Demotivating Experiences in Statistical Mechanics

Mar 26, 2015 • Joseph Long

Einstein once famously said that thermodynamics was so fundamental and applicable that it “will never be overthrown” as a physical theory. With such an endorsement, you’d think that I’d have good things to say about the required course I took in it for my physics major.

Most physics students in my program are exposed to basic thermodynamics and a little bit of statistical mechanics early on in the curriculum, and then take an additional course on those two areas alone. I had the misfortune of taking my “core statmech” course with a very enthusiastic but incredibly flaky professor. His assigned readings and discussion questions didn’t appear to have any relationship with each other or with the in-class discussions. He collected homework irregularly and returned it late, if at all. (Rumor has it that he once handed back a problem set an entire year after the course had concluded.)

I found the incoherent structure of the course demotivating, but the real killer was the lack of timely and consistent feedback. Even at their worst, physics classes still have clear exercises with well-defined answers. (Easier to give feedback on than, say, multi-page essays from a class full of students.) In the absence of a coherent lecture, one can generally muddle through with a couple of good textbooks and knowledgable friends. However, the inconsistent or absent feedback on written homework meant I was chronically underconfident in my own understanding.

In that situation, the thing that would have re-motivated me is probably some additional structure. Setting a consistent schedule for homework due-dates and dates by which feedback is returned would have gotten me to care about the course at the basic, mechanical level of completing assignments consistently, which might have fed into a higher level appreciation of the course. Instead, it felt like an exercise in arbitrary demands with little guidance, and only through some miracle did I pull out a passing grade. To this day, I’m ashamed of my patchy knowledge in this key area. (Don’t tell any of my colleagues.)