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I am failing my undergraduate physics degree

  1. Dec 12, 2015 #1

    qmd

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    Hello,

    I am currently in a pretty terrible situation and I need some advice how I can get out of this mess.

    I graduated from high school 2009 and after a gap year I began studying business. I didn't like it at all so I quit after two semesters. At the time I was reading a lot of popular science books about physics and enjoyed them a lot. I decided to give physics a go. I was aware of the fact that I had always been mediocre at math and I didn't have much of a science education (the most advanced physics I had ever taken was Coordinated Science II in 10th grade) but I was really motivated to learn.

    I went into the first semester unprepared and it was a disaster. Everything was way too difficult for me. In mathematical methods we were talking about linear independence while I was still trying to figure out what a vector is (I had AP Calculus AB in my final year and no linear algebra). In classical mechanics everyone else was already getting bored by newtonian mechanics while I was struggling to solve even the most elementary mechanics problems. In math, listening to our lecturer talk about convergent and divergent series was so confusing that I nearly cried in one lecture because I felt so out of place. I stopped going to lectures and just decided to do some self studying. It took me a few months to catch up but I managed to learn a lot of basic mathematics during that time. The second semester was equally bad. Basically all the course built on the previous semester and all I had been doing is catching up to the basics I needed for the first semester. Bottom line, I failed my two first semesters passing zero courses.

    I basically "restarted" in my third semester by taking first semester courses. I am now in my fifth semester taking third semester courses. I have passed all required mathematics courses but I am still struggling a lot with physics.

    Here are few problems I have "identified":

    1) I tend to procrastinate a lot when it comes to learning theory. I don't really have a problem doing exercises and problems for hours but reading textbooks is extremely difficult for me. I usually get distracted after 15 mins of reading. I start doing laundry, playing guitar, checking youtube or facebook.

    2) I am a slow learner. I take forever to learn new material which makes having more than four courses per semester impossible. I just don't have enough time to learn all the material and do the problem sheets.

    3) I am bad at solving problems. This is perhaps the biggest problem I have. I don't think I have solved more than a dozen physics problems without some sort of help. I need to present solutions on the blackboard three times a week and since I am scared of making mistakes I usually look up the solutions online or I try to piece a solution together from other similar solutions. I don't trust my own calculations at all.

    Is there any way I can fix these problems?

    At the rate I am studying and considering I didn't complete any course in my first two semesters, I might be able to finish my BSc degree in 9 semesters (assuming I can fix the problems I mentioned above). Is this going to come back and haunt me if I want to apply for a graduate/MSc degree? Furthermore, I am going to be 25/26 when completing my BSc. Am I too old already?

    Is there any general advice you can give me that might help me succeed in getting my undergrad degree?

    English isn't my mother tongue so I apologize for any grammar or spelling mistakes.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 12, 2015 #2

    Student100

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    Maybe it wold be a good idea to change majors again? If problem solving hasn't clicked by now, it might not ever.

    That doesn't mean you have to get out science though, chemistry, biology, geology, premed, would all benefit from what you've already done in physics, and maybe they would click with your brain.
     
  4. Dec 12, 2015 #3

    symbolipoint

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    You did not say much about your academic path. Did you skip all the necessary preparation through college or university courses, or did you do the needed courses and still found yourself doing badly? If you skipped Algebra 1,2, College Algebra, Trigonometry, Calculus 1 & 2, then who allowed you to skip them? What other science courses did you study in college or university included for your preparation to study the Physics sequence for science & engineering students? The business courses themselves would not be important for Physics. Your high school preparation, whatever it was, is not adequate for starting the beginning Physics sequence in college or university.
     
  5. Dec 12, 2015 #4

    qmd

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    @symbolipoint Well there wasn't a lot of preparation. I did 7 AP's in my final two years of high school. AP Macro-/Microeconomics, AP Calc AB, AP Biology, AP English Language, AP German Language, AP European History. I didn't take any physics courses because the subject didn't appeal to me back then. The last "physics" class I had was Coordinated Science II in 10th grade. I think almost every german university (including mine) offers a four week prep-course for physics but I didn't know about it back then. However, I am not sure a four week prep-course could have fixed my math and physics knowledge.

