First-year Physics Major. Not sure where to go from here

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First-year Physics Major. Not sure where to go from here

Postby cameron432 » Thu Feb 09, 2012 5:00 am UTC

Hey all, I'm in a bit of a predicament. I absolutely adore physics, which is why I'm majoring in it (alongside Math). This is my first semester taking upper-level physics courses (i.e. everything but the Intro courses that Engineers also take). Currently, I'm enrolled in Intro to Modern (which is easy), and Electricity & Magnetism (which... isn't).

I realized that I have to drop E&M, because I have about 15 points out a total of 100. But I just don't know where to go from this. I worked my butt off on the most recent homework assignment, thought I kind of knew what I was doing, expected hopefully a 50%, but no, I got sub 10%. I just don't really get all of the concepts for the class. It's more difficult than any class I've taken. Because of that, I put WAY more work into the assignment than I ever have for any other class, and I was just wrong. I straight up did the problems completely wrong and got completely wrong answers.

My question is, am I just... too dumb for a Physics major? I love it and there's nothing else I really want to do, but I don't understand what's going on. The other course, I'm completely fine with, but I don't get E&M.
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Re: First-year Physics Major. Not sure where to go from here

Postby masher » Thu Feb 09, 2012 5:43 am UTC

Do you have a problem with the maths, or with the physics?

You may just have an issue in grasping the physical concepts behind the maths; you can solve them correctly, but you start from the wrong point.
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Re: First-year Physics Major. Not sure where to go from here

Postby cameron432 » Thu Feb 09, 2012 5:48 am UTC

The most amount of trouble I have is setting up a problem. I can solve the math, and I can conceptually grasp what's going on, but when I try to translate the physical concepts into math equations, I mess up/have no idea where to even start.
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Re: First-year Physics Major. Not sure where to go from here

Postby Angua » Thu Feb 09, 2012 11:31 am UTC

It sounds like you're having trouble connecting two concepts - not because you're 'too dumb' - probably because for some reason you're creating a mental block for yourself somewhere. You won't be able to get around it until you manage to see the problem in a different light - sometimes it takes several tries for something to 'click'. What you need is to figure out where your block is, and so that way you can find out how to get around it.

First, see if you can either go to your professor or TA (or if you know someone in the class) and see if you can get them to explain it to you a different way - have them work through one of the problems you thought you'd done right step by step so they can see where you go wrong, and tell you why it's wrong. If that doesn't work, try and see if you can find online resources for the class that teach the same thing, but in a different way.

You are doing fine in your other courses it sounds like - so remember you are smart - sometimes these things happen and once we get a mental block it can be hard to get around it. Think of it as those times where you've had trouble figuring out the answer - when you actually go and ask someone for help and are telling them, you realise that you've figured it out for yourself - you'd just been missing one crucial jump in your head. Now you need someone to find the jump that you're missing for you.

edit- just remember that unlike school, college teaching is mainly lecture based, so you don't have the teacher explaining it in different ways for different people - it's just how the lecturer finds it easiest to learn for them. It doesn't mean that if you went up to them and asked them for help they won't be able to explain it differently just like a teacher does at school.

edit 2 - you could also try asking the folks in the Science forum to help walk you through some of the problems you had on your test - they're pretty good at getting concepts across and helping you figure stuff out. Explain that you've tried to do it yourself and show your working - that way they know they're not doing your homework for you, so will probably be happy to help.
“When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.” - Mark Twain
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Re: First-year Physics Major. Not sure where to go from here

Postby Chen » Thu Feb 09, 2012 12:59 pm UTC

cameron432 wrote:I realized that I have to drop E&M, because I have about 15 points out a total of 100. But I just don't know where to go from this. I worked my butt off on the most recent homework assignment, thought I kind of knew what I was doing, expected hopefully a 50%, but no, I got sub 10%. I just don't really get all of the concepts for the class. It's more difficult than any class I've taken. Because of that, I put WAY more work into the assignment than I ever have for any other class, and I was just wrong. I straight up did the problems completely wrong and got completely wrong answers.


Is it still before the drop deadline for your courses? Usually withdrawing mid-semester from a course will mark it as such on your transcript and that rarely looks good. Its also pretty early in the semester for the course to be unpassable. How much weight to assignments have in this course? From my experience engineering/physics/math courses tend to have assignments through the year and then a final that is worth FAR more than any of the assignment. A lot of math courses I took also even offered a 100% final option, if you so chose.

Now that said, if you have difficulty with the concepts talk to the TAs or the prof. They will help you out. Talk to other students as well. See what tricks they use to help them and see if they can help you.
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Re: First-year Physics Major. Not sure where to go from here

Postby LaserGuy » Thu Feb 09, 2012 4:55 pm UTC

cameron432 wrote:Hey all, I'm in a bit of a predicament. I absolutely adore physics, which is why I'm majoring in it (alongside Math). This is my first semester taking upper-level physics courses (i.e. everything but the Intro courses that Engineers also take). Currently, I'm enrolled in Intro to Modern (which is easy), and Electricity & Magnetism (which... isn't).

I realized that I have to drop E&M, because I have about 15 points out a total of 100. But I just don't know where to go from this. I worked my butt off on the most recent homework assignment, thought I kind of knew what I was doing, expected hopefully a 50%, but no, I got sub 10%. I just don't really get all of the concepts for the class. It's more difficult than any class I've taken. Because of that, I put WAY more work into the assignment than I ever have for any other class, and I was just wrong. I straight up did the problems completely wrong and got completely wrong answers.

