It’s the start of a new school year for many students, and everyone, including the faculty, needs to get ready for some tough classes—especially while dealing with Covid-19. Although I’ve only been through one pandemic, I’ve been teaching physics for over 20 years, so I am going to give you my best strategies to help college students do as well as possible this year. These tips are focused on science courses, but many should be useful for other classes too.
Let’s get started.
Understand Learning and Grades
The first things you need to consider are: Why are you in this class, and what do you want to get out of it? Sure, it’s very possible that this course is required. Or maybe you always wanted to learn about, say, quantum mechanics, so you enrolled out of curiosity and not practicality. But no matter why you are here, you need a goal. Are you trying to learn something, or are you trying to get a particular grade for your academic transcript?
Let’s be honest. You would probably be happy to finish the class with an A grade. But 10 years from now, what will that letter grade even mean? By the time you get to college, grades can have an effect on your future options—but they don’t matter nearly as much as what you learn. Some of the exercises you’ll do as a student in physics and other STEM topics are a kind of practice, but they don’t exactly mimic what you will experience later in your career. After all, there’s no such job as a quantum mechanic. But you might use these skills if you go into careers that are impossible to predict—in fact, physicists are notorious for landing all sorts of jobs that you wouldn’t even think of as being related to physics. The Society for Physics Students (Sigma Pi Sigma) has a whole series dedicated to these “hidden physics” careers, including in oceanography, video game design, and medicine.
Suppose you are on a football team. During practice, you start doing push-ups, because that’s what the coach told you to do. But are you actually going to do push-ups during the game? I certainly hope not. You won’t win that way. But the push-ups will help you indirectly, because they will make you stronger.
Quantum mechanics class is like doing push-ups, in that it’s more important to learn—to make yourself stronger and more skilled—than it is to get that special letter grade. It’s better to struggle through a difficult homework assignment and get a poor grade than it is to just look up the solutions online and copy them. It might seem like the solutions are helping, but they probably aren’t. Even if you are just copying them to better understand the problem, and not because you want to cheat on your assignment, you’re not getting the full experience of solving problems yourself. It’s better to do fewer push-ups with the proper form than to have bad form and complete many.
Talk to Your Professor
This may seem obvious, but you might be surprised how few students actually do this. Let me set up a scenario: You are working on a problem that really has you stumped. You don’t give up right away, but after a long while you decide to get some help. The whole internet is right there on your smartphone, so if you searched for some keywords, it’s very likely you could find a great explanation in a video or a blog post. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do this—but consider talking to your professor first. Don’t send an email; actually talk face to face. That’s what office hours are for. Or maybe ask this question before, during, or after class. Find some time to communicate.
Here’s the deal: When you talk to your professors, then they will know what you do and don’t understand. For us, this is very useful. All too often, we plow through some material and just assume that when no one asks a question, everyone “gets it.”
Let me give a real-world example. Once my class was working on the momentum principle, which gives a relationship between the net force on an object and that object’s change in momentum. (Momentum is the product of mass and velocity.) It’s a super useful principle and used in a lot of different ways.
A student came to my office to ask a question about the change in momentum for a 1-kilogram ball bouncing off a wall. They wanted to know: If the ball travels horizontally with a speed of 5 meters per second and then bounces back with the same speed in the opposite direction, what is the change in momentum? Is it zero? Nope. It’s not zero because momentum is a vector and for vectors, direction matters. (Just in case you are curious, the change in momentum in this case is 10 kg*m/s in the direction of the final velocity.)
During this one-on-one conversation with the student, I could see that the problem they were having wasn’t with the momentum principle. The problem was their grasp on the idea of vectors. Knowing that, I could go back to class and present some quick questions about vectors to see where the rest of the students stood on this idea, and give them a refresher if anyone else needed help. It completed the feedback loop of learning.
But wait! There is an extra bonus for asking questions. If your professor explains something to you, then they might give you the benefit of doubt when it comes to grading tests and assignments. If the professor knows you struggled with the material and made a good-faith effort to learn it, they might feel a little responsible for any mistakes you make and perhaps not grade as harshly. Yes, I know I said that grades aren’t the most important thing—that’s why this is just a “bonus.”