    I didn't skip any classes. I completed pre-Algebra, Algebra I+II, Trigonometry, Pre-Calculus and Calculus 1. I didn't have Calculus 2 and I didn't have any Linear Algebra class.

    @Student100 I really, really don't want to change majors. I enjoy doing physics a lot. It is by far the most interesting subject I have ever done. If I quit now, I would problably hate myself for the rest of my life for doing so.
     
  6. Dec 12, 2015 #5

    Student100

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    I thought you got bored reading theory, that is 90% of physics schooling. What interests you about physics?
     
  7. Dec 12, 2015 #6
    I thought physics courses in university at the freshman level assume no previous knowledge of physics?
     
  8. Dec 12, 2015 #7

    Student100

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    He was referring to the math preparation.
     
  9. Dec 12, 2015 #8

    qmd

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    @Dishsoap Officially, a physics course at a german university requires no previous knowledge. However, most of my lecturers and tutors assumed 12th grade german high school physics knowledge. Most students, especially in Bavaria, already cover newtonian mechanics, waves, oscillators, electromagnetic fields and really basic nuclear physics during their last two years in high school. It might not be as mathematically "advanced" as a first and second year university course but at least they already know the basics.

    @Student100 I didn't say I get bored when I read physics, I said that I get easily distracted. What I find fascinating about physics is that you can predict how things will behave given some pretty basic initial conditions. It's like being some sort of magician that can see into the future.
     
  10. Dec 12, 2015 #9

    Student100

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    I don't see how you can separate getting distracted and getting bored. When I'm bored with an activity I activity look for distractions. They go hand and hand. If physics is that interesting, texts on the subject should be able to hold your attention longer than 15 minutes.

    If you don't want to change majors here's the advice I can come up with:

    Grab your book and head out of the house. Go the park, a beach, the library, wherever you can separate yourself from the distractions you have at home.

    That's fine, I don't see a problem with only doing 4 courses a semester.

    This is by far the worst problem you have, and one that will likely be the hardest to overcome. First, stop looking up solutions, by doing this you're robbing yourself the chance of making mistakes. Mistakes are how you learn, when you present problems in class and make a mistake, you get the benefit of immediate feedback and discussion. If you aren't making errors, then it's likely you professor won't know until the test that you're struggling with something. Second, it robs you of the joy of actually solving the problem on your own- and the boost in confidence that comes with it. That's why you don't trust your own calculations, because you've never actually come up with any! Struggling with problems is something we've all done, and is an important component to actually learning physics. Stop derailing your own education.

    The forum here has a homework help section, you can post problems you're struggling with here. No one is going to spoon feed you answers, however.

    Honestly, I still feel like if you're so easily distracted a change in major might benefit you. You can be a mediocre physics major, or possibly an excellent something else. Maybe engineering or the other sciences, or even applied physics, would be more in line with your interests. I don't know. If you're dead set on physics, start working on the things you've identified.
     
  11. Dec 12, 2015 #10

    qmd

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    @Student100 Thank you for your reply.

    I will try implementing that. I am currently working on a problem set and I will try not to look at the solutions. However, I don't get the "immediate feedback and discussion" from my tutor as you put it. We (about 15 students and 1 tutor) meet every week for two hours to "discuss" the solutions to the problem set. Every week he randomly selects a couple of students that have to do a problem on the board. Minor errors are no problem but major errors are marked as "incomplete". If you get two "incomplete" you are not allowed to take part in the final exam. I guess this is part of the reason why I always look up the solution because I want to make sure I don't get an "incomplete".

    All I can say is that I am enjoying it now and I want to finish my BSc. I can still decide after I finish my BSc if I want to continue doing pure physics or if I want to do something else.

    Thanks for the hint. I think I am going to be using this a lot.
     
  12. Dec 12, 2015 #11

    Student100

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    That's an interesting system they have, I don't believe I've ever heard of that before. I can see your desperation to verify you have things correct before hand.

