what can I do to pass this course?
May 4, 2010 12:10 AM   Subscribe

I'm in a bit of a bind for a physics midterm. The professor's notation is idiosyncratic to the point of incomprehensibility, he's gone far afield of the recommended textbook, and his posted lecture notes have only the math (not the physical insight). What can I do? Bonus: the exam is Wednesday morning. (long)

A few examples of the problems I've had:

- the symbol lowercase roman k appears twice in the same equation. One instance represents a spring constant, the other the wave number. Elsewhere in the same derivation he has used a cursive k as the complex coefficient in the wave equation, where cursive k is the sum of roman k and i times kappa. (This was written on a blackboard; his handwriting is not good enough to distinguish a cursive k from kappa.)

- sometimes, halfway through a derivation, he'll stop writing the real-part operator "Re" and let us assume that he's still working with the real part of a complex number; except sometimes it actually means he's cancelled out the complex part or that he just made a mistake.

I would look to the textbook, but it takes an entirely different approach using matrices and linear algebra, different terms for many of the same concepts, and subtly different examples. The professor basically assigns one or two problems out of each chapter as homework and posts his own solutions. It's a bit difficult to follow them because he doesn't include any of the set-up or the physical motivations, but I think they're entirely different from the textbook methods.

I've had some success faking my way through the problem sets and quizzes by pure symbol manipulation with no physical insight, but unfortunately many of the critical steps are (shockingly enough) motivated by the physics of the particular system in question. Also, he likes to ask us to explain the physical significance of various parts of the equations, which is difficult if I don't actually know what the symbols represent.

So my question is two-fold:

First, what can I do in the next day to scrape as many points out of this midterm as I can? He has posted a list of topics, and I'll be permitted a single page of notes, so I will definitely spend some time preparing that (and hopefully learning something in the process). Is there anything else I can do?

Secondly, afterward, is there any possible way I could improve the rest of the term? I suspect it's too late to get the professor to change how he writes or to hew more closely to the textbook, but I'm rather desperate at this point.
posted by d. z. wang to Education (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What class is the midterm for? A general physics class or an upper level, specialized course like quantum or E&M?
posted by hoperaiseshell at 12:20 AM on May 4, 2010

What course? Is it first year physics? If so, you should grab a Schaums outline ASAP. It will help you for your midterm and for the rest of the quarter. I'm not sure how your professor could diverge so far from your text, but you'll be fine if you just write down every single equation you've used so far onto your allowed sheet of paper. You should try to squeeze in as many textbook examples as you can and write down EVERY answer he has provided. Most professors will be very lazy on their exams, so you can definitely scrape by with a decent grade if you are a quick thinker.

One more thing: you need to study a little bit each day. Next time you're experiencing confusion, talk to your prof before you get so close to an exam.
posted by 200burritos at 12:24 AM on May 4, 2010

I don't think there's much else you can do in the next day.

But for afterwards, if the class has a T.A., make use of her/his extra perspective. If the class doesn't have a T.A., use your fellow students for this purpose.

Next, go to office hours when you first encounter a problem understanding something. That is, when you try to do the problem set and find you're missing some physical insight, go find help then (from the prof, the T.A., or your fellow students). Given that your prof likes to ask about physical insights, he probably likes talking about it too. Take advantage.

I'd also consider asking the prof if there's another text he would recommend; you might let us know what the course level/subject is too if you want more recs for textbooks. It won't help you for tomorrow, but getting another perspective on the material is a good idea if the prof's method just isn't working for you.

One last suggestion: Since you are going to get a page of notes, make that page as you go next time. So when you do a problem set, and have to look up an equation, put it on your page right then. Each week you'll add a few more equations (and since you'll have written them out yourself, you should be sure of what all the symbols are, at least; if you aren't, go ask right then). You might end up with a list longer than you get to take into the exam, but that's ok, you can always cut it down later.
posted by nat at 12:25 AM on May 4, 2010

If you're confused about his notations on the blackboard then others in the class are too. Don't be afraid to speak up during lecture and ask for clarification. My whole college experience changed significantly when I realized that every lecture could be a two-way communication instead of an hour long dictation session.

Also, follow the suggestion to make the most of office hours. It may not be possible for this cycle, but for the next cycle rest assured that both the professor and the TAs would rather you come to them with ambiguities before the exam.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:21 AM on May 4, 2010

Easily the best thing you can do for your exam grade: go to any lectures, discussions, or review sessions that people might be organizing tomorrow. He will probably say stuff like:

"There'll be a problem about x" or
"Remember that we learned 3 main things in this chapter..."

