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Really good at math, but failing physics?

  1. Dec 5, 2015 #1

    I am an engineering student taking mechanics, and even though I feel like I understand the material, I still do badly on the tests. In fact, I was really excited about the midterm I just took, but I just found out that I got a 55 % on the multiple choice-I have yet to get above a 70% on a physics test. What is frustrating is that I started studying a week before, and I have a strong calculus background; I have finished the calc sequence and have never gotten lower than an 88% on a calc test. It is possible that I have a lot of test anxiety, because my heart is always pounding out of my chest when I take these tests. But still...I can't believe I am doing this badly in university calc-based physics! Can anyone relate? Is engineering just not for me? Should I retake mechanics? It's the end of the quarter now, and I know I won't get above a 3.2 in this course.
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  3. Dec 5, 2015 #2


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    You may need to change the way you are studying. Do you study in an active way? For example, instead of just looking over solutions to worked problems, do you try to re-solve them on your own, without looking at the solutions?

    Another example of active studying: Instead of reading the book and underlining this and that, making up your own examples and re-writing things in your own words. Yet another example: Working a problem from the book, then changing something about the problem and trying to work it again. It may seem intimidating to work a problem without knowing what the right answer is, but part of the physics skill-set is being able to judge the reasonableness of results in several different ways. In fact, in rare occasions the answer in the back of a book is wrong, and it's this skill that enables one to catch things like that.

    Also, it's important to realize that physics differs from math in at least two respects. First, each physical situation has to be translated into mathematics. Second, once a solution has been reached mathematically, the result has to be interpreted - what does it mean physically? One can be great at calculating things but still not good at physics if either of these steps is neglected. Can you pinpoint where you tend to have problems?

    Being nervous can definitely make things difficult. In fact, if you want to do well on a test even if you are nervous, then you have to work that much harder. I used to play guitar in front of people, a lot, and I had to know a song really, really darned well to be able to play in front of people without messing up. You wouldn't want to perform a song in front of people that it takes nearly all your effort to play when you are alone.
  4. Dec 5, 2015 #3


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    How REALLY are you doing? Average score is what? Understand the homework? Understand the example descriptions and example problems in the book? Handle your lab class well? If you have problems in dealing with/learning Physics/Mechanics, first big introductory course of the series, the trouble is almost certainly with the Math and not so much the Physics. You might just be struggling with the transition to analytical thinking about applications of the relevant mathematics.
  5. Dec 5, 2015 #4


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    You need to look at those tests and see what you did wrong. If you really knew the right answer, then it is anxiety. If you knew the correct method but made careless mistakes, then you need to be more careful. If you didn't know the correct method, then you need to fix that.
  6. Dec 5, 2015 #5
    @symbolipoint: The average score in the class does not matter. I only compare myself to myself, but if you must know, the test average in my class is a 60 on each test. I have perfect grades in my lab and quiz sections. Mostly just nerves, I think. I just get super stressed out whenever I take a physics test. And GoeFleur, I guess I need to more actively study. Thing is, I never have really needed to study hard for these kind of classes, but physics is not really coming easy to me. I am pretty frustrated and distraught at this point. Anyway, thanks for the input guys.
  7. Dec 6, 2015 #6
    I agree with Geofleur, and should point out that the thought processes that go into a math problem and a physics problem can be entirely different. Basically, the physics part is setting up the problem, and the math part is actually solving it.

    Setting up the problem is a whole different ballgame than solving a mathematical problem, but after you've set the problem up, the rest of the problem is usually just algebra/calculus. Example: once you set up your equations using a free body diagram, the rest is just math. The physics happened when you set up your equations.

    So you need to practice setting up problems first and foremost. The math comes second.
  8. Dec 6, 2015 #7


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    It does matter, when you get into sections where everyone's average grade is a 30 or 40 percent on a exam. If you only look at you in this case you're going to become incredibly demoralized.

    You're doing about average in the course, so there is no reason yet to be concerned about changing majors. Further, physics is not the same as engineering coursework, even though they're related greatly.

    Your part about doing well in calculus is meaningless, if doing well in math was all that was needed to do well in physics, we wouldn't need physics classes would we? Solving physical problems requires a different tool set from what's used in math classes.

    Multiple choice tests in physics classes are bunk. The solutions in physics are typically not the most important part of doing physics. All the insights come from the work. If possible I would avoid this professor when you move onto E&M.
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