Dot Physics

The fall semester is coming up soon. Some students will be taking physics in college. So, here are some pre-class tips – mainly aimed at college students taking algebra-based physics.

Are you afraid?

If you are reading this, maybe you found it because you were looking for stuff on physics. Maybe you are a little scared. You have heard physics is a tough course. Well, that is only kind of true. First, the fear thing. Use it to your advantage. Let fear be a motivator to help you keep up with the class. I think that is the biggest mistake students make. They think of intro physics as just a simple class – it is a 100 level after all right?

Physics (like all learning) takes work. If it were as simple as the instructor giving you something that you could take, I am sure they would do that. Think of it like training for a race, you are going to have to do the running to get better at racing. The ‘running’ in this case is going to be homework, studying and reading the textbook.

Math PreRequisites

Typically this course has some math prereqs. There is a reason for this. You are going to actually have to use that algebra and trig stuff you learning in math. If you are not comfortable with your mad math skillz – maybe look at the appendix of your textbook. Generally, there will be a review of the important math ideas you will need for the course. Also, see if your math department has any free math tutoring.

Generally, this is the area I see most students having trouble with. They are really not prepared (mathematically speaking) for the course. The instructor is not really going to teach you algebra, if you don’t know it – do something now. Honestly, algebra is not that difficult. I like to think of algebra as one main thing – respecting the equal sign. I see lots of students that think of algebra as a series of “recipes” – you know, if this, do that type of thing. This doesn’t really work too well.

One other piece of math advice: get to know vectors. They really are important. All too often I see a student mistake that comes from treating something that is a vector like it is not a vector. Here is my intro to vectors.

Read the textbook

I don’t know what text you will be using, but these things have gone through many revisions (in order to sell). They are really organized well. Actually read this book, it will help. Don’t confuse reading with understanding. You may not get stuff right away, that is totally ok. Take notes while you read and then re-read something.


Homework is not punishment (well, it shouldn’t be). Rather, it is an opportunity for you to practice and maybe get some feedback. I have already stated my opinions on homework, but the key thing is to do it. Start early so you can get help if you need it. If you want to ask your instructor for help, be sure to bring some work that you already started. Hopefully, you can ask a specific question. This would be a bad question: “I have no idea what to do on this problem.” (although sometimes that can’t be helped). A better question would be “I worked on this problem and I am not sure why my acceleration has the wrong units” – or something like that.

Don’t be an equation hunter

Suppose there is a homework problem you are working on. Maybe it is trying to find out how far a ball that is thrown on a hill goes. Most students will start by looking in the book for an equation for range (which is probably in the book). Don’t do this this. There are tons of equations in the book, but don’t think of those as starting points. Rather those are typically solutions to particular problems. Really, the great thing about physics is that there aren’t that many equations. For the first semester, you could probably do 90% of the problems using these equations:


Get a problem solving strategy

Where do you start on a problem? I know it seems like there is no where to start sometimes. That is why you need a strategy. Most textbooks have them. They are derived from looking at the way experts solve problems. It may go something like this:

  • Draw a picture
  • Write down the stuff that is given
  • Write down the thing you are trying to find
  • What main idea does this use (work-energy, newton’s second law etc…)
  • Write down the algebraic expressions from the main ideas
  • Algebraically solve
  • Check answer and units and stuff

There are many variations of this, but they are essentially the same. The great thing about this is that you can get started on problems you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. It may take some patience and practice to get used to using such a scheme, but it will help in the long run.

Study Groups

It really does help when you work with other students. Even if they understand things less well than you do, explaining a concept can help you understand it better also. Find some students in class that you like (or at least can get along with) and form up a group. Maybe you can even give you group a cool name.

That is all I have for now. Remember: Never give up, never surrender. By Grabthar’s hammer, by the sons of Worvan, you shall be avenged.

Does anyone else have any suggestions they would like to add?


  1. #1 Fran
    July 31, 2009

    More on study groups: this is amazingly worthwhile, and even if you think to yourself “But I need to be able to solve these problems by myself on the test,” join a study group anyway. First, you can learn from other people’s approaches to problem solving. Second, you have someone else to ask questions, and often asking a question will help you realize what the answer is. Third, science is all about collaboration with colleagues. Ultimately, you’re supposed to work together to solve problems.

    So do it!

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