The True Nature of Physics Classes

Some people entering the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for a Physics degree are nervous because they hear that earning a degree is tough because of the material being taught. At first, this can be very frightening until one finds out that it is due to how the class is structured and how the grades are determined so “mysteriously.”

In my experience, Physics classes at the university are not difficult, but they are structured with a number of variables in a way that you have to learn how to navigate. For example, I’ve found that exam content is no harder than the homework and is very doable. The difficulty instead arises from the time limit, which causes the quality of  my exam work to decrease below what I would normally have produced.

The second variable is the transition instructors make between proof and example. Many of my lectures have are full of proofs and display less demonstration, but the homework is best done with knowledge of application. That creates the situation where you need to search for examples on your own, and, instead, the need to possess a strong initiative to complete this work makes the class difficult.

I have also found the class poses difficulty by having most office hours held by the teacher’s assistants instead of the professor him/herself. The teaching assistants (TAs) do not always explain the material as well as the instructor, and that has sometimes makes it cumbersome to seek help with the homework because you need to seek any marginal amount of help at all times possible.


Now, the seemingly odd distribution of grades can be explained for the classes, too. The final grades in Physics classes at the university are done based on the standard deviation of scores. This means that the overall distribution of grades is meant to fit a historical distribution of past course scores. For example, if the middle 30% of students tend to score B’s in a class then one can expect to get a B if they are in the middle 30% of their class. My point in saying this is to emphasize that one should not be afraid to take a Physics course because someone claims it is a “grade-breaker.” This is because the students could have just been really strong when that person attended that class, and it pushed the grade distribution percentiles to greater overall class scores.

When taking a Physics class all one can do is their best to learn because the distribution of grades, which is determined by the entire class, is not in your control and worrying about that would be fruitless. If you do try your hardest, know you understand the material, and feel you got a low grade, it is not a reason to believe you are bad at Physics. Those who bumped up the grade boundaries may have just been better at taking Physics classes or tests while you may be equally if not better at applying the material in projects or situations more representative of industry. In other words, your Physics grade, although important, is not always the best nor only definition of you as a Physics student because you simply may not be good at taking classes, not utilizing Physics concepts.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has Physics courses that are known to to be tough, but for reasons you might not expect. However, if you enter the college with a love of Physics, a driven personality, and a mindset that your grade is not the only measure of your skills, then you have nothing to fear regarding Physics classes at the university.


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