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Overcoming failure

  1. Jan 19, 2005 #1
    Dear friends,

    I don't know if it makes much sense to write about this but see if you can help me.
    I'm a second year undergraduate and I've been working a lot on Mechanics and waves. It's the subject I like the most but unfortunately I failed both exams we've taken so far.

    It's the first time in my life that this happens to me, so although it is not so important, yet I feel a bit shocked and I take it as an intelectual failure.

    I did thousands of problems and I think I understand the fundaments of Lagrangian mechanics, rigid solid, central forces etc. But it seems that I doubt of everything I write down on the examination.

    If I failed my favourite subject, how can I pass others such as Thermodynamics? Thanks for your words.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 19, 2005 #2
    i think self doubt is probably common in the early years when you start physics. i had a lot of self doubt (and still harbour some!) in my first few years. one thing that sticks in my mind was one of the profs told me that one day i will overcome this self doubt, and even become somewhat arrogant! there are 2 things i took from this, one was the self doubt will end, and the other was to try not to become arrogant when the self doubt does end!

    you have to learn to overcome this, especially in exams. just go with your gut and by the sounds of it you will be fine.

    as for thermo, just keep studying and back yourself in the exam.
  4. Jan 19, 2005 #3
    What are you doing wrong on the tests? Forgetting formulas and or how to apply them? Are you just making some stupid mistakes, like dropping a constant or losing a sign? Some professors will give you partial credit if you show that you understand what your doing and just got tripped up by the details. I once got a B+ on a calculus test without getting a single answer correct. My professor recognized that I understood and could do the calculus, my algebra skills were just so rusty that I couldn't finish the problems without screwing something up :smile: .

    Can you go to your professor and find out what your doing wrong? I've always found it much more educational to find out why my approach was wrong then to just see it done the right way.

    When your doing the thousands of problems for practice, ask yourself if you could do this problem under test conditions, no book, no notes, ect....

    In extreme cases, I've even made tests up for myself and committed to paying a penalty if I couldn't do as well as I wanted to. Something small like giving up bar night or watching a favorite show, taping it to watch later is not allowed BTW :smile:. It puts on some pressure, similar to what you would feel while taking a test, but with a less severe penalty for failure.

    Hope some of this helps.
  5. Jan 19, 2005 #4


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    Just do your best to prepare and understand the material. The rest is beyond your control. Do you get partial credit for showing your work?

    Even the best prepared student can sometimes fail a test.

    Unless someone is really lucky, failure will happen in college and in life. It's nothing to be ashamed of. We cannot control all circumstances.

    Were the problems something new, that you didn't see in homework? Or did you just blank out?
  6. Jan 20, 2005 #5
    Thank you guys!

    Yes we do get partial credit for the homework and that's why I think that if go and talk to the professor everything will be all right. But I am angry with myself. The exam was very interesting, you need to think a lot, there's nothing you've seen before. However, it was an easy exam. Questions on Lagrangian mechanics (you need to choose a good frame and generalized coordinates), questions on rigid solid (conservation of angular momentum etc.).

    So what went wrong? I expect to get the highest grade and I get very nervous. ANd then my exam is illegible, bad pictures, bad explanations.

    I torture myself but I think you're advice is helping. Thanks
  7. Jan 20, 2005 #6


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    A few questions to assist in determining the source of your problem:

    1) If you had a chance to redo the test now, still closed book but not for credit, just to solve the problems, could you get the answers right? In other words, do you just freeze up when you get nervous, or was there some problem in relating the concepts you learned in class in a new context?

    2) Why does the exam become illegible? Are you scribbling quickly out of nervousness about being timed, or are you scribbling down anything you can remember out of order?

    3) When you do your homework, do you write more neatly and keep equations/pictures more organized and legible than on the exam, or do you have a tendency to be a bit illegible all the time (perhaps in homework it's legible enough to you, but not to others)?

