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How to study Physics (and math)?

  1. Nov 2, 2009 #1
    I am in my 3rd year undergrad. I just changed my major to Physics. I spent my whole first two years doing Chemistry after really enjoying the subject in high school, but after the 2-3 classes I took and the many ACS seminars I attended, I just found out that it wasn't for me. I honestly began finding it boring. And Organic was super lame. I had no idea what I wanted to do career-wise within Chem anyway. So I finally sat down and reevaluated my interests and really decided on what I would like to do. I remembered I had always loved astronomy. I remember reading books by Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman when I was 14 and loving those. But my downfall, I've never been a strong math person. So it never actually occurred to me to even attempt to enter those fields. But I realized it's really interesting to me, and maybe if I like something that much it will be enough to work on my weaknesses. So I am now in calculus-based introductory Physics along with calc 1.. and my "not being a strong math person" is being very obvious at the moment. I always reach this point where I kiiind of get it, but then I kind of don't. And I have always been one of those people who is naturally good at history and english and never having to study for anything.. And now i've come to a point where this is completely different and I guess I'm not sure how to proceed. I have straight C's right now which is obviously undesirable, but it's not just the grades I am concerned about. I genuinely love the subjects and want to reach that level of understanding. I've always heard such things like "some people just aren't cut out for the math" and as much as I don't want to believe in that, it's really hitting me hard right now. I really feel like it is my passion to get involved in Physics.. I don't want to believe that I'm just simply not capable of grasping the material. So I suppose I should actually present a point here. I have no idea how to escape my black hole of a 15 year habit of not studying for anything.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 2, 2009 #2
    Hey sigthror. The difference is, I think as you have found out, that studying mathematics and physics is completely different than most subjects. In some subjects, most people can get by with just memorizing some facts and being able to work from there, and a lot of the studying includes just reading. You can't just read math and physics. You have to do math and physics. I recommend this: when going through your texts, just don't read them, but have a notebook to fill in the details or work out the computations the book does on your own. Don't just take it for granted. It is very easy to watch someone do math or physics, but it is something else to be able to do it on your own.

    The other difference is that there isn't a set amount of material that you can learn and you'll be golden. Yes there are certain equations, definitions, theorems, etc. that you can memorize and know, but that won't be enough. You need to practice as many problems as you can. The more the better. There is no direct method to problem solving, and you just need to build up an arsenal of techniques. I remember getting into my physics I course, and at first I was lazily doing the homework and nothing else. The first quiz and exam came, and I did not do well. From then on, I worked every single homework problem, went to the professor's office, and actually read the textbook without skipping passages and seemingly unimportant discussions. Then when it came exam time, I worked every single homework problem again. I remember for the final, I holed up in my dorm room working every single problem we had done that semester in the homework and on the exams. By the time I finished, I had probably an inch stack of paper that had the problems worked out. Some advice is to not just do scratch work. Work practice problems completely and neatly without skipping steps, that way you can look back at them and understand what you did. This process worked very well for me on a subject I initially had struggles with.

    It is also good sometimes to have secondary references. For instance, https://www.amazon.com/Calculus-Lif...sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1257194311&sr=8-1". When you are stuck, go to your professor's office and don't be afraid to ask questions. This is a key ingredient to learning math and physics, which is to talk to others. Plus, professors are very interesting people and you can develop a good mentorship/friendship this way. I was constantly in my calculus I/II professor's office, and we still correspond by e-mail to this day (and I'm in graduate school). I'm not a huge group person, but if you get in with a good group, this can be of some help. Especially if you get together to just sit down and compute a lot of problems.

    These are things I, and others, struggle with, even after 5-6 years of doing it, so don't feel like you are alone. Don't think others are just getting the material without any work. This is very often an illusion, and it's not uncommon for good students to sort of downplay or hide their study habits. Many students do this, naturally, because it adds some mysteriousness to how smart they are, but those students doing well are putting large amounts of effort into their work and practice helpful study methods, which contribute to their success.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 24, 2017
  4. Nov 2, 2009 #3


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    What is your mathematical development, your background, you own mathematical development history? What kind of scientific knowledge have you specifically, including your chemistry courses? Tell us these things and we might know what practical to tell you.
  5. Nov 2, 2009 #4
    n!kofeyn, thank you for your comment. It was very insightful and I definitely have a lot to reflect upon right now. This part stuck out to me the most though:

