# Intuition in Learning Physics: When It Helps and When It Misleads

Written on

## Chapter 1: The Journey of Learning Physics

One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching physics is witnessing the development of students. While the path isn’t always straightforward, it’s inspiring to observe a student conquer a challenge. This transformation resembles the phase change in water when ice melts—except it doesn't leave a mess behind.

However, it’s important to note that not every student experiences this transformation. Some students may not need to adapt their approach. Many begin with an “intuition-based” strategy for tackling physics problems.

Let’s examine a few scenarios where intuition tends to be effective (though not universally applicable):

- Doubling the speed of an object results in it traveling twice the distance.
- The upward force exerted by a surface on an object equals the object's weight.
- Placing polarizers at right angles will block all light.
- You can combine the acceleration from an elevator with gravitational acceleration to determine forces acting on an object.

Humans naturally gravitate toward using intuition. If you’ve tackled physics problems, you’ve likely relied on one of these intuitive strategies. However, as a physics instructor, you are likely aware that these assumptions can lead students astray, resulting in misconceptions and incorrect answers.

Like everyone else, I’ve had my share of intuition-related struggles in physics. Here’s a simplified version of one such problem I encountered:

A 1 kg block rests on a frictionless horizontal table, connected to a pulley by a string, which leads to a 500-gram weight hanging off the edge. What is the acceleration of the block? What is the tension in the string?

Now, let’s explore my initial intuitive approach to this problem. The 500-gram weight experiences two forces: the upward tension and the downward gravitational force. Since the tension acting on the hanging weight is the same as that on the block, I assumed that the tension equals the weight of the 500-gram mass. I thought I could apply Newton’s Second Law to the 1 kg mass to find the acceleration.

Unfortunately, this reasoning is flawed. The tension does not equal the weight of the hanging mass unless the mass is stationary and has zero acceleration—which is not the case here. For those interested, further detail on this solution can be provided.

Here are a couple more examples where intuition can lead to misunderstandings:

- Determining forces acting on an object in circular motion.
- Relative velocity issues.
- Gravitational mechanics—often best understood through hands-on experiences, such as playing Kerbal Space Program.
- Quantum mechanics, where human intuition tends to mislead.

So, how do we address this intuition challenge? What does your instinct suggest? Just kidding, of course!

In reality, students must confront these hurdles. They need to reach a point where they can no longer rely on gut feelings to navigate physics problems. As the material becomes more complex, it’s essential to practice fundamental concepts.

Success in solving physics problems hinges less on innate intelligence and more on experience with various principles. Experience cannot be obtained instantly; it requires diligent practice. Like any worthwhile pursuit, it demands effort and sometimes discomfort. But ultimately, the rewards are significant.

## Chapter 2: Overcoming Intuition in Physics Learning

In this chapter, we will delve deeper into strategies to enhance understanding and overcome the limitations of intuition in physics.