Work With Other Students
One of the difficult things about learning during a pandemic has been that online courses make it hard for students to work together. This matters because working with others is part of the learning process. It can be really tough to figure things out by yourself.
Working with other students makes you realize that you are not alone and that you are not special. It’s super easy to be in a classroom and think to yourself, “Oh wow. I really don’t understand anything. Everyone else has it together, but not me. I don’t really belong here.“
Guess what? Everyone is probably just as lost as you are. Everyone thinks that the rest of the class is completely in control of the material. But once you learn that everyone is in the same boat, you can start feeling better about your position and start making some real learning gains.
So, if it’s possible, start meeting other students and working with them outside of class. If you can, try to meet them in the real world—but if you can’t, online discussions are better than zero discussions. No matter what, don’t just form a study group that shares notes and answers to homework questions. Build a real learning community. Share ideas. Do the work together. Explain stuff and let others explain to you. (Here is a secret: You learn the most when you are teaching. So get out there and teach.)
In the end, you might even make some friends. That’s not such a bad thing, is it?
Use the Textbook
Pretty much every course has a required textbook—maybe even two. Those books can get super expensive, but they can also be quite useful. Unfortunately, I see quite a few students who use the textbook in the wrong way. They start off in class taking notes. Then when they get to the homework, the first thing they do is to open the book and hunt for an equation that would solve some particular problem. It’s as though the homework was a lock and the textbook was a box of keys. Sometimes this strategy can give you an answer to a certain problem, but it doesn’t always help you understand the underlying material.
Instead, I like to think of the textbook as a “pre-lecture.” Read through the relevant chapter sometime before the class. You don’t have to fully understand all the ideas, but it really does help to have been exposed to things before they are discussed in person. While you are reading, take notes. Write down both the stuff that makes sense and the things that aren’t clear. That will make you prepared to ask questions in class and help you map out the important ideas (even if you don’t fully understand them yet).
(I know this is supposed to be about tips for students, but here is one for faculty. If you use class time to just go over what’s in the textbook, why would students even read it? I prefer to assume the students have looked at the book and then do more student-centered activities. These can include: group problem solving (like this), conceptual questions, physics demonstrations, or just plain answering questions that students bring up based on their notes from reading.)
For students, after the lecture, go back through the chapter and it might make more sense. For physics and other science and math courses, you can also use the worked-out examples that most books have in each chapter. Here’s the best way to use them: Start off with the problem that’s presented at the beginning of the example. Imagine that this question doesn’t have a solution and then start to work on the problem without looking at the answer. If you finish the problem on your own, go check out the solution and see if it’s different than yours.
But if you can’t, work on it until you get stuck—I mean really stuck. Once you truly can’t go any further on your own, look only at the next step in the solution. Don’t check out the whole thing. This might give you a clue that helps you figure out the next step.
Whatever you do, don’t just look at the whole solution and think, “Oh, that makes sense!” Pretty much everything makes sense when you see the answer—but you need to practice building solutions, not just seeing them.
Don’t Get Behind
Look, I know things get busy during the semester. You don’t just take one class; you are taking a whole bunch of them. Also, there’s that movie you want to watch, and you want to play video games with your friends. It’s important to take time for those activities, or else you will get burnt out. But don’t spend so much time on them that you get behind in your coursework. For a class like physics, if you are confused about the material at the beginning of the semester, it’s going to be really tough to understand the concepts that come later, which most likely build on those initial ideas.
Think of the class as though it were a train at the station: The whistle blows and it starts to pull away from the platform, but you aren’t on it yet. The longer you wait to get on, the harder it gets. Not only does the train move farther down the tracks, but it also goes faster. If you wait too long, you will never catch up.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that learning can be fun, but learning can also be hard and confusing. Think of it like exercise: The more you sweat, the better your work. You won’t get faster and stronger by watching videos of people working out; you actually have to do something. It’s OK to be confused; confusion is just the sweat of learning.
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