Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Courses Is it recommended to take an algebra-based physics course before

  1. Jul 24, 2011 #1
    ...moving onto calculus-based physics?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 24, 2011 #2
    It depends. How strong are you in calculus? How much physics background do you have?

    An algebra-based physics course won't teach you much (if any) of the math that you'll use in calc-based, but it can be really useful for learning the foundational physics concepts, especially if you don't have any prior physics experience. For my part, I took two semesters of algebra-based physics at my CC while finishing up the calc sequence, and then moved into calc-based physics at the university to which I transferred. I found it extremely useful to have gotten a really good grasp on the conceptual basics in the algebra-based course before learning the more advanced math parts of physics. I was able to relate the math I was learning to the concepts I'd already been introduced to, rather than learning both simultaneously (even though I'm strong in math and probably would have done fine), and I think my basic physics education was much deeper as a result.

    That said, it's not for everyone, and it will also depend on what/how the instructor presents, your style of learning, whether it's financially feasible for you to take both, etc., etc.

    Clear as mud, right? I hope that's at least quasi-helpful. :smile:
  4. Jul 25, 2011 #3
    Well, I'm trying to teach myself Calculus at the moment using Morris Kline's 'An Intuitive and Physical Approach' and the KhanAcademy videos, but things are going pretty slow because everytime I come across something I can't grasp intuitively or fully understand, I stop everything and just think about it for days or weeks until I finally get it (bad habit, right?) and then I can move on.

    I've only worked through the prescribed Yr 11 textbook and found it extremely easy. I had a look at the Yr 12 books, and it was pretty much more of the same (with some new concepts). I think the (simple) physics comes to me more easily than the math

    I probably should have added more detail about my situation, I'm in Yr 11 right now (should be in college really, lol), next year I'm going have to take Yr 12 physics (algebra based) whether I like it or not. I'm just wondering whether it'd be a good idea to work through a calculus-based text on my own before learning the extra algebra-based stuff.

    Thanks for replying
  5. Aug 2, 2011 #4
    If you're going to have to take algebra-based physics regardless, then I'd recommend focusing on that first. Learn the calculus and the conceptual physics, and then they'll mesh together nicely in the calc-based course. Make sure you have a good understanding of calculus prior to taking calc-based physics.

    You mentioned that you seem to have a good start on the conceptual end of physics, and that's fantastic. Any knowledge that you gain now will only help you later on. I'd caution, however, that physics can't be learned entirely from textbooks. If you've never had a formal physics course, with labs, then you're in for a real treat. I think you'll find that the hands-on experience will add greater depth to the concepts you've already begun to learn through books.

    A side note: If you're even remotely considering a major/career in anything even slightly technical, then be sure to learn good experimental and documenting skills right away. Discipline yourself to keep a detailed, clean record of all methods and results in a lab notebook. These skills will be invaluable throughout your career, both academic and professional.

    Are you planning/required to take a calculus course? If not, then make sure you get to know some people who know calculus (either other students who've done well, or teachers, or, ideally, both), so you have resources when you get stuck. Also, I've found that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to others. You might form a study group with friends that are also learning calculus and then take turns explaining a problem or concept to the group, or you might spend some time tutoring. This applies to any subject, BTW, not just calculus.

    Finally, it isn't necessarily bad to spend large quantities of time thinking about some problem or concept until you get it. Some of us learn better by microanalyzing everything within our own brains. That's how Einstein got special relativity, after all. :) Just be sure that you're devoting adequate time to all of your courses & other responsibilities, and don't fall behind. You might find that you have to set some interesting question aside for a while, or ask someone else to help you, just so you can finish the homework on time (or prepare for the exam, or ...).
  6. Aug 2, 2011 #5
    My first physics class ever was Calc-based Mechanics. Most Universities make sure you've taken Calc I before taking that sort of class. I think you should be fine as long as you feel you understand the basic gist of calculus. And to be honest, they don't use much calculus in those types of "calc-based" classes. They just show you derivations and you use a specific example of those derivations for the rest of the topic.
  7. Aug 2, 2011 #6
    No its essentially the same class but using different tools. If you know calculus then it should be actually easier for you since calculus is a much better tool to describe the physics then some algebraic one that is derived from the calculus to fit only a specific condition.

