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Schools Undergrad Physics experiences?

  1. Sep 29, 2016 #1
    I'm a sophomore currently at university and I'm beginning to wonder if my undergrad experience with respect to the physics department here is indicative of everyone's experience as a physics undergrad. Here's what I'm dealing with:

    So far, I've only taken 5 physics courses: 3 semesters of introductory physics, Classical mechanics and a course in thermodynamics. I'm now in QM, computational physics, and a second semester in Classical mechanics. Out of the 5 I've taken so far, 2 have been terrible. I still received an A at the end of the semester, but getting an A in those courses doesn't feel the same to me as getting an A in other courses (like math, CS, english, etc.)

    In these two terrible courses, it was considered good to get a 50% on an exam. Not a single person would have a passing grade throughout the whole semester and would only score an A, B, or C based on the curve at the end. The teachers for these two courses were brilliant, but extremely unorganized. You were consistently tested on things that were never taught to you and the teacher didn't bother saying that these things would be on the exams.

    Everyone in the class agreed that the lectures were absolutely useless and only really showed up to make sure the teacher liked them (as they would be curving your grade at the end of the semester.) So in the end, you get the A, but you feel like you got an F. Did anyone have classes like this for their undergrad or am I alone here?
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 30, 2016
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 29, 2016 #2
    Every university has bad professors ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    In one of my classes, everyone was failing and the professor was too lazy to calculate the curve, so he said "your final exam grade is your final grade in the class". And that's the story of how I went from a 35% to a 94%.
  4. Sep 29, 2016 #3
    Based on what I'm hearing, it seems like nearly all of my profs are going to be that way in the future. When I chose to study physics, I was hoping to be taught physics. Now I'm realizing that I have to pay quite alot of money to teach myself physics.
  5. Sep 29, 2016 #4
    Many of mine were that way as well. I went to a very small school and although some (~2) professors were fantastic, a majority were as you described. It's very, very frustrating (I went through two semesters of quantum mechanics without the words "basis vectors" or "eigenkets/eigenbasis/eigenvectors" being mentioned. Seriously), and to get into graduate school I had to do a lot of self-study (the average pGRE score for my peers was in the 400s). The difference between you and me is that I didn't realize how (comparatively) poor my school was until I did an REU at another school. Had it not been my senior year and had I not been firmly latched onto a research group, I would have transferred elsewhere.

    In my experience at other schools (I took classes while doing my REU, and am in grad school now), not saying what is on the exams is normal and having "useless" lectures is, unfortunately, quite normal, and so is everyone doing poorly in a class. However, going through an entire class without learning a thing (as I did, and as it sounds like you are), is not.
  6. Sep 29, 2016 #5


    Staff: Mentor

    College isn't highschool. Its often not as organized with clearlt defined rules.

    I've had profs who did things similar to what you mentioned. They would test us on the reading assignments and not on what they lectured. Or they would test you on a variant of something taught in class.

    You must remember that a prof is not graded on how well he teaches but on papers published and grants received to do research. There are some profs who will be very responsible in teaching most notably math profs will be like that.

    I had one prof in particular, who was an excellent teacher, fully organized with numbered note outlines, precisely scheduled (ie x pages per day) and a very fair marking system. Students could drop selected poor grades with makeup tests in case one did poorly on a semester test and you could even weight the final to be 20% to 50% of your final grade (before you took it).

    Needless to say, he did not get tenure, despite the response of students protesting his treatment as the math department had had a change of leadership. THe new head changed the focus to published research and so he was out. The view was that the old math dept was behind the times and that research kept the younger profs interested and engaged in math which would then trickle down into their teaching (Reaganomics a decade before Reagan).

    You have to teach yourself. Physics is hard and its especially difficult to see where the math ends and the physics begins.


    We didn't have our first college physics course until the third trimester. We felt bereft as other majors were taking courses in their preferred field and we were still at the station waiting for the train to come in. We had to get Calculus I,II under our belts before we could start learning Physics effectively.

