**Intro to Physics Blues **

As a high school student, I took physics my junior year and struggled to stay afloat in the class. While I was interested in understanding and applying the theories I learned, it was difficult to make sense of them in my head. As a result, I began my first collegiate physics course with a lot of excitement, yet some apprehension.

I knew I would need to work extra hard to perform well in my classes so I made sure to get a head start. Before lectures, I read the relevant chapters, made thorough notes on the material, and *memorized* every concept. I partnered with my friends to review assignments and completed extra problems from my textbook. By the time I had to take my first test—I was ready to crush it!

I felt confident and prepared, until I saw the questions …

**Failure & Frustration**

Panic swept over me when I realized that there were only variables on the page – no numbers.

How could I possibly take a Physics test without calculating anything?!?

As I tried to slowly work through each problem, I realized that while I spent a lot of time doing extra problems and getting the correct *numerical* answers, my understanding of the underlying concepts was shaky.

When dealing entirely with concepts, instead of numbers, I was outside of my comfort zone and confused. Net force made theoretical sense to me, but during the exam I could not figure out how to orient my problem, especially when presented with multiple masses in different configurations.

Memorizing Newton’s law, F = ma, was not useful when I did not understand how force vectors summed to a net force. I submitted my exam, uncomfortable with the concepts and frustrated with myself for how unprepared I was with the application. Not only was I motivated to *do better* on my next exam, but also to *learn better.*

**Learn Better**

The next unit we covered was on center of mass and linear momentum.

This time, instead of memorizing a bunch of equations and definitions, I *engaged* with the concepts I learned in class. Engaging with the concepts made me question whether a definition or equation *actually* made sense to me by constantly trying to mathematically prove it.

One of the topics I had trouble with in this unit was collisions. I “knew”, *by definition* that during elastic collisions the kinetic energy of the colliding body may change, while the total kinetic energy of the system did not but, I did not *understand* why it was important that there was a conservation of kinetic energy for elastic collisions. In order to resolve this gap in reasoning, I had to revisit the chapter on energy and relate the concepts to linear momentum.

When solving problems, I also drew my system and the velocity vectors relating to every mass to visualize how masses moved relative to each other after a collision. For me, being able to *visualize* theoretical concepts was a breakthrough and solidified my understanding of how energy, velocity and momentum were related even more.

As I enrolled in more physics classes throughout the subsequent years, I ditched my flashcards and stopped trying to memorize every single definition I came across. Instead I tried to define the words in terms that made sense to me and asked my Teaching Assistants to either validate or correct my definitions. I spent more time on problems, focused on understanding latent concepts, equations, and their visualizations, instead of plugging and chugging an equation absentmindedly.

I worked out the mathematical derivations and equation proofs, which was helpful in forcing me to think about *how* the concepts made *mathematical sense*.

The key to my understanding in physics was not to memorize formulas, but to ask myself “Does this make sense? Why?” And in asking myself these questions, I learned physics better than I ever had before.

*Yilma is a native New Yorker and a recent graduate of Columbia University where she completed her bachelor’s degree in Physics. Yilma began tutoring while she was a sophomore in high school. Her approach to tutoring is systematic, thorough, but more importantly, fun!*

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