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. For this purpose, the course has an online wiki-book. Before each lecture there will be a few (fairly short) web pages for you to read -- equivalent to a few subsections of a textbook chapter -- and you will be required to ask questions about a couple of them (using WebAssign). Here are your pre-lecture readings for each instructor: Dreyfus / Redish. The ones you have to ask questions about are on WebAssign.

There are three purposes to having you ask questions.

  • The first and most important is to help you to learn to read scientific text more effectively. Often, a scientific text may appear confusing at first read. Many students try to solve this by re-reading the material multiple times until it feels familiar. This can gloss over serious misunderstandings. A better approach is to go through the text carefully, figuring out where you are stuck, analyzing why, and asking the right question. Note that, "I didn't understand this reading" is not a question but a statement. It will not receive credit for a reading question. You need to identify what it is that you do not understand.
  • Seeing where many of you are confused about a particular reading will help the lecture decide how much of the material to go over in lecture. If there are no questions about understanding, the lecturer will assume that everyone has understood all the readings and go from there.
  • If you do understand the material, you should still be processing it -- thinking about how it relates to other things you know, what the relevance might be to something you are interested in, or what the next step might be. We expect you to be able to formulate a useful scientific question from any reading that you have understood.

If you would like to purchase and access a text, WebAssign has a number available that can be purchased for online access. Or you may prefer to purchase a paper copy. Ask your instructor for some recommendations.


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 interactive and may include group problem solving, demonstrations, discussions, and other activities.


The recitation sections will be group problem solving. Typically, you will work through an extended multi-part problem in groups of 3-5. Often these will have a biological context. In some cases, what you learn in these recitations will provide the necessary background for the lab that follows.


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

You will be asked to do 5-6 challenging problems including estimations, explanations, essay questions, worked out problems, and even some challenging multiple-choice questions. Some problems (1 per week) will be written out on paper and will be due at the BEGINNING of the last class of the week. The other problems (approximately 4 each week) will be due by 5pm on Friday and will be submitted through WebAssign.

Solutions to these problems will be posted on Canvas. We do not have sufficient resources to provide full grading of the homework with feedback on all the problems. Some problems will be graded on content while some will only be gradedfor completion -- but which are which will be decided at random after they are handed in. You will need to go over the solutions carefully and compare to what you have done to be sure you understand. Do not interpret the fact that you have received all the points to mean that you have solved the problem correctly!

Homework and in-class problem solving is where most of the learning in this class gets done! You are strongly encouraged to find a group of two or three other students in the class to work with. Part of our goal for this class is to help you learn how to participate in scientific discussions about problem solving. This is the way real science happens, both in research labs and in health care environments! It's best to try some things on your own first, then get together and discuss what you each think. Learn to probe and evaluate each others' ideas, looking at things from different angles, looking for consistency and correctness of reasoning, not just answers. If you don't know people in the class, come to the Course Center to work on your homework. You are encouraged to work together, but be careful to write up your solutions independently. Don't construct a common solution and copy it! If two submitted answers are essentially identical, neither will get credit.

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 (Redish) or TUESDAY (Dreyfus). Quizzes will focus on important -- and sometimes subtle -- fundamental issues (often from the previous week's class material or recitation). 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 midterm 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). The final exam will be approximately double in length and it will be cumulative (though it may emphasize the material covered after the second exam).

Although the final and two in-class exams are important, they only total 33% of your grade -- and there are ways to improve your result after the fact. See below for the rules for regrades and makeup 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.

  • Exams are not curved - For exams, we do NOT grade on a curve. We have an nearly absolute expectation. On most exams, ~75% will be an A, ~60% a B, ~50% a C. This means that someone else's doing well on an exam will never negatively affect your grade. If you all do extremely well on an exam (however unlikely that may be) we will give you all A's for that exam.

  • 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. (Simply asking to "please take another look" will be returned without evaluation.) 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 your argument carefully in writing.

    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 the week after the exam, probably on Friday 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.


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. 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.

Attendance at every lab is required. If you anticipate missing a lab session, you must arrange ahead of time to attend another lab section for that session (for a 1-week lab) or for the entire lab unit (for a 2-week lab). If it is not possible to attend a different lab session, contact your TA as soon as you are aware of your impending absence. Only those with a VALID WRITTEN EXCUSE for missing a lab will be allowed to do a makeup activity at the end of the semester (that will take at least two hours and may involve doing another lab or evaluating data). If you do not have a valid written excuse, you will get a zero for the week that you missed. You may make up a maximum of one excused absence. If you miss more than one week (have more than one 'zero', i.e., if you miss more than one lab session), you may receive an incomplete or a failing grade for the entire class.


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.) 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 or take any of the quizzes -- it can be difficult to get a decent grade! For details of what these represent see the Grading Detail page.

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

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