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I feel like I understand everything, until I show up to the test…

Stressed student sitting in a classroom at a table while doing a test

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“Just by reading we all think we’ve actually learned the stuff, but it’s a whole different story when we try to apply it.”

“I went to every lecture and felt like I understood all the concepts he was talking about. When I went to do the exams though, I would have no clue what to do and just half-ass it.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the same thing both when I was in school (graduated from UMCP in 2010), and from a number of my 1st and 2nd year engineering students I’ve worked with over the past 2 years. Especially in the early physics and calculus courses, this is by far the most common complaint.

You feel like you understand everything, but the harsh reality of testing says otherwise.

Issue #1: College professors can’t teach

Photo:  RasMarley

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We all know the story (and if you’re just starting your program, you’ll hear it soon enough) – college professors are hired and fired based on their research (and therefore funding) promise. The more publications and research recognition, the more likely it is that the university will hold on to them for the long haul.

It also doesn’t take long to realize that research prominence has absolutely zero to do with teaching skill. To make matters worse, the new professors, or those that have been identified as especially lacking in the teaching-students-area, are generally given the physics/calc 1 and 2 weed-out classes for engineering programs.

The professors rest on the crutch of curving exams (exams that students are terribly un-prepared for), and during the semester commit the worst of teaching offenses, including but not limited to: lecturing directly from slides, glossing over complex details of example problems, and more generally speaking in a nearly in-audible monotone voice.

Needless to say, this is an issue that trickles down directly to affect your ability to learn the material.

On the flip side, this is a fate you need not accept.

Solution: The Cynical Approach

From the outset, assume that your professor will teach you nothing. To you, they are simply a grade administrator.

Also assume that Physics is, and forever will be, one of the worst classes for Freshman and Sophomores – but keep in mind that everyone is in the same boat, and you’ll be at a significant advantage if you can figure out how to make the best of it.

This subtle mindset shift (“I am on my own, this is up to me” instead of “I hope I get a good professor who can teach”) sets the stage to prevent letdowns and surprises, and for quickly developing independent learning alternatives (Youtube, study groups, etc.).

Because you will be teaching yourself from the beginning, you’ll also develop a more personalized and deeper understanding of the material.

Forget learning in lecture and discussion, and use that time primarily for detective work. Look for clues from your professor or TA as to what might show up on the exam. Keep an eye out for topics they put specific emphasis on – these are prime test topics.

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Issue #2: Recall vs. Recognition

When the professor lectures about a concept (e.g. centripetal acceleration of a rotating object), you can understand much about the concept as it’s being explained. “There is a constant inward force related to the object’s velocity that keeps it on a curved path – okay got it.” You might even find yourself thinking “yea yea, that’s obvious, get on with it” (even though it would be hilariously un-obvious if you then jumped up there to teach it yourself).

What’s going on here?

If you then saw a diagram of a rock tied to a string spinning around an axis, and someone asked you to determine the centripetal acceleration of that rock, you could probably recognize the situation (similar to the situation the professor used to explain the concept in the first place) and use the formula taught in class.

This is recognition.

If instead however, you were given a roller coaster problem with a loop at the end of a hill, and were asked to determine the net force magnitude and direction 3/4 of the way around the loop, you might not recognize that you first have to draw an Free Body Diagram, then realize that the normal force of the track causes the inward acceleration, then use the velocity to calculate it, etc., etc.

That’s recall.

If you only study by listening to lecture, reading the text, and following along with examples, you’ll never solidify a concept enough to be able to relate that concept to a more complex or integrated scenario. You’ll be stuck feeling like you understand the concept and know the equations, but are at a loss when things get ugly on test day.

Solution: The Reverse-Learning Technique

Photo: Giulia Forsythe

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We’re all familiar with reverse-engineering. Reverse-learning works in much the same way. It’s a technique for working backwards from the solution to a complex homework problem or potential test question to a set of related core concepts (lecture and textbooks work the opposite way).

Let’s take the roller-coaster problem above as an example.

You have the solution in front of you: the net force is 200 N down and to the right. Okay why is that? Because the force of gravity is pulling the coaster downwards, but it’s constrained by the track. It’s also already traveling fast in a different direction than the track so the track has to accelerate it.

Already just by taking the first step backwards we’re starting to gain insights on how different forces interact in different directions (the core concept behind Free Body Diagrams) and how a fixed object (the track) can cause an acceleration to change the direction of a moving object (the core concept behind centripetal force).

Work your way through the toughest problems you can get your hands on in this way, and your “physics intuition” and understanding of how different concepts relate will become strong. You’ll develop the ability to look at a problem, and recall what phenomena are acting, and therefore how to apply a core set of formulas.

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Issue #3: Testing is stressful, and the time pressure can screw with you

Research has shown that fear associated with timed testing can literally shut down your prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain responsible for long-term memory – read: “learning”). So the anxiety that goes along with worrying about your grade, or not finishing, or coming up on a question you have no idea how to solve, blocks you off from accessing the hundreds of practice problems and formulas you’ve worked so hard to store in that dome of yours.

All you can do is sit there and try to fumble your way through each problem while simultaneously trying not to sweat through your shirt or have a panic attack.

Solution: Think of a test not as a measurement of your competency, but as a performance

You don’t “take” a test, you “perform” on that test – like an athlete performs at game time. Think about the preparation NFL teams put in for the two weeks prior to the Superbowl. Or better yet, think about the 4 years of day-in, day-out, same-damn-program rehearsal figure skaters put in leading up to the Olympics for a single 2+ minute performance.

These are extreme examples, but you should use them to model your thinking about testing. Forget “studying” and focus on “rehearsal.” This means recreating, as closely as you can, the exact test conditions and timing.

Put together your own practice tests. Then set a timer for the allotted time, and go to town. Try even going to the lecture hall or classroom after hours to do this.

Repeat the process a few times prior to the exam, and you’ll be surprised how mentally stable you are on test day – comfortable with your surroundings, conditioned to the time restriction, and able to work around nasty problems you don’t yet know the answer to without freaking out.

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Bottom line: College is hard. Engineering programs are harder. But there’s definitely a method to handling the madness. If you learn how to play the game, you’ll see your next Physics course in a whole new light.



  • Danny Seymour August 26, 2015, 3:10 pm

    “assume that your professor will teach you nothing”
    I’ve learned to adopt this mentality based on my experiences in school. I thought I was the only one that couldn’t pick things up completely in lecture. It’s a frustrating lesson to learn.

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