    No point in learning the same material twice with only slight changes. Most intro physics classes rarely use any calculus when doing any actual problems.
  8. Aug 2, 2011 #7
    Yeah, he'll be in for a real treat with his first labs, alright...
    What? No, they don't.
  9. Aug 2, 2011 #8


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    I don't know about most, but I've seen some undergraduate programs in the US, where, if there is a three-semester Calculus sequence and a two or three-semester Physics sequence, students would be required to take these classes in this order:

    Freshman Year, Fall Sem.: Calculus 1
    Freshman Year, Spring Sem.: Calculus 2, Physics 1
    Sophomore Year, Fall Sem.: Calculus 3, Physics 2
    Sophomore Year, Spring Sem.: additional math course, Physics 3 (if it exists)
  10. Aug 3, 2011 #9
    What university lets you take Calc-based mechanics without calc I as a prereq? I mean you can go ahead and sign up for it, but why would you want to if you didnt fulfill calc I (assuming you have no knowledge of calculus what-so-ever).
  11. Aug 3, 2011 #10
    Yes, this is how my University operates.
  12. Aug 3, 2011 #11
    I don't dispute "some".
  13. Aug 9, 2011 #12
    Yes, the math class I'm taking next year contains content equivalent to Calculus 1 (what is considered Calc 1 here)

    I agree 100%

    The things I put on halt usually have to do with the concept that I don't fully understand. I don't feel comfortable using something if I don't know where it came from or how it works.

    Thank you for the advice

    I think that applies to my university as well, the minimum requirement is a class that has a some calculus in it
  14. Aug 9, 2011 #13
    I took an algebra-based physics course prior to starting the calc.-based physics sequence, and my feelings regarding it are mixed. On the one hand, exposure to the techniques needed for solving mechanics problems is useful, but one the other hand an algebra based course cannot go in depth into the reasoning behind the techniques so it often seems as if the formulas are handed down "from God" without explanation.

    In an ideal world, I would say that a student should probably have completed and have a good understanding of calculus up to and including multivariate calculus before starting the physics sequence. The reason for this is that it is much easier to learn physics when the math involved is transparent (or at least easily understood); the most common issue I've encountered with the students I've tutored is that they can't get past the math to see the actual physics - missing the forest for the trees, so to speak.

    However, given that it's unreasonable to ask a physics student to take a year and a half of math before beginning their physics course work, taking a low level physics course where the math is intentionally kept simple may make it easier to see the physics behind the math when the math starts to get harder. Just be aware that any such course is necessarily limited, and don't expect to be able to see the reasoning behind the formulas.
  15. Aug 9, 2011 #14


    User Avatar
    Homework Helper

    You'd be surprised. Some schools do have the sequence as your university, but some other schools set it up so you take Calculus 1 and Physics 1 simultaneously:

    Freshman Year, Fall Sem.: Calculus 1, Physics 1
    Freshman Year, Spring Sem.: Calculus 2, Physics 2
    Sophomore Year, Fall Sem.: Calculus 3, and Physics 3 if it exists

    It all depends on the school. OP should go by the policies of his/her school.
  16. Aug 9, 2011 #15
    My school is like that as well. Calc 1 is a co-requisite for physics 1. Calc 2 is a co-requisite for physics 2. In my first "calculus based" physics class, physics 1, we didn't use much calculus at all. Just some derivatives here and there and a little integration. You don't "need" take algebra based first, but I found it extremely helpful and my classmates who hadn't taken algebra based physics struggled a lot more.
  17. Aug 9, 2011 #16
    Calculus Based Physics was the first physics course I took and I did fine. You should be fine.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook