(last updated on May 7, 2022)

CWRU departments are not required to offer proficiency exams and students are not entitled to such exams. Departments are, however, permitted to offer these exams as a service to students who wish to demonstrate that, although they did not earn credit via an AP exam or some other mechanism, they know the material well enough that taking the course would not be productive. Students should not make academic plans based on the assumption that they will pass a proficiency exam; fewer than half the students who attempt these exams pass them. If your degree program requires a physics course, plan on taking it. This means that you should register for that course and drop it if you pass the exam rather than try to adjust your schedule to add the course if you do not pass the exam.

The Department of Physics offers proficiency exams for PHYS 115, 116, 121, 122 & 221. These exams are given twice each year, shortly before classes start in the fall and spring semesters, on a schedule organized by the Office of Undergraduate Studies (not by the Department of Physics). Traditionally, the fall physics exams have been offered on the Thursday and the spring exams on the Saturday before classes begin. In 2022, the spring  physics exams were given remotely from 9 AM to noon on Saturday, January 8. While not yet certain, the fall  physics exams will most likely be offered in-person on Thursday, August 25, in the afternoon in Rockefeller 301.  On May 2, the Office of Undergraduate Studies informed us that the schedule for proficiency exams might be revised and the physics exams given on Friday, August 26 from 9 AM – noon. Rockefeller 301 is likely to remain as the location for these exams. This page will be updated when arrangements are finalized and registered students will be notified.

Physics proficiency exams are NOT given on request at other times! Students are expected to research scheduling issues BEFORE making academic decisions and travel plans. If you expect to take a physics proficiency exam, you should register early (weeks or months) rather than wait until a day or two, or even a week or two, before the exam. At minimum you should register 24 hours in advance. The department has limited capacity to offer these exams and registration might be cut off without notice when this capacity is reached. 

Students cannot attempt two proficiency exams in a single three hour period; this is, in part, because of the way prerequisites are handled. For example, a student cannot take PHYS 122 (or PHYS 116) before earning credit for PHYS 121 (or PHYS 115), but this is not possible in a proficiency exam setting since the first exam cannot be graded immediately. Students who wish to test out of two physics courses will generally have to do this by taking exams on two different dates.

Students are limited to a maximum of two attempts to pass a proficiency exam for any given course. Registering for an exam but not showing up to take it counts as one of these attempts, unless you withdraw your registration at least 24 hours before the exam. (This is a change in policy approved by the department’s Undergraduate Program Committee on January 27, 2021 but it does apply retroactively.)  Be certain that you will have room in your schedule to take the class if you do not pass the exam. Seniors, in particular, have run into problems when they counted on passing a proficiency exam but didn’t, and found that the physics class they then had to take conflicted with other classes they also had to take.  There is no good solution to such problems; some students have had to delay graduation until they completed a course the summer after their senior year.

To be certain that an exam is available for you, you must register for a physics proficiency exam in advance. You can register online using the URL https://forms.gle/RwMMRCV64wwCZZx79 If you have problems with this link, you can instead register by sending an email to gary.chottiner@case.edu. Registration requires the following information:

  1. the email address to which your results should be sent; this must be an official CWRU email address ending with @case.edu or @cwru.edu;
  2. your student ID number (a 7 digit number that probably starts with a 3, not your network ID that starts with three letters );
  3. which of the five possible exams you plan to take. If you aren’t certain about this, consult your academic advisor or navigator since it is your major, not the physics department, that determines what physics credit you need. 
  4. your class at the time you will take the exam (first year, second year, junior or senior)
  5. your major(s) or intended major(s). This information helps us check that you are taking the correct exam and might make a difference in the lab competency requirement associated with the physics proficiency exam you take.
  6. If you took an AP or IB physics exam but did not receive CWRU course credit and that’s the reason you’re taking a physics proficiency exam, please state which physics exam(s) you took and what score(s) you earned.  The Department of Physics collects this information to help us judge whether we should modify our policies regarding course credit for AP physics exams.

