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what i learned from classes by Paolo A. '21

spoiler: not what i expected

A few days ago, I was talking with Nisha and other friends, and the subject of what we learned at MIT came up. Now that this semester’s over, I’ve done some reflecting on what I’ve learned throughout these past four years.

Something about college that I didn’t expect is that college is much more than the material that is directly taught to you. If you’re a high school student, this might seem a bit counterintuitive. Isn’t the whole point of college to take classes and learn things?

At MIT, I’ve found that so much of my learning has come outside of classes, including:

  • internships that I’ve done (especially trying out different types of work)
  • clubs I’ve been a part of (both by being in leadership positions, and in what the club actually does)
  • UROPs (to try different areas of research, and if I like research itself)
  • the conversations I have with friends (very, very important)
  • just the fact that you’re not at home anymore and are slowly becoming an adult

In part, the fact that so much of your learning happens outside of classes is why overloading on classes isn’t recommended, even ignoring the effects it’d have on your sleep cycle or social life or how much you’d learn in each class. There is so much learning that happens outside the classroom. (This is part of the reason that the Committee on the Undergraduate Program recommended some changes to freshman academic policies, which will be in place next year! Rona and I, both on that committee, plan to blog about this sooner or later…)

But even if we just look at classes, sometimes the ways that you learn are … unexpected. Ten years after you graduate, you won’t remember most of what you learned in classes. Only the parts that are relevant to your job, or that you use semi-frequently, will be remembered. You might take a whole class about some topic and only the slightest amount — maybe even a bit that wasn’t important to the class as a whole — will stick with you.

To show this idea in action, I’ve reflected on every class I’ve taken at MIT, and chosen a few where “what the lectures were about” is very distinct from “what do I feel like I got out of them“. Without further ado:

  • 18.100B: Real Analysis

    Course catalog description: Covers fundamentals of mathematical analysis: convergence of sequences and series, continuity, differentiability, Riemann integral, sequences and series of functions, uniformity, interchange of limit operations. Shows the utility of abstract concepts and teaches understanding and construction of proofs. More demanding than 18.100A, for students with more mathematical maturity. Places more emphasis on point-set topology and n-space.

    What I feel like I learned: This was the hardest class I took at MIT. Because of Baby Rudin and 18.100B, I can now say that I’ve stared at a problem for three hours and gotten nowhere with it. There were so many evenings spent psetting with friends, trying to figure out how to solve problems — but in the end, we did end up solving many of them.

    I can’t remember most results from real analysis anymore (though I can vaguely remember that the Bolanzo-Weierstrauss theorem and Cauchy sequences existed). But that’s fine — I can just look up the relevant theorems when I need them. What really has stuck with me is a (small) amount of confidence that I can solve a math problem provided I have enough time and have friends to think about it with me. Moreover, I know that when I face stressful problems in the future, I can handle it. As Laura put it in a post from a few years back:

    Recently my boss left for another job, and I looked around the office and realized that I was the only remaining member of the sales team. Suddenly, my work load doubled. My list of responsibilities tripled.

    And this is where I learned the value of my MIT education.

    Around that time, the CEO and COO began stopping by my desk regularly for casual conversation. I was confused at first. Then I realized they were checking in on me, worried I was under too much stress. I almost laughed. I wanted to say, “Please! I went to MIT, and you think this is stressful?!” Nothing, and I mean nothing, in my life has come remotely close to being as hard as MIT, and I don’t think anything ever will.

  • 14.03: Microeconomic Theory and Public Policy

    Course catalog description: Applies microeconomic theory to analysis of public policy. Builds from microeconomic model of consumer behavior; extends to operation of single and multiple markets and analysis of why markets sometimes fail. Empirical examples to evaluate theory, focusing on the causal effects of policy interventions on economic outcomes. Topics include minimum wages and employment, food stamps and consumer welfare, economics of risk and safety regulation, the value of education, and gains from international trade.