My question is, am I just... too dumb for a Physics major? I love it and there's nothing else I really want to do, but I don't understand what's going on. The other course, I'm completely fine with, but I don't get E&M.


A couple suggestions...

First, talk to your prof and/or TA during their office hours. Try to get them to go over the assignment with you, or any concepts in the course that you're having difficulty with. The sooner you can get help, the better. Floundering in the course and hoping you'll figure it out will never work. Try to stay current on the course. Ideally, before lecture, you should read the section of the book that you're going to cover in class. Don't worry too much about getting all of the details, just get a general overview. Then go to class. After class, review your notes of what you just did. If there's an easy, related, worked example in the textbook, see if you can do that and get the right answer. At this point, you will probably have to backtrack a bit to try to figure out what concepts you didn't get as well...

Second, try to get into a study group. Having different people to bounce ideas off of and figure things out with is a huge asset.

Third, consider purchasing the book Schaum's Outline of Electromagnetics by Joseph Edminister. It's about $10 on Amazon. This is not a theory book; it will not replace your textbook. This is a problem-solving book. It has literally hundreds of worked examples on every aspect of E&M you're likely to come across at this point. A lot of the time, the problem in a course like this is that there's too much theory and not enough examples (and the examples your prof is going to do for you are pretty trivial), so having a book like this is a fantastic asset. If you've only seen one example of a problem in class and one on your homework, it's going to be a much tougher slog than if you've already seen 30 worked examples of exactly the same kind of problem.

Make sure you understand the consequences for dropping at this stage in the game. This varies a lot between unis. Probably you will lose some/most/all of your course fees, if you pay by the class. Some unis will record all dropped classes on your transcript, others will not. It won't affect your GPA, but too many dropped classes might be a red flag to people looking at your transcripts later (a few is probably fine...) Look ahead in your course calendar to see what E&M is a prerequisite for as well. Make sure that it's not going to leave some huge holes in your timetable next year, or at least make sure that you're okay with whatever holes it does leave. Keep in mind that some courses are only offered once per calendar year, so you might have to wait until next Spring to take it again.

Finally, as a word of encouragement: E&M is probably the hardest subject in all of undergraduate physics. Most people have a hard time with it--that's another reason to get into a study group: moral support. If you can make it through this course, it is doubtful that there will be anything worse for you hiding around the corner (except maybe another E&M class).
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Re: First-year Physics Major. Not sure where to go from here

Postby aoeu » Fri Feb 10, 2012 5:43 am UTC

I second the post above me. Also check if your library has any good books available right now.
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Re: First-year Physics Major. Not sure where to go from here

Postby darkone238 » Mon Feb 13, 2012 10:33 pm UTC

I had the same problem with E&M when I was taking my physics courses (oddly enough it was E&M and Modern at the same time for me too). What I can suggest is

A) You're not stupid. E&M is hard.
B) Definitely talk to your TA/professor and see if you can get some help. Also talk to your peers and see if they would be willing to have a study session or something with you (this helped a lot for me).
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Re: First-year Physics Major. Not sure where to go from here

Postby Andromeda321 » Tue Feb 14, 2012 10:57 am UTC

Speaking as a gal who failed E&M once and is still in the field doing a PhD...

1) E&M is hard. No way around it, but that doesn't make you stupid.

2) Please please please go talk to your professor and TA right now. It is their job to help you learn this material, and will definitely be able to assist you in figuring out where your issues are and how to overcome them. Further, at the end of the day it is always a plus to have the person who is grading your exams to know who you are and that you are working hard to learn the material (instead of being the slacker who just doesn't care), and I've never seen this not reflected in the final grading. Put it this way, if you have a student who's on the borderline between passing and failing where do you place the kid who you've seen all semester trying their best versus the kid you know nothing about except the numbers? Exactly.

3) After you go talk to the professor/TA and express your concerns, if they also think that dropping the course at this juncture is worth it then just do it and focus harder on your other courses, then sign up and do it again next semester (or whenever it's offered). When redoing it, be sure to be proactive this time about seeking help for concepts you don't understand (forgot to mention, are you talking to fellow classmates and doing the homework with them? if you're not, start doing so now).

I realize that the above might not be ideal because physics required course schedules are rather tight in order to finish everything in 4 years. But if you really love the field, so what if it takes you an extra semester or year to finish? It took me longer, and I assure you no one honestly really cares down the line more than you do about the prospect.

Good luck!
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Re: First-year Physics Major. Not sure where to go from here

Postby Dopefish » Tue Feb 14, 2012 11:40 pm UTC

The 3 hardest courses I've taken are E&M, Electrodynamics, and Quantum 2 [and that last one primarily because it covered quantum electrodynamics, it was fine in the first 80% preceding the electro stuff]. Seriously, that stuff is hard, and it completely reasonable to spend hours working on a problem before you even figure out how long the problem is going to take, and then spend another hour spouting a couple pages of vector math (also hard, and probably a big part of why E&M is hard). Those courses got me adjusted to having 20 page assignments been pretty much typical, compared to some other upper year courses where it'd just be a couple pages.

Definitely talk to people (both peers and profs) and if at all possible just try to survive through it. It may not be the prettiest of grades, but there is a pretty good chance that it'll be the worst you go through, and everything else will seem easy by comparison.

Ideally, it will eventually 'click' and at the very least seem not so terrible, but even if you scrape through with a minimal understanding it's still rather impressive to be able to look back at a wall of vector identity stuff and maxwells equations and be able to say you could do it, because nothing screems physicist like a wall of vector math.
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