How I passed my 1st-year classes

...by skipping them (please don’t tell anyone)
Aug 2020
Suzane
C.
Chemical Engineering

That’s right, I confess: I am a serial class skipper. It all started in high school, when I discovered it was possible to learn a lot more about a subject if I studied the material during class instead of paying attention to the teacher. Of course, I couldn’t physically skip classes back then without getting into some serious trouble, but you’d be surprised how well a girl can hide a pair of earphones behind long hair. But don’t get me wrong here: I hold many professors I’ve had in high esteem for how amazing their lectures were and how profoundly they inspired me, shaping the image of the professor I want to become someday. I actually care a lot about truly learning the subjects and not just passing the exams, and this is why I choose to skip lectures I don’t find helpful and take learning into my own hands.

I’ve never really understood this “learn by doing” thing, which seems to be expected of us in American universities. How can I just jump into doing homework problems and practice knowledge I haven’t been exposed to or had the chance to build yet? First, I need to understand the fundamentals, the general structure or laws behind all the examples and specific cases. This is actually my favorite part about studying, and it can provide the keys to solving any homework or exam problems that may come up. For me, this process involves reading textbooks in detail, digesting illustrated examples and writing up my own explanations and thoughts. But that’s also where the role of a skillful lecturer comes in. I truly appreciate a professor that understands the subject deeply enough to lay out its structure in a clear form, with sound reasoning. If you want to get an idea of what I mean, check out the excellent and freely available Linear Algebra video lectures by Professor Gilbert Strang. Not only is this type of teaching beautiful to watch, but it can also greatly speed up your understanding and provide the motivation and conceptual basis to read more and go much deeper.

But what if the lectures for a course you’re taking are not helpful, sometimes not even a little bit? There is this whole taboo involving class skippers. Some people think that skipping lectures is just for lazy students that want to sleep in, who don’t have the discipline to self-study, and let the unseen content become a huge snowball that ends up crushing their grades. That is definitely not always the case! In my undergrad in Brazil, there were subjects for which I skipped all classes and only showed up to the exams, probably leaving professors intrigued by my good grades. Others say it’s just morally wrong to skip lectures, but how is it any better to attend class and get almost nothing out of it, instead of making better use of your time to self-learn? I choose the latter option.

In the first year of my PhD at MIT, I took a lot of mandatory courses. The sheer amount of workload can be daunting for many people (including myself), and I can’t say I was the biggest fan of some of the lectures. I was also certainly not used to having so many weekly graded homework assignments, especially after my comparatively “hands-off” undergrad classes. I was struggling to find the time to attend lectures while doing all the fundamental studying and self-learning I needed, amidst all the assignments that had to get done. In the first month or so, I was a bit scared to resort to my class-skipping ways, since, after all, this was MIT – what if self-learning was out of my depth here? Thankfully, that was not the case, as you may guess from the title of this post. Of course, the lecture notes and materials posted online were helpful in creating some structure over which I could customize and build my own study path. But, in reality, one of MIT’s best learning resources is its body of amazing and talented students! I attended some great lecture-style recitation sessions taught by grad students. Additionally, working on problem sets with my classmates was not only helpful but also made working long hours a much lighter and even fun process. 

Am I saying that you should never attend a lecture again? Nope, not really. If, however, you find that your learning approach is similar to mine, I’d definitely encourage you to further investigate how to maximize your learning experience at MIT. If that means skipping lectures you don’t like to allow more time for self-study, then I’d say go for it, and don’t be afraid to do it just because the class is challenging or because “it’s MIT”. If you’ve gotten into grad school, chances are you probably know what you’re doing. Becoming a more effective self-learner might actually be the best thing coming out of your grad school classes, since this skill is pretty much what research is all about.