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29 August 2016

A letter to my forthcoming AP Physics 1 class

School starts for me in a couple of days.  I've got a wonderful first-world problem to deal with: I have more students signed up for my AP Physics 1-equivalent course than I have desks in my very large classroom.  

We're going to eventually deal with this issue by moving in more desks.  But first, I want to be sure that these prospective students know what they're getting into.  I'm more than willing to teach an enormous class -- as long as everyone in the class is there for the right reasons.  

Below is a letter I've sent to everyone who's currently enrolled.  Note that I've attempted to communicate my personal excitement and investment in the material -- those of you who read my blog know all about that, but students who don't know me well aren't familiar with my eccentricities.  See the part where I reassure both first-time and second-time physics students that this course is for them.  No calculus nor previous physics required, though previous physics doesn't mean you'll be bored.

And finally, note the direct approach to issues of mindset, pedagogy, and reasons for enrolling.  I've heard from large numbers of good physics teachers who are similarly direct and transparent with their classes, especially because AP Physics 1 is so fundamentally different from most any class my students have ever taken before.The advice I got was, manage expectations, plea repeatedly for students to have patience with me and with themselves... and then I'll be likely to have a great and exciting year because success will come sooner than the students expect rather than later.


Hey, all... I have you signed up for Honors Physics 1.   I wanted to give you some background information about what this class is all about.

The course itself is exciting, with lots of hands-on laboratory work.  You'll learn in tremendous depth the rules that govern how objects move, how circuits work, how waves propagate.  I've been studying physics for more than a quarter century, and I still discover new and exciting things each year.  Physics is the best.

Honors Physics 1 is a college-level introduction to physics.  We will prepare you to take the AP Physics 1 exam in early May -- based on past history, you're likely to do well, almost always well enough to earn college credit.  When you take an actual college physics course, your experience here will make you the natural leader of your class.  You'll be the one explaining physics to your friends, often with enthusiastic hand gestures and quick experiments that you make up on the spot.  

Now, that said, I'd like you to consider your reasons for taking this course.  Success in physics cannot be attained by merely "hard work".  You will need to enter into this year with a growth mindset, willing to dive headfirst into learning new skills.  Homework, test, and quiz problems will NOT be essentially identical to the ones we did in class; every physics problem represents a new situation, a new puzzle to be figured out.  We will do extensive experimental work, in which you will not be given a list of instructions, but rather a task to accomplish in a creative way.

Are you taking physics for the first time?  That's fantastic.  Though some members of the class will have taken conceptual physics previously, I assume that you have no prior knowledge of physics -- nor any mathematical skills beyond algebra 1.  Honors Physics 1 can be a perfect introduction to rigorous college physics.  By the end, you'll know exactly how to learn physics, such that you can advance to the next level of physics in college; or such that you acquire a serious background in the subject even if you know that you never want to take another physics class.  First-timers are in the right place.

Have you had conceptual or general physics before?  That's also fantastic.  We will cover some of the same topics you've already seen, but at a much deeper level conceptually, mathematically, and experimentally.  You'll get a chance to answer some of those burning "why" questions that your teacher told you were beyond the scope of your first course.  We'll talk about motion, force, energy, momentum, waves, and circuits, but also rotation and universal gravitation.  Honors Physics 1 can be a great follow-up that prepares you well for (or, on the contrary, can exempt you from) college physics.  Second-year physics students are also in the right place.

But please think carefully.  Are you taking this course mainly so that you can pad your college resume or your GPA?  Is a primary motive that honors physics will make your transcript more impressive?  That you're more likely to advance your GPA above some target if you're in an additional honors course?  If so, this is definitely not the course for you.  It's not that my students' grades are ever really bad -- most everyone tends to get As and Bs, with Cs rare.  It's that if you're not exited about and intrinsically interested in the course content, the effort necessary to earn those grades will not be worth it.  You'll find yourself angry and resentful at a subject that can't be conquered by sheer force of will.

Think how you will react when a test asks you about kind of situation or experiment that you've never seen before in class.  If you'll say, "you didn't cover that, that's not fair, how did you expect us to know", this physics class is not for you.

But if you'll say, "cool, here's my best shot, I hope Mr. Jacobs lets us try this in lab next week to see whether I'm on the right track", then you are perfectly placed in honors physics.

I'm always ready to talk about physics.  Feel free to call or email.

Thanks!  Can't wait to do some physics on Wednesday.



  1. A very concerned mother here. My very strong student pulled her first C in her life in the first semester of physics. We have tutors, spoken multiple times to the teacher and everyone says that she understands the materials, and almost always does badly on the test. When asked, she says that the test is so different she does not know what to do. As an engineer who had taken high levels of physics, I am really at a lost to help her. As an experienced teacher what advice can you give her. We need to make the next upcoming semester rock! Appreciate your kind assistance.

  2. Now, remember that I have no direct contact with this specific student, so I can't give anything more than general advice. That said, I've seen this pattern many times -- historically outstanding student who gets As in history and biology, diligent, willing to work hard with support at home from subject matter experts... yet does not perform on physics tests.

    The general advice starts with recognizing that there is no magic bullet. Neither her parents, her tutors, her teacher, or I can instantly create success. Physics skills are learned gradually, over time. They come quicker for some than for others.

    That said: in so many cases as you describe, the student's extensive support network is HURTING rather than helping. Students very often treat homework as a "just get the answer" exercise without engaging in the process. It's very, very hard for me to train even good physics teachers to back off and make students struggle without giving away answers. When tutors and expert parents get involved, students tend to ignore the "here's how to approach the problem" and hear "thank goodness, I got the answer" -- no matter how good the tutoring might be.

    So my fundamental advice is to let your daughter struggle. Give her loving emotional support, just as you would if she were on a softball team and kept striking out. When she asks questions, don't solve problems with her, don't help her figure out mistakes -- it's her homework, let her do it. Instead, ask her to think all the time about the process of getting answers, the general approach to different kinds of problems, even if she doesn't get answers. Help her keep focus on the big picture of all the things she's done well -- both in and out of physics class -- and don't engage in chicken little talk because she has trouble with one test or homework problem.

    It's very likely that, by year's end, she'll start making connections and improve dramatically. I've had a number of students making Cs this time of year who ended up with 4s and 5s on the AP exam. Things often click after long-term exposure to physics.

    It's also possible that she pulls a C for the year. That's okay, too. I have struck out every at-bat for four games in a row; I've earned Cs on tests and in classes. Those strikeouts and Cs no more define me than they should define your daughter.