    I don't consider myself to be shy or withdrawn, but I do keep to myself. I really do not talk to others at all if I don't have to. In fact, I am having big problems in my Physics class right now because of this. They are implementing this "scale-up" thing to replace the traditional lecture where we are broken down into small groups and basically solve problems in groups the whole class. This isn't sitting well with me at all. Not only am I not comfortable working in a group to begin with, but there is always that one guy who knows it all and solves everything before you even get to think about it yourself. And I think you said it too, you can watch someone do something and understand it, but doing it yourself is a different game. I definitely could do the office hours thing. I have never been to office hours before, for any class. Just never felt the need to. I'm not being prideful about asking for help at all, I just simply am again, quiet to the point that I am uncomfortable having to put myself in a situation where I have to ask someone something.
  6. Nov 2, 2009 #5
    i know this doesnt answer your question, but how was organic 1 ands 2 lame? im taking orgo 1 and 2 in the summer. ive ehard so many different things about. all the chem teachers say its memorization, this girl i know whos taking it said its very conceptual.
  7. Nov 2, 2009 #6
    I finished precalculus by junior year of high school, so when it came to taking the placement test my freshman year of college I had forgotten all the basics and place into developmental algebra. I could have just studied a bit and retaken the placement test, but I also back then knew I wasn't the best math student and figured if I'm entering a math-centered field, it would probably be good to rebuild a solid foundation. So I took all the classes from college Algebra up until now when I am in Calculus 1. For Chemistry, I took general lecture and lab my first year, and then two semesters of Organic chem. I am taking Introductory Physics right now. I guess it would be good to be completely honest. Besides all the general education classes my first two years and the easier science courses (algebra, precalc, gen chem, gen bio, all of which I pretty much got straight A's in), I have pretty much maintained a B or C in all the 'beyond basics' classes. (I know for chem it was a matter of apathy. I began a strong dislike for it, didn't care to put effort into anything). In the past I basically have only done the absolute minimum to get by with a 'decent' grade. But now with more motivation and new insight into what I want to do I obviously want to change this mentality.
  8. Nov 2, 2009 #7
    I understand your apprehension with the small groups thing. I don't think that is a great environment to learn in because it only works for certain types of learners. It's a shame most universities and professors don't take this into account. This just means you will have to work harder though and prepare ahead of time, so that you have had time to let things sink in. I am myself a very slow and quiet worker, and if I am not given the chance to figure it out myself, then those situations do me no good. The know-it-alls are often annoying, but the fun thing is when the test rolls around you are given the chance to outshine them.

    However, positives can be found in these situations. For one, they build confidence. If you work hard and prepare yourself, you will find that you are more comfortable working in front of people. It just takes time. Definitely try to work on problems, and if you get stuck where you haven't made any progress in a couple of days, then go to your professor. If the professor isn't helpful, then at least you have made the effort. Plus, I can say with a lot of confidence that if the professor is worth anything, they will notice the effort you make in going to their office hour. This is appreciated heavily by both professors and teaching assistants. Just know that everyone had to learn what you are learning at some point, so there is no need to feel embarrassed about asking questions. I know it's hard, but you have to force yourself.
  9. Nov 2, 2009 #8
    I would agree with the girl. There is a lot of memorization, but that mentality will fail you. The biggest piece is understanding and application. In fact, it's kind of ironic. Everybody says Organic is the easiest Chemistry because it's the only one that doesn't require any math, but the class itself in a way IS a math class. It's all about understanding and finding patterns. Every problem is different. While you do need to memorize certain rules and patterns like in anything else, you will never see the same exact problem on a test as you did in your homework. You will never see the same exact mechanism over again. So the key is doing problems over and over again until you can develop your own sense of patterns and predictions and getting yourself comfortable with the type of problems so there are no surprises. I did pretty well in the class, but I just said it's lame because of the tediousness. To me it was just one of those ones where if you really hate the class and find it boring, it's going to be a rough semester finding motivation to care to study. The whole last chapter of Orgo 1 is learning mechanisms and I found out I really hated it. Then come to find out, oh joy! Orgo 2 is ENTIRELY mechanisms. Awesome.
  10. Nov 2, 2009 #9
    My University recently implemented a 'Physics Learning Center' which is a big room with lots of tables and chairs, some computers, a huge whiteboard, and some reference books. There is always a professor or graduate student taking a shift every couple of hours, so it is a great open place to go to ask question without me having to feel that awkwardness. It has been a great start for me, I definitely feel like I am in a better place than the first weeks of this semester. However, I do still want to attempt to go to the actual office hours of my Professor. I don't know if this makes any sense, but sometimes I do attempt a problem, can't figure it out, so I want help, yet I begin to think of what I am actually going to ask and I can't think of anything which is why I haven't done so yet. I just feel like there's no point in asking for help if you don't first understand yourself what it is you are trying to get answered.
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