Completing an MIT Physics Class in 4.5 Days?

Reprinted from my free newsletter, Learn Faster, Achieve More.

Last week I sat down to write one of the hardest exams I’ve ever had to prepare for, and I’m not even a student anymore.

The class was Classical Mechanics, an MIT physics class. MIT generously puts up many courses online, for free, so you can see the exact course here.

What made writing the exam difficult wasn’t the subject, but that 4.5 days before writing the final exam, I hadn’t seen any of the material. I started the course Tuesday morning, and wrote the exam Saturday afternoon. Less than five days to learn a class that MIT claims requires doing 120 hours of work.

Today I’m going to share how I prepared for the exam (and my results). If you’ve ever needed to learn something quickly, I hope you can adapt some of the strategies I used to your own learning.

Why Learn Physics in 4.5 Days?

For the last month I’ve been secretly researching for a huge learning project I’ll be starting in October. Successfully completing this course in 4.5 days was the last stage of my research to see whether I was up to the challenge.

I’ll be letting newsletter readers know what the challenge is in August, but 4.5 wasn’t a random number I picked simply to be a masochist. It was the pilot experiment of a much larger trial I’ll be starting in two months.

How Can You Learn a Class in Under a Week?

Learning a class in 4.5 days is a lesson in efficiency. A single moment wasted of confusion or idea not deeply understood could be fatal. In completing my experiment, I relied on a combination of macro-level strategies and micro-level tactics.

I’ll discuss both the strategies I used to fit the coursework into the time period, as well as the specific tactics I used to quickly learn the hard ideas deeply.

Strategies for Fitting 120 Hours into 4.5 Days

Strategy #1: Watch Lectures at 1.5x Speed

My first strategy was to watch the lectures at between 1.5-2x speed using VLC Player. Lectures are great at getting a more vivid explanation of ideas than the textbook, but had I watched all 35 lectures at normal speed, that would have easily eaten up most of my learning time.

By adjusting the speed to zip through demonstrations, but slow down at the algebra, I could keep up with all the lectures, and finish all 30 hours in the first two days of learning.

Strategy #2: Work Early, Finish Early

Scheduling was incredibly important too. Because my restriction was in days, not hours, I wanted to squeeze as much work as possible out of my days. I did this by adopting the following routine:

5:55 – Wake up
6:00 – Begin work
8:00 – Breakfast
1:00 – Lunch + 25 minute nap
5:00 – Dinner
7:00 – Finish working

Two elements stand out in this schedule which enabled me, despite the pace, to take my evenings off after 7pm each night:

  1. I began work first thing in the morning.
  2. I took a midday nap.

Working first thing in the morning was actually easier than expected. The adrenaline of the challenge helped me stay focused and stopped me from hitting the snooze button. By starting work at 6am, I could complete an extra 2-3 hours of work before most people would start, leaving a much larger period of time off in my evenings to relax.

The midday nap was a suggestion from my friend Benny Lewis, who despite seemingly perpetual jet lag and an aggressive social calendar, has tons of energy. I learned that if I could fall asleep instantly (thus timing it so that I was maximally tired before my nap), that I would have an extra 4-5 hours of energy post-nap.

Surprisingly, I didn’t feel burnt out by this pace either. I woke up Sunday morning at 7am without an alarm, just out of habit.

Strategy #3: Relate Everything to the Subject

The final strategic element I used was a complete obsession with physics, while I was learning. When I was at the gym, I found myself absentmindedly calculating torques and energy consumption. Running the tap triggered thoughts of fluid dynamics.

I enjoyed learning the material, so the extra obsession meant that every experience was being translated into metaphors automatically, even when I wasn’t trying to learn. I’m not sure how replicable this is, but the attitude of being obsessed was one I tried to foster.

