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Tips for earning decent grades in physics

  1. Dec 22, 2006 #1
    I know I posted a thread about relationship between the knowledge of physics and the person's Physics gpa . I have a different question: What advice would you give to physics students on how to go from C and B to A and B students. I average in at least 1-2 hours a night when working out physics problems.

    I would love to hear some advice on good study tips on how to get better grades and maybe hear some success stories of physics students who use to get C's and B's but are now getting A's and B's.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 22, 2006 #2
    I will give you a piece of advice my vibrations teacher told a friend of mine last semester:

    So, 1-2 hours just isint going to cut it. You need to spend as long as it takes until you understand the material. Even if that means you dont get any sleep the entire semester.
  4. Dec 22, 2006 #3
    i have some experience with this, i got a 2.9 freshman year (too much partying and drinking), but a 3.8 since then, anyway the idea of spending as long as it takes is the right one. its better if you look at the problems you are assigned early (even if its just reading them over) because at least you get the chance to think about how to solve them even if you aren't actually writing down a solution yet. The longer you give yourself to think about problems the better because if you wait till the day before (even if you give yourself 10 hours that day) you might not be able to get out of the "traps" of seeing a way to doing the problem thats wrong and you know its wrong, but you can't get yourself out of it. it takes time to get out of those traps and you don't have that if you're assignment is due the next day. hope that makes sense.
  5. Dec 22, 2006 #4
    I used to go to the tutorial center at my university a lot when I truly was stuck on a problem. Although , I understood the problems that my tutor help me solved and managed to get a decent homework grade, my homework grades never matched my test grades. I got a "C" for the final semester grade in intro physics. Should I go to the tutorial center less often and work on the problems by myself more , even though I am not able solved the problem without any help.
  6. Dec 22, 2006 #5
    Forget the tutor center. You need to sit down and do this for yourself. Its going to be painful at first, but in the end you will be able to solve things on your own (which you should be doing).
  7. Dec 22, 2006 #6
    As a former mathematics tutor, I disagree. I've seen many people go from a "hating math" attitude to earning A's and B's. Was it my help alone? No. These students put in many hard hours of work on their own and came prepared with specific questions after flying solo for most of the week. Some would sit in the group tutoring sessions and never ask questions for an entire semester. It seemed helpful for them to be in that atmosphere at a regular time every day. Others requested one-on-one sessions and spent one or two hours per week with a tutor. I can assure you it was not the only one or two hours they spent each week!

    One thing that definitely needs to be sorted out on your own is the method by which you learn. Do you just get stuck on specific methods? Are you the guy/girl who just needs a schedule or the moral support of those around you working diligently? Spend the long hours required to sort this question out as soon as possible and refine your study habits. Then you'll be able to manage your time better and identify when a hint would help you.

    Many of the successful students I saw were returning students. They had day jobs, families and many other responsibilities fighting for the resources they expended on a class or topic they really didn't see as "useful". So if you're not in this boat, look at how much of a leg up you have on such people (and they would be the first people to tell you this). You probably have no children, only part-time employment (if any) and a genuine passion for the subject you're studying. From the morale standpoint this is a Big Deal! I can assure you that I didn't understand this as an undergrad. BUT, I luckily found what worked for me and that was tutoring others. For instance, in my linear algebra class I would lead group study sessions answering problems and explaining the theory. If I didn't understand it, I knew others were relying on me to explain it so I was able to figure it out and help others. This had a very good impact on my grade!

    The returning students knew that their children or their career depended on them completing some particular class. So when it came time to buckle down, they were able to pull the necessary stops to develop good study habits. Most would put in longs hours at first until they figured out what clicked for them. Towards the end of the semester, or maybe the following semester I'd see less and less of them as they developed their own methods. Occasionally, they'd pop into a group session to ask a very specific question or maybe just to thank me. They figured out what worked for them.

    It may seem counterintuitive, but maybe join a club or pick up some extra-curricular activities. You'll be surprised at what you're capable of!
  8. Dec 22, 2006 #7
    Tutoring and office hours are there for a reason. If I had to pick between only going to lecture or only going to the professor's office hours, I would pick office hours. It's definitely the most valuable resource of a university.

    The trick is to make sure that you're well prepared for tutoring or office hours, meaning you try all the problems and homeworks and try and find answers to your questions on your own, then once you know exactly what you want to know, you can go and ask and get help.

    Just going to tutoring and office hours and not doing self study doesn't help, because then they're just working everything for you.