    4) How do you approach taking the test: do you just start with question #1 and work through in order, or do you take a moment to read through the questions and start with the ones that look easiest, going back to the harder ones as you have time? Do you solve one question all the way to the end before going on to the next, or do you get to a point where you get stuck, and then jump to another question and another partial answer, and work back and forth on multiple questions at once?

    So, there are a number of things you can work on depending on whether your difficulty is with test-taking or with the concepts on the test.

    I'll start with the general test-taking tips.
    First, stop studying/cramming about an hour before the exam. Get your mind off the exam and relax.

    Eat properly. Good nutrition will help you maintain your focus, avoid the trap of too much caffeine, which will leave you more nervous and jittery and won't help with focus. You can use that hour that you're relaxing before the exam to go get a light snack; don't eat a heavy meal just before the exam, or you'll be sleepy trying to digest or will wind up with an upset stomach from too full of a stomach while nervous, but a light snack is good - a half sandwich, some fruit, some carrot sticks, a little peanut butter on crackers, any of those will be good.

    Take your exam in pencil not pen and remember to take along a good soft eraser that won't tear up the paper when trying to erase.

    As you get the exam, take a few deep breaths, and tell yourself to stay calm.

    As soon as you're allowed to begin the exam, take a few minutes to read through ALL of the questions before you begin to answer them. Decide which ones you can answer most easily as this will help you calm down to have a few completed before tackling the time-consuming difficult ones. Also, sometimes something in one question will trigger your memory of something you need for another question. Take note of the point values of each question and try to allocate your time according to the point value (1 pt questions you should go through quickly, and skip over any that you can't get right away...you can always go back at the end if you have time to think through a few more; if a question is worth a half or third of the points on the exam, be sure to leave that much of the exam time to work on answering it, and remember those are the ones where showing your work will be most important).

    Write neatly. If you need to jot down a bunch of unrelated equations or thoughts to remember them for later questions, do that on the back of the page, or off in the margins. Keep the space given for answering the question free of clutter. If you go back and realize you left something out, rather than trying to squeeze it in, number the steps in the order they should be followed and jot a note at the top or bottom to follow the numbered order.

    If you make a mistake, either erase (if it's a small mistake that you can erase quickly, such as on a fill-in-the blank question), or draw a single line or X through it (better for long solutions to problems). There are two reasons for this; it keeps the work space uncluttered, so easier for the grader to read, and it also keeps your work visible in case you change your mind that something was right the first time. If that happens, all you need to do is make a note in a box next to the X'd out work to disregard the X, it is part of your final answer.

    Okay, now for some tips if you're having difficulty with course concepts:

    First, take your two exams to the professor. Also, bring along your notebook and homework solutions. I've found that really helps me evaluate where a student is running into trouble. Whether your notes are organized and complete, whether you're getting homework problems correct, which problems you're getting correct (are you getting the ones that are very similar to the examples given in class or in the textbook, but missing the ones that require synthesizing multiple concepts, or are you getting everything right for a given chapter, but not making connections between the material in separate chapters?). It could also come down to one key concept that you've misunderstood consistently that is leading to trouble in everything built upon that concept.

    I've never taken any physics courses beyond "baby" physics (general physics geared toward the non-physics science majors...not quite as bad as the one geared toward non-science majors), but one thing I learned quickly is that diagrams are everything. If you need to draw pictures and diagrams to illustrate your point and help you solve the problems, take the time to draw them neatly and clearly label everything on it. Drawing a bunch of boxes and arrows is useless if nobody knows what they represent.

    Out of all these general tips, from what you've written, I think there are two you should focus on first based on your description of the test and your self-assessment of what went wrong. 1) Keep organized and write legibly. If the grader can't follow your work, they can't even give you partial credit. And if the work is illegible, you also will have trouble going back to double check it. 2) Ensure you are understanding how concepts in each of the chapters covered on your exam relate to one another. It sounds like the questions you are getting require you to not just apply a single concept at a time, but to integrate your knowledge to demonstrate a complete understanding of the material, not just ability to solve problems in isolation from all other material in the course (the exam is testing understanding of concepts, not regurgitation of equations...this means you are entering the more advanced level of courses, so this is something you'll continue to need to do).
  8. Jan 20, 2005 #7


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    I'll come back to read Moonbear's post, but for now I'll tell you how I prepare for my exams.

