Studies in Science

Help will Always be given to Those Who Seek It

Tips for Solving Problems in Physics

We are Seeking to Improve Your Problem Solving Skills

Adapted from The Unversity of Minnnesota Physics and Education Research and Development Group

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In Other Words

In order to improve our problem solving skills we need to answer the following questions for each problem that we will solve:

  1. What's the problem about?
  2. What am I asked to find?
  3. What information am I to use?
  4. What principles apply?
  5. What do I know about similar situations?
  6. How can I go about applying the information to solve the problem?
  7. Does my solution make sense?

You, the expert, will decide, "this is an energy problem," or, "this is a Newton 2 problem." You, an expert problem solver, will answer these questions, play around (briefly) with the problem, and make drawings and sketches (either in your mind, or even better, on paper) before writing down formulas and plugging in numbers.

In a physics course it's important to remember a couple of things about physicists and physics professors:

A physicist seeks those problems that can be modeled or represented by a picture or diagram. Almost any problem you encounter in a physics course can be described with a drawing. Such a drawing often contains or suggests the solution to the problem.

A physicist seeks to find unifying principles that can be expressed mathematically and that can be applied to broad classes of physical situations. Your physics textbook contains many specific formulas, but you must understand the broader Laws of Nature in order to grasp the general overview of physics. This broad understanding is vital if you are to solve problems that may include several different principles and that may use several different formulas. Virtually all specific formulas in physics are combinations of basic laws.