Course Mechanics & Grading (& Emails)


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. Before each class there will be a number of (fairly short) web pages for you to read, and some of these you will comment on (using ExpertTA). These assignments precede each lecture, and can also be found here: Lectures


The lecture hour will typically contain little lecturing. This course is flipped: You encounter the material in your readings before class, think about it, then come to the lecture hour and try to use it, to explain it, to discuss it with your colleagues. You must come prepared! The "lectures" will typically begin with a brief recap of the content of the previous night's reading and perhaps a discussion based on the questions you and your classmates have entered. The rest of the class will be group problem solving using whiteboards, and some demonstrations 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. Read the instructions in advance.


We are now using ExpertTA as our on-line homework platform. A typical assignment will have four or five questions where you enter your answers online. Then there is also a lengthier problem, which you will find at HW, where you must work out the solutions and turn in the assignment on paper. The deadline for all problems is 5:00 pm on the Friday due dates. The hard copy assignments should be deposted in the PHYS233 slot opposite PHYS 154.

You are encouraged to work on these with classmates, but write up your solutions independently. Be careful: If two or more submitted answers are essentially identical, neither will receive credit. Solutions to the hard copy problem are to be written up nicely -- like a report. They can be expected to include equations, calculations, drawings, and graphs. The quality of the presentation will be considered in the score as well as the quality of the solution.

  • Homework Grade Components --
  • Lecture Reading Essays 2 pts each x 25 = 50
    Expert TA HW assignments, 5 questions x 2.5 pts x 11 assignments = 137.5
    Handwritten HW 1 question x 6 pts x 11 assignments = 66
    Total 253.5

    This means that each Reading Essay assignment (with four answer boxes) is worth a total of 2 points, each of the five questions in every Expert TA on-line assignment is worth 2.5 points, and each handwritten homework problem is worth 6 points. The maximum number of points from homeworh is 253.5. This is slightly in excess of the 250 points listed below, or 25% of your total grade. (Consider the excess to be bonus points.)


    We will have (graded) short quizzes usually on MONDAY. (They likely will be during the last 10 minutes of class.) 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 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. Exams typically have five problems, including one essay question and one estimation question. 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.

    NOTE: You must complete all labs to get a passing grade in this class. If you miss a lab, inform your TA. You must then attend the make-up lab session during the last week of classes.


    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.


    Half of your grade is based on your individual performance on in-class exams, quizzes, and the final. The other half is based on collaborative work on homework, labs, recitations, and in-class clickers.

    The result is a grade that is a more accurate representation of your performance in the class. It also means that you might be able to blow one midterm exam and still get an A if your work in other categories is first rate! 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
      Final exam 200
      Quizzes 100
      (includes reading assignments)
      Lab 150
      Recitations 70
      Clickers 30
      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 absolute cutoffs for A's, B's and C's for the exams, quizzes and the final exam, which is half of your grade. In other words, exams are not graded on a curve: 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.

    • To determine the end-of-semester grades, these absolute cutoffs are applied to the exams, quizzes, and the final. For homework, labs, recitations, and clickers (the other half of your grade), the total score exceeded by one third of the class will be the A cutoff, the total score exceeded by two thirds of the class will be the B cutoff. The C cutoff will be determined by the instructor.

      The absolute exam cutoff (e.g. 75% of 500 maximum points for an A) will be added to the curved cutoff for HW, labs, recitations & clickers to determine the total cutoffs out of 1000 points. A passing grade of D or better will be at least 500 points (50%), and could be higher. We will give plus/minus grades, so when we refer to the A cutoff, we mean the border between a B+ and an A-. As a matter of policy, we do not release the final grade cutoffs.

      REMINDER: You cannot get a passing grade without completing all labs.

    • 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 Blackboard 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 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 treat this as a violation of our conduct code and your grade will suffer (or worse). 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.

Code of Conduct

Any effort to represent somebody else’s work as your own, or allowing your work to represented as somebody else’s, is cheating. 
 Working with another student on your homework is not cheating and, in fact, is encouraged. However, having somebody else solve assigned problems for you IS cheating. 
 Entering clicker responses for anybody else is cheating. 

If a student is found cheating on an exam, he or she will receive a zero score for the affected exam. Cheating on HW, quizzes, clickers, or recitations will result in a zero TOTAL score for that grade category. Any cheating will be reported to the Dean of Students, which may result in additional actions.

Email Policies

Certain informational questions are best handled by email. Experience has shown, however, that there are several areas that are best handled instead in face-to-face meetings:

  • How to solve a physics problem. While we could easily communicate the answer to a problem to you, we have found that this is not an effective way for students to learn physics.

  • What are the grade cutoffs, and why didn't I get a better grade?. Again, these questions are best handled in a face-to-face discussion, because they are important questions and need to be addressed in a serious way. As a matter of policy we do not release the final cutoffs, but we describe above exactly how the cutoffs are determined. We would be especially interested in talking with you if you find that some of your scores were not properly counted.

    The type of emails you should send the instructor: Send a note suggesting two different times and dates when you would like to meet. You may also include the topic of the meeting.

  • In the event of a major campus emergency or other circumstances beyond the instructor's control, course requirements, deadlines and grading percentages are subject to change.

    Edited by S. M. Durbin August 2018