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Problem Solving Strategies

  1. Jun 10, 2014 #1
    The nice thing about self study is that I can put something away and
    come back to it later if I feel like I am in over my head. I have
    some thoughts about how to approach this, and I want to get your

    1. It is recommended that one spends 2 or 3 hours outside of class for
    every hour of class instruction.

    If I watch a 1 hour physics lecture on youtube, I am expecting the
    problem set to take 2 to 3 hours. If I am taking longer than that, I
    am either in over my head or just really inefficient at solving

    If I am in over my head I have three options: a) go back and study
    requisite materials. If I am having problems with the math, do more
    math. If I am having problems with the underlying physics, do more
    physics. b) Just plow through the problem set no matter how long it
    takes. I am going to spend that much time on going back over old
    materials anyways, so just gut through it. c) give up!

    If I am just slow, I have three options a)Just practice more problems
    and hope I will get faster with time. b) look into some resources and
    strategies at improving math speed. c) give up!

    2. How long should I actually spend on a problem before a) Posting
    the question on the Physics Forum and fishing for hints. b) Just
    caving and looking at the solution manual for the text book. c) Just
    skip to the next problem, and come back to it later after rereading
    the chapter and finishing the rest of the problem set.

    I really want to optimize the time I spend. Time is precious to me
    since I have a small child, two teenagers, a wife, and a full time

    Chris Maness
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 10, 2014 #2


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    I'll give you my observations. Learning for me is a two phase process, the first phase is learning what in fact there is to learn while is second phase is learning it. At the start you don't know what it is that you are learning, it's words in a book. If you want to save time, you need to get picture quickly of what there is to learn and how it fits together.

    I think videos are too slow for this purpose, instead look at the chapter names and look them up online, read the first 2 paragraphs for each. Then try to figure out how it fits together. What follows on from what, what is needed for what, etc. Also, flip through the chapters to get a very fleeting impression, how difficult is that chapter, what does it rely on, etc. Follow your interest: if a topic sounds interesting, read more about it, keep building the picture. I suppose you could have a how-it-fits-together understanding in about 3-4 hours.

    Then break it up into sections or blocks and learn whole blocks at a time. Do all the questions, this actually saves time because you want be very efficient with questions. When you get through a block, write a summary about it. What's it about, what is important. 1-2 pages will do.

    This should work pretty well. It has the advantage that if you only learn part of the subject, you'll know that part very well.

    PS. How long should you take on a question? As long as it takes, don't chicken out. But some questions are not meant to be done manually, if you get one of those, move on rather than grinding through it. Also, if you finish a question and aren't happy with how you did it, find a better method. But, don't spend too long on proof questions. Spending more than say 3 minutes on a proof question is too long, it means you are unlikely to solve it.
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2014
  4. Jun 10, 2014 #3
    Good point on the proof questions. I have noticed they either go quickly, or not at all.

  5. Jun 10, 2014 #4
    @vrety, I am doing all of the problems for which I have an answer. I do not have all the answers for all of the questions, and I am afraid of doing problems wrong and propagating my misconceptions. Would that not be a concern if you have no way of checking all of your answers?

    Chris Maness
  6. Jun 10, 2014 #5


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    Essentially you need to learn how to learn. Keep an open mind and always go back to the things that work well for ya, not to mention try new things that could work for ya. You will continually get better at learning as you go. As far as the method, that's up to you.

    Also, it is essential to find yourself a study group while in school. A couple "chums" from your classes that you can sit down with here and there and go over theory and work problems with. Also, don't be afraid to talk with your upperclassmen. Most of them will give you old test papers from the same professor. You won't get the same test, but you will get a flavor for what the test might be like and how the prof goes about giving exams. It's not cheating, it's just smart.
  7. Jun 10, 2014 #6
    @psparky The only problem is I am not currently enrolled. That is my plan, but I am reviewing for grad school. I am having a difficult time finding people to work with me.

    Chris Maness
  8. Jun 10, 2014 #7


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    I still think it's worth doing the questions. It's good practice even if you don't have the answers.
  9. Jun 10, 2014 #8


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    You need to learn how to check your own answers. Once you stop being a student, you won't be solving problems where the answers are already known in the back of the book!

    If you leave the quantities as variables rather than substituting in numbers, you can check the dimensions of the answer are sensible. You can check special cases where some quantities are 0, or very small, or very big. You can check your answer changes in a common-sense way if quantities increase or decrease. Etc, etc ....

    Those techniques can also help to figure out what you did wrong, if your answer is different from the "right" one.
  10. Jun 10, 2014 #9


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    Ahhh...you do not mention this in your opening post. Perhaps explaining your questions more clearly would be a start!!!!

    Good news is you already know how to study. Congrats!

    What's with all this preparation before masters? You go in on day one and you learn there like everyone else.

    And like I often say on this site, I prefer PE over masters. Way less time and money to aqcuire along with higher pay down the road. Win, Win with P.E. in my opinion. Other's opinions will certainly vary.
  11. Jun 10, 2014 #10
    @psparky I am reviewing because I graduated 15 years ago, and have been teaching at the high school level. Also, I don't feel like I learned all that much as a Junior or Senior. I felt lost most of the time. The community college didn't prepare me for the University math wise.

    Chris Maness
  12. Jun 10, 2014 #11


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    What degree did you graduate with? Bachelors of....?

    What type of Master's degree are you trying to get? Masters of....?
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