Physics tips, anyone?

I’m taking (algebra-based) physics I this semester. So far, I’m doing pretty well – getting A’s on the homework, lab reports, and quizzes. Even got an A on our first exam, back in September.

We took our 2nd exam last week, and while I haven’t gotten it back yet, I don’t expect I did as well as previously. And it was definitely NOT for lack of studying. I did just about every single odd-numbered practice problem in the book and went in twice to talk to the prof with my questions/concerns/confus ions. I did the problems over a period of about a week, so I wasn’t cramming by any means. (Cramming NEVER works!)

My problem is not so much with the CONTENT, as much as that the exams are so LONG. I think on our 2nd exam we had 8 or 9 questions, two of them very simple conceptual ones (with single-sentence answers), which leaves 6-7 regular number-crunching problems. That’s a lot to do in 50 minutes, especially when many of the problems have multiple parts!

So my issue is with sheer SPEED.

I thought doing so many practice problems would help, and it did to some extent – I think I was in better shape than many of my classmates, some of whom didn’t finish the exam at all (I barely did) – but I was incredibly rushed. I had to do the last problem (a rather complicated one involving normal forces and centripetal acceleration with a roller coaster at both the top and bottom of a curved rise) in about 5 minutes. Yikes!

Any tips for building up speed on these problems?

Someone I know suggested making a timed “practice test” for myself, which seemed like a decent idea. I’d use odd-numbered book problems (the answers are in the back of the book) and try to simulate exam conditions (# of problems, a range of problem concepts, 50-minute time period, no interruptions, etc.).

Any other ideas/suggestions would be very welcome, whether you’ve taken physics or not.

I’m getting high A’s in my other two classes (gen bio and gen chem), and I don’t want this one to bring me down, emotionally or GPA-wise.

Thanks in advance.

Do more problems, and practice doing them fast. Sometimes you can solve a problem easily as long as you take your time. This was usually my advice to students struggling with tests: Take your time. However, in your case, you might want to practice doing the problems faster.

The better I understand the physics of a situation, the faster I can solve the problem. So another aspect of this might be that you can sort of work out the answer on a given problem, but perhaps don’t really have a good physical understanding of what’s going on. When you read a problem, do you (a) immediately draw a picture and visualize the physics of the situation, (b) immediately go looking for a likely equation to find the answer, or © something else? If your answer is (b) or ©, you probably have not developed your physical intuition enough and are not taking a “physics approach” to problem-solving.

Stephen Covey’s relationship advice can be modified to apply to this situation: Seek first to understand the problem, then to solve the problem. But don’t even think about looking for equations before you are sure that you fully understand (1) what the problem is saying and (2) what you are being asked to find.

Thanks so much for your advice, spoxjox. And I think you’re spot-on. I CAN solve the problems pretty easily if I take my time, but going faster, it’s definitely harder. So practicing the problems with speed in mind is a good idea. I’ll for sure be doing that in the future, at least once I get the main concepts down.

But I don’t think it’s so much a lack of an understanding of the physics concepts as a lack of, well … confidence.

From the options you mentioned, I usually do (a), draw a picture and visualize what’s going on in the problem – both because it helps me (obviously), and because we’re required to show all of our work on homework / exams (including, for example, free body diagrams when dealing with any F=ma etc. stuff). That said, I’m sure I could do BETTER in this area – there’s always room for improvement, right?!

As for the confidence factor, I think that upon reflection, that’s some of what is holding me up when I try to work these problems out more quickly. I KNOW this stuff (most of the time, at least by the time the exam rolls around!), but I’m afraid I’m doing it wrong and second-guess myself sometimes. Especially when forced to do the problems quickly. I think that’s slowing me down too. I don’t know why I lack confidence in physics – I certainly don’t lack it in my other two classes (bio and chem), but that’s also something I’m trying to work on. Character building, right?!

Thanks again.

I read your posts. I had the same difficulty with physics …always struggling to finish the exam, sometimes insufficient time to really work out the last few problems.

In addition to the homework, I did 10 minute drills getting together a group of problems on each concept AFTER I understood how to do it. I tried to do 8 questions /10 minutes - close to the time frame for our tests but slightly less time than I’d actually have per question on a test. These drills took 10 - 30 minutes per night depending on how many I did, and started boosting both my speed and my confidence that I could do the problems quickly when I got to the test.

During the tests my strategy was to triage and skip the ones you don’t immediately see how to do, and work thru the completely straightforward ones (like your drill questions)mechanically like clockwork (as you have practiced), leaving more time for those more complex questions.

Had to do this right thru physics but it DID make me quicker and helped me develop a spirit of competitiveness (with myself) to crash thru my drills which helped put me in a more positive mindframe in the test.

Hope those suggestions help.


What worked for me was doing the homework problems OVER AND OVER. Sure, I knew the problems and how they turned out, but repeating them process of solving them somehow made me much faster. Repetition works.

So we got our exams back yesterday … and I got an A! I was really surprised, honestly, given how rushed I felt. But apparently I knew what I was doing. So I feel good about that.

Clearly, I DO need to work on my speed, but at least I am getting the concepts, which is definitely a positive thing.

Thanks to all who have posted with advice and tips – you have been very helpful!

Wo hooooo!!! Congratulations! You should definitely celebrate and be proud… The grades don’t lie–have faith in your ability, and forge ahead with confidence!

Congrats on the A!!

That’s great news! Congratulations! Keep practicing!


Very good. Keep it up!

see…i knew you would do awesome

if you can find some time now that i do not have histology on tues and thurs i have what i call physics for dummies that you are more than welcome to which would have additional problems for you to work through

give me a jingle jangle