PRE-MED STUDENTS!  Dean Scherger, former Director of Health Career Advising in the Office of Undergraduate Studies, offered the following advice: “Pre-medical students are advised to take at least one course in physics at the college level for a grade. Medical schools are not uniform on how they view credit by examination when it comes to fulfilling their requirements but, in general, they accept one semester of credit by examination ( e.g. AP or proficiency exam ) in physics as long a second, graded course has been completed at the college level.”


A description of the material covered by each exam and a sample exam for each course are provided below. Please do not ask for answers (neat, easily-readable answers are not produced for proficiency exams) or for additional sample exams. The sample exams are not meant as practice exams; they are posted so that students can see the style and level of difficulty of the physics proficiency exams. Before we started posting these sample exams, it was common for sixty students to show up to take an exam and for thirty of them to leave within the first half-hour when they realized they did not have the appropriate background. The point of our proficiency exams is to provide students who believe they know the material an opportunity to demonstrate that they should be excused from the corresponding course. If you need extensive practice or help with the sample exam, then you should be taking the class.

The physics proficiency exams are similar in style to the final exams given in each course; problems are modeled on those of past course exams and on homework problems from these courses. To receive proficiency credit, your performance on the exam must be equivalent to or better than a solid C grade in the course (in the neighborhood of 75% ).  Proficiency credit is indicated on your transcript by the symbols PR; no letter grade is given and proficiency credit does not count as part of your GPA. There is no penalty, and no permanent university record, if you do not pass a proficiency exam.

Students are not expected to memorize formulae and constants in most of our introductory physics courses and you do not need to memorize them for the physics proficiency exams. You are not allowed to use your own formula sheet but each exam will include a formula page; this page will contain the fundamental formulae and physical constants that you should need for the exam. You are expected to remember basic mathematical formulae (algebra, trig, calculus) but any complex formulae required to solve a particular problem will be provided. You can view a sample formula sheet at Proficiency Exam Formulae.pdf but note that the actual version you receive with the exam may vary slightly from the version posted here. Students taking the PHYS 115 and PHYS 116 exams will receive an additional formula sheet provided by the instructor for those courses. Different texts and instructors may use variations of the symbols and formulae that you will be provided, so be certain you understand the format of the sample sheet.  

You need to supply your own calculator, pencils and erasers.  There are no restrictions on the kind of calculator you use for the exam, but computers, smartphones and other devices with communication capabilities may not be used during the test. A programmable, graphing calculator in which lots of formulae are stored or one that can do numerical integrals is unlikely to help someone who does not understand the basic physics of a question.

Occasionally a student will ask for advice on whether to take a physics proficiency exam. The physics department is officially neutral on this subject; the decision is yours and there is no penalty for trying the exam except for the time you spend studying and taking the exam. However you may want to consult your advisor and consider the following factors.

Positive Factors:

  1. If you know the material well enough to pass the proficiency exam, you may be wasting your time taking the class.
  2. Passing a course by proficiency frees up your schedule so that you may take another course in its place.

Negative Factors:

  1. There have been many students who skipped a first course in physics either through a proficiency exam or AP credit and who started immediately in the second course in the introductory physics sequence. We would not offer this option if it led to problems for many students. However, some do have a hard time adjusting to this second course and its lab, which assume that you have been through the first course here. Most (perhaps 90%) make this adjustment in a few weeks but a few never do and struggle through the entire semester, in some cases dropping the course and ending up worse off than they would have been taking the earlier course that semester.
  2. Historically, less than 50% of the people attempting the physics proficiency exams pass them, even though all of the test-takers presumably thought they understood the material when they registered for the exam.

DISABILITY ACCOMMODATIONS: Students with an official accommodation should arrange to have documentation of that accommodation sent to gary.chottiner@case.edu at the time they register for the exam. University Testing Services does not provide accommodated testing on weekends, as would be ideal for the January exams, but they should be able to help students taking the exam in August. They do request two weeks’ notice if accommodated proficiency testing needs to take place prior to the beginning of the semester, in order to arrange proctoring. (This does not apply to first year students taking the exam in August.) Students who wish to use the Testing Center should contact them directly at exams@case.edu or (216) 368-5230.