Tactics for Rapidly Learning Under Constraints

The big three tactics that were most useful to me in learning the material were:

  1. Deliberate practice.
  2. The 5-Year Old Method.
  3. Visceralization.

Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice was crucial because it had been awhile since I had done serious algebra or calculus. Understanding the gist of the concepts was fairly easy, but transforming complex sets of equations into meaningful answers quickly was hard.

My weapon was to do tons of practice problems. Since the number of assignments and practice problems exceeded my time limits, I developed a method for highlighting which problems would be the most useful.

First, I would scan through the problems thinking in my head if I knew the method to solve the problem. If it was a clear yes, I’d go straight to the answers and confirm if my conceptual understanding was correct. This allows you to do a weaker self-test on the easier topics much more rapidly, so you can devote time to the hard questions.

Next, for the questions where no immediate answer came to mind, I would try to solve them. I would keep going until my efforts at algebra were exhausted, and then I would try for another 10-15 minutes. I wanted to develop the habit of thinking hard about the problems, rather than just jumping to the solutions.

When I got the answer wrong, I would see which concepts it was connected to. As an example, early on I was messing up questions involving torque. That meant it was time to switch gears and deeply understand what torque was about.

The 5-Year Old Method

Once I identified, through a practice problem, a concept I didn’t fully understand, my next goal was to develop a deep intuition about the idea.

My best method for that was to write on a blank piece of paper the name of the concept and write out an explanation to myself in terms even a 5-year old could understand. Then, when I’d hit a point where I was drawing a blank, or couldn’t adequately simplify, I’d jump to the lecture which explained the topic and carefully watch over that segment.

You can see an example here (PDF).


Visceralization is the name I give for a combination of visualization and visceral. Basically, it’s a way of associating ideas and concepts to tactile feelings and senses.

I used this tactic a lot with the physics concepts, in addition to metaphor, so that I would remember how ideas worked. When understanding the relationship between torque, angular momentum and angular velocity, I imagined feeling twisting, spinning and rate of spin as forces applied to my body.

This tactic may sound silly, but I can vividly recall making the corkscrew motion with my right hand to determine which direction the torsional vector would be.

Final Exam Results and Rapid Learning Lessons

Even with my tactics, it was a difficult week. I’ve never taken university-level physics before, and I was even missing a lot of the calculus necessary to do a few of the problems (my initial exposure to calculus stopped before integrals and Taylor series).

My final score was 75% (and you can see the exam I wrote, and MIT official solutions), written under the same conditions of the actual exam.

Not an A+ by any standard, but considering I wrote the exam Saturday, and had never touched most of the concepts before Tuesday morning, I was pleased with the result.

Action Items and Takeaways

Some of my methods weren’t ideal. Watching lectures at twice the speed and skimming over practice problems isn’t the best way to learn. But, if you’re in a similar time crunch and need to learn a lot of material quickly, here’s my advice:

  1. Have a clear strategy. I never just “studied”. Every single hour was devoted to a specific goal, whether that was to go through lectures, focused problem sets or active recall on key ideas.
  2. Never memorize what needs to be understood. Under time pressure, I often felt like certain ideas would just have to be memorized. But I resisted this temptation, sometimes repeating the explanation 4-5 times, before explaining it again in my own words. Understanding is an investment in less future studying.
  3. Clearly separate work from time off. I took almost no breaks during my day of work. Even eating breakfast, I’d replay lectures or re-read my notes. This may not be desirable every day, but it meant that I could still relax at night, despite the workload.

If you’re interested in going deeper to understand some of the productivity and learning tactics I used, I explain them with a lot more examples and depth in my course.

  • Benny Lewis

    This is excellent suspense building for October 😀 You’ll definitely get a bunch of email sign ups eager to satisfy their curiosity – great work!

  • Clingspiration

    Wow, that’s amazing. Getting a working knowledge of a subject in less than 5 days is surely a useful skill to have.

    I especially appreciated your breakdown of what deliberate practice looks like when applied to physics. Depending on the subject, “how to practice” is not always clear. Thanks.

