Taming the firehose

Students should focus more on pre-semester preparation

One of the reasons MIT is one of the best universities in the world is because it is hard. The workload is vast, the problems are difficult, the exams can feel impossible, grading is harsh, and it often feels like there just isn’t enough time in the day. But there is an often-overlooked reason the Institute is challenging — for most, the problem isn’t a lack of desire, ambition, or effort, but rather a lack of proper preparation.

Often neglected, preparation can make a major difference in an undergraduate career. On a larger level, some students simply come in with a stronger background. That’s harder to address. My solution is for the micro-level problem: individual preparation for each semester.

Imagine that the content of a given class is constructed like a pyramid. At the beginning of the semester we start out by laying the foundation, the bottom layers of the pyramid. The foundation holds up the rest of the structure, but if one of the blocks of knowledge is never placed, the pyramid grows but missing blocks in one layer lead to missing blocks in the next. By not carefully understanding each concept, the ensuing concepts become more difficult to learn. By the end of the semester, you have a mangled mess of concepts that don’t form a coherent body of knowledge.

Whenever I’ve prepared for a semester, it turns out great. Unfortunately, I haven’t always listened to my own advice. Proper preparation should not get lost in the noise of the first few weeks of the semester. Because the beginning of the semester is sprinkled with review material, it is often perceived as trivial and a waste of time. Students are also preoccupied by rush, recruitment, and other activities that they jump into during the beginning of the year. Furthermore, many students attempt to sample too many classes in the first weeks of the semester to give them all sufficient attention. Preparing before the semester begins gives you the opportunity to be distracted by the on-goings of the first couple weeks without sacrificing a solid understanding of the foundations of each class.

Because it is so easy for students get off track, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of preparing for a semester before it begins. My first step is always to look around for information about the class and its contents. OpenCourseWare (OCW) is a good resource as well as class websites for previous years. If I find a syllabus, I familiarize myself with what subjects are covered in the first weeks. If there are lecture notes and problem sets, I learn the material that is covered in the first problem set and then I do that problem set. This might seem a little excessive, but I have found it tremendously helpful.

MIT is academically difficult, but proper preparation can make it a more enriching and enjoyable experience. As part of your preparation for this coming semester, take some time to think about what mistakes you have made in previous semesters and try to correct them. The first step towards any solution is understanding the problem.

Mat Peterson is a member of the Class of 2015.

1 Comment
Computer guy at LL, long ago about 4 years ago

Mike Peterson's advice is totally on target. I attended an "easier" college, graduating 50 years ago, and I consistently failed to prepare. Why? Because I thought I was already prepared!

What happens to someone who is expected to understand tensors, when his knowledge of linear algebra is foggy?

I really don't know how I ever graduated in physics, except that I was a decent experimentalist.

To this day I exhort high-school students to learn all the mathematics they can before getting into college, and to learn it solidly. One missing brick in the foundation and the firehose will turn the admittedly large difficulties of Course VIII into deep, deep mud.