Those quotes are worth their weight in gold (points?).

More generally, your problems stem from the fact that you are disconnected from the course. You don't have anybody to talk to. I would suggest emailing the prof directly:
Hi Professor,

I was wondering if we could meet to discuss my grade in the course and answer some questions about the coursework. Please let me know what time would be most convenient for you.

d. z. wang
I have sent that exact email to 5 or 6 professors and never regretted it. They are always more understanding than you are about the coursework and if you tell them you sincerely want to learn the stuff, they'll be helpful. It's like, their job or something. I would say that the disconnectedness compounds everything and you should fix that asap. All your problems would be fixed by either a) a friend in the course b) attending office hours regularly c) asking the professor directly.

Good luck :)
posted by yaymukund at 3:22 AM on May 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

I just finished an entire school program that was like this. Nursing, so totally different, but the teachers didn't teach very much, never explained anything and were generally unhelpful. After a while I gave up trying to change that, and just taught myself everything with review books.

So I would suggest that you get a good review book, one that explains things clearly, and learn from that. It might help you on the midterm but definitely on the final. I think some people get rapped up in using the textbook that is supplied by the school, but in my experience these are often bloated monsters that are totally unhelpful. You are in triage mode, you need to learn the basics that will help you pass the test.
posted by sully75 at 5:13 AM on May 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

The two examples you cite seem pretty par for physics lectures---not an ideal style, but extremely common. Here's what I would do (actually did): find out what topics are going to be lectured a week or so ahead of time. Then, study it in a textbook before the lecture. Work through the unwritten steps in a book's derivation, do a few chapter problems, itemize specific questions you have. Then the lecture, even if it involves 5 different types of "k" symbols, will seem much more clear because you will be anticipating nearly everything that gets written down on the board. You'll be able to catch his/her board mistakes. You'll know when he/she means to write "kappa". You'll know exactly when to ask the right questions. In short, you'll learn the subject.
posted by fatllama at 7:23 AM on May 4, 2010

Response by poster: What class is the midterm for? A general physics class or an upper level, specialized course like quantum or E&M? (hoperaiseshell)

This is the third term of a general intro sequence. I haven't seen a syllabus, but so far we've been doing waves with examples from optics, electricity, and mechanical systems. To be a bit more specific, it's setting up a few particular kinds of (linear and usually homogeneous) differential equations, solving them, and then inspecting the results for the fundamental frequency, phase, damping, etc. Unfortunately, I can only do the part in the middle.

find out what topics are going to be lectured a week or so ahead of time. Then, study it in a textbook before the lecture. (fatllama)

Unfortunately, he isn't following the textbook at all. It's not even a matter of rearranging the material. The textbook makes extensive use of matrices and linear algebra which we haven't covered at all. In one case, I was almost unable to complete a problem set because he was asking for a Fourier transform using terminology which didn't exist in the textbook (it's a searchable PDF, so I can say this with certainty.)

More generally, your problems stem from the fact that you are disconnected from the course. You don't have anybody to talk to. (yaymukund)

Yes, this is exactly the case. I'm not free during the posted office hours of any of the TAs who speak English. The one time I made an appointment with the professor specially was very helpful, but I can't imagine doing that on a weekly basis and asking him to repeat his lectures to me personally. I used to meet with this other student who knew her way around, but it sort of bothers me to impose on her that way. I was not really contributing anything at all; she would just sit there having already solved the problems and point out all my mistakes.
posted by d. z. wang at 12:01 PM on May 4, 2010

I'm not free during the posted office hours of any of the TAs who speak English.

You can try emailing one of the "English-speaking" TAs to see if they might be free another time.

Also, accents get easier to understand the more you expose yourself to them, and if you go to office hrs, there's a good chance there's more than just the TA there anyhow; you might learn something from the other students. But I bet if you go regularly to one of the TAs you'll be understanding their accent pretty soon.

One last point: there's more than just that one other student you've actually worked with in the class. Get a group together. Ask the TAs/prof for suggestions for people to work with, chat with people after class, go to office hrs and meet people there.
posted by nat at 1:07 PM on May 4, 2010

Oh, also, at least once when I had a prof who blatantly wasn't following the text, it turned out he was following a *different* text. Can't hurt to ask the TAs, the prof, and other students to find out if there is such a reference in this case.
posted by nat at 1:13 PM on May 4, 2010

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