Overcoming certainty: Concept test in Newtonian Mechanics
Student F=ma Concept test
Student version (.pdf)     Instructor version (contact us)

Why this concept test was created?
How do you prepare talented students to fill small gaps in their fundamental physics and math skills? Data from 30+ years of teaching Ph.D. dynamics to 1000+ Stanford students showed that some gifted students (particularly from elite universities) regard basics as intuitive, obvious, or remedial - even when they are wrong. This pretest helps overcome overconfident certainty and provides a growth mindset -- which is critical to avoid failure in the real test of nature (which is unaware of prestige and Ph.D. degrees).

Background/longer story.   While working with Professor Thomas Kane for 15 quarters and teaching graduate dynamics at Stanford for 20+ years, we encountered students from elite schools who were impatiently frustrated during their first months in advanced dynamics with what they considered "review" material  (vectors, rotation matrices, differentiation, angular velocity, etc).

Unfortunately, some of these elite students performed poorly on the midterm (compared to peers) and criticized the course and its instruction. After conversation, many acknowledged that their misplaced certainty in knowing basic material caused them to overlook critical small details. Their performance on the final exam was dramatically better, but their midterm angst was discouraging.

This concept test has seemingly simple true/false and multiple choice questions which actually require a deep understanding of fundamental concepts. The average pretest score of hundreds of Stanford graduate students from all over the world is 35%.

Typical instructions for the concept test are:

  • Complete this test within 1.5 hours - without books, the Internet etc.
  • This pretest is only graded for completion (numerical score does not affect semester letter grade).
  • Ideally, the test alerts you to missing fundamentals and the instruction/book helps correct misconceptions.

Outcome: High-confidence students who have a more positive growth mindset for "review" material and who avoid intimidating peers with their misplaced certainty about "trivial" early topics.

Instructor note: We start the first day of dynamics instruction with:
``The big picture is   F = ma.   The rest is small details.
  If you are strictly a big-picture person, please exit now.''