LABORATORY COMPETENCE

PHYS 115, 116, 121 and 122 each have a laboratory component and it is not possible to test this aspect of your education on a proficiency exam. Labs are a critical component of introductory physics and your performance in the lab counts for 25% of your course grade. Until the summer of 2007, the Department of Physics withheld proficiency credit from students who passed the exam until those students could independently establish their laboratory skills. This could be done via an interview with the Laboratory Director, by taking the stand-alone PHYS 113A or PHYS 113B lab (introductory mechanics & E&M, respectively), or by successfully completing the second course in a physics sequence, with its associated laboratory.

In the summer of 2007, the department decided to relax these requirements and to immediately issue proficiency credit for students who pass the PHYS 115 and 121 proficiency exams, as long as you commit to taking the next course in the sequence, either PHYS 116 or PHYS 122, since taking the second course ensures that you have a suitable laboratory experience. If you are nervous about taking the PHYS 116 or PHYS 122 labs without having taken a mechanics lab at CWRU, you should consult with the Laboratory Director of the Department of Physics, Dr. D. Driscoll ( Rockefeller 222A, x-8844, did2@po.cwru.edu ) about taking PHYS 113A. 

Students who pass the PHYS 116 or PHYS 122 proficiency exam (plus those who pass the PHYS 115 or PHYS 121 exam but who will not take another physics course with a lab at CWRU ) have to establish their Laboratory Competence before they receive proficiency credit. This can be done via either of two methods.

  1. Complete PHYS 113B (the lab component of PHYS 116 and 122 ). These labs are 1 credit courses that meet for 3 hours every other week during the semester (seven total sessions). After successfully completing PHYS 113B with a grade of C or better (> 70%), your proficiency credit will be posted – BUT you will have to initiate the posting process, after receiving your lab grade, by asking Dr. Driscoll to forward your grade to Prof. Chottiner. This does not happen automatically.
  2. You may arrange an interview with the Laboratory Director of the Department of Physics, Dr. D. Driscoll (Rockefeller 222A, x-8844,did2@po.cwru.edu), to demonstrate that you possess a knowledge of experimental physics techniques and procedures equivalent to that expected in the CWRU E&M labs. Successful completion of a mechanics lab course at CWRU (PHYS 113A, 115, 121 or 123) certainly helps but may not be sufficient. You should bring to the interview as much of the documentation described below as you can easily obtain. Don’t worry if you don’t have everything; just bring what you do have and be prepared to discuss the other items. Do NOT bring a letter from a high school physics instructor; we’ve found these to be of little value in this process. You should ideally have evidence of experience with laboratory notebooks, data acquisition by hand and by computer, data and error analysis (including error estimates, error propagation, statistical analysis, and linear as well as nonlinear fits), report writing and exposure to various types of apparatus related to basic concepts in electricity and magnetism. Be prepared to answer a few basic questions about each of the topics mentioned above. You may, for example, be asked how to perform certain types of data or error analysis or how particular types of measurements could be made.

EXAM COVERAGE

The General Bulletin description of each course is copied below, along with a more detailed listing of topics which might be tested on a proficiency exam. A sample exam for each course is available at the link provided for each course.

For your convenience, the chapters in Halliday, Resnick and Walker, 6th edition, that would be covered by the proficiency exams for PHYS 115, 116, 121 and 122 are also given below. This edition is obsolete but it should be as easy to find as any equivalent physics text. Physics textbook publishers provide new editions every couple of years, and our various course instructors can choose from many different texts each year. Furthermore, PHYS 115/116 no longer uses a calculus-based text such as Halliday, Resnick and Walker. So, consider the list below as a rough guide to the topics that may be tested on each exam.

