Insert a vague quote from Confucius here
Two weeks ago, I failed a math midterm. Relatively speaking, I guess. I just... ran out of time. One could argue that there were too many problems on the test or that I need to work on my test time management. I spent 90% of the 50-minute test struggling on everything but the last problem, and the last problem was worth 30% of the grade. So it shouldn’t come as a shock to the reader, or to myself, that my grade is 30% lower than where I would like it to be.
A day or two after this test, I was accepting that this was simply the reality of my situation. I was no longer feeling worried about having “failed” that midterm. Instead, I was feeling behind. The problems I was struggling on, in hindsight, should’ve been easier for me to solve. I just keep feeling... like I’ve run out of time. So I went to my advisor to talk about it.
Me: I’m not worried about my grade anymore — I have accepted that. But— What I’m worried about is— I just— What should I know by now? Why can’t I look at this problem and have the intuition it takes to solve it in the expected amount of time? And what do I do to have it? The intuition I mean. Because I just—
Advisor: I think you are learning.
My advisor is really good at being comforting. He was about to go into a meeting, so our conversation was brief. But it was comforting, in some way. I am learning.
Sometimes, at MIT, I think it feels like I’m not struggling with anyone. I don’t mean this as a group of students in general — it is clear that we all are struggling in some way. But in my classes, it can sometimes feel like students aren’t learning. Like, somehow, students already know the material being taught. Or like the material from previous semesters is ingrained in their souls, like they are professors who have taught the class too many times to count. Maybe for some students this is true (though even if this is the case it isn’t fair for me to assume this about them). But I imagine that the majority of people in the class are like me. Learning.
Mathematics is often taught in an interesting way at MIT. Classes that take us a semester might take other schools two. In some ways this is good. It allows students to see more, and do more, and hopefully, hopefully, fill any possible gaps in their knowledge with an overwhelming amount of implicit connections between various classes. There are undoubtedly students without these gaps, just as there are students with these gaps (like myself). But we are learning.
So why does it feel so hard to accept that I am still learning? I think it’s because in high school, learning was completely within my control. If I wanted to know something better, and to work on my intuition and problem solving, I could simply sink a lot of time into studying. I could spend hours on Khan Academy and ask extra questions in class. And after a while, I could see the bigger picture. But how do you foster the intuition for something more abstract? When will a picture start to snap into focus? I can ask professors and students how they approached the problem and ask them for their intuition. This seems harder to internalize — it’s their intuition, not mine. Furthermore, building intuition on the topics that are left as gaps is even more of a struggle. But this struggle is learning, even if right now all I can understand is the struggle.
I don’t know if I like this. This method of learning. Sometimes I just want to open a book from last semester and relearn the material. I don’t know if this is because in all actuality I never absorbed it, or if it’s because it feels like something is missing. But as uncomfortable as this is — this feeling of uncertainty — perhaps it’s better to chalk up uncomfortability with the idea that I am learning. Slowly but surely, I am getting there. We are getting there.