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Tom Henderson

Preston Hayes


Problem-Solving Tips

A wealth of our time this year will be spent applying physical principles in order to analyze real-world 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, five-step 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 problem-solving sessions.

  • rather than solving a million new problems, merely solve a few (3-5 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 problem-solving, 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.



Survival Packet Contents:

[ Cover Page | Course Description | Grading Policy | Policy on Late Work and Makeup Work | The Be Attitudes | Problem Solving Tips | Graphical Analysis of Data | Henderson's Incomplete List of Frequently Used Abbreviations ]



E-mail: Tom Henderson || Last update: 8/24/2001