Good textbooks for PHYS 115/116 include:

  • Physics by Cutnell & Johnson
  • College Physics by Serway & Vuille

Good textbooks for PHYS 121/122 include:

  • Physics for Engineers & Scientists by Ohanian & Markert
  • Physics for Scientists and Engineers 9th Edition by Raymond A. Serway
  • Fundamentals of Physics by Halliday, Resnick & Jearl Walker
  • Physics for Scientists &Engineers with Modern Physics by Randall D. Knight
  • Physics for Scientists &Engineers with Modern Physics by Douglas C. Giancoli

Good textbooks for PHYS 221 include:

  • Modern Physics for Scientists and Engineers by Thornton, Rex and Hood
  • Nonclassical Physics by Randy Harris 
  • Modern Physics for Scientists and Engineers by John R. Taylor and Chris D. Zafiratos
  • Modern Physics by Kenneth Krane
  • Modern Physics by Jeremy Bernstein, Paul M. Fishbane and Stephen Sadiorowicz
  • Modern Physics by Paul A. Tipler and Ralph A. Llewellyn, Freeman

The actual proficiency exams might be longer than the following samples and include more challenging problems. The three-hour final exam in one of our introductory courses is commonly designed so that a typical student can complete it in two hours but your overall grade in the course also incorporates two or three ‘hour’ exams and weekly homework assignments.  This is not the case for a proficiency exam, which is why these exams are more comprehensive and can take the full three hours for a typical student.  Conventional course finals are also easier because the student should have some idea which topics the instructor thinks are most important and should be familiar with the style of the instructor’s exams; this is not normally the case for proficiency exams.

 

PHYS 115 Introductory Physics I  – Mechanics

(sample exam)

First part of a two-semester sequence directed primarily towards students working towards a B.A. in science, with an emphasis on the life sciences. (While the formal calculus prerequisite for this sequence was dropped in 2003, Case students taking PHYS 115/116 normally have taken calculus and it is possible that some proficiency exam problems will require knowledge of basic calculus. This also applies in the course itself.) Kinematics; Newton’s laws of motion; rotational motion; conservation laws; gravitation; simple harmonic motion; mechanical waves; fluids; ideal gas law; heat and the first and second laws of thermodynamics. This course has a laboratory component. Prereq: MATH121, MATH123 or MATH125.

  • 1-D motion, velocity and acceleration, average and instantaneous (Chapter 2)
  • Vectors, components, addition, multiplication (Chapter 3)
  • 2-D and 3-D motion, projectile motion, uniform circular motion, relative motion (Chapter 4)
  • Forces and motion, Newton’s Laws (Chapter 5)
  • Friction (Chapter 6)
  • Kinetic energy and work (Chapter 7)
  • Potential energy and conservation of energy (Chapter 8)
  • Collisions, momentum and conservation of momentum, elastic and inelastic (Chapters 9 & 10)
  • Rotational dynamics, torques, angular momentum, moments of inertia (Chapters 11 & 12)
  • Static equilibrium (Chapter 13)
  • Gravity and planetary motion (Chapter 14)
  • Fluids (Chapter 15)
  • Oscillations and simple harmonic motion (Chapter 16)
  • Waves, sound (Chapter 17 & 18)
  • Thermodynamics, temperature, ideal gas (Chapters 19-21)

 

PHYS 116 Introductory Physics II – Electricity and Magnetism

(sample exam)

Electrostatics, Coulomb’s law, Gauss’s law; capacitance and resistance; DC circuits; magnetic fields; electromagnetic induction; RC and RL circuits; light; geometrical optics; interference and diffraction; special relativity. Introduction to quantum mechanics; elements of atomic, nuclear and particle physics. This course has a laboratory component. Prereq: PHYS115.

  • Electric charge, fields (Chapters 22 & 23)
  • Gauss’ Law (Chapter 24)
  • Electric potential (Chapter 25)
  • Capacitance (Chapter 26)
  • Current and resistance (Chapter 27)
  • Circuits (Chapter 28)
  • Magnetic fields (Chapters 29 & 30)
  • Induction and inductance (Chapter 31)
  • Magnetism of matter: Maxwell’s Equation (Chapter 32)
  • Electromagnetic oscillations and Alternating Current (Chapter 33)
  • Electromagnetic waves (Chapter 34)
  • Optics and images (Chapter 35)
  • Interference and diffraction (Chapters 36 & 37)
  • Special theory of relativity (Chapter 38)
  • Photons and matter waves (Chapters 39 & 40)
  • Atoms (Chapter 41)
  • Nuclear physics (Chapters 43 & 44)
  • Particle physics and cosmology (Chapter 45)

 

PHYS 121 General Physics I – Mechanics

(sample exam)

Particle dynamics. Newton’s laws of motion, energy and momentum conservation, rotational motion, and angular momentum conservation.. This course has a laboratory component. Prereq: MATH121, MATH123, MATH125 or one year of high school calculus.

