Friday, September 22, 2017

Common Mistakes By Students In Intro Physics

Rhett Allain has listed 3 common mistakes and misunderstanding done by student in intro kinematics physics courses.

I kinda agree with all of them, and I've seen them myself. In fact, when I teach "F=ma" and try to impress upon them its validity, I will ask them that if it is true, why do you need to keep your foot on the gas pedal to keep the vehicle moving at constant speed while driving? This appears to indicate that "F" produces a constant "speed", and thus, "a=0".

Tackling this is important, because the students already have a set of understanding of how the world around the works, whether correctly or not. It needs to be tackled head-on. I tackled this also in dealing with current where we calculate the drift velocity of conduction electrons. The students discover that the drift velocity is excruciatingly slow. So then I ask them that if the conduction electrons move like molasses, why does it appear that when I turn the switch on, the light comes on almost instantaneously?

Still, if we are nitpicking here, I have a small issue with the first item on Allain's list:

What happens when you have a constant force on an object? A very common student answer is that a constant force on an object will make it move at a constant speed—which is wrong, but it sort of makes sense.

Because he's using "speed" and not "velocity", it opens up a possibility of a special case of a central force, or even a centripetal force, in a circular motion where the object has a net force acting on it, but its speed remains the same. Because the central force is always perpendicular to the motion of the particle, it imparts no increase in speed, just a change in direction. So yes, the velocity changes, but the magnitude of the velocity (the speed) does not. So the misconception here isn't always wrong.


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