I know there is an algebra requirement for this course, but, how much/which algebra do I need ?
(Question asked of me by a number of students enrolling in introductory college physics)
Of course it’s not just about memorization. Of course memorizing formulae will not help, if one does not know when and how to apply them. But the fact that it is not all about memorization does not mean that no memorization should be required. One cannot learn physics without memorizing anything at all. Anyone who claims to be able to teach physics (or anything else) without any memorization is almost certainly a quack.
There is no way to “figure out”, say, Coulomb’s law by “intuition”, or reasoning. And without knowing it, one cannot do electrostatics. Simple as that.
And you know what ? It’s the same in all other disciplines. Very few people can play music without being able to read it, speak a foreign language without memorizing verbs and grammar, act in a play without memorizing the lines, drive a car without memorizing the meaning of those road signs. And while all of these activities amount to much more than just memorization, memorization is a necessary part. “Rote memorization”, that’s right, the expression that makes many a modern educator go “eew”, give a grimace of disgust upon pronouncing it. Well, I am sorry, but it is high time we go back to recognizing “rote memorization” as a respectable component of learning . Component is the keyword here.
“But I can always look it up ! There is Wikipedia, you know…”, tell me many a student.
Nonsense. First off, if one needs to use it frequently, at some point it will be retained by heart, much like an ESL speaker does not need to look up the past tense of an English verb, after the first three times (s)he has said “writed” and been corrected by a native speaker. Students who have supposedly worked through hundreds of homework problems, all making use of Coulomb’s law, or repeatedly utilizing concepts like Work, or Energy and Momentum conservation, who claim “not to remember them”, must have had someone else do the homework for them.
Secondly, while “looking up” the most complicated formulae, which require lengthy and nontrivial derivations (especially those that are only needed once in a while) is obviously accepted and fully understood, there is a point where having to resort to a manual, textbook or “cheat sheet” to solve even the simplest problems, or a calculator for performing the most elementary operations, points to one’s poor understanding and even limited thinking ability, casting serious doubts about the person’s future professional effectiveness.
So ingrained is the notion that nothing, nothing should be memorized, that students will often think that something is too difficult for them, that “they are not getting it”, when in reality they are simply not studying it. While concepts like Mass, Energy, Momentum and their implications, are subtle and quite profound, and are fully understood only with time, after spending many hours thinking about them, their definitions and use in the simplest problems of Mechanics are straightforward, and for the most part require little more than memorization.
So, when you, student, ask me for help with a problem having to do with, say, kinetic energy, and I say to you “OK, let us start from the beginning: what is the definition of kinetic energy ?”, please don’t look at me like I have asked you to hand me your credit card, and don’t give me this nonsense “Oh, I don’t understand that… concept“.
There is nothing to understand here; what you really should be saying is “Oh, I have not bothered to study”. You see, I am sure you have your valid reasons but the the problem is, you cannot solve any problem having to do with kinetic energy (or anything else) if you don’t even know what kinetic energy is in the first place. And that, I am sorry, you are going to need to memorize.
If you are not going to take the time to study your textbook, or at least your notes, it is going to be pretty impossible for me to help you, and pretty useless for you to be enrolled in the course in the first place.
But it’s not like I am pissed about it, or anything… not at all.