What to do if you’re taking calculus-based physics next year and you haven’t taken calculus yet

Every year I have a couple of students who are taking calculus-based physics at the same time as calculus. Traditionally, you take calculus first, and then  you take physics with calculus. The calculus used in these introductory physics classes is usually simple enough that it’s not impossible to take them both at the same time, but it’s definitely a challenge. I wouldn’t recommend it if you can avoid it, but if you can’t there are some things you can do over the summer that will make next year go much more smoothly:

  • Recognize that you’re at a disadvantage. The worst thing possible outcome is that you end up thinking you’re bad a physics. Even if there isn’t much calculus in the course, a lot of the ideas in physics are covered in calculus. There is a lot of conceptual overlap. So, just keep in mind that everyone else who took calc last year has had a whole year to get comfortable with these ideas and to practice them. Also, you’re having to learn two challenging things at once. Not only that, but you’re having to put them together. It’s as if you just learned how to juggle and you also just learned how to ride a bike, but you’re forced to practice them both at the same time.
  • Get a head start on calc. I recommend Calculus Made Easy, which is actually the book I used to help me learn calc when I was in high school. Start at the beginning and work up through chapter 8. Take your time. Focus more on the ideas than on the math.
  • Work through my book Rates of Change. I feel like recommending this to you is a bit of a conflict of interest on my part, and I agonized over whether to include it in this post, but I really do think it helps make the fundamental ideas much clearer.

Lastly, once school starts, don’t hesitate to ask for help, either from your teacher, a tutor, or me.

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