  • Will

    The math must be killer. I sometimes wonder and can’t believe how that is even possible. You should check out and see if you qualify for Mensa…

  • Nyquist

    Awesome job..

  • Kage

    I can’t decide whether I detest you for making a mockery out of my alma mater or whether I want to become your disciple for life. Granted, 8.01 is not a hard class by MIT standards, but especially coming into it without a background in science or math definitely makes your feat VERY impressive. I’m currently studying for PhD quals, and the prospect of cramming a semester’s worth of knowledge into a truncated workweek makes me drool all over my keyboard.

    You have my full attention, but I’m still very skeptical. Even if I were to believe you when you say that you’re not drastically more intelligent than the average person, it would still take a lot to convince me that you’re not simply better hardwired for long focus than others. In short, you still seem like a big freak of nature but I’m seconds away from giving you my firstborn son for your secrets.

  • Santosh

    I’m really inspired by your results and willing to try something similar in my routine. I would like to know what difference would it have made, if you were not mentally prepared with this strategy?
    What if I walked in, during your term and told you to take an exam with minimal notice period and knowing that you haven’t been paying much attention to the subject previously, would you have followed the same strategy ?

  • nym

    Seriously…that is all they ask for in a MIT physics exam?

  • Scott Young


    I was really surprised too. The assignment questions I practiced on were considerably more difficult!


    In some ways it would have been easier, since I could leverage the minimal knowledge I already possessed. What made this challenge difficult is that aside from some minimal non-calculus based physics (about the first 5 of all 35 lectures) I had zero experience with the topic, so I had to do it all from scratch. Generally even if you’re only somewhat paying attention, you can know what topics will require more work to learn than others.


    Difficulty is relative too. I’ve often found intro classes more difficult because you don’t have a systematic way of adding new knowledge. For example, a big mistake I made in this was underestimating the technical importance of algebra/calculus and therefore didn’t do enough practice problems early on.

    More advanced classes have more difficult concepts, but you should have developed a better feel for how to study those particular courses.


  • Stanley Lee


    I’ve read your article regarding your study habit research with a MIT Classical Physics course. I have some questions that I’m curious to learn more about this article:
    1. How did you ensure your timing (despite using alarm clocks) so that you sleep for precisely 25 minutes, no more no less (connecting the dots between Benny’s recommendation and other reading pieces on polyphasic sleep)?
    2. I would like to apply the same techniques as a trial on certain computer programming languages/tools/frameworks. What are your thoughts about the ability to use the same techniques on highly practical subjects (the only way to get good at it are continual practice and asking questions/getting help on concepts that you get perpetually stuck)? If you picked an advanced classical mechanics course (e.g. ) as the test subject, what would you adjust in order to account for the required learning curve?



  • Jonathan

    I appreciated this article, and that you honestly reported your score. I would be more than pleased with the accomplishment. Well done – Jonathan

  • Vincent


    What if you go polyphasic before your challenge, like Steve Pavlina? Then you can fit up to “6 mornings” within 24 hours. Maybe such deep-sleep rapid naps might help you digest the material better — that’s one thing sleep does. Not only that, you could gain an extra 6 hours per day — it’s an amusing way to think about redoing a hardcore challenge.

  • Kage


    Yeah, 8.01 is not meant to be really hard. This is the class that all incoming freshmen have to take their first semester if they can’t pass out. The classes that give MIT its (admittedly exaggerated) reputation come from courses that would be unreasonable for people who haven’t taken their prerequisites. Not to imply that what Scott did was by any standards reasonable.

    However, I think most students at that school still couldn’t master 8.01 in any less than a couple weeks if they came into it cold, let alone 4.5 days. (And as for the students who could in fact do it in 4.5 days because of brilliance alone, they don’t need no education.)

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  • Valentin Servel

    Awesome tips Scott!
    You should translate that in French and export 😉
    (the business student just resurfaced).