    Plan one week ahead of time a full 8 hours of sleep before the exam. I plan this before the study plan itself. This way I know I much time I really have to study if I choose to.

    Normally, I just go through my notes and that's it. I do problems in class, and sometimes in my head just for fun. During class, I'm always like "wouldn't it be cool if we had this, or this, etc...". I also ask myself a lot of questions like "what if..." and I answer them or try to make sense of it in my head. If I can't make any sense of it, I'll ask someone, but this kind of thinking works really good, for me anyways.

    If I do study, I normally do 2 questions for every section. I pick an easy one and a hard one. The easy one warms you up and the hard one checks whether or not you underdstand this stuff because you don't want to waste time on stuff you know. It doesn't take up that much time and you cover everything.

    I also arrive to my exam 30-40 minutes early. I don't study during those 30-40 minutes, like most people. I just sit there and relax. Sometimes someone will ask a question, which happens a lot during exam time, and I'll just promptly answer it and discuss it.

    I write my exams as follows:

    One question after the other.

    If I get to a question I don't quite get, I don't start a solution. I just write how I think it should be done in small little words, so I can erase later. I go to the next and when I'm done, I go over the questions I haven't completed.

    TIP: Doing a lot of questions may help, but why not ask yourself your own personal questions about the subject. When you do that, you get rid of all doubts within the subject.
  9. Jan 20, 2005 #8
    Even though, I am still only in high school, I am planning ahead for my future exams. I think your plan is excellent, I know that a good night's sleep is so crucial in determining how well you do the exam, you should come to an exam without a good night's sleep. I'd be aiming for a full 10-12 hours sleep rather than 8 hours.

    I do this kind of stuff as well, there are a lot of questions to be asked, sometimes you get sleepless nights thinking about it, the internet is really great, you can find answers to most questions by just looking it up in Google, then you have PF! :tongue:

    I think you will do well in an exam if you're relaxed and not panicked. It's always good to just talk and relax before an exam and not get to tense about it.

    Depends on the importance of the exam. If it's really important, then do a lot of questions AND ask yourself questions, this way - you'll remove all doubts. Remember to check the answers while you're doing practice questions. You might find that some questions that are really simple and don't even bother to check the answer, note that some questions can trick you and may be more difficult than they look.
  10. Jan 21, 2005 #9
    What if u r not able to answer the question prompty???? that usually happens with me and it makes me really nervous!!!!

    Also, when u practice the 2 problems from each section, what if u dont get the hard ones in three consecutive sections???? dont you get discouraged? when it happpens to me, i do get discouraged and it pisses me off when i cant solve these problems :(
  11. Jan 21, 2005 #10


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    If talking to other people before the exam makes you nervous (that sort of thing used to make me nervous too, because sometimes they'd ask off-the wall questions but I wasn't sure if I missed something and was supposed to know it), then don't get to the exam room so early. I used to find no value in sitting in a crowded hallway full of people waiting to take the exam (usually we weren't allowed in the lecture hall/classroom that early so had to sit in a hallway). I preferred to sit in the student center or go to a nearby cafe to unwind before an exam.

    First, remind yourself those are the hard problems. Second, if it's during your studying or homework, remember that's the point of practicing problems, so you can learn how to do the hard ones before the test (and the reason you don't want to save all the studying for the night before the exam). When you run into several problems in a row that you get stuck on, rather than get frustrated, make a note of which ones they are and make an appointment with your prof to discuss them. Find out why you keep getting stuck and then you'll be able to tackle those problems when you see them on an exam.
  12. Jan 21, 2005 #11
    i would generally go through the exam and do those questions i knew i could do first. this not only gets them out of the way, it also helped make me more confident for the other questions, i would kind of get on a roll. as soon as i had a blank or came across something i couldn't do at that time, i would go to another question and come back.
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