    Work the problems on your own then look up the solutions or post here for guided advice.

    You can't keep coping others solutions though.
     
  13. Dec 12, 2015 #12

    symbolipoint

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    qmd,
    A big part of learning Physics is problem-solving. This requires some mathematical sophistication that does not always come as a result of just the required Mathematics course sequence to reach semester-one university Physics. Some problem solve ability is developed through other courses, such as in Chemistry, but Physics being a separate subject (although with some overlap) requires the student to BOTH learn the Physics concepts, AND apply analytical thinking to/with the mathematical skills. The mathematics, algebra and related skilled thinking, must become like a language.

    Maybe you will get better and you are just struggling in the transition to improvement. Only you can determine what your real weak spots are. Identify those and fix them. Are you allowed to repeat courses, or are you allowed to enroll in courses which you didn't in fact yet take; courses which are prerequisites for Physics but which your system allowed to skip because of high school credits?
     
  14. Dec 13, 2015 #13

    qmd

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    I know I can't keep copying solutions. It has become a habit that is really hard to stop. I think doing the problems on my own and then looking for help/verification on this forum might be the best option available to me at the moment.

    Yes. I can basically repeat courses/exams as many times as I like. The only exception are oral exams. I can repeat them once.

    I am not exactly sure what you mean. Do you mean courses that I should have taken in high school?
     
  15. Dec 13, 2015 #14

    Vanadium 50

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    Doing your own solution, checking here to see if it's right, discovering you made an error early, getting a hint on how to fix it, redoing it, checking again, and so on and so on until it's done is only slightly better than copying the solution. You've replaced relying on a solutions manual with relying on us. You need to use help sparingly.
     
  16. Dec 13, 2015 #15

    qmd

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    @Vanadium 50

    Yeah good point. It is just such a s*** situation at the moment. Completely relying on my own solutions is very likely going to lead to me not being able to take part in the final exam. Maybe I should try to do as many practice problems during my spring break.

    How long did it take you to trust your own calculations? How many practice problems were you doing outside of the assigned problem sets? How long did it take you to be able to reliably solve physics problems without help?
     
  17. Dec 13, 2015 #16

    Vanadium 50

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    I'm afraid there's no answer other than "it takes as long as it takes". (Just like "how long does it take to play guitar?" Or "how long until I am a good dancer?") What I can say with certainty is that the later you start, the later you'll finish, and there will always be reasons to rely on other people's solutions "for just a little longer".
     
  18. Dec 13, 2015 #17

    micromass

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    I don't think I ever solved many problems with help. I always tried to figure it out myself, since I was in high school and before. Sometimes I was embarrassingly wrong though, that happens.
     
  19. Dec 13, 2015 #18

    qmd

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    I know you are right. I guess I just have to get over the "ego"-problems of being labeled a total idiot for making a ton of mistakes on the board and I have to get over the fact that I might not be able to take part in the final exam.

    It pains me to read something like that. I am angry at myself for cheating myself for so long. I wish I could just rewind time a few years and work on solving problems by myself like you did. I guess I just have to deal with it now.

    Is my BSc degree going to be worth "less" because I needed 9 months to complete it? Are there any future problems associated with taking that long?
     
    Last edited: Dec 13, 2015
  20. Dec 13, 2015 #19

    symbolipoint

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    Yes I mean, at least that.
    Are you allowed to enroll in the courses you NEED for understanding Physics, regardless of if you had "qualifying" courses in high school. If you had Basic and College Algebra and Trigonometry and Calculus 1 & 2 in high school, but you do not in fact have the knowledge AND SKILLS from those courses, you would need to study them again IN COLLEGE to make your qualifications real again. Pre-requisite course credit is absolutely not the same as pre-requisite course competence.
     
  21. Dec 14, 2015 #20

    qmd

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    @symbolipoint

    We don't have college here in Germany. You go to university right after high school. All of the courses necessary for university are taught in 11th an 12th grade so there is no chance for me to go back and red-do some of the courses.
     
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