    Enjoy Vancouver,


  • eric

    i am thinking your project is like this:thriatlon for holistic learning and productivity requires a long and deliberete training for both subject that means a person who is “not an athlete” can’t really do it.what do you think? regards from bandung,indonesia

  • Ann

    I’m honestly skeptical of the article.

  • Scott Young


    My routine was largely driven by the need to pass the final exam. The same principles would probably apply to project-driven learning, but I doubt I would have been able to accelerate it as much.

    As for the sleeping, I just set a timer for 20 minutes. I think the key was postponing the nap until I really was too tired to concentrate. In the past, I’ve taken a nap but not out of strict necessity, and it’s been difficult to fall asleep right away. Napping too long can be lousy as well, anything longer than 30 minutes for me tends to mess up my regular sleep schedule.


    My point isn’t that everyone can or should do physics in 4.5 days. Rather, it’s showing the principles of trying to learn more in a shorter period of time.

    Merci Valentin,

    Ca fait longtemps, non? J’espere tout passe bien a Paris. :)

  • Ruchi

    You know honestly, thats a wow!
    I mean the exam questions were of IIT-JEE level.. About 4.85 lakh people vie for 9,600 seats.. People sweat about 2 years of their life(no extra-curriculars, no social life.. absolutely nothing!)
    I also ended up spending two years behind closed doors and ended up miserably in a mediocre college which i would have got through even though i had not studied all this.

    What my point is Scott, that no doubt it is tough. But, your blog makes it look it it’s an acheivable task. Even though not 4.5 days, but atleast a year of hard work can make wonders for a IIT-JEE aspirant.(also, taking into account the other subjects- Chemistry and Mathematics)

    I had read your guest-post on Cal Newport’s Blog, which had a brief about a finance test you took. Thanks to that, I managed to crack my CFA level 1 exam.Thankyou so much! After reading your post i realised that i really lack insight and a effective statregy to crack a test. I changed that. :)

    I’ll like you to include articles on cracking exams like CAT(Common Admission Test), which like JEE is extremely tough. The best institute which takes CAT scores have a application:acceptance ratio of 1:720 (I’m referring to IIM-A)

    Could you throw some light on how to crack sections in CAT like reading comprehension( in which I absolutely suck!) and tips on how to tackle such entrance exams?

  • http:/// Aaron Fung

    Fascinating article, Mr. Young!

    I especially appreciate your analytical deconstruction of your method.

    4 main questions.

    1)I see from the course website that there is a textbook, yet you make no mention of it in your article. Did you just completely ignore the textbook?

    My assumption is that reading the textbook consumes valuable time, and the lecture probably contains the material the professor considers most salient to his test. Was this your reasoning?

    2) Also, you mentioned that you finished watching the lectures all in the first 2 days.

    Why? It seems to me that it would make more sense to watch the lectures as you go along, as the lectures probably build on previous material that you probably had not yet synthesized until you had done the problem sets. It would seem that watching the lectures all at once they would turn into gibberish after the 10th hour.

    Or was this a way of getting an overview of the material, like a synopsis to the real learning to be done in the problem sets?

    3) Did you take notes during lectures?

    4) How did you get around the need for calculus (or did you already have a firm grasp of math)? My memory of college physics (albeit for scientists and engineers) was filled with calculus and beyond, especially when we got into electromagnetism.

  • http:/// Aaron Fung

    Above you responded:

    “Difficulty is relative too. I’ve often found intro classes more difficult because you don’t have a systematic way of adding new knowledge.”

    Here I disagree a little; unless you are a newborn baby tabula rasa, you always have something to add new knowledge to.

    For example, were I taking this physics class (and had never taken college level physics) I would take stock in what I did know, that in any way could help me relate to this new material, so it wasn’t so foreign.

    Perhaps, I would have drawn on my one year of honors physics in high school. Without that, I would have drawn on the little shards of physics I learned in basic high school/middle school/elementary school physics.

    Though far from ideal, it is better than starting from scratch, and will provide a foundation of sorts to build new knowledge upon.

