Physics Profs: Confusion is an Important Part of Learning

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Many students experience frustration when starting out in hard science and math courses during their college years. Confusion of the subject matter sets in, along with a fear that they are not learning. But don't be discouraged, because even the best students go through the phase of confusion on their path to understanding, say some Physics professors. Here are some ways to help manage that confusion.

Calculus for the Utterly Confused

Sometimes students are used to being able to resolve concepts in their minds quickly. But in the more difficult high school classes such as Physics and Calculus, and for many college level courses, it takes more time to understand advanced concepts or problems. "Even the best students go through periods of confusion," say Profs Daniel and Robert Oman, authors of the McGraw-Hill books "Physics for the Utterly Confused" and "Calculus for the Utterly Confused" and creators of PhysicsandCalculus.com "Confusion is not necessarily bad, assuming you have gotten a good explanation of a topic during class lectures. It's important to understand that the subconscious mind can provide answers to problems that the conscious mind has not yet understood."

Here are some tips on managing those times of confusion:

  •     One good problem solving strategy is to define as clearly as possible specifically what you do understand about the topic or problem and what you don't understand.
  •     Put conscious effort on a problem up to the point of confusion, but don't grind away inefficiently on a problem. Let your mind work on it -- sleep on it if necessary.
  •     Put the problem "in the back of your mind". In other words don't worry about it. Put it aside so that your subconscious can work on it.
  •     Act quickly when a solution comes so that you can move on to something else. Sometimes your subconscious may deliver a question or request for more information. It may become clear to you that in order to understand something there is a certain key piece of information missing.

Much of this advice relies on having the time (many days) to work on complex problems. Procrastination can be your worst enemy for the hard subjects. When taking many courses at once, and dealing with complex subject matter, increasing the number of times you are exposed to the material can be critical.

Here are some tips on study habits:

  •     Before attending class lecture, do a quick reading of the textbook that covers what is to be discussed. You don't have to understand everything you read. Even 10-15 minutes can be enough. There may be some things that are not clear, but you can listen better for those points during the lecture, or ask questions. If you walk into class with no clue as to what is going to be discussed, you will get less out of the lecture.
  •     Attend all of your classes -- sounds simple, but many students do not.
  •     Do the homework problems regularly. Don't wait till the last minute. You need to know as soon as possible if you are having trouble with a certain subject. This allows more time to get help. In other courses it may be sufficient to read your textbook and review your notes, but in classes where you need to solve problems there is no substitute for putting the pencil to paper on a regular basis and writing out solutions to problems.
  •     If you are having trouble -- ask -- get help. Don't be shy or afraid to ask questions. Often times many other students have the same questions you do. Go to your instructor or teaching assistant, and ask fellow students. If your class lectures are not providing you with good enough preparation for exams, then there are some good internet help sources including Physics Tutorials.

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Daniel Oman

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