PHYS 121

This is my course review for physics 121 at University of Washington. I took the course in spring 2015 under Jim Reid (lecturer). The lab instructor was Jens Gundlach (though I never once saw him, since TAs lead the lab section).

Overall, this course marks my worst experience in a UW course so far, and was easily worse than even high school IB physics (which I took for two years). The sheer paternalism of the course is incredible: there are six deadlines per week, as well as mandatory attendance to five locations per week. The instructor also doesn’t do a good job explaining the structure of the course, so the first week I was highly confused. When I finally understood the structure of the course, I was in disbelief. Indeed, a table that one of my tutorial TAs drew helped me understand the components of the course.

The course has a shocking nine components. Most courses have lecture, quiz section, and homework—three components. I actually didn’t understand the course structure for the first two weeks—it might be even more complicated than the material of the course—until a TA drew a grid with all the components. Essentially, each of the three “locations” (lecture, tutorial, lab) have a pre- in- and post- component. So pre-lecture, the actual lecture, and the post-lecture (regular homework). Then there’s pre-tutorial, the actual tutorial, and the post-tutorial (tutorial homework). Then there’s pre-lab, the actual lab, and the post-lab. Plus three midterms and a final. In comparison, my math course has lecture, a quiz once a week, and homework once a week. Two midterms and a final.

On top of this, attendance to lectures is practically mandatory seeing that they take attendance randomly using clicker questions. In CS lecture the last two quarters, Friday lectures were noticeably less crowded because attendance wasn’t required, and I’m guessing people got lazy. I mean, if you want incentivize people to attend lecture just to push a few buttons and collect points for that day, then okay. But don’t expect people to learn any better for it. Case in point: the mean on the first midterm was a 61 out of 100. What’ shocking is that there has to be people who scored below the mean…

I’m also bitter about the course because it’s at the physics building (the building that is literally the farthest away from north campus dorms) and lecture is at 8:30 in the morning.

The webassign style of homework is also much less forgiving. Although you get maybe 10 tries for each problem, if you get even a little bit wrong (it has maybe a 1% tolerance for answers), it will just give you a small hint an no other help. Contrast this to high school: once you do the problem, sure you might not get immediate feedback (though often the teacher gave a problem whose answer was in the back of the textbook), but if you really can’t do it, you could just stop working on it and ask questions the next day, when the homework problems were covered in class. Sure, this was tedious, but is it not better than not ever knowing the answer?

The tolerance of the lab webassign questions are similarly barbaric. If your significant figures are off by more than one, it will refuse to accept your answer, even in part. And it gives no indication of where you might have messed up in the long trail of tedious calculations.

Tutorial: the latter ones did prove helpful in solidifying some concepts, but having to actually write everything down in the book is very tedious. This was the least bad portion of the course.

The midterms: being crowded in a room in Kane with desks that can’t even fit the midterm… During my second midterm I had to sit next to someone who smelled of cigarettes…

The prospect of attending lecture at 8:30 in the morning just for a few clicker questions that may not even happen… was so discouraging that I began skipping several lectures toward the end of the course.

The SmartPhysics: at first I thought I might evade the hefty fee by just doing every prelecture in the one month trial period, and get it out of the way. Unfortunatley, they don’t even give you access to the prelecture until a few days before the corresponding lecture takes place, so you’re forced to pay the fee and go along with the pace of the course…

The performance of the other students in the course was also worrying. (the midterms of the course, for instance, were 61 and 53 (std 18)). Moreover people seem to take notes even for extremely basic things. Case in point: the first lecture was about reasoning with dimensional analysis (the rudiments of it, anyway), and the people around me were furiously writing down notes, as if they had never seen this stuff.

One funny anecdote: after each midterm so far I’ve heard people saying stuff like “oh, this is the midterm I’m dropping for sure”. Well, the first two midterms should be by far the easier two of the three… Good luck trying to drop the easier ones!

It is extremely lamentable that some very interesting majors like applied math and astronomy require this introductory sequence. I guess now I know which majors I won’t be doing!

The whole course is farcical… the time commitment required seems to be much greater than that of a typical introductory 5 credit course.

By now it’s so trite to complain about “weed out courses”, but the complaints are nonetheless valid. The professors honestly don’t care whether you learn or not, nor do the students. It’s all about the race to get the good GPA so you get admitted to the competitive engineering majors … or whatever. At least in high school, the teachers seemed to care whether you learned or not. Here the atmosphere is just … one of forced amnesia: pass through, go through the motions, then forget.

It’s actually shocking how monumentally the university could fail at designing a decent intro physics sequence. Keep in mind, this is a university with 40,000 students, and the physics department, though not top-tier, is nonetheless considered decent. It’s just sad to think about the literally hundreds of students suffering through this sequence each quarter. I feel like I’m living in a nightmare universe written by Oe.

In fact, I think one of the reasons many students do so poorly in the course… it’s just so easy to give up, to stop caring about the course, and let your grade deteriorate. I say this because it is happening to myself: there is simply not enough intellectual reward to continue playing this farcical game of deadline after deadline. Some of the physics in the course actually is new to me, and it is exciting to learn about, but this constant grinding simply breaks one down, making one apathetic even to the exciting topics of the course… In a sense, this is probably what happened to others in the course, as well as, earlier on, in high school.

I really agree with all that’s said in this thread:

also checkout the wiki on reddit: