How To Get Better Grades In Physics

Enrico Fermi (1901-1954)Ben Shank is a Ph.D. candidate in physics at Stanford, where he also serves as a teaching assistant (TA) for an undergrad physics course. At our recent Thanksgiving party he began rattling off advice to one of our students on how to get better grades in physics (or almost any technical course). Said student was amazed and beseeched Ben to make this information more publicly available, and so he typed it up and sent it to our Chi Alpha email list.

With Ben’s permission, I also share it below (emphasis is mine):

  1. From the first day of class, sit in the front of the room toward the center. At least one study has shown that students who sit in the front are 2–3 times more likely to get an A and 6 times less likely to fail than students sitting in the back even when seats are randomly assigned on the first day of class. We can debate why this is so all day, but it is so, so take advantage of it. (By ‘the front’ i mean the first ten or so rows of Hewlett 200.)
  2. Be sure to get plenty of sleep the two nights before the exam. Of all the bad conditions you could be in going into a physics test, being tired is probably the worst one that is legal. Studies indicate that the second night before the test is even more important than the night immediately before. A clear, thinking, creative mind is your single greatest asset for any physics you might encounter. If you have been keeping up with the class, getting two full nights of sleep is probably more important than any amount of studying you might do during those two days.
  3. That said you will probably want to do some studying. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend finding someone else in the class to study with. Go over problems together. Go into the later problems in each chapter and pick some that you’re not sure you can both do. Taking an exam well is very similar to teaching the grader how to do the problems, so even if you are teaching a friend how to do something you already know, you are preparing for the test. If you both (or all) get stuck on something, contact a TA.
  4. Read every problem at the beginning of the test. Your mind will continue to process problems you are not looking at, provided it is awake. (See Tip 2) Studies show that you are best served loading all the questions into your brain at the start to give yourself maximum time to contemplate. If you get really stuck on a problem, leave plenty of space and move on. Odds are you’ll have better insight when you come back to it.
  5. DON’T PANIC. Attempt every question. This sounds really obvious, but we occasionally get blue books that have a few scribbles labeled ‘Problem 1’ and nothing else. As best we can tell, these students are looking at the first question, panicking and staring blankly at the paper for forty-five minutes or just walking out. This is something worth practicing to avoid. If you find yourself in a panic: stop, look away from the paper while slowly counting to ten. If you are feeling calm, you can go back and draw a diagram or write down some possibly relevant equations. If you start panicking again, repeat Steps 1 and 2. If you are not feeling calm, turn a couple pages and start the next question. Things will look better when you come back to this one. Trust me.
  6. Now for a few tips on getting the most [points] out of your graders. Grading a midterm takes 4–5 hours. As much as we try to assess each of you according to all the knowledge of physics you demonstrated, we are going to get tired and eventually parts of our brains are going to go on autopilot. If your answers are in clearly marked boxes (preferably near the left side of the page) and they are right, there is a reduced chance of any error in your work being marked off. If an answer is wrong, but it’s in a box near the left side of the page immediately below the work that produced it, then it is very easy for us to find the one little error and give you most of the points. I know having all the answers in one box at the bottom of the page feels concise, but if one of them is wrong we have no idea where on the page to look for the mistake. On a related note, it is better if you work one part of a problem and then work the next one below it. Believe it or not, grad students can get confused if part c is to the right of part b instead of below it. It’s silly, but after a few hours of grading that’s the way we are, so you might as well not let it hurt you. As a general rule, each line on the page should only have one equation or statement on it. (pictures excluded) You may use up more pages that way, but there’s no shortage of blue books.
  7. Whenever possible, draw a picture. Not only will it help you think, but it also helps us know what you were thinking. If you are not absolutely confident in your solution, a minute spent drawing a decent picture is probably worth it in terms of partial credit. Too often I’ve suspected a student knew more than their answer indicated, but they didn’t leave a good record of their thought process so I couldn’t grant partial credit. And that makes me sad. (Organizing graphics are also great antidotes to panic, see Tip 5.)
  8. When you get an answer, check that it makes sense. Negative lengths and times are often indicators that you’ve made a mistake, as are e.g. megaCoulomb charges and kiloAmp currents. If this happens to you, go look for the error and fix it. If you can’t find it, let us know that you don’t like the answer and why. One of the easiest ways to tell that someone is lost is if they give you a non-physical answer and don’t blink. As a physicist, it is much easier to grade leniently if a student indicates that they understand why the result of their calculation can’t be right. If nothing else, the grading rubric often has a point designated just for having a result that could be true. You’ll at least get that.
  9. It is well known that having good handwriting improves the attitude of those grading your exam. What is less well known is that having tiny handwriting can hurt you. Often what is perfectly legible to you while you are curled up with your nose 12 inches from the paper makes our eyes hurt after the third or fourth hour of grading. Obviously this vastly reduces the incentive to hunt for that tiny little math error you made in part a. This is not a small matter. I, for one, tend to get a migraine when I bend over small text for too long. So imagine a three hour migraine and then gauge the incentive to just mark you off so I can stop looking at your paper. Find a test that you have taken recently. If you (or better, a friend) can’t clearly read your text at arm’s length, you might consider consciously writing larger on all tests from now on. Grading fatigue isn’t limited to physics TAs.

And that’s what Ben has to say about that. Hope it helps you out as finals draw nigh.

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