# On psets and projects by CJ Q. '23

and why "midterm season" is all the time

In my mind, many MIT classes01 Many, but by no means all. Giving a number is hard: do you count distinct classes, or should you weigh classes based on how many people take them? With the latter approach, I'd say it's around 60% of classes. fall into two main archetypes, if you will: problem set classes and project classes.02 Because of how I chose to divide the classes, I'll mention grading a lot. Of course, grading is only a small part of any class, but it helps demonstrate the differences I want to show. A problem set class has regular problem sets, possibly exams, and possibly a final project. A project class has regular checkpoints for a project: either the same project the whole semester, or several projects.

### Problem set classes

Consider MIT’s General Institute Requirements, the subjects that every MIT student has to take. The strongest examples of problem set classes are the science GIRs, of which there are six: two calculus, two physics, one biology, and one chemistry.

They’re all pretty similar, structurally. In fact, I can make up a science GIR right now. Let’s call it, I dunno, 19.01: Introduction to Hacking.

A student’s grade in 19.01 is based on three components:

• weekly problem sets, lowest score dropped, worth 30%,
• three midterms, each worth 15%,
• and a final, worth 25%.

The problem sets are every week, except for weeks when there’s an exam, so there’s around ten in all. The midterms happen at the end of a month. The final is only called a final because it’s at the end of the semester, it’s not “cumulative” in the sense that it tests everything from the beginning.

The science GIRs have small differences between them. Some have biweekly problem sets. Some, instead of saying “midterm” or “final”, say, “quiz” or “exam”, or “celebration of learning”.03 Notably, 3.091 Introduction to Solid-State Chemistry. It's as cheesy as it sounds. Some have three exams, some have five. Most have different weights. Despite these differences, by and large, they’ll all look like 19.01.

### Project classes

What about project classes? These tend to be more varied, depending on the nature of the project, but there are still patterns. Going back to the GIRs, I’d say the strongest example of a project class are the CI-H subjects. Let me invent one right now, called 23.01 Writing about Hacking.

• weekly short essays, worth 10%,
• in-class participation, worth 15%,
• project 1, a long essay, worth 15%,
• project 2, another long essay, worth 20%,
• a presentation, worth 15%,
• project 3, a final long essay, worth 25%.

The core of the grade will come from three projects. Project 1 will be assigned at week 4 and due at week 8, project 2 will be assigned week 7 and due week 11, and project 3 will be assigned week 10 and due week 15. Note that these will also align with months: project 1 due two months into the semester, project 2 due three months in, and project 3 due four months in.

The structure’s looser here, but it’s going to be something like that. Or maybe the due dates will be two weeks earlier, with another due date afterward for a revised version. Or the deadlines will divide the semester into thirds instead, though that’s less common.

### Midterm season

Because there are six science GIRs, in a given semester, it’s more likely than not that you’re taking one. Because everyone in MIT has to take them, it’s more likely than not that several of your friends are in science GIRs. And because all the science GIRs have the same structure, they also have the same schedule.

This creates what people call midterm season,04 Which is happening now, by the way, and what inspired this post. a period of time in which lots of undergrads are preparing for or are taking midterms. If you treat midterm season as starting with the first midterm and ending with the last one, midterm season looks like this:

It’s helpful to note that a semester is roughly four months, or sixteen weeks. Exams thus happen at around the end of every “month”. These tend to line up with calendar months, but because months are slightly longer than four weeks, the semester ends at mid-December or mid-May.

Even if they don’t have any exams, project classes contribute to midterm season too. As project deadlines tend to split the semester into quarters, they align with the exam dates of other classes. Inconvenient, but a consequence of classes starting and ending at the same time.

The consequences of midterm season are far-reaching. Most visibly, it’s a time of semester when everyone’s tired or stressed or busy. The MIT Admissions blogs get less posts, while MIT Confessions gets more posts. Spring break05 MIT does not have a fall break. is scheduled right at the semester’s midpoint. Student groups likely don’t run retreats or big events during this period.

Another thing is that, by my definition, midterm season is ten weeks long. This is the majority of the semester! These ten weeks aren’t all equal though, as the effects of midterm season are felt strongest near the middle, due to several factors, such as:

• The end of first half subjects, and the beginning of second half subjects. This means it’s finals period for the first half subjects, and registration period for second half subjects.
• PE classes end and begin at the middle of the semester too.
• We’ll talk about this more later, but most problem set classes don’t have four exams. Most have two: a midterm and a final. That means there’s more midterms that happen halfway through the semester, compared to midterms that happen a quarter or three-quarters of the way through.
• In the spring, as spring break happens shortly after the semester midpoint, students might be pressured to finish things before spring break happens, so they can “relax”.
• In the fall, the middle of the semester happens at late October. While fall is a nice season, it’s this time of year that the days get shorter, colder, and rainier, which can contribute to seasonal affective disorder.

The middle of midterm season has also been called hell week by many other bloggers in the past, because of these reasons. But I think midterm season is more than just hell week; it encompasses the weeks leading up to and the weeks after.

### Variations on problem set classes

Outside of the science GIRs, it’s relatively rare for a class to have four exams. Most classes that do have either two exams, a midterm and a final, or just one exam, a final. In this case, a stronger weight would be placed on problem sets, rather than exams. An example is 18.404 Theory of Computation:06 Most examples in this post are from classes I've taken, so it's a rather biased selection. Also, instructors change frequently, and with them, the class structure.

• biweekly problem sets, worth 40%,
• a midterm, worth 20%,
• a final, worth 40%.

Even within this format, there’s lots of variation. Exam format could be anything from a two-hour long exam, closed-book, that everyone takes in the same room, to untimed, open-book, take in a 24-hour period, and everything in between. Weights could vary significantly. I think there was once a year when 14.01 Principles of Microeconomics was graded:

• weekly problem sets, worth 25%,
• a midterm, worth 25%,
• a final, worth 50%.

Many classes also have weights that are more flexible than this. For example, 6.191 Computation Structures had weights that added to more than 100%, so you could choose what to omit.

Sometimes, in lieu of exams, these classes would have final projects instead. Sometimes there’ll be a final and a final project. Despite having projects, the majority of the grade will come from the problem sets. Here’s 24.902 Introduction to Syntax:

• weekly problem sets, worth 65%,
• a final paper, worth 15%,
• a final exam, worth 15%,
• attendance and participation, worth 5%.

Then there are classes that are entirely problem sets, like 6.511 Foundations of Program Analysis, which only had weekly problem sets. On the other extreme is 18.212 Algebraic Combinatorics, which only had three problem sets!

Finally, problem set classes don’t need to have problem sets. A notable example is 6.101 Fundamentals of Programming, which has a weekly “lab”.07 Not to be confused with actual labs, which are more like projects, these labs are more like problem sets. The difference isn't well-defined, but whatever. It’s called a lab because it involves a checkoff, where you talk to someone to get it graded, but it’s similar to a weekly problem set. 6.101 is:

• weekly labs, worth 50%,
• exam 1, worth 20%,
• and exam 2, worth 30%.

Classes could have both problem sets and labs. In the extreme case, a class could have several weekly components, like 6.390 Introduction to Machine Learning, which has:

• attendance, worth 5%,
• weekly exercises, worth 5%,
• weekly problem sets, worth 15%,
• weekly labs, worth 15%,
• a midterm, worth 25%,
• and a final, worth 35%.

### Variations on project classes

The biggest variation is whether there are several projects a semester, or one project developed over the semester. This semester I’m taking 6.112 Dynamic Computer Language Engineering, which is one big project:

• participation, worth 5%,
• a final project, worth 95%.
• There are five checkpoints over the semester, about once every three weeks.

A class could still be a project class yet have exams. One example is 6.180 Computer Systems Engineering. Although it has 30% of its weight coming from exams, it’s most known for its design project, so I’d handily classify it as a project class:

• biweekly hands-ons, worth 5%,
• participation, worth 25%,
• two exams, worth 30%,
• One in the middle of the semester, and one during finals period.
• a design project, worth 40%.
• There are four checkpoints over the semester, around once every four weeks. These make checkpoints synced with, e.g. science GIR exam periods.

Often a class has several separate projects in the beginning of the semester, later developing to a larger project. Consider 6.104 Software Studio:

• participation, worth 10%,
• preparation exercises, worth 20%,
• These are weekly for the first half of the semester.
• partner assignments, worth 40%,
• These are weekly for the first half of the semester.
• final project, worth 30%.
• These are weekly checkpoints for the second half of the semester.

For an example that’s not in Course 6,08 The Electrical Enginering and Computer Science department. Sorry, I'm majoring in both Mathematics and this, so by nature most of my classes are one of these two. here’s 21W.765 Interactive Narrative:

• participation, worth 15%,
• in-class writing, worth 20%,
• These are weekly for the first month of the semester.
• project 1, worth 10%,
• Due roughly at the end of the first month, in sync with an exam period.
• project 2, worth 20%,
• Due roughly at the end of the second month, at the semester midpoint.
• a paper, worth 15%,
• and project 3, worth 20%.
• Both due at the end of the semester, at finals period.

Or 18.821 Project Lab in Mathematics, which has “project” in the name:

• participation, worth 20%,
• project 1, worth 20%,
• Due roughly at the end of the first month.
• project 2, worth 20%,
• Due roughly at the end of the second month.
• project 3, worth 20%,
• Due roughly at the end of the third month.
• a presentation, worth 20%.
• The presentation is given about one of the projects and is due at around the same time.

Again, note that many of the deadlines line up with the end of semester months, which often align with exam periods.

### Classes that are neither

It’s arguable that several classes I put under “project classes” that were more like problem set classes. I’ll admit the line is a bit fuzzy in some cases. Consider, for example, 12.001 Introduction to Geology:

• participation, worth 5%,
• lab reports and exercises, worth 60%.
• These are roughly weekly. Are they problem sets?
• four quizzes, worth 35%,
• Happen roughly once every four weeks.

Or consider 6.UAT Oral Communication. It’s kinda like a project class, but there’s so many projects that it’s hard to argue they’re projects:

• presentation 1 and revision, worth 15%,
• presentation 2 and revision, worth 31%
• presentation 3, worth 15%,
• presentation 4 and revision, worth 25%,
• random other assignments, worth 14%.

What about 21M.401 Concert Choir? It’s a class that’s entirely about participating in, as the name suggests, the MIT Concert Choir:

• attendance, worth 50%,
• juries, worth 40%,
• a service requirement, worth 10%.

Language classes have almost daily assignments, but I wouldn’t call them “problem set classes”. Here’s 21G.101 Chinese I:

• in-class participation, worth 60%,
• Includes in-class activities, quizzes, and daily homework.
• an oral report, worth 5%,
• five tests, worth 25%,
• a final interview, worth 10%.

As I said in the introduction, it’s hard to chuck MIT classes into bins, because they’re so diverse!

### Finals season

Midterm season is shortly followed by finals season, which is like midterm season but shorter. That means there’s more stress crammed into a shorter period of time!

If midterm season was a bad enough confluence of deadlines and exams, finals season is worse, as it’s likely that every class has something big happening in final season. The explanation’s simple enough: if a class has any exams, it’s likely it has a (heavily weighted) final exam; if a class has any projects, it’s likely it has a (heavily weighted) final project. Being final exams and projects, they’re all due during finals period.

There’s not as many posts on the Admissions blogs about finals season. My theory is that finals season is worse enough that people don’t even have the capacity to post things, although I haven’t actually done the data on this.

tl;dr: hug an MIT student, it’s midterm season

1. Many, but by no means all. Giving a number is hard: do you count distinct classes, or should you weigh classes based on how many people take them? With the latter approach, I'd say it's around 60% of classes.
2. Because of how I chose to divide the classes, I'll mention grading a lot. Of course, grading is only a small part of any class, but it helps demonstrate the differences I want to show.
3. Notably, 3.091 Introduction to Solid-State Chemistry. It's as cheesy as it sounds.
4. Which is happening now, by the way, and what inspired this post.
5. MIT does not have a fall break.
6. Most examples in this post are from classes I've taken, so it's a rather biased selection. Also, instructors change frequently, and with them, the class structure.
7. Not to be confused with actual labs, which are more like projects, these labs are more like problem sets. The difference isn't well-defined, but whatever.
8. The Electrical Enginering and Computer Science department. Sorry, I'm majoring in both Mathematics and this, so by nature most of my classes are one of these two.