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Physics problems are so hard

  1. Feb 20, 2005 #1
    I love math and physics. The mechanical things that calculus requires to be successful i do with ease. Solving problems in physics is another matter though.
    I am struggling with the problem solving that physics requires. Physics is definately not math, math is a tool of physics. i'm solving about 60% of my homework problems succesfully.Any body have any advice about how i can improve my problem solving skills. If i can't master physics i will not become an engineer. i have the desire.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 20, 2005 #2
    One strategy is to write down all the mathematical relations that are physical consequences given in the problem, and see if you have enough equations to solve for your unknown :-)

    One more thing,keep in mind the Big Three Conservation Laws of physics, and no when and when not to use them. It probalby appears on about half of all problems in introductory physics courses:

    1) Conservation of linear momentum
    2) Conservation of energy
    3) Conservation of angular momentum
  4. Feb 21, 2005 #3
    the majority of the time i can come up with the correct equations to solve the problems.But i'm not "seeing" that they are correct.
  5. Feb 21, 2005 #4


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    Try to divide the problem up in to as many different parts as you can... and ask yourself what is happening in each part.

    Sometimes you've just got to keep staring at something for a long time, and thinking about it before the answer comes to you. This won't work in a test situation... but it can lead to improvements in your problem solving ability.

    Definitely do not give up. You have the desire. Some people can intuitely see the solutions to problems... some people have to go step by step and see how each step leads to the next (kind of like going through a proof)...

    If you're not seeing why the equation is correct... then ask yourself "what is this equation saying exactly?" does this apply to this particular situation etc...
  6. Feb 21, 2005 #5
    Practice. Then practice some more. Once you are done practicing, practice some more.

    See where I am going here?

    Also, buy a book called How To Solve Physics Problems. I liked it alot, and it helped me considerably.

    Get together with some other students and solve the problems together. That way you can share perspectives on the problem that may bring light to something you had not thought about.
  7. Feb 21, 2005 #6
    ^ yup, especially the part about getting together with other students. I really enjoyed times when i was discussing physics problems in a group because it really helped me attack the question in alot of different perspectives. And of course........PRACTICE !.
  8. Feb 21, 2005 #7

    i just purchased that book along with another one thanks.
  9. Feb 21, 2005 #8
    Other then going to the recitations (you ARE going to them, right?) I've found the best way to do physics hw is to first give it your best shot on your own and make notes on what you think is the key concept for every problem you don't know how to solve. Only after this should you go and try to get help from other students who are hopefully in the same boat as you are by this point so you can bounce ideas off each other.
  10. Feb 21, 2005 #9


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    All good advice. To me, it is easiest to identify what is known and unknown about the problem - besides the answer of course. You typically have given properties - e.g., mass, force, direction - and implicit properties. These include physical constants and basic formulas for solving for various resultant quantities. Often you will encounter problems where you need to solve preliminary problems before you have all the values needed to arrive and the final solution. Recognizing the steps required to find the desired solution is the key. And the key to that is understanding what the basic formulas can tell you about the properties of a given configuration. Another dastardly trick used by professors is to give you the answer and ask you to determine the initial conditions, or necessary relationship between those conditions. I often gave myself quizzes. When doing class problems or homework, I made notes of those I missed [or guessed and got lucky] and used them as my study guide to prepare for tests. It worked well for me. Group studies did not work well for me. Someone could show me how to do the problem and seemed so obvious at the time. But until I understood, in my own way, why that was the right approach, all I really had was a false sense of security.
  11. Feb 22, 2005 #10


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    A lot of practice is essential. Understanding the material and controlling the material are two different things entirely. (You don't know physics unless you can do physics).
    So my advice is clear. Work on problems a lot. Like swimming, problem solving is a skill that you can learn and learn only by doing it yourself. Make sure you understand the theory first. Then attack the problem step-by -step. Make sure you understand the question. What is being asked, what is given, what relations do I know, how can I relate the given with the unknown?
    Do many such problems step-by-step and your understanding will gradually increase and you WILL be proficient in solving problems.
  12. Feb 22, 2005 #11
    group study does not seem to work for me either. I have found out that I learn better when i'm alone in the library, just me and my books. Sometimes the competition factor comes into play when you study with other people. It seems like everybody wants to know it all, which would be ok if they actually were as smart as they think they are. Any thing worth having is going to be a struggle. So now i'm going to embrace the struggles.
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