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Courses How do you deal with upper undergrad level courses?

  1. Apr 1, 2010 #1


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    I just started the 3rd year of a "licenciatura" which lasts 5 years. The first 2 years covered the basics of physics (except optics), numerical analysis, linear algebra, the calculus sequence (up to vector calculus) and complex analysis.
    We're still around 20 or 30 people in the class, while there are only around 4 people that graduate each year. I start to believe that this 3rd year is a total cut off year. The Classical Mechanics class, although tough, doesn't seem to be the class that get most people out of the degree. Instead, Electromagnetism seems a beast. The exercises are very mathematical (I think many of them are taken out from Jackson's book) and the course is almost incomprehensible for me at least.
    We've a LOT of assignments compared to the previous years and the exercises are much harder. I'm not spending a single day without trying to solve an exercise nor without reading my class notes, but even like that I feel I'd need 5 times more time in order to be able to keep the track. I'm already behind in Optics and Electromagnetism and probably in Classical mechanics. The lab reports (1 each week) eats a lot of time... It's very hard.
    In the EM class, maybe more than half the class is a re-taker. I'm a bit scared I won't make it through. I'm very interested in all the classes, but I think my brain cannot learn THAT fast. 3 months for electrostatics + classical mechanics+optics + complex analysis (yeah I still have to take the final exam of this course). On the other hand I feel I'm learning "real" physics and that each problem is a gem because I'm learning a lot from them. So I'm not losing any interest in physics (it's even growing. I think about physics at any hour of my life now!).
    I'm almost sure this happened to anyone that earned a Bachelor's degree. How do you deal with such a giant step of increasing difficulty of the courses? Study a lot? Having a lot of confidence in yourself?
    I'm not sure this post has a point, it's maybe just my desperation. My 2 parents are more than 10 000 km away from me and I only have a girlfriend to "push" me. No one else. I want to survive this!

    P.S.: I'm considering to run maybe 15 minutes twice a week since I currently do nothing else than walking a lot. I hope physical exercise can do a favor to my brain.
    Thanks for any support/share of experience / advice / etc.
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  3. Apr 11, 2010 #2


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    Any comments?
    I've an electromagnetism test on next Friday. I feel I'm hitting a wall and I don't see how I can avoid getting a 0/10. I can't do the problems on my own, they require a huge mathematical knowledge and expertise I don't have and I'm spending hours trying to see how I could start a single problem, without any success (literally).
    I have only 1 friend taking this course but he doesn't like to study in group so he isn't an option to support me.
    How can I overcome this situation?
  4. Apr 11, 2010 #3
    It sounds like it might be time to try making some new friends. Just start asking people if they want to meet to study some of this stuff. Pick someone who seems to know what they're talking about :smile:. Try TAs and office hours too.

    Having people to study with was definitely very important to me in school.
  5. Apr 11, 2010 #4
    You do it the same way you tackled the easier courses, just study till you get it just that now it is harder. How to make it through? Get the mindset that you will get through, then study as much as it takes. It is as much psychological as it is actual performance, you do not study well if you think that you will flunk no matter what you do.
  6. Apr 11, 2010 #5


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    I definitely have no affinity with all the other guys in my class. While this friend I know, we've been in the same "team" for lab reports since I've started university. But he isn't an option as I said.

    Sounds nice. It seems I've lost some confidence in myself indeed. Unlike with the easier courses, most of the time I don't have an idea about how to start a problem.
    The professor has a page where we can see the solutions to a few exercises. Even reading through them I don't get it. They look like a paper to me and even if the tests were those exercises, I wouldn't do well at all in them because the math is extremely harder than what I know.
  7. Apr 13, 2010 #6
    Hi there

    I know exactly what you mean, I study in the UK and got my BSc in Physics, EMT and GR was quite tough for me but I ended up doing okay because I liked found the maths for them quite aesthetically pleasing.

    However, coming onto graduate level course (on my arbitrary scale, difficulty in physics rise n! each year from 1st year of college) it is a big huge leap, I am taking exam in Quantum Electrodynamics, Quantum Field Theory, supersymmetry etc.
    There is absolutely no easy way out with advanced level courses, it took people ages to come up with these things and it would take ages to understand and master them, I suggest
    1. Get on either redbull, coffee or any caffeine of your choice
    2. Get a nice study spot that you can stay that without feeling miserable.

    Good luck
  8. Apr 13, 2010 #7
    Like others have said, lots of red bull.

    About not knowing how to start problems, the best solution to that is to have a lot of books on the subject. Some of the best students I know just either have a good library of their own, or check out all the books at the library on the particular subject they are studying that semester. I mean, it took the brightest minds in physics years to figure it out on their own, granted we have more available to us today, but yeah, references are a must in my opinion. Of course you'll always get that one professor that pulls problems out of nowhere that just leave you thinking what the... & yeah, we all struggle with those I think.

