• Support PF! Buy your school textbooks, materials and every day products via PF Here!

Studying Why do I struggle with Physics, but do well in math?

Hello fellow STEM majors, I am currently attending a community college and looking towards majoring in Electrical Engineering. I am currently taking Calculus 2, Physics 1 (calculus level), American Literature 2, and Microeconomics. I am doing well in all of my classes except Physics 1. What are the common reasons of students not doing well in Physics, and how should I change my study habits to get better grades? I study a lot for calculus 2, but I'll admit that I don't spend as much time in physics studying. I've been told by others that they finished calculus 3 before they took physics and that made physics much easier for them to understand. On the first day of class, my professor even told us that if it were up to him, he would make it so students would have to finish calculus 3 before they were allowed to take physics. Is this generally true at other universities? Would it have been much more efficient for me to take something like chemistry instead and wait until I finish calculus 3 so I get an advantage in physics? Does it matter how good a professor is to teach physics?
 
32,753
4,471
Hello fellow STEM majors, I am currently attending a community college and looking towards majoring in Electrical Engineering. I am currently taking Calculus 2, Physics 1 (calculus level), American Literature 2, and Microeconomics. I am doing well in all of my classes except Physics 1. What are the common reasons of students not doing well in Physics, and how should I change my study habits to get better grades? I study a lot for calculus 2, but I'll admit that I don't spend as much time in physics studying.
This is an important reason for not doing well in physics.
HoneyMustardAdmirer said:
I've been told by others that they finished calculus 3 before they took physics and that made physics much easier for them to understand. On the first day of class, my professor even told us that if it were up to him, he would make it so students would have to finish calculus 3 before they were allowed to take physics. Is this generally true at other universities?
I don't know if this is true in general. I don't know what your Calculus 1 and 2 cover, but I assume that the first course covers derivatives, and the second course covers integrals. A significant chunk of the first physics class is in equations of motion, in which velocity is the time derivative of distance, and acceleration is the time derivative of velocity. Working backwards from acceleration involves integrals, but they tend to be fairly simple integration problems, as I remember them. I would imagine that Calculus 3 covers infinite series such as Maclaurin series and Taylor series, and these aren't used much in first year physics, at least not as it was presented to me.
HoneyMustardAdmirer said:
Would it have been much more efficient for me to take something like chemistry instead and wait until I finish calculus 3 so I get an advantage in physics?
Taking chemistry first doesn't seem relevant to me, but having two calculus classes would be somewhat better than having only one.
HoneyMustardAdmirer said:
Does it matter how good a professor is to teach physics?
Well, yes, but another question to consider is, does it matter how diligent a student is in learning physics?

Getting back to the question in your thread title, being able to do well in math doesn't guarantee that you'll also do well in physics. In the math problems, you're often presented with an equation that you manipulate to find a solution for. In physics problems, you often need to analyze some situation, and derive some equation that describes the situation, so it is usually the case that you need to have more intuition on what is going on in the physical situation. You might even need to take measurements in a lab experiment and come up with an equation that represents what is going on. So the two disciplines, although related, are not exactly the same.

As far as your immediate problem, struggling with physics, a good place to start would be to put more effort at studying, -- reading the material carefully and doing the assigned problems and labs.
 
This is an important reason for not doing well in physics.
I don't know if this is true in general. I don't know what your Calculus 1 and 2 cover, but I assume that the first course covers derivatives, and the second course covers integrals. A significant chunk of the first physics class is in equations of motion, in which velocity is the time derivative of distance, and acceleration is the time derivative of velocity. Working backwards from acceleration involves integrals, but they tend to be fairly simple integration problems, as I remember them. I would imagine that Calculus 3 covers infinite series such as Maclaurin series and Taylor series, and these aren't used much in first year physics, at least not as it was presented to me.
Taking chemistry first doesn't seem relevant to me, but having two calculus classes would be somewhat better than having only one.
Well, yes, but another question to consider is, does it matter how diligent a student is in learning physics?

Getting back to the question in your thread title, being able to do well in math doesn't guarantee that you'll also do well in physics. In the math problems, you're often presented with an equation that you manipulate to find a solution for. In physics problems, you often need to analyze some situation, and derive some equation that describes the situation, so it is usually the case that you need to have more intuition on what is going on in the physical situation. You might even need to take measurements in a lab experiment and come up with an equation that represents what is going on. So the two disciplines, although related, are not exactly the same.

As far as your immediate problem, struggling with physics, a good place to start would be to put more effort at studying, -- reading the material carefully and doing the assigned problems and labs.
In my school, Calculus 2 covers integration techniques, integration applications, and right now we're covering infinite series.
 
32,753
4,471
In my school, Calculus 2 covers integration techniques, integration applications, and right now we're covering infinite series.
In your Physics 1 class, do any of the problems require any mathematics techniques beyond integration?
 
In your Physics 1 class, do any of the problems require any mathematics techniques beyond integration?
No, it's just basic derivatives and integrals but we've been doing things like line integrals even though that's taught in calculus 3. But for the most part we end up doing more algebra.
 

Stephen Tashi

Science Advisor
6,757
1,095
I am currently taking Calculus 2, Physics 1 (calculus level),
On the first day of class, my professor even told us that if it were up to him, he would make it so students would have to finish calculus 3 before they were allowed to take physics.
Is there material in your Physics 1 class that requires calculus you haven't learned yet? Your professor's remark hints that he would prefer to teach the material from an advanced viewpoint. What textbook are you using? Is he following the book?

What are the common reasons of students not doing well in Physics, and how should I change my study habits to get better grades?
One guess is that you need to change your frame of mind when you study physics. Mathematical "objects" like equations and graphs require one sort of understanding. Physical objects are a different matter. In a manner of speaking, studying physical objects involves tacking on mathematical concepts to them. You have to focus on how mathematical concepts are associated with a physical object. Mathematically inclined students are tempted to neglect the skill of associating mathematical ideas with physical situations. They want to skip over that task and get to the mathematics.

A correct way of associating mathematical concepts to physical situations is not self-evident to students in introductory physics. ( The history of physics shows that making correct associations wasn't obvious to many ancient mathematicians. ) By contrast, many things in mathematics appear intuitively obvious -at least to people whose intuition has been educated by years of prior math courses.
 
Is there material in your Physics 1 class that requires calculus you haven't learned yet? Your professor's remark hints that he would prefer to teach the material from an advanced viewpoint. What textbook are you using? Is he following the book?



One guess is that you need to change your frame of mind when you study physics. Mathematical "objects" like equations and graphs require one sort of understanding. Physical objects are a different matter. In a manner of speaking, studying physical objects involves tacking on mathematical concepts to them. You have to focus on how mathematical concepts are associated with a physical object. Mathematically inclined students are tempted to neglect the skill of associating mathematical ideas with physical situations. They want to skip over that task and get to the mathematics.

A correct way of associating mathematical concepts to physical situations is not self-evident to students in introductory physics. ( The history of physics shows that making correct associations wasn't obvious to many ancient mathematicians. ) By contrast, many things in mathematics appear intuitively obvious -at least to people whose intuition has been educated by years of prior math courses.
Well, he's shown us line integrals and partial derivatives several times. I asked him about why he believes we should wait until we finish calculus 3, and he said something along the lines of calculus 3 giving a good foundation in concepts like the motion of particles, curvature, etc.
 
Last edited:

WWGD

Science Advisor
Gold Member
4,529
1,966
One thing i would suggest is that you study your notes as short as possible after the class. If you wait for more than a few days the material will be too deeply dredged in yiur mind and will take much more effort to understand.
 
32,753
4,471
What's the math prereq for Physics 1 at your school? At the CC I taught math at, the prereq for Engineering Physics (as opposed to "physics for poets") was the first quarter of calculus -- we were on the quarter system. If your prof is making his own implied prerequisites that conflict with the prerequisites posted for the class, that's something you might want to discuss with the dean of the department.
 
What's the math prereq for Physics 1 at your school? At the CC I taught math at, the prereq for Engineering Physics (as opposed to "physics for poets") was the first quarter of calculus -- we were on the quarter system. If your prof is making his/her own implicit prerequisites, that's something you might want to discuss with the dean of the department.
Calculus 1 is a prerequisite, and calculus 2 is a co-requisite for Physics 1 (calculus level).
 
32,753
4,471
Calculus 1 is a prerequisite, and calculus 2 is a co-requisite for Physics 1 (calculus level).
Seems pretty standard.
From your description, it doesn't seem that the physics prof is adhering to the published prereqs for the physics class. His explanation of calculus giving a good foundation in concepts like the motion of particles, curvature, etc. (your words), does not explain why he's presenting material that requires partial derivatives and line integrals, topics that I presume aren't covered in the prereq math classes. He has given a reasonable justification for why he would prefer that the prereqs were different, but the bottom line is that Calculus 3 is not listed as a course prerequisite. IMO, it is unethical and unprofessional for him to tacitly assume that students have taken the Calc 3 class, and essentially punish those who haven't taken the class.
 

symbolipoint

Homework Helper
Education Advisor
Gold Member
5,659
939
2,088
514
I really cannot imagine why curvature would arise in a Physics 1 course. There is a lot that needs to be covered in Physics 1 that only requires derivatives and simple integrals. Sounds to me like the teacher may be bored with the material and seeking to "upgrade" the material for his own interest.
 

symbolipoint

Homework Helper
Education Advisor
Gold Member
5,659
939
I really cannot imagine why curvature would arise in a Physics 1 course. There is a lot that needs to be covered in Physics 1 that only requires derivatives and simple integrals. Sounds to me like the teacher may be bored with the material and seeking to "upgrade" the material for his own interest.
One might guess other reasons. Maybe improved Mathematical acquisition at the Calc 3 level than at the Calc 1 level. WE cannot really be certain what the real reasoning is of that teacher who prefers students be in Calc 3 instead of letting the current prereq. stay as Calc 1.
 

WWGD

Science Advisor
Gold Member
4,529
1,966
One might guess other reasons. Maybe improved Mathematical acquisition at the Calc 3 level than at the Calc 1 level. WE cannot really be certain what the real reasoning is of that teacher who prefers students be in Calc 3 instead of letting the current prereq. stay as Calc 1.
You're right, though it is a real issue that of having profs tayloring classes to their interests, sometimes at the student's expense.
 
32,753
4,471
WE cannot really be certain what the real reasoning is of that teacher who prefers students be in Calc 3 instead of letting the current prereq. stay as Calc 1.
The real reasoning for the teacher's preference isn't relevant if the prerequisite is Calc 1 with concurrent enrollment in Calc 2.
You're right, though it is a real issue that of having profs tayloring classes to their interests, sometimes at the student's expense.
Exactly the point I made in post #11.
If the instructor wants to fiddle with the prereqs, it needs to be made official; i.e., getting buy-in from the physics department to change the prereqs in the college catalog, as well as communicating that change to the math department and advisors. The instructor does not and should not have the power to unilaterally decide that his section should have different prereqs than other sections of the same class.

I would think that an ambitious lawyer could bring a suit against the college if some student were to be harmed, believing that he or she met the prerequisites, but ending up with a low grade because of not having taken some course that wasn't listed as a prereq.
 
2,088
514
I would think that an ambitious lawyer could bring a suit against the college if some student were to be harmed, believing that he or she met the prerequisites, but ending up with a low grade because of not having taken some course that wasn't listed as a prereq.
Oh, goody!! Yes, yes, let's get the lawyers involved. That will assure that everybody looses (except the lawyers!).
 
