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Why? Why oh why do students have so much trouble in physics

  1. Oct 22, 2009 #1


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    So this semester I've been teaching some of our universities physics labs. My labs are the intro series... not for the totally clueless non-science majors, but the semi-science/"soft science" (or well, more accurately non-calculus required science) majors. It seems like people just have so many problems with physics. We don't exactly have the best instructors teaching the lectures but it seems universal that people just have problems with it. What gives? In my experience, other courses in our university just require an hour of study before their exams, 30 minutes for homework a week or so... and it seems as courses get more advanced (from what I hear from friends), that doesn't change too much. Now in hindsight, the way to really do well in my upper division undergrad classes was to study and take a good deal of time to do the homework even if it meant multiple sessions and office hours. Is this idea of studying just lost on less advanced students? Maybe most students just want the degree so they don't have to put on their resume "high school educated"? It's a strange climate....

  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 22, 2009 #2
    well, if theyre only soft science majors, im guessing they just wnt to pass your course. i can give you a personal experience however. i do not care about chemistry, or biology. i just want to get my A'S, and get onto dental school. unfortunately this is the way the majority of this generation is. i am a little different though. i actually want to develop my critical thinking skills. ive never been great in math, and itd be cool to get atleast a b in calculus when i take it summer 2010 (along with orgo chem 1 and orgo chem 2...kill me now)./

    but once again i dont actually care about calculus, or chemistry. i dont care, about a plants reproductive system in biology, or that paramecium caudatum is in phylum ciliophora, and has a macro and micro nucleus. i asked a chemistry professor for help on a trig problem for my class. and he said, i dont remember this, i had to take calculus to be a chem teacher, but i dont remember this. i never use this anymore and you never will either! he made a joke though , that in dental school, i ll have to learn calculus to calculate the surface area of someones mouth and how to properly drill through their teeth and all./
  4. Oct 22, 2009 #3


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    These are the worst to teach.
    The 'physics for poets' stuff can be quite fun if you are allowed to teach what you want - you can explain how physics is a series of more detailed understandings, how all models are wrong but some are useful, theory an experiment proof etc.
    But soft science is terrible, there is no chance that anyone cares - they just need to pass this course - and you have to teach them without having the useful tools (like calculus).

    Think of it the other way around. If you are a hard science student then a descriptive history or anthropology class would be interesting - a poetry appreciation class where you have to use all the technical terms of poetry but nothing is explained would be horrible.
    Last edited: Oct 22, 2009
  5. Oct 22, 2009 #4


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    I can think of a few factors that might come into play:
    - unqualified high school teachers not grounding the students properly in physics in the first place
    - cramming the night before worked in high school and therefore it is still applied in univeristy
    - students interested in the squishy sciences who enroll in physics because it's a requirement and not because they have a desire to learn it start off on the wrong foot
    - rote learning doesn't really work for physics
  6. Oct 22, 2009 #5


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    Possible reasons:

    1) Poor instructors
    2) Student doesn't have a "Physics mind" (i.e. no aptitude for science)
    3) Poor study habits
    4) Student doesn't ask questions in class
    5) Student doesn't practice, practice, practice...

  7. Oct 22, 2009 #6
    Apathy. They're there to get the grade and pass, that's it. After all, our society has relegated the education-system to play the role of a mere tool; it's a tool whose only purpose is to get a job and make money.

    The ones who are getting hurt are the people who do give a damn about the quality of their education.
  8. Oct 23, 2009 #7
    That is very true. Many people when they see that they are struggling end up dropping the course because it will affect their GPA. They are not willing to work at it and put in the hours to understand the material on a deeper level. It's all about staying competitive and get the most money possible, which , in my opinion, is sad.
  9. Oct 23, 2009 #8
    speaking for my own...

    1) Our instructors are HORRIBLE. The one i have this semester in particular is AWFUL. We have a class of 50 students and more than 1/2 the class does not show up. Once i counted 13 students in my class. Few go to another professor who i hear is good...the rest, i'm assuming try studying on their own and left behind.

    2) A vast majority in introductory physics courses (especially in non-calc based) are just taking it for the requirement. In my calc-based Physics I course there was only one Physics major, the rest were bio, chem, engineering...they only cared about passing.

    3) Exams are bad, they really are. Even in an introductory Physics class the average was ~ 40. imo that is not uplifting for students taking introductory course.

    4) add stupid Mastering Physics homework. I personally learned better when we did hand written homeworks. Then again, that's prolly just me...i don't like online homeworks.

    5) and of course there is lab. Thankfully our labs were computer-based. There was no pre-lab or a lab report to be written. BUT for each course there were 2-3 "standard" (non-computer based) lab...and oh boy...i couldn't believe how anyone who had to do all "standard" lab went through those.

    6) chances of getting left behind is high. Usually they cover 1 chapter a week. All physics chapters are packs with problems. In most other courses it usually takes multiple weeks to get a chapter done. Say, in mathematics, it usually takes a month to get a chapter done...but that's prolly b/c they have buncha sub-sections.
  10. Oct 23, 2009 #9

    Andy Resnick

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    In my experience, this particular student faces a considerable hurdle with the use of mathematics. First, there's the overall lack of proficiency (some of my students don't remember how to calculate the area of a trapezoid), but possibly worse is the student's self-perception that 'I'm not smart enough to understand this stuff'. Plus, the course is one of many that are required to graduate that have (in the student's mind) no bearing on their life/employment goals.

    Toss in an instructor that blindly marches through the textbook without stopping to consider that a student may wonder how the (grossly simplified to the point of a cartoon) material has any bearing on real life, when everything they see and read about physics (in the popular media) is full of "quantum mysteries" and "Einstein's genius", etc., and it's no wonder the average student is quickly bored.

    And the introductory labs have even less connection with daily life. Force tables? Air rails? And if the instrumentation doesn't work perfectly, or if the data obtained fails to obey what the person in the front of the class demands, the student is likely to just accept that Physics makes no sense (or the student will claim they are not smart enough to understand).

    It's ok to blame poor instructors, but to be fair, one must also look at the *material* being taught, the book used, the lab excersises, and the reason why those seats are occupied. Personally, I see it as an opportunity to experiment- two examples:

    I am in the middle of introducing general relativity to my physics I (algebra-based) class, using the context of angular motion. So far it's working; the students understand Newton's bucket, and they are motivated to stay interested because GR is a 'sexy' topic. More sexy than Atwood's machine, at any rate.

    Second, I related the conservation laws (energy, momentum, angular momentum) to invariance of time, position, and orientation. Although I did not derive those relationships, the students accept them at face value and thus see the conservation laws not as some arbitrary statement, but as a reflection of intuitive experience. So, when I claim 'perpetual motion cannot occur', it's not because of some arbitrary statement conserning unfamiliar concepts that some future smart person can violate, but because of the invariance of performing the process in time- if the machine works tomorrow the same as yesterday, it must obey the conservation of energy, and so cannot be a perpetual motion device.

    Finally, I meet with every student in a small group setting at the beginning of class and find out what they are majoring in, what they hiope to get out of the class, etc. and then tailor the homework/test problems to make them as relevant *to them* as possible. Points are not awarded based on calculator proficiency, they are awarded when a student can communicate to me that they understand the underlying concepts.
  11. Oct 24, 2009 #10


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    Sometimes I wonder about the typical reasoning for people doing poorly and not understanding the physics courses and what not. For example, saying it's something they're not interested in and just want a grade. In pretty much every non-science course I've taken, I did well and did my work and tried to understand what was going on and in general, had respect for the class. I hate to outright criticise other majors, but is it because in science courses, we actually learn to do stuff and think whereas non-science majors simply just learn about stuff? So when non-science majors attend science classes, they're dismayed by the fact that they aren't there to simply memorize facts and hope to regurgitate them on a test?
  12. Oct 24, 2009 #11

    Andy Resnick

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    Having some unmotivated students is normal. Consider this: why have they not dropped the class? Surely there are other core classes that satisfy a requirement for their degree. If there is not, perhaps the student feels compelled to take a class they don't want to and thinks the requirement unreasonable.

    That said, it's also entirely true that there are students at college that probably should not be in college. As a college degree becomes more and more a prerequisite for 'decent jobs', there will be more and more unqualified graduates. In practical terms, I am always willing to help a floundering student if that student is actively trying to learn the material. Otherwise, it's all up to the student how well they do in my class.
  13. Oct 24, 2009 #12
    up until the wheatstone bridge i breezed through physics, and even after that still did fairly well from natural aptitude. if only it were possible to pursue a career in solving physics 101 homework problems, i would be a happy man
  14. Oct 25, 2009 #13
    1. problem solving is a skill - it's a lot different than just memorizing what steps to do and regurgitating them on an exam. You really have to have a thorough understanding of the concepts and know how to apply them.

    2. physics is generally a harder class to teach - in my experience, most physics teachers can be smart as hell but they have a harder time conveying the subject to students

    3. apathy to the subject - class that is used as a prerequisite for a lot of majors even though it may not have anything to do with it. So students are less likely to give a crap about really learning it.
  15. Oct 25, 2009 #14
    I seriously think that students have no idea how to actually study for physics, and this is partially the lecturer's fault. Generally, an instructor for a general physics series will lecture on the concepts, show some derivations, and do the occasional worked example. For students majoring in softer sciences like biology they probably don't have the notion drummed into their skulls that to really understand physics they have to work problems.

    Precisely because instructors either don't, or can't devote time necessary to work out problems the students don't realize that they won't develop the physical intuition necessary to set up a problem and apply the necessary equations. I once ran into a group of pre-meds from my physics class that were studying. Over the course of an hour all they did was go over the lecture notes and talk about conceptual ideas instead of trying to solve problems.

    I really do think that these students don't have it impressed on them hard enough that they should be solving problems. Even if it's rote copying down answers from the solutions manual, if it's done enough the sheer mechanical procedure should translate over to a test.
  16. Oct 25, 2009 #15


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    It might be that there are inconsistencies, anomalies, and quirks in physics, that the physicists just take for granted, and just move on to the next subject, but the lay person can never quite get past.

    T = (5252 x HP)/rpm
    How does this equation resemble reality in a locked rotor electric motor?

    Sometimes a foot pound is a pound force moved a linear foot and other times a foot pound is a pound force acting around pivot at a distance of a foot but doesn't move anything and that's a pseudovector called Torque, and don't ask me why we don't use real vectors.

    Europeans measure the mass of things while the Americans measure the weight so everything has to be converted into kg's otherwise we end up with slug feet/second which has no corresponding conversion at the end of the book.

    Then there's the hundred different ways to measure a single thing: 1 Btu = 1E18 ergs = 778 ft-lbs = 4E-4 hp-hr = 1055 joules = 252 calories = 2.9E-4 kw-hr = 6.6E21 ev.

    Perhaps the first day of class should be spent explaining quirks that people will run into so they don't think they're idiots and sit there like all the other idiots when things don't make sense.
  17. Oct 25, 2009 #16
    Well, at least in Sweden you do everything with the same units (the standard SI) so there are no such "quirks".
  18. Oct 25, 2009 #17


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    naele commented about a group of students studying together:
    That gives the impression that these people have a different style of thinking than most physical science major students. No matter, what you determined to be missing was what these students needed to learn to do: to SOLVE some problems. Problem-solving is one of the main parts of physics study. Reading and discussing concepts is not enough.
  19. Oct 25, 2009 #18
    At my school, as I've ranted before I am in calculus based Physics II. At my school I think nearly all of the students fall into one of 2 categories, besides physics majors:

    1. They are rather dumb.
    2. They don't care even in the slightest about physics.

    Granted my school is rather unique and has people from all sorts of backgrounds but even the kids who spent a good chuck of time after hours with the professor just don't get the material. To give you an example I am in Intro E&M and halfway through the semester we have covered up to Capacitors!!

    Secondly it seems like the people who take these classes don't really have any conceptions of how physics and math relate besides there are some relations that the professor will make you learn to do good on the test.

    That's really the thing isn't it? I think in the end 90% of the kids in a regular intro physics course don't want to do anything besides get in and get out with an ok enough grade to continue. I think it is kind of a waste the time that some professors put into trying to teach them the material, they don't not get it because they are dumb - although a few of them are- they mostly don't get it because they don't care.

    As a side note as a prospective physicsist, I have hated pretty put everything about Intro Physics and can see how it can be frustrating to anyone. Tons of hand waving explanations, trying to cram a ton of material into a semester and really only cover it at a very light level. I'd rather have dived into a physics class where we get taught everything from the very basics of some topic to an intermediate understanding of it in one foul swoop, I think that would have been a much rewarding year of my life. I'm guessing such classes don't really exist?
  20. Oct 25, 2009 #19
    what kind of ¨skill¨ is problem solving? problem solving is inherently a spontaneous occurrence! if you mean by problem solving using the algorithms physics students are taught then those are just as formulaic as anything else.

    every statics problem ever:
    ¨draw the force diagram -> resolve the forces into components -> sum the forces in x,y and z to 0 -> solve for unknowns. ¨

    every e&m problem ever:
    ¨draw the charge distribution -> find the field or potential (mirror charges or w/e) -> solve for unknowns¨

    every qm problem ever:
    ¨draw the potential -> solve schrodinger´s eqn (it´s probably an infinite square well so just ¨guess¨ cosines and sines or complex exponentials) -> solve for k¨

    i think the problem is the lie. don´t preach ¨problem solving skills¨ - preach what it really is algorithmic solutions. at least then students won´t be deceived.
  21. Oct 25, 2009 #20


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    If it were this easy, half the students who take the courses wouldn't be taking it for the 2nd/third time practically.
  22. Oct 25, 2009 #21


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    My freshman year, we had to live on-campus, and my roommate was pre-med. He took some of the same courses that I took, but his courses were stretched out over 2 semesters for every semester that I took. It was frustrating, because he expected me to carry him through the material, and he did not have the fundamentals to understand the basics of the materials. He was clueless, and did not study properly (he didn't have the foundation to do that anyway) and crammed relentlessly for exams, trying to memorize stuff. It was sad.
  23. Oct 25, 2009 #22

    Andy Resnick

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    I've been thinking about this topic a lot- here's another item to consider:

    In what other field (science or otherwise), does the curriculum start with a very simplified introductory explanation, and the as the student advances, they are told (time and again), that what they learned before "isn't really true, there's a better explanation, and here it is..."

    I submit that Physics is the only branch of science that does this: not chemistry, not biology, not math, not any branch of study of any subject. To an outsider, this must appear very strange! How can physicists claim to know *anything*?
  24. Oct 25, 2009 #23
    One thing I've noticed is all of the combinations of skill and motivation in students.

    1 Skilled - Motivated
    2 Skilled - Unmotivated <--me
    3 Unskilled - Motivated
    4 Unskilled - Unmotivated

    I've had the opportunity to 1 on 1 tutor several of each of these students. I'd have to say that unskilled - motivated can be fixed overtime with 1 on 1 tutoring.
  25. Oct 25, 2009 #24


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    In the 60's this happened in chemistry, too. Students were weaned from a view in which electrons occupied orbital "shells" and were told that there were discrete energy levels that they could exist at around any given nucleus. That was an eye-opener to many.
  26. Oct 25, 2009 #25
    and i bet in the 60s chemistry classes had terrible passing rates too.
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