    But it's worthless to stare at problems for hours trying to figure out something you don't understand without asking for help - it's a horribly inefficient way of studying.
  9. Dec 22, 2006 #8
    All I can suggest is to read this.. I posted it in your other thread but it may have gotten lost in the other stuff. http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/chapman.htm

    I think that he has some really important things to say such as review what you did at the end of the day, then review what you did all week at the end of the week, and then review what you did all month at the end of the month.
  10. Dec 22, 2006 #9
    go to office hours as often as possible. i seriously spent around ten hours a week in my electrodynamics professor's office. this is a little extreme and most people probably won't have the benefit of being able to spend that much time (i only had three classes this past semester) and of having a professor willing to put in that much work without kicking you out, but it was definitely nice having that.

    more typically, i would go to a professor's office around once a week, maybe more, maybe less, for about an hour.

    not only did i make sure that my homework was in tip-top shape, but when i needed recommendation letters for, say, the goldwater scholarship, i was able to get SIX of them, while i'm sure several other students struggled to get three or four.
  11. Dec 23, 2006 #10
    I personally think the most important thing is to understand what your textbook (tutorials etc.) says. Read all the material really carefully, then try to apply it on different situations, and make sure you understand it completely. Otherwise read it again, and then again if you still don't understand it.Tackle everything one at a time. Make sure you completely understand the basics, before going on.
    The second most important thing is practicing. Try different problems, make sure that you really understand them and know how to do them. As for time goes, if you ask how long should you spend 2-3 hours or 10-15 hours. That totally depends on your own learning ability. Some person can do something in 2 hours, while the other takes another 8 hours to do the same.

    What really is important is to make sure you understand the stuff you know.
  12. Dec 23, 2006 #11
    Allow me to expand on why I recomend you study alone. When you take an exam, you are not going to have the tutor, your professor, or your friends, to give you hints and advice. Your performance falls squarely on your shoulders.

    Personally, I try to never study with anyone else. I have noticed all too often people study in groups. These are the same people that consistently get bad grades (in the same groups). The people that get the good grades are the ones that are able to work by themselves, and do the homework by themselves. If, and only if, I get stuck on a problem, I will ask a friend in the class, who I know is smart. If they are stuck, then I will go to the professors office. But I will not run there, unless I have though the problem through on my own first. I really really, dont like the concept of using a tutor in college. This is stuff you should be able to solve on your own, or with some limited guidance from your professor. You simply will not be using a tutor for your upper level courses. If you find yourself in need of one, then you did not forge the proper foundation early on to survive.

    You will find that this is hard at first (I sure as hell did). With time, this will change. YOU will know all the concepts because YOU were the one that sat through and hammered it into your head. You are going to find that you can recall things others cannot because you have such a good foundation.

    In general, go to EVERY lecture. Always write down whats on the board and pay attention. Ask questions if you are lost, but do this within reason. I have seen people ask basic questions becuase they did not read the material. These are dumb questions and waste class time. Be prepared, skim through the material, and ask specific questions if you have one. Do all the homework as soon as possible. This way you can think through them, and ask your teacher specific questions during office hours. He's NOT there to do them for you or to hold your hand. His job is to point you in the right direction, and thats it.

    When a test rolls around, I typcially reread all the material in the book, and rework all the HW problems. By rereading the material and doing the problems over again, it solidifies it into your brain.

    This sounds like a lot of work, and it is. This is a far cry from 1-2 hours. You are going to spend literally all day studying like this. But it is the price you have to pay if you want to know your business.

    Some people will diagree with my advice, and I will tell you right now that it wont work for everyone; but it does work for me. You asked what we do, and I am telling you. It does not mean you have to do what I say, but at least consider some of it.

    If you find something else that works, forget everything I told you. All that matters is that you find SOMETHING that works.

    PS: Don't say going from C/B to A/B student. Your goal is to go from a C/B student to an A+++++ student. B is not in our alphabet.
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2006
  13. Dec 23, 2006 #12


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    Here's a scheme that works for me:
    Wake up. Pack lunch and some snacks. Go to ALL your lectuers - never ever skip a lecture. Eat. Go to the library. Study. Go home. Sleep. Repeat. You're only allowed to rest on saturdays. On sundays, you decide what's best to do.
  14. Dec 23, 2006 #13
    You might find this advice useful; I managed to do exactly what you are trying to do. A year and a half ago, I was strictly an average student getting mostly B's and an occasional C, but very rarely an A. It wasn't that I wasn't working hard enough, I was studying a lot, but I wasn't studying effectively. Now I find I'm studying about the same amount of time, but my GPA has been rising over the last few semesters. Last semester, I received 2 A's and a B in some very challenging, time intensive lecture+lab classes. I was always pressed for time almost every second last semester, I doubt I would have been able to motivate myself to work that hard all semester long if I hadn't been getting A's and B's on all the tests and assignments.

    I've posted this before, I hope it helps.

    1. Do the assigned homework as soon as possible after it's assigned. Use notes/books/internet to their best advantage.

    2. Any problems that you had trouble with (took more then a 30 mins to an hour to figure out or solve) do again right away. Just toss your previous work aside and try to do the problem again; if it takes you any more then half the time to solve it again (use book, notes, internet), you are probably lacking knowledge in some area, such as math or the material. If it's taking you more then an hour for a problem, go and see the professor or TA right away or move on to the next problem until you can meet with one of them. If all the problems are giving you trouble, again, go see your professor or TA and or move on to another subject until you can because you are obviously missing something vital and working on problems that you lack the skill or knowledge to solve is a waste of time. If you find that you have extra time left over after doing your other homework, by all means, go back and work on the problems that you couldn’t solve right away. This is an important time management skill that took me a long time to master. Don't waste too much time beating your head against something you don't understand (but don't give up after 10 mins either:tongue2: ), get help before you waste 5 to 8 hours of valuable study time. When you go to the professor or TA, be prepared to show the work you have already done and see of they will watch you actually try and work one out. I've picked up a lot of little algebra tricks that way.

