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One day I was sitting in the student union at the University of Utah when I noticed two students sitting near me working on a physics problem. One student was having trouble and the other was explaining how to do it using big hand motions. The first student nodded he understood. The second student left his friend to work on the problem on his own, and I watched him work for a while, then turn to his laptop, where he entered his answer into an online homework site and submitted it. This site gives you a little green checkmark when you get the right answer, and when the checkmark appeared, he pumped his fist. It seemed this little tutoring session went perfectly.   There was just one problem. The second student's explanation was completely wrong; he was literally 'handwaving'! So how was it, exactly, that the first student was able to solve the problem with such bad information? Beats me. What I can say is that tutoring is more than just the transfer of information from... read more

I was surprised one day to hear the instructor in an introductory physics class claim that "memorization is useless." He meant that it won't help you succeed in a physics class. Now this professor is a smart guy, but this claim is untrue. If he'd qualified it by saying that memorization is not enough, that would be different. Certainly it's true that compared with a history class, remembering random facts is a  relatively unimportant skill in physics. But he didn't say that, so his actual statement, that "memorization is useless", is nonsense.   The professor tried to support his claim by showing how, if he happened to forget the quadratic formula, he could quickly derive it. That's fine, but you have to start from somewhere, and the more you know, i.e. the more you remember, the less work you have to do.   Let's face it. You sit down to write a typical physics exam and you have 50 minutes to solve 3 to 5 problems. You have to be fast... read more

As students, we're often confused. And we don't like it. We think we shouldn't be confused. Maybe we think it says something about how smart we are that we have trouble understanding. But think about it: when we're trying to learn something new, we're automatically in the space between what we know and what we don't. It's natural to be confused.   Here is a short video of Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, talking about the feeling of confusion:   Everyone feels confused. Looking on the bright side, maybe it means you're about to learn something. So get used to it. It's ok, really.

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