. Now I see I should've taken things more slowly and will no doubt attend few lectures next semester. Passing the retest is all that matters now.
    I've heard that about sport, but I find it hard to exercise regularly when I'm extremely busy. In such times, sport feels like a waste of time for me (like you're running and thinking you could be reading this, studying that...). I know it isn't, I need to change my mindset about that.
  6. Mar 25, 2016 #5
    It reduces stress. If you are stressed, you can't think as effectively. Maybe that's why it shows up in the statistics that way. Also, if you are running, you can actually think about the subject while you are doing it.

    Do you really need to study during all the free time you have? Feeling less busy is probably very important in going into an exam comfortably and getting a good mark.

    If you have the wrong background, that will be different. I also don't get how if you fail one exam twice, you are done for for life. You are in Europe. If German uni's really refuse to take you, go to Denmark, Netherlands or UK.
    Last edited: Mar 25, 2016
  7. Mar 25, 2016 #6
    Indeed, I don't think I should be studying all the time, but I must admit that's something I only recently "found out". I used to be a classical musician (my first major) and in this field you must either be very lucky or be an exceptionally interesting performer to have a career. Since you're not responsible for the former, you try to work on the latter and make yourself competitive enough. In my weekly schedule it was common for me to play the piano almost everyday for seven hours a day, study two or three languages, attend rehearsals and singing lessons whilst also having to work to (barely) pay my bills. Of course this kind of life is one of the reasons I quit being a musician in the first place, even though I was already starting my career. I already managed to quit, but I'm still working to stop feeling guilty about having free time...

    I find that the German university system is full of issues you don't find in other European countries and that's one of them. Some universities and some courses have different rules, but the standard is that you can take the exam twice. Fail again and you get an oral exam, if you pass, you get the worst passing grade, regardless of how good you did. If you fail, forget about the course or even related ones, because you actually fail the one subject. For instance, fail calculus 1 and you can't start another course whose subjects include calculus 1 (I don't know how strictly controlled this is, though). When you register at a university you have to sign a document saying you've never previously failed the course for good at another German university. Many medicine students have to continue their courses abroad because of this rule.
  8. Mar 25, 2016 #7


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    More practice will certainly help. You'll learn how to solve some problems, but you'll also learn how to approach new problems better.
    You can also see if you can help with some homework problems here at physicsforums, and learn yourself and help others at the same time. I learned a lot by helping others here.
    That looks like a university-specific rule.

    And there are not so many courses that you absolutely need. With the diploma system there were just one or two, I don't know how many exactly it is now with BSc/MSc.
  9. Mar 25, 2016 #8
    The way I understood from a German professor I had during my bachelors the German education is similar to the Belgian one.
    What I saw (and experienced myself) is that the first year is the hardest in terms of preparing and getting a feel for how well you can do.
    Especially the first exams have this problem.

    I think you'll do better the second time around for two reasons, first you now have an idea of the way the exam will be put together. The second reason is that you'll study the material for a second time, repeating stuff is crucial.

    Another advantage is that you'll know more math and have more feeling with the way physics is done.
    Finally you can ask professors if they can recommend additional problems for practicing and getting a deeper understanding. Generally they will be happy to help you as a lot of them enjoy interacting with students. (Who wouldn't enjoy talking about their passion, and ultimately that's an important part of being a physicist.)

    My advise is to keep up the good work, try to do some extra exercises when possible but don't neglect your well-being i.e. don't sacrifice a good nights sleep or social activities you need those to unwind, relax.
  10. Mar 26, 2016 #9
    Thank you all for your time and advice. I have been thinking a lot about everything that has been said here (it actually feels like a week has passed after my original post). I feel much more confident about what to do next and how. I highly appreciate your support!

    That's also a great tip, I do feel that I either understand things better when I explain them to someone or I realise I don't know them that well when I try to do so. Today I tried to solve a past problem in different ways and found out I understood the relationship between the variables better after that. I suppose trying to see a problem from another person's current perspective and help them find their way around it should have a similar effect.
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