Surviving Physics (Or How to Pass Your Courses)

If you’re going to take a college level physics course with no previous exposure to physics, let me tell you, you have you have quite a journey awaiting you. One of fear, anxiety, pain, agony, and much shedding of tears. Walking into my physics class for the first time, I felt as though I was shot back in time to the 1960s (about the time the university was first built). It was a large auditorium with brick walls, cement floors, seats that looked as though they had been sat in by three generations of college students, and a giant blackboard in the front with extra pieces that slid up and down in case if the professor ever needed extra writing space.

Sitting down in the very center of the auditorium, I lifted up the wooden board that was attached to one of the arms, folded it over, and placed my stuff down on what was now my desk. When the instructor began speaking, I realized that three things were wrong: one, the speakers, which were at the front of the auditorium, were at least 30 years old; two, the structure of the room couldn’t carry sound much further past the middle row; three, the professor was an old veteran soldier of the Soviet Union (no joke), making it difficult to understand his broken English over the thick Russian accent. He began going over everything that we would be going over during the semester, with me understanding only half of what he was saying. I honestly can’t say I had ever been as intimidated about any situation as I was. All I knew was that I had to pass the class and I was going to do everything in my will to do it.

1.       Sit in the Front Row

The first step to doing well in class is to sit up front. Not only is it easier to concentrate and to understand what the professor is saying, this is also the choice spot of the students who know everything (of course, don’t confuse them with the students who think they know everything). This is where you will get a lot of your help. As long as you show that you’re doing the work and are determined to pass, they should be eager to show you how smart they really are. In physics, we had to use these remotes called iClickers to answer questions at the end of each lecture. They’re essentially an attendance-tracking tool, but also work equally as well as torture devices. They acted as a constant reminder during each lecture that you had a mini two-question ‘test’ coming up shortly, with questions of varying difficulties that you only had about 90 seconds each to answer, with only a 20% chance of getting each one right. How well you did at the end of each ‘test’ dictated your mood for the next couple of days, or until you came across a day that you got at least one of them right. Having people there who knew what they were doing to compare your answers to helped in this situation.

2.       Read the Material and Take a TON of Notes

Many professors give their students a timeline of what they will be going over each week. Your job is to keep up with that timeline, reading each section and taking notes on them before your professor goes over it. This way, you’ll be prepared for what they will be teaching and you’ll be able to take better notes on the lecture as you will have a better idea as to what’s important and what’s not. Also, you may want to work on problems out of the book since the professor will likely go over many problems similar to them in class, so it will be easier to follow along.

3.       Seek Additional Help

So you followed steps one and two and now you’re at step three: everything is still flying completely over your head, you’re failing your tests, and you’re at a complete loss of hope. Fortunately, many colleges and universities offer tutoring programs to help you with the courses you’re having trouble with. I was always opposed to taking this step, as it meant a loss of free time and it meant that I had to expend the extra mental effort on a class I already hated enough. Though when it comes to failing a course that you already spent a lot of time and money on to begin with, it’s worth it. Also, if the on-campus tutoring doesn’t help, you can also try other outlets such as people you can hire through ads or online resources. Originally, when I wrote down these three steps sitting down in my physics class, the title I had for this one was “pray”, which works too.

Possibly the worst moments for me were test days. Walking down the stairs to the front row to take my final exam, I almost stopped and moved into the middle row thinking maybe I could just hide myself among the 250 students and look at someone else’s answers. I mean, why not? Everyone else was doing it. My lab partners, who were quite possible some of the brightest students in the class, admitted to doing the same because they knew that as confusing and incoherent our professor was, nothing could be done to fully prepare us for his tests. My average for the past two tests, despite my countless hours of studying, was a 30%. I knew if I didn’t do well on this one, I was going to fail and would have to take the dreadful course over again.

It only took me a second to come to the definitive answer: no. I continued to the front row and sat down in my seat, not looking back. If I was going to fail, I was going to do it knowing that I did everything I could to pass. Five minutes until the start of class, I received my test. With hands shaking and palms sweating, I worked fervently on the test, taking the 2 hours and 50 minutes given to me to answer each and every question to the best of my knowledge. Turning in the test and leaving the building as fast as I could, I drove home feeling much lighter, as though some enormous burden that I had been carrying for the past four months had just been lifted off my shoulders. The following week, I got my results back. I failed the test, which wasn’t that big of a surprise, but tacked to my final grade was the best thing I could have ever hoped for: a ‘C’. Hard work really does pay off. :)