Learning Nothing from my E&M Course

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Summary:: Griffiths' Electrodynamics Text is Worthless for Teaching

It seems like Griffiths just makes things up as he goes along. There's no reasoning. Sometimes he does things one way, sometimes another. Solutions are never really explained, whether I look up homework solutions online or not. Overall, Electrodynamics is shaping up to be the most meaningless physics class I've taken so far. It's mostly guessing, using pre-existing solutions, or just looking up the solution and working backwards. No wonder this class has a massive curve. I'm coming away from this course with the impression that E&M and Maxwell's Equations are kind of useless and uninteresting.
 

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  • #2
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In any event try a different book. Reading more than one treatment of a given topic can help.
I learned from Jackson but there are many choices. Reitz and Milford?
 
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  • #3
jtbell
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Or maybe the Feynman Lectures, Vol. 2? Not so much for problem solving as for conceptual insights.
 
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  • #4
kuruman
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I had a related undergraduate experience. The instructor would come to class, open the book (Reitz and Milford) and read aloud. When the 50 minutes were over, he would close the book and leave. Next "lecture" he would start where he left off. Needless to say the entire class was upset. So 5-6 of us formed a study group and after each class we met for 2-3 hours and went over the book explaining to each other what the book meant when it said what and providing all the in-between steps in derivations. A study group worked well in my case and may work in your case also. The perspective of others is invaluable. I learned despite my professor, perhaps you can learn despite the textbook.

By the way, my very first teaching assignment as a starting assistant professor was E&M out of the same textbook. I am happy to say that I used my undergraduate professor as a role model: if I learned anything from him, it was how not to teach E&M.
 
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  • #5
symbolipoint
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I had a related undergraduate experience. The instructor would come to class, open the book (Reitz and Milford) and read aloud. When the 50 minutes were over, he would close the book and leave. Next "lecture" he would start where he left off. Needless to say the entire class was upset. So 5-6 of us formed a study group and after each class we met for 2-3 hours and went over the book explaining to each other what the book meant when it said what and providing all the in-between steps in derivations. A study group worked well in my case and may work in your case also. The perspective of others is invaluable. I learned despite my professor, perhaps you can learn despite the textbook.

By the way, my very first teaching assignment as a starting assistant professor was E&M out of the same textbook. I am happy to say that I used my undergraduate professor as a role model: if I learned anything from him, it was how not to teach E&M.
Just I'm curious more about your study group - Did your study group stay stuck on any detail of a topic and then one of you asked your professor for assistance or clarification?
 
  • #6
ZapperZ
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I thought Griffith is one of the better undergraduate E&M texts around. He actually explained things and presented the math more in-depth than most books at that level.

My E&M classes were "life-changing" because of the instructor. He always showed us a consistent starting point for each topic, and meticulously showed specific examples. His solutions, often many pages long, were full of side-notes explaining HOW and WHY he approached the problem in such a way.

My teaching philosophy right now is heavily influenced by him and how he taught me E&M. The 2 semesters that I had my class with him were the most difficult and also the most illuminating period of my undergraduate years.

Zz.
 
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  • #7
kuruman
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Just I'm curious more about your study group - Did your study group stay stuck on any detail of a topic and then one of you asked your professor for assistance or clarification?
Frankly, I don't remember what happened when we got stuck - it was more than 50 years ago. I do remember taking turns writing equations on the board while the rest looked critically on and offered suggestions. It did not occur to us to go to the professor for assistance or clarification. If all he could do is read out of the book, we could do that on our own and help each other along the way.
 
  • #8
kuruman
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I thought Griffith is one of the better undergraduate E&M texts around. He actually explained things and presented the math more in-depth than most books at that level.
I like Griffith for his down-to-earth explanations. What I cannot stomach is the curly-r vector that only he (as far as I can tell) uses instead of the traditional ##\vec r - \vec r'|## that sets source and field coordinates apart.
 
  • #9
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Let me see if I get this straight. The problem is the textbook, used in thousands of classes, and somehow the professors all failed to notice that the problem was the textbook. Further, even though you've known since at least December 13th that the problem was the textbook, you took no steps since then - such as buying a different textbook, which would improve things if the problem was the textbook. Do I understand your point?
 
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  • #10
Joshy
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It's okay if it's not the right book for you (maybe not a bad book). I personally started with Young's and Freedman's in my lower division physics class. It had a lot of examples and illustration to help me.

I really like a book that is more concentrated for electrical engineers (distributed elements, transmission lines and Smith charts), but its later chapters have excellent coverage on Fields and I frequently revisit the book to brush on fundamentals- I feel very comfortable with Maxwell's equations and became an RF Engineer. It's Fundamentals of Electromagnetism by Ulaby.
 
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  • #12
vela
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Based on your question in another thread, I have to wonder if you're perhaps in over your head, taking courses you're not adequately prepared for. Griffiths, in my opinion, is a very good textbook, but it would be a disaster to use it to teach E&M to most intro-physics students. What is your educational background?
 
