Dr. Mark Hollabaugh

Normandale Community College

Two factors can help make you a better physics problem solver. First of all, you must know and understand the principles of physics. Secondly, you must have a strategy for applying these principles to new situations in which physics can be helpful. We call these situations problems. Many students say, “I understand the material, I just can’t do the problems.” If this is true of you as a physics student, then maybe you need to develop your problem-solving skills. Having a strategy to organize those skills can help you.

Physics problem solving can be learned just like you learned to drive a car, play a musical instrument, or ride a bike. What can aid you more than anything is to have a general approach to follow with each problem you encounter. You may use different tools or tactics with differing areas of physics, but the overall strategy remains the same. Most likely, you have already acquired some problem-solving skills and habits from previous courses in physics, chemistry, or mathematics. Like other areas of learning and life, some of these habits may be beneficial and some may actually hinder your progress in learning how to solve physics problems.

So, in learning this new approach, be willing to try new ideas and to discard old habits that may in fact be hindering your understanding. As you mature as a physics problem solver, you will find that the approach will become second nature to you. You will begin automatically to do those things that will lead you to construct an effective solution to the problem.

As with so many other learning activities, it is useful to break a problem solving strategy into major and minor steps. The strategy we would like you to learn has five major steps: Focus the Problem, Physics Description, Plan a Solution, Execute the Plan, and Evaluate the Solution. Let’s take a detailed look at each of these steps and then do an sample problem following the strategy. At this stage of our discussion, do not worry if there are physics terms or concepts that you do not understand. You will learn these concepts as they are needed. Then, refer back to this discussion.

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