    In the third year, we hit the brick wall where you realize that your highschool study habits no longer work and you can no longer coast through courses. You must now work really hard and collaborate with other students to get the homework done, do labwork and to study for tests. Don't despair keep at it and you will come out understanding a lot more than you realize.

    Sometimes learning physics is like the old kung fu story of the student learning iron palm. All day long he was requested to crumble up paper and then flatten it out. He grew frustrated and left for home. When he got there, people asked what did he learn and he said nothing. The next day while making meals he would peel off skins of vegetables and fruits just by touching them amazing everyone around and it was then that he knew he had learned something.
    (an anecdotal story / parable paraphrased to fit this context ;-) no rights reserved and no good deed left unpunished)

    moral: We don't know what we've learned until we need to apply it.
  7. Sep 29, 2016 #6
    Physics is also harder to teach than CS or math, and can also be harder to learn (depending on if it's a real physics class or not). The real world is messy and counter intuitive. Book problems can give the illusion that we can put reality in an organized mathematical framework, but even in the purest of physics this is misleading in general.

    To some extent, while the problems you experienced sound like a function of the professor, they are also a function of physics.
  8. Sep 30, 2016 #7
    My bet is that the things you claim were not taught and not mentioned to be on the exams were in the syllabus and addressed in the assignments without getting as much attention as one might prefer in lecture.

    Lecture is only a small part of a college physics course. Reading assignments, problem sets, and other assignments are the other essential parts.

    Many students need to grow up and accept that there's simply not time to cover everything in lecture and used the syllabus and textbook to determine the full scope of subject matter that may be on tests.
  9. Sep 30, 2016 #8
    It seems like many people in this thread are confusing the rigor of a physics major (where many students learn that many things they need to learn are not discussed in lecture) with having a poorly taught course. Thus, they are failing to answer the question.

    For some of my undergrad courses, there was no textbook and/or no homework. Now I realize that this wasn't normal (and in some cases, those courses changed after I took them), but I'm not sure why some people in this thread are refusing to acknowledge this reality that some undergrads face.

    My stat mech course was taught in this format - there was no book, and if you asked the professor for additional resources, he told you that the lectures were sufficient to do well in the course. The homework was based off of the lectures, but the exams were not. I spent easily 30+ hours per week studying for that course, beginning by Googling keywords from the lectures and finding online resources to learn about them. The exams still came out of left field for me - especially in thermodynamics, if you aren't given a direction in which to study, there's just too much information to be able to understand it all. "Growing up" did not help me. What did was recording one of the classes and giving it to the chair of the department.
  10. Sep 30, 2016 #9
    Hey, half of the teachers you ever have will be below average.

    No one is denying or ignoring that, and physics teachers are included in that.

    But a student needs to focus on things that are within his control, and usually the quality of instructors in upper level physics courses is not within the student's control.

    Further, third parties who only hear one side of the story have no real basis to determine the accuracy of student assessments of teacher quality. Faculty with much experience have heard many of those same complaints about pretty good teachers.

    The best advice is focused on what the student needs to do differently to succeed when speaking to the student.

    Any advice regarding what the teacher needs to improve on is best reserved for the teacher.
  11. Sep 30, 2016 #10


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    That reminds me of a graduate-level course I had.
  12. Sep 30, 2016 #11


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    More than half of my courses followed a similar format. The exam scores were always around a 40% average for students, and curved at the end.

    That doesn't mean the professors are bad, or not teaching you anything. If anything they are also teaching you that one course on a subject does not bestow mastery. Other courses were you can score remarkably well on exams can be deceptive and lead to false confidence.
  13. Oct 1, 2016 #12
    If you were able to go back and take that exam a couple courses later, do you feel you would score a "real A" if you will?
  14. Oct 1, 2016 #13


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    Yes. That's the reason, in my opinion, of why this sort of thing is done.
  15. Oct 3, 2016 #14
    I think the stress of an exam and the fact that it matters more than a homework assignment actually triggers learning.
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