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Why are physics problem sets so depressing?

  1. Apr 1, 2012 #1
    When you spend hours and days tediously plugging away at the mathematics of a problem, you lose sight of the actual physics of the problem (in addition to losing sight of what you found interesting about physics in the first place). The problem statements are always innocuous, but as soon as you bite into them, you realize how much of your immediate future will be consumed by this spirit-breaking labor. And at some point, when your focus drifts momentarily, you make a transcriptional error while brainlessly copying one of your many page-long expressions onto the next page, and you end up with the wrong answer, making you feel that not only have these precious days of your youth gone up in smoke forever, but that you're an idiot on top of it.

    Is applying the same mathematical techniques, ad nauseam, to only slightly dissimilar problems really learning? This is where most of your time is spent in physics courses: in this thoughtless, calculating space, not accruing experience or forming meaningful associations...just writing and rewriting equations, over and over and over again.

    Is there really no better pedagogy?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 1, 2012 #2


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    Welcome to Physics. If you know a better way to find out how the world works, there would be no shortage of people who would want to know.
  4. Apr 1, 2012 #3


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    Hey Michael12345 and welcome to the forums.

    In terms of learning new things for each problem, it's not really clear cut.

    If your lecturer is experienced or at the person who assigns problem sets, then they will probably have a good idea of the kinds of problems that really reinforce the learning, but again you might not learn something new: it's just a gamble like anything else in life.

    Usually what I have found in my experience is that when you come across a problem you might not have any problem solving it, but you still might learn something really subtle and that one subtle thing has just unlocked a giant piece of the puzzle and given you some real insight.

    One thing I would like to suggest if at all possible, is to make a part of your understanding non-mathematical: in other words make some of your understanding be in a way that you can say what's going to another person who doesn't know math or physics but understands a spoken language like english.

    If you do this then the symbols will not look like an alien language and the transformations won't look like something that is memorized and then forgotten when its convenient to. It will mean that you will look at symbolic notation and see a story in english that essentially boils down to one or two key ideas that some human long ago (or maybe not so long ago) had and I have no doubt that they had an idea that they were able to convey through speech in conjunction with mathematics.

    In terms of spirit-breaking labor, most jobs have parts that really suck and in the end it's going to be your decision of whether the good parts outweight the bad parts enough for you to be willing to work in that job. For some of us, the bad parts outweigh the good and people move on to other things but for others the good parts outweigh the bad and people are content to put up with the bad parts because they enjoy the good.
  5. Apr 1, 2012 #4
    Michael, from personal experience I can say that those kind of problem sets are typical of the introductory physics courses and gradually lessen, making room for more conceptual and exciting types of exercises (much like the classes get more exciting too).

    In a lot of grad classes, you won't even make exercises anymore, and you're expected to learn the material by any way you see fit.
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