    What I feel like I learned: In some ways, 14.03 was useful in some of the content that I learned. It was my introduction to the main empirical methods that applied economists use (regression-discontinuity, difference-in-differences, instrumental variables), and I’ve seen those concepts in other classes (including much more formally). Many other concepts (game theory, the 1st/2nd welfare theorems, Lagrangians and utility maximization, etc.) also just … show up in other classes. Though I have forgotten many other topics, like trade and minimum wages.

    More importantly, 14.03 made me learn how to read economics papers. While I never learned how to do it directly as a part of this class, I was required to regularly read papers (once every week or two). Now, there are ways to do this well — for example, on your first pass, you should just read the abstract + introduction + conclusion, rather than the full text. Beyond that, it can be tricky to recognize what makes a methodology “good” or “bad” or “well-written”. Or even how to read a table that reports regression results. But these were things that I picked up just through the process of reading papers for this class.

  • 21A.157: The Meaning of Life (MIT News Article)

    Course catalog description: Examines how a variety of cultural traditions propose answers to the question of how to live a meaningful life. Considers the meaning of life, not as a philosophical abstraction, but as a question that individuals grapple with in their daily lives, facing difficult decisions between meeting and defying cultural expectations. Provides tools for thinking about moral decisions as social and historical practices, and permits students to compare and contextualize the ways people in different times and places approach fundamental ethical concerns.

    What I feel like I learned: I think a lot about the big question of what I want out of life (in fact, multiple times in my brief tenure on these blogs). And so naturally, I enjoyed a class that considered all of these questions.

    Most of my 2020 was filled with economics and mathematics classes; 6 of the 8 classes I was enrolled in were math or econ. I took 21A.157 in Spring 2021 (this semester), and it was a wonderful reminder that despite going on to an economics PhD, I don’t just want to look at things from an economics perspective. I like the humanist perspectives that come from talking with people, because data can only ever tell us so much.

    I’m somewhat scared that I’ll find myself in an “economics bubble” in my Ph.D. program. In part because of this class, I know more than ever to make sure that I keep myself well-read and well-informed about fields other than economics — anthropology, sociology, education, philosophy, … — to make sure that I don’t limit myself and my understanding of the world.

  • 14.160: Behavioral Economics

    Course catalog description: Covers recent theory and empirical evidence in behavioral economics. Topics include deviations from the neoclassical model in terms of (i) preferences (present bias, reference dependence, social preferences), (ii) beliefs (overconfidence, projection bias), and (iii) decision-making (cognition, attention, framing, persuasion), as well as (iv) market reactions to such deviations. Applications will cover a large range of fields, including labor and public economics, industrial organization, health economics, finance, and development economics.

    What I feel like I learned: I suspect that in graduate school, I’ll continue to do something related to behavioral economics; and so of course, this class was helped me learn about the frontier of research in that area. But the big “use” of this class to me was that I had to make a research proposal related to topics in this class. I ended up creating a proposal to examine the impacts of honor rolls, and to disentangle the public effects (e.g., my friends learned that I do well in school) and private effects (e.g., I learned that I do well in school compared to peers) of such recognition.

    Making this proposal took a lot of work, and with almost zero in-class instruction, but was an experience that taught me a lot about designing a good research idea and communicating it effectively. This proposal, in particular, formed this basis of my application to the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which I was lucky enough to receive and is funding my graduate studies c:

    This singular assignment in this singular class played a large role in my path to graduate school; but in the context of this class, it really was just one assignment.

The conclusion of this post is not that you should ignore all of your classes. Classes are useful;01 but do remember that they are not everything! I know so much more about the field of economics than I did coming into MIT, and this post focuses on a few, select examples from my undergraduate experience.

Rather, I hope I’ve shown that the value of classes is much more than the “objective” content that is in the class description. Anything from a single assignment to classes outside your field can be meaningful, and so you should always, always, be on the lookout for things that can help you grow. And of course, sometimes things will cause you to grow without you expecting it at all c:

  1. but do remember that they are not everything! back to text