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  • #13
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Based on your question in another thread, I have to wonder if you're perhaps in over your head, taking courses you're not adequately prepared for.
@Blakely42, in your introduction, you mentioned taking 300-level physics courses. Assuming you have already taken the prerequisite physics courses, how well did you do in those classes and in the calculus courses that are the usual prerequisites? I taught college mathematics for about 20 years, and have found that many students who were struggling at a particular level didn't do well at some previous level.
What is your educational background?
This is important information.
 
  • #14
StatGuy2000
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Let me see if I get this straight. The problem is the textbook, used in thousands of classes, and somehow the professors all failed to notice that the problem was the textbook. Further, even though you've known since at least December 13th that the problem was the textbook, you took no steps since then - such as buying a different textbook, which would improve things if the problem was the textbook. Do I understand your point?
The OP didn't say that he didn't buy a new textbook (assuming he can afford it), just that he find Griffith to be a bad textbook (at least to the OP, if not to others). From the OP's introductory post on PF, the OP is really struggling to understanding E&M more generally, and struggling with physics courses in general. Due, I suspect, to being a non-traditional student.
 
  • #15
StatGuy2000
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@Blakely42, in your introduction, you mentioned taking 300-level physics courses. Assuming you have already taken the prerequisite physics courses, how well did you do in those classes and in the calculus courses that are the usual prerequisites? I taught college mathematics for about 20 years, and have found that many students who were struggling at a particular level didn't do well at some previous level.
This is important information.
The OP's personal introduction says the following:

"I am a non-traditional student in my late 20s who returned to college and chose a physics degree specifically to challenge myself in an area I've never excelled in. As a result, I struggle quite a lot to understand physics and math, but I've worked extra hard and gone to office hours often. "

My interpretation above is that the OP is returning to university without the best backgrounds in math.

@Blakely42 , am I correct? What did you do before returning to college/university?
 
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  • #16
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or just looking up the solution and working backwards.
So your claim is that when you cheat you don't learn? Why do you find that surprising?
 
  • #17
StatGuy2000
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So your claim is that when you cheat you don't learn? Why do you find that surprising?
@Vanadium 50, that is frankly an unfair charge to the OP. Looking up the solution and working backwards can be a useful way to learn how to solve problems, especially if you are learning a topic for the first time and want to check to see where you are making mistakes in your reasoning.

I've done this numerous times when learning new topics in math during my undergrad, and it's proven helpful for me. The fact that it isn't working for the OP could be due to inadequate preparation before enrolling in E&M.
 
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  • #18
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Asking for a hint, or looking at the next step and working from there is a better idea in my opinion. Looking up a solution and working backwards may help you learn how to solve that particular style of problem. But I think it hurts your ability to do maths or physics in the long run. It's fine to check your answer, but looking up all the steps robs you of the learning the ability to persist and work through tough problems on your own or with little guidance.
 
  • #19
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I think I am being entirely fair. The only technique that he describes on how to do the problems other than writing down solutions he found online is guessing. (I certainly admire his chutzpah in complaining about the quality of solutions he found online, though!)

Furthermore, he claimed in December about the book. Did he have the gumption to buy another book? Nope. Did he ask us about alternatives? Nope. Has he even responsed to this thread? Nope. These are not the actions (well, inactions) of someone putting in his full effort.

Furtherfurthermore, in this thread he's complaining that the HH's aren't doing enough of the work for him.

And yes, once you know how to do a problem, looking at other solutions can be very valuable in gaining insight. But using this as your primary strategy is like trying to gain strength by going to the gym and watching other people work out.
 
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  • #20
StatGuy2000
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Asking for a hint, or looking at the next step and working from there is a better idea in my opinion. Looking up a solution and working backwards may help you learn how to solve that particular style of problem. But I think it hurts your ability to do maths or physics in the long run. It's fine to check your answer, but looking up all the steps robs you of the learning the ability to persist and work through tough problems on your own or with little guidance.
That's a fair point. I personally think the first step in learning to work through problems in math (and also physics, or any other quantitative fields) is to first attempt to work through the problems on your own and follow the chain of reasoning.

At the same time, it is not unexpected when learning topics for the first time to become stuck in a chain of reasoning that may be unhelpful. Under those circumstances, looking at how solutions have been derived by others (whether through working with other students, asking for hints, looking at the next step, or looking at solutions to select problems and working backwards) can be useful, as a means of learning where your own reasoning failed. It's in that step --- learning where your own reasoning failed -- which I think can be a valuable step.

Where I think both of us agree on is that looking up a solution as a first step is not helpful.

Hopefully that clarifies my views.
 
  • #21
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At my university we are introduced to Griffiths in the second year, after an introductory course out of Serway. I found it to be one of the more enjoyable texts to work out of. Theres a reason it's the standard E&M text. If you're struggling, it's likely due to being unprepared and/or poor study habits. It cant just be the textbook, it never is.
 
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  • #22
Dr. Courtney
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One thing I learned in college was that half of my professors were below average.

But it was still my job to learn the material and earn the good grades I needed to get into grad school.
 
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  • #23
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Reading more than one treatment of a given topic can help.
Reading more than one treatment should be the norm for every topic.
 

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