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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

How I aced a college physics course while learning almost no physics

The basic game plan for the pre-med students was to get good grades and get into medical school.In some ways, many ways, getting a education was secondary, perhaps a side effects of getting the grades.

My college physics  course was in some ways rather idiosyncrasy- there were  weekly tests that consisted of several problems which were graded on a no partial credit basis. It the correct answer was 17.5 seconds 17.3 got no credits. There was instance feedback on the results. You took the paper to the Prof who quickly graded it and you knew the results.

The prof had taught for over twenty years and his pattern was to repeat questions .So that if you had access to an "Old test file" to  which all fraternity members had access and somehow the non-frat folks also had access You could review the type of problems that were in the files that related to the lecture material for that week and focus on those.

It was matter of learning how to solve each type problem,recognizing the patterns,and practicing the steps so you could set the problem up quickly,go through the steps and have amble time to recheck the math ( remember it was no partial credit).

An example problem was someone drops a rock in a well and hears the splash n seconds later, how deep is the well. (It is amazing how often that and other " well posed " problems come up in the daily practice of medicine)

This trip down memory lane was stimulated by a blog entry  by the ever interesting and insightful Dr. Scott Aberegg on his blog ,Status Iatrogenicus.

He discussed the difference between intelligence and common sense and how often the two are not well correlated. The physics course "success" was due to the application of the basic mechanisms that underlie the "intelligence" tested on such things as the SAT and ACT. Pattern recognition, learning the rules or technique of solving the particular problem and practice practice practice.The latter of which is the well recognized way to Carnegie Hall , It was clearly the way to ace the course and finish with a grade significantly higher that the rest of the class (  number 2 was not even close) all of whom were hand picked by the prof who seemed to enjoy giving pre med students a hard time.

This story can also be thought about in terms of Goodhart's Law.When a measure become a target it looses its value as a measure. I remember that the most common question asked by the medical school classmate who was first in the class was "Will that be on the test?"

h/t to and a firm recommendation to read and think about Dr. Aberegg's essay entitled "Book Smarts and Common Sense  in Medicine " . It is more than well worth the time spent. See here.


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