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Suppose an advanced undergraduate student has reached a moderate level of understanding on electrodynamics. Where should he focus on, to sharpen his problem-solving skills?

  • Practicing integrals and/or other mathematical tools.
  • Studying theoretical results.
  • Working on the physical meaning and applications of ED equations.
  • Something else.

I understand this is a somewhat subjective question but please try to be as objective as possible: state what really works based on your experience as a teacher/TA for example

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To be clear, what are your goals? By "problem solving skills" do you mean "getting As in E&M classes?" Or "doing good research in E&M related stuff?" Or something else entirely? –  kharybdis Jan 31 '11 at 17:29
    
@Spencer: to help my students "get better" at solving undergraduate problems on electrodynamics. (Problems like those on Griffiths' books for example) –  Eelvex Jan 31 '11 at 17:34
    
And are you going for full ED effects (such as solving the wave equation with given boundary and initial conditions) or some application (like electrostatic, circuits, etc.)? Also, are relativity exercises fine? E.g. boosting some solutions and seeing what happens. –  Marek Jan 31 '11 at 19:20
    
A minimalist answer - work them out on the blackboard during class. There is no substitute. –  user346 Jan 31 '11 at 19:20
    
@Marek: full ED would be. Some things from radiation could be left out. Most relativity problems probably will be left out. –  Eelvex Jan 31 '11 at 19:29
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2 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

In my humble experience, solving Griffiths problems gets you good at solving Griffiths problems, but not much more. Typically, they've already done/seen the math required, so I'd only work on the calculus part if they're really struggling. Studying theoretical results doesn't seem a great idea either; they'll pick that up along the way or in class. What I prefer is to study more 'extended' problems, i.e. a real life example for the (classical) literature, guide them through the development and finish with a comparison to experimental results. This way, they plough through the maths but also need to do a minimum of interpreting. However, if your goal is just to get them great at working Griffiths-like problems, this might be overkill.

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If you're going to stay in physics, you're going to have to take the physics GRE. So why not study the E&M questions on the sample GRE tests? They're nice simple questions and test your understanding of physics, not your understanding of mathematics. You can get the sample questions here:
http://grephysics.net/ans/

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Using GRE questions is an interesting idea. Note, however, that focusing on mathematical understanding may be something we want (see question's comments). –  Eelvex Feb 1 '11 at 12:07
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