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.

Get Better Grades By Understanding How Your Brain Works

Studying for last law school examOne of my favorite blogs is the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest. It summarizes current research in a way interesting to non-academics. I eat that kind of stuff up.

Their most recent post is a real winner for college students: 9 Evidence-Based Study Tips. You’ll receive a lot of advice in college – but these principles actually have experimental support.

  1. Adopt a growth mindset: believe that your brain is capable of getting smarter. You’re not stuck where you are.
  2. Sleep well: internalize that all-nighters hurt more than they help.
  3. Forgive yourself for procrastinating: as a minister, I was quite taken by this one. It’s a beautiful illustration of a more general lesson on grace as the primary catalyst for growth in life.
  4. Test yourself: don’t just review the material – turn it into a quiz.
  5. Pace your studies: review the material once 20% of the time elapses between the day you first learned it and the day of the test. Combining this with the previous tip will revolutionize your study life.
  6. Vivid examples may not always work best. This is more of a tip for teachers, so here’s the student version: don’t assume that the charismatic teacher will help you understand better simply because they entertain you more. Be suspicious of vivid illustrations because they can make it harder to learn the abstract principles you must master.
  7. Take naps: lie down and rest for 10-30 minutes. It will help more than you think.
  8. Get handouts prior to the lecture: the evidence for this one seemed weak to me. Read it and judge for yourself.
  9. Believe in yourself: confidence matters. Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.

Each tip has a brief paragraph explaining the principle in more detail including links to the research upon which it is based. Go read it now!

You’re welcome.

The Deceptiveness of Sin – Deeper Than You Thought

Justice Preveils?Simon M. Lahama, Adam L. Alterb, and Geoffrey P. Goodwinc report a surprising result in “Easy on the mind, easy on the wrongdoer: Discrepantly fluent violations are deemed less morally wrongCognition, Volume 112, Issue 3, September 2009, pages 462-466.

From the paper:

Participants completed a questionnaire in which they read six vignettes describing various moral violations: ‘Punch’ (one man punches another in a bar), ‘Flag’ (teacher burns Australian flag in class), ‘Dog’ (family eats its dead dog), ‘Deface’ (man defaces a memorial), ‘Hitler’ (man taunts Jewish sports fans with Hitler imitation), ‘Kiss’ (brother and sister kiss passionately).

Each of the participants read three of the stories in an easy-to-read format and the other three in a harder-to-read format.

In the words of the authors:

…discrepant perceptual fluency decreased perceptions of wrongness compared to discrepant disfluency. Further, and consistent with effects of discrepant fluency on truth judgments (Hansen et al., 2008), it seems that this difference is accounted for by fluent processing decreasing, rather than disfluent processing increasing, perceptions of wrongness.

In normal English: people thought that immoral choices were less serious when they were easy to read about. In theological terms, they excused sin because of how good it looked (or more precisely based upon how easy it was to understand). Apparently cleanliness is next to godliness (or at least legibility is next to living right).

So the next time you have something to confess, be sure to print it on nice paper and use a laser printer. It just might give you the edge you need.

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jer 17:9)

The American Religious Impulse

I just read the most amazing article by a Yale prof explaining the religious impulse in American history.

If you have any interest at all in politics, international relations, anti-Americanism, or the role of religion in public life you really ought to give this article a read: Americanism–And Its Enemies by David Gelernter (that’s his faculty bio page, there’s a much more interesting profile here). If you want to have your mind blown wide-open, read Amazon’s summary of his survival of an attack from the Unabomber.

Also, we have new photos in the gallery.

Religion By Major

Check out the results (or see some detailed data) of a national survey of 3,680 students by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute [which] found that religious commitment runs strongest among fine arts, education and humanities majors and lowest among biology, history and sociology majors.

I found one excerpt fascinating: In addition, Astin found that arts and humanities majors were twice as likely to exhibit signs of “spiritual distress” questioning beliefs, struggling to understand evil, wrestling with religious upbringing as business or computer science students.

Still, Astin said it is premature to label all scientists or computer whizzes as spiritually hollow. Most of these academic disciplines simply don’t prompt or promote spiritual reflection, he said.

Implicit in there is the notion that students who don’t exhibit signs of “spiritual distress” can be supposed to be “spiritually hollow”. Interesting. I wonder how much of that is Astin’s real perspectve and how much of that is the byproduct of the interviewer’s line of questioning.

Also of note: Students who party frequently are more likely to stop attending religious services, and “spiritually committed” students generally earn higher grades.

Students who score high on measures of spiritual commitment generally are healthier, happier and more involved in community service.

Thanks to World Magazine blog for unearthing this link!

Religion and Economic Growth Linked

Here’s an interesting story from the New York Times: Research Around the World Links Religion to Economic Development.

Intriguing excerpts:

Since the German sociologist Max Weber wrote about the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism, social scientists have argued that culture including religious habits is part of the complex mix that determines a country’s economic health. What distinguishes the work of Mr. Barro and Ms. McCleary, some scholars said, is that it uses a sophisticated analysis of a huge set of data to quantify the arguments of anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists.

As the couple began their study, Ms. McCleary said, it was clear that the widely discussed secularization thesis the idea that a country becomes more secular as it becomes richer and more industrialized did not apply to the United States, one of the most religious nations in the world.

And over the last 30 years, many East Asian countries, including Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea, have experienced both rapid economic growth and the spread of Christianity, Mr. Barro said.

“South Korea is a good example of that rapid growth and more religion,” he said. There the number of converts from Confucianism and other Eastern religions to Christianity is growing rapidly, he explained.

Some of the lowest levels of religiosity were found in China and North Korea. The lowest levels of economic growth were in sub-Saharan African countries. The former East Germany (which includes Weber’s birthplace) was one of the lowest in both religiosity and growth.

Flannery O’Connor on writing Christian fiction

Take heed, all you budding novelists – Flannery O’Connor has shown the way! Read all about it in O’Connor v. the Antichrist.

A few quotes from O’Connor taken from the essay:

“If you live today you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it’s the gas you breathe. If I hadn’t had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now.”

In her most famous statement about her work, she explained that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

“All my stories,” she wrote, “are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it.”

O’Connor once wrote that “more than ever now it seems that the kingdom of heaven has to be taken by violence, or not at all. You have to push as hard as the age that pushes against you.”

Check out the essay (or at least check out some of O’Connor’s books).