32,753
4,471
Oh, goody!! Yes, yes, let's get the lawyers involved. That will assure that everybody looses (except the lawyers!).
Lawyers aren't going to get involved based on what I'm saying, but rather, if a student is harmed as I have described. My recommendation isn't to take this to a lawyer, but instead, talk to the dean of the department, who likely would realize that there is a possibility of liability for the college.
 
Lawyers aren't going to get involved based on what I'm saying, but rather, if a student is harmed as I have described. My recommendation isn't to take this to a lawyer, but instead, talk to the dean of the department, who likely would realize that there is a possibility of liability for the college.
I think I should clarify, its not that we're being tested on anything involving material beyond calculus 1, he just likes to go over some things involving what I've mentioned when it's relevant. We only have to deal with it when we're working on labs sometimes. I just want to improve my studying for this course.
 

TSny

Homework Helper
Gold Member
12,046
2,619
@HoneyMustardAdmirer
Do you have trouble working problems from the textbook, or only with problems on exams?

When you do get stuck on a physics problem, do you feel that generally the trouble is with the math manipulations or with conceptual understanding? If you tend to have trouble "setting up" and getting started with an exercise, it could be that you need to put more time into understanding the concepts. Also, knowing the exact (mathematical) definition of physics terms is essential to doing well.

Here are some tips that I found online:
 

vela

Staff Emeritus
Science Advisor
Homework Helper
Education Advisor
14,426
1,109
I am doing well in all of my classes except Physics 1. What are the common reasons of students not doing well in Physics, and how should I change my study habits to get better grades? I study a lot for calculus 2, but I'll admit that I don't spend as much time in physics studying.
That seems a bit backwards. Most people find physics the subject that requires the most work to learn. Are you avoiding studying physics because you find it difficult? It's natural to put off doing things you don't like to do, but in this case, it's just making the problem worse.

I've been told by others that they finished calculus 3 before they took physics and that made physics much easier for them to understand. On the first day of class, my professor even told us that if it were up to him, he would make it so students would have to finish calculus 3 before they were allowed to take physics. Is this generally true at other universities? Would it have been much more efficient for me to take something like chemistry instead and wait until I finish calculus 3 so I get an advantage in physics? Does it matter how good a professor is to teach physics?
I think people are overstating the usefulness of taking Calc 3 before Physics 1. Some topics, like conservative forces and potential energy, will briefly touch on concepts you see in Calc 3, but making Calc 3 a prerequisite for intro physics would be overkill in my opinion.

Generally, the math isn't the difficult part of learning intro physics. Once you have some equations set up, grinding through the math is usually pretty straightforward. But where do those equations come from? You have to analyze a situation, identify relevant concepts, formulate a strategy to obtain the desired result, and then apply the concepts correctly. That's the hard part.
 

jtbell

Mentor
15,371
3,117
we follow Physics for Engineers and Scientists.
Who are the authors? Physics textbook titles tend to be rather generic, especially at the introductory level, so people usually think about textbooks in terms of their authors rather than their exact titles.
 

symbolipoint

Homework Helper
Education Advisor
Gold Member
5,659
939
Generally, the math isn't the difficult part of learning intro physics. Once you have some equations set up, grinding through the math is usually pretty straightforward. But where do those equations come from? You have to analyze a situation, identify relevant concepts, formulate a strategy to obtain the desired result, and then apply the concepts correctly. That's the hard part.
YES.
YES.
YES.
 

Want to reply to this thread?

"Why do I struggle with Physics, but do well in math?" You must log in or register to reply here.

Related Threads for: Why do I struggle with Physics, but do well in math?

  • Posted
Replies
4
Views
357
  • Posted
Replies
8
Views
2K
  • Posted
Replies
2
Views
2K
Replies
23
Views
4K

Physics Forums Values

We Value Quality
• Topics based on mainstream science
• Proper English grammar and spelling
We Value Civility
• Positive and compassionate attitudes
• Patience while debating
We Value Productivity
• Disciplined to remain on-topic
• Recognition of own weaknesses
• Solo and co-op problem solving
Top