Course Mechanics & Grading

This class is an active learning experience! Think "aerobics class" rather than "watching a good science program on TV"! In all parts of the class you will be engaged in thinking about, talking about, figuring out, and learning physics.


There are readings in this class, but we have chosen not to use a standard text. In part this is because there is no standard introductory physics text that covers the physics that is most useful for applications in the life sciences. Our goal is to start with what you know from introductory biology and chemistry -- and your everyday experience! -- and teach you the physics that is most relevant for understanding living things. We are in the process of writing such a book as an online wiki-book. Before each class there will be a few (fairly short) web pages for you to read and comment on (using Webassign). Here are your pre-lecture tasks: Antonsen Buehrle


The "lectures" will typically begin with a brief recap of the content of the previous night's reading and a discussion based on the questions you and your classmates have entered. The rest of the class will be group problem solving, demonstrations and discussions, and other activities.


The recitation sections will be group problem solving. Typically, you will work through an extended multi-part problem often with a biological context.


In addition to the reading commentaries there will be weekly homework assignments.

You will be asked to do 4-6 challenging problems including estimations, explanations, essay questions, worked out problems, and even some challenging multiple choice questions. You are encouraged to work on these with friends, but write up your solutions independently. Be careful: If two or more submitted answers are essentially identical, neither will receive credit. Some problems (1-2 per week) will be written out on paper and will be due at the BEGINNING of the last class of the week each week. The other problems (approximately 4 each week) will be due by 5pm and submitted through Webassign

Solutions to these problems will be posted on Canvas. You will need to go over those solutions carefully and compare to what you have done to be sure you understand.

Homework and in-class problem solving is where most of the learning in this class gets done! Do a careful and complete job on your homework. If you are not earning full credit and looking at the solutions doesn't help you for next time, check with an instructor and go over what more you need to do.


We will have (graded) 10-minute quizzes at the beginning of class on each MONDAY (Antonsen) or TUESDAY (Buehrle) when we are not going over an exam. Quizzes will focus on important -- and sometimes subtle fundamental issues (often from the previous week's material). Each quiz will be worth 10 points. The point of these quizzes is to help you see where you might still be confused. There will be 11 quizzes. The lowest grade will be dropped.


We will have two hour exams and a final. Each exam will test how well you have learned to use and make sense of the material. As a result, you will be expected to think on exams. Each exam will include (points approximate): one set of short answer or multiple choice problems (25 pts -- often connected representation translation problems), two multi-part problems (25 pts each -- problem solving), one estimation problem (15 pts), and an essay question (10 pts). Although exams are important, they total only ~40% of your grade -- and there are ways to improve your result after the fact. See below for the rules for regrades and makeup exams.


The laboratories in this class will let you experience and explore the topics of lecture and recitation in the real world. You also will learn techniques that are directly applicable to living things, for example how to characterize the motion of an object moving under a microscope.

The lab experiments are different from the traditional "protocol" labs where you are told exactly what to do and expect to get a result that agrees with some theoretical prediction. These are design labs -- labs in which your job is to design and carry out an experiment to answer a question.

Each lab experiment will be carried out over two or more weeks to give you time to learn a new technique and to answer a question. An important part of the lab is a discussion at the end where you present and discuss your results to the other members of your class.

Lab reports will be done during the lab periods and handed in before you leave the final lab period of an experiment. For more details and for the lab handouts, go to our Lab page.


If you have a valid excuse for missing an exam, quiz, or homework, send an email to your instructor to arrange what to do about it, beforehand if at all possible. Specify the date and day you will be (or were) absent and the reasons. Ex post facto (after the fact) excuses will require validation and may not be acceptable. (Wanting to leave early before a holiday is NOT a valid excuse, even if it's for a friend's wedding.) You must contact your lead instructor. Your TA does not have the authority to excuse you from any required class activity.


Grades in this class arise from a mix of many different ways to judge your work, NOT solely from your performance on exams. Be sure you understand the components!

The result is a grade that is a more accurate representation of your performance in the class. It also means that you can blow one midterm exam and still get an A if your work in other categories is first rate! Here is the breakdown. It also means if you do very poorly on any one category -- say you don't hand in any homework -- it can be difficult to get a decent grade!

  • Components --
  • Hour exams (100 pts each) 200
    Quizzes 100
    Final exam 200
    Homework 200
    Lab 150
    Participation 75
    Pre-Class and Pre-Lab Reading 75
    Total 1000

    These divisions are not guaranteed. We may adjust due to unforseen circumstances that cancel classes or HW - snow, tornadoes, etc.

  • How grades are assigned -- We assign a grade level for each category (e.g., how many points you need to get to get an A on the quizzes, what you need to get an A on the HW, etc.) and then add up the points for each grade level to obtain what is need for each final grade. We anticipate that the top third of each grade range will be "+" and the bottom third will carry a "-".
  • Curving: Labs and HW yes, exams and quizzes no -- For exams, we do NOT grade on a curve. We have an absolute expectation. On most exams, 75% will be an A, 60% a B, 45% a C. This means that someone else's doing well on an exam will never negatively affect your grade. If you all do well on an exam we will give you all A's for that exam.
  • Exams -- Exam problems will not be standard end-of-chapter problems. You will be expected to think, not recall previously memorized information. Questions of the type found on our exams will be included in the homework problems and problems from previous exams will be available on our web site.
    • You can improve an exam grade 1: Regrades -- Since we go over midsemester exams in class, you will be able to get a good sense of how it was graded. If you think the grader misunderstood what you were saying, or failed to give you proper credit, you can apply to your lead instructor for a regrade by writing a clear description of why you think you should have more points and turning it in with your exam. In addition to grading error, if you can make a case that you made an early error, but correctly carried out later parts that depended on that error, you can request consistency points. Again, you will have to explain carefully in writing your argument.

      Be sure not to write on your exam itself since this will mean we would have to look up the scanned exams to see what you originally wrote. If you alter a graded exam and request a regrade we will automatically report it to the honor committee. Don't do it!
    • You can improve an exam grade 2: Makeup exams -- Each midterm exam will be followed by a makeup exam on the Friday a week after the exam, in the late afternoon. If you miss a midterm, you must take the makeup. If you are unhappy with your grade on an exam, you may take the makeup. If you take both the original and makeup exams, your grade for that exam will be the average of the two grades (whether you do better or worse). In our experience, students who carefully consider their errors and understand what they did wrong on the first exam almost always improve. Students who don't do this and just "take another shot" and "study some more" are as likely to go down as to go up.
    • Equation sheets on exams? No! -- Equation sheets will not be permitted on exams. This is NOT because we want you to memorize all the equations, but because if you focus on lots of equations you will miss making sense of the physics. We will expect you to know some equations -- but only a few; and they should make sense to you and be easy to remember. Exam problems will NOT be simple plug-and-chug applications of equation calculations but will require thinking and, on some questions, writing.

  • Overall grades -- From past experience, we expect that an A will require about 800 points, a B will require about 700 ± 30 points and a C will require about 600 ± 30 points. Passing (not getting an F) will require about 500± 30 points. These grades reflect that the average points needed for a grade level on the homework and labs tend to be higher than on the exams. (The "±" ranges are not guaranteed but are standard deviations -- our best estimate for the range that the result will fall in 2 times out of 3.)
University of Maryland


Edited by D. Buehrle and T. Antonsen January 2014