Course Mechanics & Grading

This class is an active learning experience! 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. 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 Webassign). These assignments precede each lecture, and are found here: Lectures


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 a weekly homework assignment in WebAssign. A typical assignment will have about four questions where you enter your answers online. Then there is a lengthier problem, also presented on WebAssign, 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 can be delivered to PHYS 154, or to a designated Physics Department mailbox.

You will be asked to do 3-5 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. 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 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 check with your instructor and go over what more you need to do.


We will have (graded) short quizzes usually on Thursday. (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 4 points. The point of these quizzes is to help you see where you might still be confused. There will be about 11 quizzes. The lowest grade will be dropped.


We will have 2 one hour exams and a final. Each exam will test how well you have learned to use and make sense of the material. Each exam will include (points approximate): one set of short answer or multiple choice problems (15 pts), three multi-part problems (25 pts each -- problem solving) and one estimation problem (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 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
    Quizzes 100
    Final exam 200
    (includes reading assignments)
    Lab 150
    Recitations 100
    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 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.

In the event of a major campus emergency, course requirements, deadlines and grading percentages are subject to changes that may be necessitated by a revised semester calendar or other circumstances beyond the instructor’s control.

Edited by K. P Ritchie June 2016