Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

The horrors of First-Year Physics tell me the truth

  1. Mar 24, 2010 #1
    I really like to know this because first-year Physics in any university is famed for "weeding out the weak people" and even the best gets destroyed by the course.

    Now I just want to know, what chances do I have scoring well in first-year physics?

    (Also, does first-year English count towards your GPA? Because in my college, it is a required course)

    I am a senior about to graduate, but I have already the following skills

    Calculus III completion (going to take Calculus IV when I enter first-year)
    Completed AP Physics C (Mech and E/M), got a 5
    Completed AP Physics B, got a 4...

    Will I survive?

    EDIT: That is what my college calls it. It says "Calculus IV", the prerequisites are Calculus III. Topics are: curves and surfaces, vector fields, and surface integrals, Divergence Theorem, Green's Theorem and Stokes
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2010
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 24, 2010 #2
    I wouldn't know how you would do. It depends on a lot of things, one of them is where you go to college.

    From my experience, first year physics was feared by many people. Most of them are non-majors though. I would guess if they are not familiar with physics or math they would think it's hard. And of course the work load is big compare to some other intro classes, not to mention high-school classes.
    That being said, I didn't think it was particularly difficult. Someone told me when I took it that it's not possible to do well. But I did well anyway without much difficulties.
    Now, upper-level classes are a lot harder (not to compare to graduate classes, but that's getting too far ahead).

    what is cal IV anyway? DiffEq?
  4. Mar 24, 2010 #3
    good luck finding a course called calc IV. i really hope your school doesn't call it that lol.

    but yeah I never felt like I was going to do bad. most people who do physics as a major are pretty good at it and do fine in their first year. you basically retake mechanics and E&M if you don't want to use your ap credits. and then do physics 3 which was a joke...

    after that things get a little exciting but not enough to really put any pressure on most good students. once you start taking quantum and thermo is when you will feel the pressure in most schools and then you do your standard classical mechanics and electrodynamics... those are the harder courses....

    so not until your second year, for good students, or third year for average students, will you feel any pressure.

    make sure you take diffEq which i am thinking is differential equations. and a linear algebra course from the math department. knowing your linear algebra and dfq goes a long way. most physics majors at my school endup taking a partial dfq course that the math department offers but it's not needed.

    depending on your school the physics department will offer 1-2 semesters of just mathematical physics during which they will teach you all you will need in the upper level physics that i mentioned.

    calc IV is usually called advanced calc or real analysis or something and is one of the required courses for math majors. it is completely proof based and is done with full rigor. I wouldn't recommend it for the average joe unless you enjoy calculus and want to know why calc 1-3 worked...
  5. Mar 24, 2010 #4


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    I don't think the first year of physics is really there to weed anyone out - despite what you might hear from people. With just about all university classes, you'll likely notice some differences from high school. They don't check that you've done your homework. You can't do extra-credit assignements. The problems posed on exams require you to think about subjects you've covered in ways that are different from what you've covered in assignments. No one checks that you come to class. And, of course, you're being taught by someone who is an expert in the field, not necessarily an expert in (or even good at) teaching itself.

    There's also the bottleneck effect. Those stoners (or whatever you call them these days) who anchored your classes in high school will not have made it into university. Almost everyone in your classes will have been reasonably successful in high school - which means you'll be graded on a curve amidst smarter people.

    It will be a challenge. To do well you can't get away with just cramming the night before. But it is possible to do very well. Lots of people do (and some even lead a balanced life while doing it).
  6. Mar 24, 2010 #5
    I go to an average state school. My first year physics course was cake. However, if you're taking a course on the level of K&K, then I'd image it'd be pretty hard.

    I'm in a senior level mechanics course (I'm not a physics major). Now that's a course that will inspire a lot of horror stories.
  7. Mar 25, 2010 #6
    My introductory physics course had homework that had to be submitted online by a very specific deadline.

    I can't say that exam problems required you to think differently about the subject. And some questions were a bit similar to homework problems.

    We had extra credit opportunities.

    Attendance was taken with clickers. (This was a big lecture hall course with 200 students.)

    If you're at a college with ordinary selectivity (i.e., almost all applicants are admitted), then there probably will be a number of them there. I took the introductory calculus-based physics sequence at an average state college, and almost everybody in that class was just absolutely horrible at the subject and put no effort in whatsoever. The average scores on exams were Fs (for all of them). The course was curved so that a 93% was an A+.

    I just think you're making far too many generalizations here. [smile] But you are completely correct that college courses are a lot harder than their high school counterparts (if such counterparts even exist).
  8. Mar 25, 2010 #7


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    Zpconn, I think this just goes to show that depending on the school, first year university physics classes can be very different experiences. Where I went to school, you needed about an 80-85% average in high school just to get in.

    First year has always been kind of an equilization year. Some students come in without adequate preparation, despite what their high school instructors may have claimed. Others have excellent high school prep and see the course as straight forward and even a waste of time.

    I agree that it's usually by the time you get to second or third year that the really tough stuff hits.
  9. Mar 25, 2010 #8
    Unless, as you mentioned, you have bad preparation from high school.

    Anyway, this thing with "weeder courses" is as I have understood it mostly valid for engineers, there they do most of the theory during their first and some of them also during the second year which makes a lot of people drop that major during those years.
  10. Mar 25, 2010 #9
    It really does depend on the school (and maybe even on the professor who happens to teach the class that semester). For instance, the first college physics course I ever took was designed specifically for physics majors. To this day it remains the single hardest course I've ever taken in my life.
  11. Mar 25, 2010 #10
    there is no such thing as a "weeder" class.
    people don't necessarily want to work but expect to get As cause they showed up,
    or they spend time studying but don't actually learn it and think they should get As because they spent hours studying. (and got the wrong answer)

    in the larger classes, the fact is that there's going to be some kids who fail.
    in smaller classes, reasonable professors won't have curves. ive been in classes where everyone passes, and classes where no one gets an A because no one deserved it.

    people dont like taking responsibility for their actions. if someone takes a class, they might get an F. but not everyone does. some people get Fs; not their fault-- it was a weeder class.

    NOTE: there's always going to besome ****** professor who doesn't care or whatever. they're just jerks...

    source: as a chem major who deals with MANY biology majors in ochem...
  12. Mar 26, 2010 #11
    The reason its seen as a weeder course is because

    Unlike other first year science where you can get by through straight memorization, physics takes relatively simple concepts but asks you to apply them in foreign situations on exams. This can be quite a shock because this problem solving is something that is very hard to teach. Generally its not covered in lectures, and the "tutorial" sessions that some places do are in my experience, pretty useless. I know I found this hard to do, there's not much you can do to prepare but do as many problems as you can.
  13. Mar 27, 2010 #12
    Actually, there are. Just because you have not had the experience of having a professor come right out and tell you that he makes the class as difficult as it is in order to weed out the weak, does not mean that it does not happen.

    But I do agree with you that most 'weeding out class' discussions arise when people are just not willing to accept responsibility for their own grades.
  14. Mar 27, 2010 #13
    My teacher tells me that scores are given unfairly, like for example the department is only allowed to give a certain number of A+, so the other people who are closed to an A+ will just get an A. Is that true?
  15. Mar 27, 2010 #14
    No idea whether or not this is true but I have a similar suspicion when it comes to grades assigned at my college. In my case, I would have a string of As and all of a sudden a random B (and always for a humanities class). For example, this semester my lowest grade (B+) is also my easiest class (History of the Modern World); there is no homework assigned, no quizzes, no tests, and the midterm assignment was a report on what we covered (we were given a week to complete it). Still, I got a B+ for reasons still unknown to me. Last semester, similar situation, I got a B on my easiest class.
  16. Mar 27, 2010 #15
    Yes and no.

    Unless you have a corrupt department, scores are not given unfairly. In my experience, the way that it works is as follows:

    - Exam questions are difficult to set. It is sometimes hard to tell which material is maybe asking a bit too much, or on the flip-side, is too easy.

    - When designing exam papers, teachers have an idea of the overall performance that should come from the class. So, what happens is all of the marks are collated, and the results are fitted to something like a bell curve, and the grades are adjusted appropriately.

    This means that achieving a score that lies in the top 30% of your class may be what results in an A, rather than obtaining a mark that is above, say, 70%. Obviously there are many other complications to this, the system is designed to specifically be fair. This is the way I have seen things done in physics. I have never come across any alterations of grades to 'weed out the weak' so to speak. Though, I have come across an English department that specifically tells students it is not possible to get an A in first year courses. I don't find that approach is particularly helpful.
  17. Mar 27, 2010 #16
    In arts courses, some lecturers adopt a scheme where it is fairly easy to pass, but very difficult to get top grades. You also need to remember that every course is different, and when you're crossing departments on top of that, you'll find that marking is non-standard. Also, a level of effort does not always equate a to quality of work.
  18. Mar 27, 2010 #17
    That makes sense.

    For my current art history class, the midterm grade was based of 2 quizzes and 1 written assignment; the professor does not assign homework and his quizzes are extremely easy to pass (if a question is worth 10pts, 8 of those points come from remembering the title of the work of art, the artist, the historical period, and the approx. dates). The quizzes are visual (you see an image and remember what it is). The midterm grade is an A+.

    The history class is even easier; no homework, no quizzes, the midterm assignment was answering 15 questions about the period we covered during class (1600s - 1900s) and we had 1 week to complete it. I got a B+ on that class.
  19. Mar 27, 2010 #18
    I may have forgotten, but could that just be law school? My high school Physics teacher had a Ph.D., so I guess he knows quite a lot about universities?
  20. Mar 27, 2010 #19
    First-year physics should not be significantly harder than AP Physics C, so since you got a 5, you should be fine.
  21. Mar 27, 2010 #20
    Yes there are. Maybe not at your school, but they do exist. What happens at a lot of schools is that you end up with more students than teacher that can teach them so the department makes life total hell for students with the expectation that some/most will drop out.

    One of the more important things in college selection is to find a school that doesn't have weed out classes. They tend to happen in large public universities, and not usually in SLAC or big name private schools.

    False. At MIT, you have to pass physics to get *any* degree, so "failure is not an option." The physics classes are usually taken under freshmen pass/fail so if you have problems, you can go through the class, and take them again.

    Now, you could argue that the system works because MIT just admits people they know that will pass the class, but then why don't all schools set things up so that you take a pre-test or mini-class before the class, and if your score is low then you don't take the class.

    One thing that you will have to learn if you want a physics career is that at some point you will get "weeded out" of the system. I have a hatred of weed out classes because I was weeded out after I got my Ph.D.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook