Friday, October 08, 2004

Some more musings about the educational philosophy of The Institute

Getting an education at MIT has often been compared to trying to drink out of a firehose ie you get way more information than you can actually absorb. I'm starting to wonder whether that's really a good thing; it seems like the main benefit of it is that you can later on say "Yes, we talked about that in class and I had to do some homework on it". However, the unspoken end of that sentence is "... but I really don't remember a damn thing about it anymore because I understood it just well enough to be able to do the homework that week and then promptly forgot about it because we were assaulted with more new material." In other words, the understanding seems fleeting and shallow -- I feel like if I had to go back in a month and redo one of my earlier problem sets, I'd have a hard time because we've covered so much other material in the meantime that the material we covered early on didn't have time to sink in and really take hold.

There are, of course, multiple possible explanations:

- I'm the only person who feels this way and all my classmates have fully internalized the material we've covered and have no trouble remembering and using any of it. Based on conversations I've had with people, that seems unlikely.
- At the end of the semester, we'll all realize that the material actually did take pretty deep hold because all the problem sets build on each other and keep reinforcing material from earlier in the semester. Possible, we'll see.
- Part of the point of deluging us with material is to train us to deal with an overwhelming amount of data and be able to pick out the bits we need to solve a particular problem. Again, a distinct possibility, but that seems a bit asinine.
- It's training for dealing with the high-pressure situations and stress that generally comes with jobs in science and technology. Been there, done that -- Microsoft is a pretty good training ground in that respect.
- The null hypothesis: there isn't really an educational point to it, it's just being done to uphold MIT's reputation as an excellent engineering school, part of which means making people work really hard. I don't really believe that, but like a good scientist-in-training I have to list all the possibilities I can think of.

... back to trying to drink from that hose without getting my teeth knocked out ...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Option #2, but it will take you years to realize it.

5:39 PM  
Blogger David said...

I think you missed out an option. That the lecturers are great scientists but aren't necessarily great teachers. At my university, I found that about half the lecturers were really researchers who happened to teach as well. They had great minds but weren't good at developing and delivering courses, which meant you'd end up with ridiculously high, or low, course loads. Perhaps at MIT, since some of the greater minds are there, the pace they set is that much faster, and they expect the 'studentry' to be able to keep up with themselves.

Having said that, I've never been to MIT, so you're just a lucky git in my books.


5:15 PM  

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