Need Advice on studying in my first University Physics class

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I am a 26-year-old nontraditional student in college, and I am struggling heavily with my University Physics class.

Although I have never taken a Physics course before in my life, since my major is Math I thought this introductory-level class wouldn't be that bad. It is.

I do read the textbook and go to office hours. I go to the tutoring center when I need to. My homework assignments are scored at 100%, but on our first midterm this week I earned a 73% (68% before the curve, class average was 61% before the curve).

I guess I didn't understand the material like I thought I did. I'm not used to this, since I have had all A's in my math classes (College Algebra up to Multivariable Calculus).

Sometimes I feel like I get it. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes when I sit down and actually try to do our assigned problem sets, I just can't. I don't even know where to begin. I have no physical intuition and I am completely stuck and even dense to hints on some occasions.

Someone said to me, "it's just algebra". Which I agree it is a bit, but how can I pursue a math degree if I can't conquer a course in "just algebra"?

Does anyone who has gone through a similar experience have any advice they can offer me? Should I hop on Khan Academy? Any problem book recommendations? Should I give up and quit now?!

I bought this book https://www.amazon.com/dp/1482086921/?tag=pfamazon01-20 off of Amazon, I'm hoping it can help me.
 
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freeswordfish said:
Although I have never taken a Physics course before in my life, since my major is Math I thought this introductory-level class wouldn't be that bad. It is.
I think that the problem is the different language. You should consider the mathematical part of physics as a new language you will have to learn in order to communicate, i.e. do physics. It is far more the language aspect that makes the difference than anything else. E.g. the entire physics is full of coordinates and coordinate transformations whereas mathematicians normally hate everything that has to do with numbers or specific bases. What is a tensor? Physicists think of curvature, and mathematicians wonder where a multilinear thing like a tensor that is flat in all its components should be bent. And if you start a thread here that discusses co- and contravariance then it will be endless. Is it the coordinates that change or is it the object? Try to accept it as a new language and not as a part of mathematics. Lowering indices is a technique, don't try to understand it via dualism. It'll drive you mad in the sense that it costs far too much time. Physicists manipulate their equations like you use a language. They do not think about the difference between ##p\longmapsto \left. \dfrac{d}{dx}\right|_{x=p}f(x)## and ##f(x) \longmapsto f'(x),## they have their own language to specify what they mean: tangent, cotangent, and differential operator.
 
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  • #3
Welcome to PF.

freeswordfish said:
Someone said to me, "it's just algebra". Which I agree it is a bit, but how can I pursue a math degree if I can't conquer a course in "just algebra"?
Your physics class is Algebra-based, not Calculus-based?

freeswordfish said:
I bought this book https://www.amazon.com/dp/1482086921/?tag=pfamazon01-20 off of Amazon, I'm hoping it can help me.
That problem set book with solutions looks like it will be a good resource for you. :smile:
 
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freeswordfish said:
I am a 26-year-old nontraditional student in college, and I am struggling heavily with my University Physics class.

Although I have never taken a Physics course before in my life, since my major is Math I thought this introductory-level class wouldn't be that bad. It is.
It would be better if you could give a specific example. Perhaps post something in the Homework Forum to see what exactly you are talking about.
 
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  • #6
berkeman said:
Welcome to PF.Your physics class is Algebra-based, not Calculus-based?That problem set book with solutions looks like it will be a good resource for you. :smile:
Thank you. The course description does say it is Calculus-based Physics for Scientists and Engineers, although so far I would say Calculus has been representative of maybe 1/4th of the content we have faced. Not sure why...

I will check out the posts that symbolipoint and PeroK mentioned. I am struggling with manipulating the basic Physics concepts in our practice problems, such as how fresh_42 worded it. I should view Physics differently than I do for Math.

Thank you all for the advice.
 
  • #7
freeswordfish said:
I will check out the posts that symbolipoint and PeroK mentioned.
Well, OK but
PeroK said:
It would be better if you could give a specific example. Perhaps post something in the Homework Forum to see what exactly you are talking about.
This will likely be much more helpful.
 
  • #8
freeswordfish said:
I should view Physics differently than I do for Math.

We say math is the language of physics. But just because you can read a language does not necessarily mean that you understand the contents. So yes physics should be viewed differently than math.

I'm not sure if I will make the point that I want but much of physics is of a vector character and geometry is an aspect of reality, a bridge so to speak, that helps connect the physics to the rest of math. We often say that one should draw a diagram or picture of the situation in which one is interested so that the relevant relationships can be appreciated.

To repeat the suggestion above examples in which you have an issue would be useful.
 
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  • #9
freeswordfish said:
The course description does say it is Calculus-based Physics for Scientists and Engineers, although so far I would say Calculus has been representative of maybe 1/4th of the content we have faced. Not sure why...
In the US at least, a calculus-based intro physics course generally uses calculus mainly to simplify certain equations and derivations, and to tie concepts together more easily than is possible without calculus. Consider basic kinematics: velocity is the time derivative of position, and acceleration is the time derivative of velocity. You can derive all those kinematic equations in algebra-based physics from that.

In my experience, maybe 1/4 or even less of applications and homework exercises at the intro level actually use calculus. You mainly need to know how to find derivatives and integrals of polynomials, trig and exponential functions (in a single variable, not multivariable), apply the chain rule for derivatives, and maybe simple substitutions for integrals. You don't do complicated functions and all those fancy integration techniques that you learn in calculus courses.

The calculus gets more "interesting" in intermediate and advanced level courses on specific subjects: electromagnetism (e.g. Griffiths), classical mechanics (Symon or Marion), quantum mechanics (Griffiths again).
 
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You are not doing bad. You are getting 100 % on the homeworks and doing above average on the midterm. You are better than more than half the physics people in class. The fact is I have known a lot of math majors who try to do the physics. More often than not, they ahve a hard time doing physics problems, especially in a time tested situation.

The only advice I can give is keep on working hard and keep going to class and office hours. You will get better at problem solving as time goes by. When I solve a problem, I think the most important thing, assuming the problem set isn't due really soon, is take your time doing the problem. Even if you know the solution, but there is something you do not completely understand, pause and really think about the steps you are taking. What assumptions are you making. Is centripetal acceleration involved. When do you use centripetal acceleration? When do you use energy and work? When do you use acceleration, velocity, etc. When the problem is solved, take it apart and see if you can make up your own problem, with the concepts. All this takes time, but as I said,keep at it. Things will get better. No one is born a physicist.
I know a lot of career scientists that got a B or even a C in their first physics class.
 
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Hey there! First, don't be too hard on yourself—it's completely normal to struggle with physics initially, especially without prior exposure. Here are a few tips that might help:

Conceptual Understanding: Focus on understanding the fundamental concepts of general physics rather than just the math. Try resources like Khan Academy and YouTube channels like “Physics Girl.”

Practice Problems: Try "University Physics" by Young & Freedman for extensive problem sets.

Study Groups: Join or form a study group to discuss and tackle problems together.

Visualization: Use online simulations (like PhET) to develop physical intuition.

Remember, persistence is key. Good Luck!

[Mentor Note: Spam link deleted from post]
 
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