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Studying When you're not learning from studying

  1. Aug 24, 2009 #1
    So often when I'm studying physics I'll read through a chapter - feel like I understand the material - look at the examples and get all excited that I might just have learned it!! ..then I get to the problems.

    When my study time is being spent on solving problems and I hit a brick wall - I really hit a brick wall. I've found entire study sessions go by where I'm no better off at the end than I was at the beginning - and I understand the importance of trial and error but what should you do when your trials aren't getting you anywhere? Wouldn't constant reliance on tutors or others breed a sort of laziness and memorization rather than deep analytical understanding?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 24, 2009 #2


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    Re-read the chapter until you fully and completely understand the material. Of course you're going to think that you "get it" because the example problems are easier than the actual end-of-chapter problems, and the solution is usually laid out step by step so it looks like you understand how to do it.

    For physics problems, I think I benefit greatly from making a diagram of whatever's being asked, then applying the techniques taught in the chapter to complete my solution. That seemed to work about 80% of the time.
  4. Aug 24, 2009 #3


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    You may need more time to learn successfully than most people. Put in that time and you should find results you want, maybe not when you want, but sooner than if you did not put in the extra time. (Then, change your intended major course of study).

    About the examples, try to solve the examples firist on your own without looking at the solution. Do as much as you can and recheck the instruction first for clues. When you did as much as you can this way, then check to compare with the solution shown in the book.
  5. Aug 24, 2009 #4
    Reading the chapter then getting stuck on problems is normal. That's pretty much the whole point of the problems. They provide 90% of the "oomph" of the difficulty of the material, at least in my experience anyways. Reading the book is still hard though, unfortunately :)

    When you get stuck on problems, I think the best strategy is to try not to dwell on the problem, and instead, take a break, go seek help, talk to somebody about it, etcetera. I don't think talking to somebody about the problem short-changes you in any way, or prevents you from learning anything. The trial-and-error process depends on figuring out the reason for your error. It is crucial to eventually get help and look at the solution if you are unable to figure it out on your own. This is the most educational aspect of the process.

    It sounds like you are trying to gauge your progress based off of a single study session, or a single assignment. I don't agree with gauging your progress this way. The only way you should gauge your progress is after 4-5 weeks, e.g., leading up to an exam. Or after an entire semester, where I think even despite what you've mentioned, almost everybody tends to notice an increased aptitude in the stuff they've been studying. So don't be so hard on yourself about a single, frustrating study session, which everybody experiences. Some weeks I can figure out all my problems, other weeks, I am unable to solve many of them.

    - Aside:
    As far as retention goes, I think it's a valid point to say that 6 months or 1 year down the road, maybe you have lost a lot of what you learned, and if you go back and look at the problems you feel that you are actually getting stuck once again. It feels like you haven't made any progress. However, I think you are enabled to think more carefully the n-th time you are returning to some problem, and by thinking very very carefully this is the way to figure out the solution to almost any problem, regardless of past experience. In other words, you have trained your fundamental capacity to think carefully about a problem and approach a solution.
  6. Aug 24, 2009 #5


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    I agree with not dwelling on the question when you can't seem find the solution to it.

    Whenever I'm stuck on the problem, I'd skip it and move on to other problems. After about an a couple of hours or so (and hopefully many problems done :tongue:), I'd go back to the problem. If I still can't find the answer, I'd probably wait for a day or two before coming back to it. Sometimes the insight needed will just come to me at random when I'm doing something else, say playing video games or watching tv or something.
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