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4.6: Problem-Solving Strategies

Step 1. As usual, it is first necessary to identify the physical principles involved. Once it is determined that Newton’s laws of motion are involved (if the problem involves forces), it is particularly important to draw a careful sketch of the situation. Such a sketch is shown in Figure(a). Then, as in Figure(b), use arrows to represent all forces, label them carefully, and make their lengths and directions correspond to the forces they represent (whenever sufficient information exists).

Figure 4.7.1. (a) A sketch of Tarzan hanging from a vine. (b) Arrows are used to represent all forces. \(T\) is the tension in the vine above Tarzan \( F_T\) is the force he exerts on the vine, and \(w\) is his weight. All other forces, such as the nudge of a breeze, are assumed negligible. (c) Suppose we are given the ape man’s mass and asked to find the tension in the vine. We then define the system of interest as shown and draw a free-body diagram. \(F_T\) is no longer shown, because it is not a force acting on the system of interest; rather, \(F_T\) acts on the outside world. (d) Showing only the arrows, the head-to-tail method of addition is used. It is apparent that \(T = -w \) if Tarzan is stationary.

Step 2. Identify what needs to be determined and what is known or can be inferred from the problem as stated. That is, make a list of knowns and unknowns. Then carefully determine the system of interest. This decision is a crucial step, since Newton’s second law involves only external forces. Once the system of interest has been identified, it becomes possible to determine which forces are external and which are internal, a necessary step to employ Newton’s second law. (See Figure(c).) Newton’s third law may be used to identify whether forces are exerted between components of a system (internal) or between the system and something outside (external). As illustrated earlier in this chapter, the system of interest depends on what question we need to answer. This choice becomes easier with practice, eventually developing into an almost unconscious process. Skill in clearly defining systems will be beneficial in later chapters as well.

A diagram showing the system of interest and all of the external forces is called a free-body diagram. Only forces are shown on free-body diagrams, not acceleration or velocity. We have drawn several of these in worked examples. Figure(c) shows a free-body diagram for the system of interest. Note that no internal forces are shown in a free-body diagram.

Step 3. Once a free-body diagram is drawn, Newton’s second law can be applied to solve the problem. This is done in Figure(d) for a particular situation. In general, once external forces are clearly identified in free-body diagrams, it should be a straightforward task to put them into equation form and solve for the unknown, as done in all previous examples. If the problem is one-dimensional—that is, if all forces are parallel—then they add like scalars. If the problem is two-dimensional, then it must be broken down into a pair of one-dimensional problems. This is done by projecting the force vectors onto a set of axes chosen for convenience. As seen in previous examples, the choice of axes can simplify the problem. For example, when an incline is involved, a set of axes with one axis parallel to the incline and one perpendicular to it is most convenient. It is almost always convenient to make one axis parallel to the direction of motion, if this is known.


Before you write net force equations, it is critical to determine whether the system is accelerating in a particular direction. If the acceleration is zero in a particular direction, then the net force is zero in that direction. Similarly, if the acceleration is nonzero in a particular direction, then the net force is described by the equation: \(F_{net} = ma\)

For example, if the system is accelerating in the horizontal direction, but it is not accelerating in the vertical direction, then you will have the following conclusions: \[ F_{net \space x} = ma \]

\[ F_{net \space y} = 0 \]

You will need this information in order to determine unknown forces acting in a system.

Step 4. As always, check the solution to see whether it is reasonable. In some cases, this is obvious. For example, it is reasonable to find that friction causes an object to slide down an incline more slowly than when no friction exists. In practice, intuition develops gradually through problem solving, and with experience it becomes progressively easier to judge whether an answer is reasonable. Another way to check your solution is to check the units. If you are solving for force and end up with units of m/s, then you have made a mistake.

Section Summary

To solve problems involving Newton’s laws of motion, follow the procedure described:

  1. Draw a sketch of the problem.
  2. Identify known and unknown quantities, and identify the system of interest. Draw a free-body diagram, which is a sketch showing all of the forces acting on an object. The object is represented by a dot, and the forces are represented by vectors extending in different directions from the dot. If vectors act in directions that are not horizontal or vertical, resolve the vectors into horizontal and vertical components and draw them on the free-body diagram.
  3. Write Newton’s second law in the horizontal and vertical directions and add the forces acting on the object. If the object does not accelerate in a particular direction (for example, the \(x\)-direction) then \(F_{net \space x} = 0 \). If the object does accelerate in that direction, \(F_{net \space x} = ma \).
  4. Check your answer. Is the answer reasonable? Are the units correct?


Paul Peter Urone (Professor Emeritus at California State University, Sacramento) and Roger Hinrichs (State University of New York, College at Oswego) with Contributing Authors: Kim Dirks (University of Auckland) and Manjula Sharma (University of Sydney). This work is licensed by OpenStax University Physics under a Creative Commons Attribution License (by 4.0).