Apr 9, 2008
How hard is it, really?
Posted in: Academics & Research
I know, I know, it's CPW season, but that doesn't mean that every blog entry has to be about CPW, so I'm going to treat you to another story.
I had very little physics experience when I came to MIT. I'd gotten a 730 on my SAT II but only because I'd crammed two days before the test by studying the test format and past questions, not the material. I took a physics class in high school but it was more hands on and not AP, nothing that could prepare me for MIT physics.
There should have been indicators, MIT does its best to make sure you end up in a physics class that will push you but not break you. They do this by administering a math diagnostic when you first get to campus. The results of the diagnostic help you decide which physics class (8.01L, 8.01, 8.012 -- ranked from easiest to hardest) is best for you. The results of my math diagnostic said that I was prepared to take either 8.01L or 8.01. I opted for 8.01 because 8.01L continued through IAP in January, something I didn't want to do.
The first day of 8.01 was quite fun, I enjoyed it, but we took a pretest and I didn't know how to answer any of the questions. "That's ok," I told myself, "I'll learn." We had a couple of lectures and then had a problem set assigned. I worked on the problem set and realized that I wasn't able to do any of the problems. People all around me were blazing through them, claiming that it was easy and that it was stuff they'd seen in high school. This was discouraging, but again, I figured that with enough practice I could learn. You know, people say that physics is only learned through practice, but I quickly realized that I had an issue. The class was moving too fast for me to practice. The lectures didn't teach ANYTHING. They consisted entirely of powerpoint presentations that talked about theories, general concepts, and information that never actually taught me how to do physics. I asked dozens of people in class how they knew how to solve problems and the only thing I ever heard was "In high school ____ " or "I learned this last year." I learned nothing in 8.01 but was being testing over material I was expected to know.
It's easy to memorize the equations for physics. What's not easy is knowing how to manipulate them without practice. Physics is problem solving and I didn't have the background. I got an 80/100 on the first pset while all of my friends got high 90s. I thought that this meant I just had to work a little harder, but then a quiz was announced. I took the quiz and got completely dominated. I didn't know how to do any of it. The next day in class we got them returned to us. People around my table of nine began getting their quizzes back. Their scores were fine, high 80s and 90s. Some were complaining about how the only two points they lost were because of notation. I got my quiz back. 20/100.
I got a 76 on the next pset, drowning in the work. Time for the next quiz, which was just as hard as the first one. Also, like the first one, everybody else at my table did fine. I didn't. 20/100. I began to take aggressive steps towards learning physics. I would practice back in the dorm, go to office hours, and do anything I could to learn, but it was extremely frustrating and I began to hate the subject. I began to panic. I would talk to my professor every day after class but he had nothing to offer me but to tell me to practice. At the start of the semester I had been assigned a seat at a table in the very back of the classroom, making it hard to see anything going on and interact/ask questions. I felt like crap, it was one of the worst feelings ever. I felt like MIT was just letting me fail. I showed up for class and was forced to sit in the back, I was failing quizzes, didn't understand the material, and the only advice the professor could give me was to practice.
I NEED MORE THAN THAT! GIVE ME ADVICE THAT'S HELPFUL! YOUR JOB IS TO TEACH ME, DON'T TELL ME TO GO READ A BOOK! TEACH ME PHYSICS! YOU'RE A FREAKING PROFESSOR AT FREAKING MIT AND YOU'RE LETTING ME FAIL YOUR CLASS. I'M PUTTING IN THE EFFORT, I NEED HELP, DO YOUR JOB!
Eventually I realized that I wasn't going to be able to do it. I couldn't pass physics, I was going to fail. Completely miserable, frustrated, and on the verge of tears, I could only think of one thing to do. I walked towards my advisor's office and caught her in the hall.
"Can we talk?"
"Absolutely, can you wait 5 minutes?"
We went into her office and I described my situation. We both agreed that I needed to not be in 8.01 anymore, that it wasn't feasible. She showed me my options, we checked schedules, e-mailed professors, and eventually got me switched into 8.01L. I went to my first 8.01L class and realized that it was the perfect class for me. The focus was on learning to problem solve, on slowly learning the basics and refining them. I actually learned how to solve problems, not just how to smash my way brutally through seemingly impossible obstacles.
I ended up getting a B in 8.01L, even with the 20% plugged in for the first test I had missed while in 8.01. My loathing for physics has slightly decreased, but I'm still extremely frustrated by how my obvious lack of experience was handled while in 8.01. It's my opinion that if a student is struggling in a class and is putting everything they can into getting a passing grade that the professor should do their best to help. My professor didn't, he didn't even suggest me switching into 8.01L, the solution that should have been obvious to him.
This story is not really meant to be depressing, it's meant to show that MIT can be too hard, absolutely, but you'll know it. Many of my classes are hard (2.001, 8.02, 18.03, etc) but I can do them if I put in the work. Sometimes it's not fun, but it is feasible. If you get a class that seems impossible but are still working through it and getting decent grades then MIT is doing its job. If you get to a class and find yourself extremely frustrated, failing everything, and can't see the light at the end of the tunnel, don't be scared to fix the problem. You are not a superhero, not everything is possible.
MIT is hard and most of the time is manageable. Sometimes it isn't, the smart thing to do is to be able to recognize when it just isn't possible, admit that you aren't the smartest kid in your class, and take action to fix it. Nobody will fault you for coming forward with your shortcomings and taking the steps necessary to correct your problem. You'll be much better off for it.