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Life and Learning in the Other Cambridge by Cambridge

[by Justin ’08]

“We are, we are, we are, we are…” The Engineer’s drinking song is being proudly sung by a pack of ever so slightly inebriated beavers. Our Harry Potter friends are looking on in amazement as to what kind of Wizard’s Institute of Technology could engender such devotion. The Cambridge-MIT exchange has successfully made this year’s land-fall and both universities are trying to learn each other’s secrets to success.

Although some of my fellow MIT students view our exchange as Cambridge trying to shake off its 700 year layer of dust and pick up some MIT-brand entrepreneurial and innovative spirit, my exploits in the Mathematics department have led me to a different perspective. It’s not all cranky tradition on this side of the pond, and Cambridge has a few tricks of its own to share.

Structurally, Cambridge and MIT couldn’t be more different. Learning is divided up into three independent branches, that I will argue provide a superior culture for learning. These three branches are the colleges, which are the home to the supervision system, the lecturers, which are faculty members who must apply to their departments in order to lecture, and the examiners, who are an anonymous group who set the questions to be examined at the end of the year.

The university is made up of some 30 colleges which are all financially, geographically, and socially distinct from each other. Students do not apply directly to the university, but rather to their college of choice. Admissions are tough and Cambridge engineers are sometimes plagued with interview questions that some MIT students won’t see until their first interview with Goldman-Sachs. As a member of Churchill College, I am one of 17 math majors (mathmos as the natives say) who is closely watched over by my Director of Studies (DoS). My DoS will then arrange for me to have approximately 4 supervisions per class per term. The supervision system is considered to be the highlight of the Cambridge educational experience. Imagine having a one on one (sometimes two on one) recitation with you and a faculty member or graduate student who knows the subject exceedingly well. In preparation for these supervisions, you are to work out as many problems as possible that are assigned by the lecturers. Whereas the idea of only having 4 problem sets per class may sound like paradise to most MIT students, staring at a 17 question Analysis problem set two days before the supervision, suddenly is a lot more intimidating. The main advantage to the supervisions is that the example sheets are not graded and the supervisors have no connection with lecturers or examiners. When I get stuck on a problem or am unsure about a step in a solution, I openly annotate my own example sheet for discussion in supervision.

Lectures and classes tend to have a better attendance rate compared to my MIT classes. Each college is trying to improve its own exam results, so students from a subject are encouraged, not only by peers, but by the sometimes not-so-friendly college competition to attend as many lectures as possible. One then arranges supervisions in a majority of them, and then picks a subset of those to review for the final examination. As a Cambridge student you have three 8 week terms with lectures concentrated in the first two terms. 8 week terms are certainly intense, but the high burn-out rate during the 13 week semester at MIT is not nearly as evident. Lectures are open and do not necessarily entail painful amounts of work. You can choose how involved you want to be, and no one really minds if you decided to dump a bad class. Although some of my friends at MIT audit courses, too often will people think they are interested in a course, put a lot of effort into it, but then realize too late that their interest does not match their effort. Often MIT students become too willing to compensate their education for their GPA. In comparison, I will attend 12 or so courses for the year, and only supervise and review 10 for the exam. Although some may review anywhere between 6 and 10 for the exam, there is less commitment for attending a lecture, and thus students are more likely to engage in the contract of learning

Of course an 8 week semester may contain a lot of information, but not as much as semester of MIT. I offer the analogy that MIT semesters give large pillars of knowledge and Cambridge builds brick walls. You might reach higher, but your understanding can sometimes be on rocky foundations. In mathematics, Cambridge might ease you into the bath water of abstraction, in contrast to the cannon-ball approach of 18.100B, but there is a lot of context that you learn to motivate and support your understanding.

Furthermore, whereas there is plenty of room at MIT to be intimidated by the freshman taking graduate-level subjects, everyone at Cambridge, from your lowly genius to your Isaac Newton starts the same course of study. Both systems clearly have their own advantage. Although being forced to repeat courses may sound like a hindrance rather than an advantage, one often gains an intuition for things not appreciated on the first encounter. One day this term I sat down to have my 3 hours of lecture spat at me right in a row (which frees up time in the afternoon to work, and thus sleep for the evening) and every lecture talked about a similar concept but in three distinct settings. Redundancy is not a strong feature of any course of study at MIT (with courses 2 and 6 maybe as exceptions), but it reinforces learning and stimulates a strong synthesis of ideas.

Finally, the third consul in our triumvirate is the common enemy of the other two: The Exam. After some of you finish 18.02, 8.01, or 3.091 this term there is little concern for how much you will remember six months from now. It seems to be a general feature of the American education system, that if you have a good enough short-term memory and study hard enough, you can usually soak up enough knowledge and worked examples to spew onto a final exam a few days later and do well. On the contrary, 6 months from now I will begin my final term of Cambridge, audit a course of two and spend the majority of my time reviewing material from the entire year. Results on the exam are divided into five categories: First, Two-One, Two-Two, Third, and Fail. Results from each year become an object of fascination among all the colleges and potential employers. Talk of who is the top-first is hotly discussed and college rivalry reaches its peak. Once exams are over, instead of everyone running home to lick their wounds, they launch into “May Week” filled with dozens of “May Balls” where everyone regales in college life.

The Cambridge-MIT Institute was founded to make two of the world’s best universities better. In 1970, Dean of Institute Relations at MIT, Benson R. Snyder, published a book entitled “The Hidden Curriculum.” In this book, Snyder provides a sweeping critique of MIT and a culture of bible-compilation, copying of problem sets, and the perceived battle of the student body against the Institute as a whole. Based on my early observations here in Cambridge and my two years at MIT, there is clearly improvements to be made on both sides of the Atlantic. Although the institute will continue to change, Engineers everywhere will keep on singing “We are, we are, we are, we are, we are the Engineers!”

4 responses to “Life and Learning in the Other Cambridge”

  1. ACE says:


  2. MIT '12 says:

    I just recently read Snyder’s book….Interesting.

  3. Dumb spam. Just ignore it, everyone.
    Very nice post–you’ve got me convinced to go abroad. As much as I like the MIT system, it would probably be nice just to get a change for a year, and Cambridge (UK) certianly seems quite different.
    Nonetheless, the drinking song is taking over the world…wink
    “…we can we can we can we can demolish forty beers…”

  4. Boat says:

    WoW! very interesting program.