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Tom
Henderson
Preston
Hayes

ProblemSolving
Tips
A wealth of our time this year will be spent applying
physical principles in order to analyze realworld
situations. These applications are often mathematical
applications of physical principles. Yet whether the
application is mathematical in nature or not, the
application will always emerge from a strong conceptual
understanding of physics principles. Contrary to popular
belief, difficulty in solving physics problems is usually
traced back to conceptual misunderstandings, not
mathematical difficulties. For this reason, vigorous efforts
will be made to instill a strong conceptual understanding.
This understanding will be acquired through a learning cycle
approach; a concept is introduced by way of an informal,
exploratory activity, which is followed by conceptual
development exercises (handouts, labs, etc.), and culminated
by an application activity in which students express their
understanding by applying it to a laboratory problem.
When
a strong conceptual understanding of physical concepts is
acquired, a physics student can intelligently apply their
enlightened view of the behavior of the physical world
towards a mathematical analysis of a situation. This is a
major emphasis of our course. Mathematical equations are
combined with an understanding of physics concepts to solve
physics word problems. Such problems are more than mere
algebraic exercises; rather they are attempts to combine
physics principles, analytical thinking and algebraic skills
to discover the effect of a set of initial conditions upon a
final outcome. Common student problems encountered in such
physics word problems include the following:
 treating a new problem like a previous problem,
believing that a physics problems can be solved by
routinely mimicking a procedure which was used in a prior
problem.
 memorizing information, fivestep strategies, and
simple algorithms, believing that all problems can be
solved without using original thought and critical
thinking.
 divorcing mathematical problems from physical
principles, believing that an equation and a calculator
is all that is needed to solve physics word
problems.
The following tips are offered to maximize your time
spent during problemsolving sessions.
 rather than solving a million new problems, merely
solve a few (35 would be great); yet spend the remainder
of your time resolving previous problems which gave you
difficulty.
 upon solving a problem, ask yourself some analytical
questions such as "Why did the problem statement add the
phrase 'neglecting friction'?" or "How would my approach
to the problem be different if friction were present?" or
"How is this problem similar to other problems which I
have solved?"
 upon solving a problem, ask yourself some reflective
questions such as "What is it about this problem which
made it difficult to solve?" or "What did I do that
helped me obtain a solution once I confronted a 'brick
wall'?"
 use visual assistance when solving problems; draw a
diagram or sketch of the situation; visualize the actual
physical situation which the problem pertains to.
Solving physics word problems can be the most frustrating
part of this course. If you encounter frustration, do not be
alarmed; you would certainly not be the first student to
experience such feelings. Frustration is a natural part of
all problemsolving, whether it be physics problems,
relational problems, or mechanical problems. If there was
not frustration present, then there probably would not be an
existing problem. So when encountering the frustration,
don't lose heart; rather take a deep breadth, gather your
thoughts, and apply some of the above tips. In the end, you
might find a solution; and better yet, you will likely
exercise a few mental muscles that can always use a little
more exercising.
