Some suggestions on how to do well in physics and Garnerís ten commandments on problem solving.


Contrary to what you may have heard, physics can be difficult and frustrating at times. Here are a few suggestions that I have found helpful to physics students.

Before I list these I have a comment. Learning physics is kind of like learning to play a musical instrument or sports. To do it well requires much effort and daily practice. To paraphrase an ancient Greek philosopher who was a tutor to a king, "there are no royal roads to physics"óeveryone has to struggle with it.



· Devote sufficient time to the course.

You should be spending about two to three hours out of class for every hour in class. Attend class regularly. Donít slacken off toward the end of the semester.

· Read the textbook & webnotes before the lecture.

Donít attempt the homework until you have read the textbook.

· Feel free to ask questions.

I have no way of knowing where you are having problems other than hearing from you.

· Work as many problems as possible and if you need help ask the instructor or the tutors.

Donít put off working problems to the last minute. Work a few problems every day. Many times if you get stuck on a problem and put it aside for awhile, when you take it up again you can quickly solve it. The textbook has many examples, the lecture has examples, the student study guide has examples, but at some point you need to solve problems on your own. You canít become a violinist by simply watching other violinists play the violin. (See below for more pointers on problem solving.)

· Headoff problems early.

If you do poorly on an exam go to the instructor to see the key and ask questions about where you had problems.

· Keep a positive attitude about the course.

· Work with one or two other students.

Garnerís Ten Commandments on problems

"I read the chapter and followed the lecture. But when it comes time for me to work the homework Iím lost."

Iíve heard this comment thousands of times. Problem solving is an artform that only develops over time and after hard work. The more problems you solve the better you get at it. Here are a few pointers on becoming a good problem solver.

  1. Read the text and webnotes, then start the problems by reading a problem slowly to make sure you understand the question.
  2. Make a big figure. Write down the givens and circle the unknowns. Introduce symbols for all quantities- donít work with numbers.
  3. Find what basic physics principles apply to the problem. You will then express these principles in terms of the symbols you introduced in II.
  4. Do the math, i.e. solve the equations you found in III for the unknown.
  5. Make sure the units are correct.
  6. Ask yourself, does the answer I got seem reasonable.
  7. The level of difficulty of problems varies substantially. Some problems will be straightforward, they just get you used to the terminology. Some problems you will not be able to solve. Many problems you will be able to solve if you devote sufficient time to the problem.
  8. If you canít solve a problem, put it aside and take it up later. Many times you will then be able to solve it quickly.
  9. Work in a team of two or at most three students. You can help each other learn.
  10. Lifeís most difficult problems require you to ask, "Does a solution exist, and if so, is it unique."


See also How to solve it, G. Polya, Second Edition (Princeton University Press, 1957).