Are You Ready for the Math?

The introductory physics sequence poses several major difficulties for the beginning student. First and foremost is the development of a set of physical concepts which are used by physicist to study the physical universe. But a second major difficulty is the application of mathematics to the study of physical phenomenon.

Mathematical Prerequisites

We expect students to enter our classroom with an already impressive array of mathematical tools available to them. The following is a sample list of the expected mathematical competence of students entering a first semester physics course with a calculus co-requisite.

- Be able to manipulate formulae to solve for any of the quantities within the formulae.
- Be able to solve polynomials by factoring and using the quadratic equation.
- Be able to solve systems of equations using substitution and simultaneous equations.
- Be able to interpret inequalities.
- Be able to graph (and interpret the graphs of) lines, polynomials, exponentials, natural logs, trigonometric functions.
- Be able to use and interpret fractional exponents, powers of 10, scientific notation.
- Interpret and convert rectangular and polar coordinates Interpret and convert angles in degrees or in radians.
- Be able to solve various trig identities including law of sine and cosine.
- Be able to perform vector operations in graphical and component forms.
- Be able to add and subtract vectors and to interpret and use dot and cross products.
- Be able to analyze and set up word problems.

If you would like to test your understanding of these topics I have placed a few quizzes in PDF format on a Quiz Page.

But if you find that you are rusty on some of these topics how do you go about reviewing the material?

First try and determine what you need to work on. Take the quizzes on the Quiz Page, look at the problems in class, ask your instructor, etc. Then look at the resources available to you.

There are usually a number of good review books in the library and your old textbooks are likely to be useful. Or you can go shopping for a review book. Find one that has a short review of the material and also has many worked examples. Read the explanations and see if they are at the level that works for you. Make sure that the book has many examples with which to practice. There are a number of books available in the $10-$15 range.

Review books are not designed to learn brand new material. If you find that you have serious gaps in your understanding of mathematics, talk to your instructor about addressing this challenge. A math textbook may be your best bet or even a preparatory course. The investment, if necessary, will be worth the time and effort.

Back to INTRODUCTORY PHYSICS:A Learner's Guide

Last updated 8/28/2002