    3. Wait 2 or 3 days and do the homework again. This works great if you do it right before attempting a new batch of homework for the 1st time from the same class. It gets you motivated and gives you confidence that you are actually learning the material. This time, try and rely less on the book and other resources, but don’t waste too much time trying to remember a formula or derivation. Unless the work was very simple, it should take you about 1/3 of the time to do it the second time around.

    4. If time permits, do the homework completely over a 3rd time. This 3rd time, it should only take you about 20 mins if it took you 2 hours or so the first time and you should hardly have to look at another resource.

    5. Finally, reread the material from your notes and the book one last time before the exam to make sure you’re not missing anything. The stuff from the problems should just kind of leap out at you by this point and shouldn’t consume very much time.

    What you are doing:

    1. Building familiarity with the material itself.

    2. Learning the thinking processes that are usually central to solving those kinds of problems with out burdening yourself with a totally new problem. For example, it’s easy to know that you did something wrong, either the first time or second time. If you are doing the same problem over and getting a different result, you are doing something wrong and you can compare your original work with your new work to quickly find your mistake.

    3. Building confidence in the material. If you can walk into a test knowing that you can solve every homework problem in 5 to 30 mins (depending on the material), you will be much less likely to be surprised by a problem on the test or horrified by the length of the test.

    I've noticed that in the last year of using this technique that I've gone from getting 3.0 to 3.3's in my math/problem solving classes to 3.7's to 4.0's. Even when I see a problem I've never encountered before, I'm usually able to blaze through the other problems so quickly that I don't run out of time reasoning it out. In the past, the problems that were similar to the homework would take up so much time that I didn't have time to think about the couple problems that were really trying to test my understanding of the material. It meant I could pass, I just couldn’t do as well as I wanted.

    BTW, I'm not spending more time studying then I did before, I'm just getting a lot more out of my time.

    Also, as cyrusabdollahi said, study alone most of the time to learn and master the material. I usually lock myself in a small study room at the library for 5 to 6 hours at a time. Once I feel I've mastered, or almost mastered the material, that's when I start to seek out study groups, but by this time, I find I'm usually teaching rather then learning from them. I find that this also helps me tremendously. When I can stand there and answer just about any question they throw at me and I can help them find and fix their mistakes or explain a difficult concept to them, that's when I know I'm really ready for the exam.
  15. Dec 23, 2006 #14


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    Like always, solid advice, Cyrus.

    I am, too, one of the believers of sitting down by yourself. That's the difference between being the guy that gets it, and the guy that doesn't get it, for me.
  16. Dec 23, 2006 #15
    I agree in principle with cyrusabdollahi, except there are two vital points I think were missed:

    1. Knowing how to interact and learn well in a study group is pretty essential the farther along you go. I see groups of PhD students all the time in the cafe in the engineering part of campus with huge mounds of books and papers studying together - at that level, there's no TA, let alone tutoring. The reading material is limited - the book chapters, journal papers, etc that are assigned are perhaps the only ones on the topic in the world (if they are on recent research) and can sometimes be frustratingly incomplete or written poorly, as academic papers can be. Studying in groups is almost essential to making it through all the material.

    2. Most professors leave working example problems to the TA, which is understandable, given limited lecture time. However, sometimes professors can teach you loads of useful problem solving techniques and tips that the TA is too inexperienced to know or point out. As for example problems in the book, there are often different (potentially easier) methods which the text doesn't use, that professors point out (they love to upstage the book :) ). Or, consider, at least a third of my engineering classes go significantly beyond the scope of the textbook - good luck finding worked example problems, cause there aren't going to be many in lecture or text. Office hours is an invaluable learning experience, in those cases, not just when you're stuck or need quick pointers.
  17. Dec 23, 2006 #16
    How many hrs would everyone say they spend studying on avg? I find it hard to put in over 50-70hrs.. I wish I could, but my it seems that at the 60~hr barrier, I find myself needing to do go out or something such as that.
  18. Dec 23, 2006 #17
    Practicing how to do physics is important. I highly recommend buying schaum's outlines to different subjects in physics. They may cost alittle but if you are looking to learn relevant material quickly they are very useful. Also if you are still in intro physics 3000 solved physics problems is great because those are the types of questions you usually get on homeworks and tests and you get alot more examples than in the textbook.
  19. Dec 23, 2006 #18
    I'm an EE major, I spend between 30 to 40 hours per week doing problems, writing lab reports, doing projects, or going over notes and the book. This does not include lecture/lab time. Toss in another 20 to 30 hours per week of work and I'm a very busy guy. I normally watch about 2 to 4 hours of TV a week and play computer games another 2 to 4 hours. I play pool on a league on thursday nights and that is another 4 to 5 hours of entertainment that I allow myself. The rest of my time is spent eating, sleeping, showering, driving, ect....
  20. Dec 24, 2006 #19
    lucky for you people without jobs or girlfriends :/
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