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15 February 2012

Review / Prep Books for Physics C?

Good texts are available
for physics C...
Back in September I reviewed the AP B supplement to the Walker 4th edition text.  The one sentence summary:  author Connie Wells, formerly on the AP test development committee, did a great job.

That post has now spawned two official comments and some informal inquiry as to what good Physics C supplements are out there.  I should have tackled this question before, but I'll go at it now.

Problem is, the whole idea of a "good physics C supplement" doesn't make complete sense to me.  

In Physics B or Honors Physics or Regents Physics, novice students are covering only the basics of a variety of introductory physics topics.  Textbooks are not wholly satisfying in such courses, because they cover way more material and depth than is level- or exam-appropriate.  Especially for the Regents level, the available textbooks are such compromises of committee writing that straightforward, targeted physics explanations are lost in the eduspeak.  So the purpose of a prep book at that level is for focus:  Here's what you need to know for this exam, here's a one paragraph (rather than four page) explanation of a concept in plain language, here are practice questions in the style of the exam you'll be facing at year's end.

In physics C, though, the textbooks are generally solid.  The mechanics chapters in Halliday and Resnick, or Tipler, or Serway, are all reasonably well correlated to the AP curriculum.*  The end-of-chapter questions vary from way easier to way harder than the actual AP exam, but it's not hard to pick out questions that are on-level, and even in a similar style to what is seen on the exam.

* Or, perhaps, the AP curriculum is reasonably well correlated to these common textbooks.  Chicken or egg?

Consider the typical student in physics C, and what he or she needs from a "review" for the exam.  This student has been in a class doing problems and reading a textbook all year.  A prep book is useless if it just mirrors the explanations and problems found in a text.

The strength of a good prep book is concise, focused, readable, non-mathematical explanations of basic physics concepts.  Books at the sub-physics C level already do this.  My own 5 Steps to a 5 book, the out-of-print AP prep book written for Kaplan by Hugh Henderson and Connie Wells*, Connie's supplement to the Walker book that I link above... all provide explanations of the basic physics at a readable level, along with straightforward questions and problems.  And when students are doing last-minute review before a major examination, straightforward and readable is the key.  Most texts do NOT do a great job with the basics.

*NOT the current edition of the Kaplan book

However, if two days before the exam someone's looking for a detailed discussion of solving something deep, like a Biot-Savart problem with a non-uniform magnetic field, a prep book isn't going to help!  The more mathematically intense problem solving methods can only be learned through careful and repeated practice.  You want to get good at Biot-Savart two days before the exam?  Do 7 practice problems from a couple of textbooks.  No prep book necessary.

The available textbooks generally do an excellent job explaining the more difficult aspects of calculus based mechanics and E&M.  The problems available from Halliday & Resnick et al are generally better and more numerous than what prep book authors can come up with.  And released AP Physics C exams are so plentiful * that even the most diligent students can find enough practice to occupy them.

* The Physics B exam has changed significantly over the years, such that only the last two (2004 and 2009) released exams are truly representative of what students will see in May.  Physics C has not changed so much, such that the 1998 and even 1993, 1988, and 1984 multiple choice exams are still mostly solid.  Careful, 'cause calculators were allowed on some of those earlier exams, but usually the calculator wasn't necessary.

Thus, my recommendation for physics C exam prep is twofold: (1) Use a physics B-level prep book to confirm an understanding of the basics; and (2) Use the published textbooks and released exams for practice.

Don't neglect (1)... with limited study time leading up to the exam, students are generally making far better use of their time by reminding themselves of fundamentals rather than solving unusual and difficult problems, even though the difficult problems might seem sexier.  In exam review time, it's all about getting the most benefit for the time spent.  And that's why a B-level prep book is often just dandy for physics C students.

1 comment:

  1. hi greg, thanks so much for doing this post :)
    (i was one of the two that asked about a physics c prep books and it really means a lot to me that you responded)