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Failing Physics Midterm

  1. Nov 14, 2013 #1
    Hi Guys,

    I need some advice/help. I am a undergrad at Columbia University, and am in my first semester, with an intended major of Astrophysics. I had my first midterm a month ago, where I got a decent 80%, and my homework grades were pretty consistently around that grade too.

    I go to Lectures and the Office hours, I even goto the TAs Office hours, and average roughly 10hours a week per physics problem set. And I did study for my 2nd Physics midterm and thought I understood most of the materials pretty OK when I went to do my 2nd Physics midterm.

    Which was why I'm in shock that the score of the 2nd midterm is around 50%, because it came out of the blue. I actually did not think that the midterm was that hard either -- difficult but do-able. So I'm not even sure what I did wrong.

    Has anybody else ever experience something like this ?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 14, 2013 #2
    I have. Sometimes a test will just not go your way. You have to embrace it as a learning experience and let it be a guide for improvement. You can still ace the final.

    I can give many examples from my personal experience. However, one that might interest you in particular is an intro quantum physics class I took last semester. I got a 45 on the midterm. This was well below average. I was devastated. In particular because I thought I understood the material pretty well. I busted my *** and ended scoring one question shy of a perfect score on the final which earned me an A+ in the class.

    Note, I'm not saying 'Don't worry. Everything will be alright.' I'm saying, if you do it right, you can learn from this and do fine in the course. Figure out what went wrong and master that material.

    Good luck!
  4. Nov 14, 2013 #3
    I have. But worse. I got 80% in the mid-term and then *blam* 50% in the real exam. I think my problem was complacency, so by getting 50% you will not have that! Just bust your *** and you'll be fine, especially as you now know that *** busting is necessary! (I made it back to sensible scores the following year...)

    Ask yourself if "thought I understood most of the materials pretty OK" is really good enough. Maybe it was good enough for high school, but you are in big boy school now. You need to know all the material like the back of your hand, not just "good enough". Did you only do the problem sheets? That's not enough. Did you look at any past exam papers? I just read how Atiyah & Polkinghorne got to 1st and 2nd Wrangler spots at Cambridge. They spent the weekends face to face in the library going through all past exam papers between opening and closing of the library, until they could answer all the questions as easily as shelling peas. That's the kind of thing you need to be doing.
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2013
  5. Nov 14, 2013 #4

    Vanadium 50

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    The scariest thing you wrote was "I'm not even sure what I did wrong." You need to find out.

    Do you have the test back? If not, can you get a copy?
  6. Nov 14, 2013 #5


    Staff: Mentor

    You definitely need to see the prof and find out. As hard as it may seem you need find out if the prof or TA could have mixed up your grade with someone else's paper or if pages were missing... or was the test usually hard where everyone did poorly...

    Then if these aren't the case then find out what problems you got wrong and why.

    Try to determine if your errors are conceptual, simple math errors maybe even the same type of error or if you used the wrong units... ie characterize your error. My brother always did his math problems right but would consistently make a mistake in his checks, doubt his answer and would then go back and readjust it only to now get it marked wrong. Once he saw what was happening his confidence came back and he did well.

    I once took a computer graphics course and was doing well in it until the prof came up and said we don't have any of your homework. I told him I emailed in every assignment and it turned out the TA for some undisclosed reason didn't realize I was in the class. This happened a week before finals.

    And in another instance with another prof, I got a bad grade for a working program and when I asked him about he apologized and said he hadn't actually run it because he thought I was working with some other student whose program didn't work. He based his assumption on the way we named our variables. They were Noun1, Verb2 ... a convention used in our AI book. I made sure never to take a course with him again.
  7. Nov 14, 2013 #6
    Argh, I read through my midterm answers, and I made algebraic mistakes very early on in the question, and because they are all multi-part questions, they all turn out wrong. For example, on one of them, I forgot to multiply g to the Normal Force, not because I didn't know ( because I did just that in a separate question) but because I forgot to!! And then every single subsequent question which relies on this, turns out wrong.

    And then there was one where, I think in the blind panic of an exam, I calculated wrongly the centre of an equilateral triangle. But because it's a multi-part question on the centre-of-mass, all the answers were subsequently wrong.

    Do you guys have any advice on this ???
  8. Nov 14, 2013 #7


    Staff: Mentor

    Point out your error to the prof and ask politely if there's anything that can be salvaged ie partial credit or something. If you were explicit enough in your steps and logic showing that you really did know the material he might allow it.

    As others here have mentioned, now that you know what it was. You can now fix it by prepping for the final, getting a good-nights sleep in the days leading up to the final and then being real careful as you navigate the questions, writing clear and legibly and always checking your results.
  9. Nov 14, 2013 #8
    Do you know what the class average was?

    I had a similar case where I had consistent grades early on but bombed the second midterm, but apparently so did everyone else.
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