    I have no one to push me, I do it for the love of physics. Though I usually don't feel the love too much for the upper level math courses...
  9. Apr 13, 2010 #8


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    Thanks, much appreciated.
    Out of curiosity, are you in a Master or Doctorate program?
    Second question (English is not my mother tongue), what do you mean by "study spot"? A place favourable to studies?
  10. Apr 13, 2010 #9


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    My EM course is extremely hard because we didn't learn the math required for the course. I know it's up to me to investigate all the math needed, but this is really a lot of hours I should spend to understand a bit more. Next semester we're taking the required math course for the course we're now taking. Last semester we were dealing with Resnick-Halliday for most of the intro to E&M course. Now the book is Jackson's one. I find there's a huge step between those 2 books.

    By the way, in your opinion, is it better to study late all nights or getting a longer sleep? I take a lot of time to sleep despite I go to bed not that late. I might sleep 5 hours a day and yes, I'm (sometime extremely) tired during the day.

    I'll have a look into maths books.
  11. Apr 15, 2010 #10
    1. I am on Master program
    2. Study spot, yes, a place favourable to studies, anywhere that you feel comfortable enough to study without too much distractions but at the same time not too comfortable that you fall asleep, this could be a quiet cafe or some spot in library or at home.
    Years ago I was a member at this sports club, I could just go there in the morning, study till I get stuck then go for a swim, too bad I don't have that sort of luxury now.

    I haven't given you very useful advice on how to manage a "quantum leap" (literally for me actually)
    There are 3 stages that you need to identify yourself with a subject

    Stage 1. You look at a problem and you have absolutely no more clue than a monkey would

    Stage 2. You look at a problem and you have a clue, you know where to start and what tricks to try to solve

    Stage 3. You look at a probem and you "see the solution"

    Going from stage 1 to stage 2 is the most crucial bit, I suggest, as said by the others, read through different sources until you have much better picture and work through the details of the derivation. Richard Feynman use to say "What I can not create, I do not understand" (legend is its written on his blackboard upon time of his death)

    Once you are on stage 2, its just some details, perhaps you need some new maths tricks to solve it, this is the stage you can use some appendix for some formulaes or wikipedia, mathsworld for all these little equations to fill in the gap. Perhaps try solving easier problem first or similar problems that are shown in books, a lot of these books have "solved problem" try working through them and you might figure out where you went wrong with your own solution.

    Once you are on stage 3, there's nothing to worry about
  12. Apr 17, 2010 #11
    I've never been in a situation like you but if you don't understand your professors notes or book then try something else. Not everything speaks to everyone in the same way.

    Get a couple books and scour the web. Somebody's words will speak to you and help you understand the concepts that much easier.

    Also relax a bit when you are studying. Stress ain't good for anything.
  13. Apr 17, 2010 #12


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    There are lots of good ideas in this thread. Your idea of keeping up with exercise is an excellent use of your time - it helps so much in dealing with stress.

    One thing that I did wrong when I was at the stage you're at: I didn't sleep enough. I thought my time would be better spent solving problems, and I was very, very wrong. Once you get sleep deprived it's very hard to think creatively. So be sure to get enough sleep.

    Hang in there and good luck!
  14. Apr 17, 2010 #13
    I am in a similar situation than you, I'm also taking a Jackson-based electrodynamics course in my 4th semester as an undergrad. What helped me was getting a few other books from the library and working though the problems with my friends. Also my Mathematical Methods for Physicists course was tremendously helpful for getting used to the math part. I also found that some of the other electrodynamics textbooks were much more helpful with teaching the math than Jackson.

    I don't know if it is helpful to you if I recommend textbooks because I am a native German speaker and the books I have are in German. My favorite one is the one by Greiner (Walter Greiner, Classical Electrodynamics), which according to amazon has an English translation availabe but accoring to the reviews it's not very good :( But if you can find it at the library I would still check it out.

    Also I would still trying to ask around with your classmates and see how they do it. I can't imagine they are all doing it on their own. I don't think I would do well in any of my classes if I didn't have my group of friends I study with, it makes a tremedous difference to me. Maybe you'd get lucky and find some people you can work well with, or you'll find at least some helpful materials to learn from.

    Good luck!
  15. Apr 17, 2010 #14


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    I thank you all. Yes, very nice advices. I'll check out Greiner's book. At this point, anything could be only good.
    I indeed got destroyed in the E&M test, I left the class like 3 times and re entered it (before the test started) because my friend was convincing me to stay and take the test. I think I shouldn't have entered.
  16. Apr 17, 2010 #15
    You should exercise a bit more. Start with the twice a week 15 minutes running (or whatever is consistent with your current fitness level), but then slowly increase that to 5 times a week, 20 minutes running. You will then sleep and eat a lot more (without getting fat), which means that you'll have a lot more energy when studying.
  17. Apr 17, 2010 #16


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    Nice idea. Will do.
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