  • 1-D motion, velocity and acceleration, average and instantaneous (Chapter 2)
  • Vectors, components, addition, multiplication (Chapter 3)
  • 2-D and 3-D motion, projectile motion, uniform circular motion, relative motion (Chapter 4)
  • Forces and motion, Newton’s Laws (Chapter 5)
  • Friction (Chapter 6)
  • Kinetic energy and work (Chapter 7)
  • Potential energy and conservation of energy (Chapter 8)
  • Collisions, momentum and conservation of momentum, elastic and inelastic (Chapters 9 & 10)
  • Rotational dynamics, torques, angular momentum, moments of inertia (Chapters 11 & 12)
  • Static equilibrium (Chapter 13)
  • Gravity and planetary motion (Chapter 14)
  • Oscillations and simple harmonic motion (Chapter 16)

 

PHYS 122 General Physics II – Electricity and Magnetism

(sample exam)

Electricity and magnetism emphasizing the basic electromagnetic laws of Gauss, Ampere, and Faraday. Maxwell’s equations and electromagnetic waves, interference, and diffraction. This course has a laboratory component Prereq: PHYS121 or PHYS123. Coreq: MATH122, MATH124 or MATH126.

  • Electric charge, fields (Chapters 22 & 23)
  • Gauss’ Law (Chapter 24)
  • Electric potential (Chapter 25)
  • Capacitance (Chapter 26)
  • Current and resistance (Chapter 27)
  • Circuits (Chapter 28)
  • Magnetic fields (Chapters 29 & 30)
  • Induction and inductance (Chapter 31)
  • Magnetism of matter: Maxwell’s Equation (Chapter 32)
  • Electromagnetic oscillations and Alternating Current (Chapter 33)
  • Electromagnetic waves (Chapter 34)
  • Interference and diffraction (Chapters 36 & 37)

 

PHYS 221 Introduction to Modern Physics

(sample exam)

The actual PHYS 221 proficiency exam will be longer and cover a broader range of topics in more depth than the sample exam provided above.  The content of our PHYS 221 course varies a lot depending on who is teaching the course.  For example, some instructors focus on quantum mechanics at the expense of astrophysics and some include more details on statistical physics. Students who take the proficiency exam may be tested on anything included in a stand-alone Modern Physics text like Krane (see below) or Harris.  The modern physics section in a combined classical mechanics/ E&M/modern physics text like Serway & Jewitt or Halliday, Resnick & Walker is not generally comparable to our PHYS 221.

The general bulletin description of our course reads: Concepts in special relativity, statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics and their impacts on modern technology. Applications to atomic structure, and selected topics in nuclear, condensed matter physics, particle physics, and cosmology.” A more detailed list of topics follows, along with the chapters in which they may be found in a typical text, Modern Physics by Kenneth Krane, Wiley, ISBN: 0-471-82872-6, 1996.

  • Special Theory of Relativity (Chapter 2)
  • Particle-like Properties of Electromagnetic Radiation (Chapter 3)
  • Wavelike Properties of Particles (Chapter 4)
  • Schrodinger Equation (Chapter 5)
  • Atoms (Chapters 6-8)
  • Statistical Physics (Chapter 9)
  • Solid State Physics (Chapter 10)
  • Nuclear Physics and Radioactivity (Chapters 11 & 12)
  • Elementary Particles (Chapter 13)
  • Astrophysics and General Relativity (Chapter 14)

Contact the academic representative of the Department of Physics (Prof. G. Chottiner, gsc2@case.edu ) for more information on proficiency exams.