    I could also link the physics to any math I had. Having finished this classical mechanics course, I’m sure you can see the relationships here.

    Even away from the hardcore science examples, I could use even the humanities to provide a foundation of sorts.

    For example, I was a history major. As this course concentrated on classical mechanics, I would try to summon up my knowledge of the Enlightenment and Restoration England, concentrating on especially on natural philosophy (remember, science was not yet separate from philosophy at this time).

    I could relate it to the rivalry between Newton and Leibniz, English Empiricism vs. the more Continental Rationalism, the Baconian program of knowledge accumulation, etc.

    In one of my classes, I was assigned to read a proof of Galileo’s which did not make any sense to me at all until I realized that Galileo was attempting to prove, by pages of “geometry” and citing of Greek scholars what could be done with a few lines of algebra and Newton’s laws.

    In t hat moment, I put both Galileo and Newton in their historical contexts, and found a deeper understanding of the systems of “philosophy” they were working within.

    This interdisciplinary approach cements the concepts more fully in my own head, and helps me understand concepts I may have had trouble with.

    For example, I just finished a summer class in biology with the highest grade in the class. I’m pretty sure I was far from the smartest, and I’m pretty certain I was close to the laziest. And I have not so much as touched a science class in a number of years.

    So first I reached into the past, and drew what little middle school science remained intact in my memory and used this as a skeleton of sorts to build upon.

    I then leveraged any any and all knowledge I had to my advantage, relating it to the concepts in the class.

    My classmates probably had more science, but I had more breadth of knowledge, and a mind weird enough to make the connections.

    For example, I related the scientific method to the OODA loop in military theory, using the OODA loop as an analogy for an iterative process of observation, analysis, and decision making.

    Also, I used my knowledge of the theories of Thomas Malthus to better understand the theories of Charles Darwin. Remember the importance of keeping things in historical context? It turns out that Darwin was greatly influenced by the theories of Thomas Malthus, whose book I had to read last semester in History 103.

    I also found it very helpful to be a bit of a loudmouth and ask a lot of questions in lecture, so long as they weren’t stupid.

    In addition, I also used slightly modified versions of tactics learned from both your blog as well as Mr. Newports. Thank you both for the very useful blogs. :-)

    I hope this wasn’t too long, as it grew longer than I expected. The point is, we never enter any situation completely from scratch, and under most circumstances there are at least straws to grasp at and build upon.

    Respectfully yours,
    Aaron Fung

  • Paolo Usero

    Hey Scott,

    Was wondering when you say you wrote the exam, then you really did make those questions? Is there something in the exam making process that somehow consolidates your knowledge and helps you get a better understanding of things?

  • Tebello

    Thanks for the post Scott, it’s an eye-opener! I think something is wrong with your subscription service because I cannot subscribe, I use gmail.

  • Scott Young


    In this context, ‘to write’ means I did the exam, not that I made it.


    That’s not really what I meant, though. If you have taken a class previously, you become familiar with the grading style and are better able to formulate a strategy for studying properly. For example, a mistake of mine was undervaluing the importance of algebra over simple conceptual understanding. You wouldn’t make that mistake after having taking 3-4 physics classes.


  • Aaron Fung

    Mr. Scott Young,
    I am sorry, I didn’t mean to misrepresent your comment, just trying to add to the discussion, as I find your approach to learning a new subject very compelling, and I am interested in trying this out myself with my own tweaks to your method.

    I think I am understanding what you are saying: intro level classes introduce new students to the conventions of the the field of study.

    In essay writing it may mean not using the word “I” in an academic paper, or using the word “I” in a personal essay.

    In the example of classical mechanics it could even be something as simple as your answers must be expressed in the metric system, if your answer is a number at all.

    When I took classical mechanics, and physics in general, I think the convention that surprised me most in the beginning was that none of our answers were numbers, that we did the math without integers, and our answers were an ugly, equation that we had to derive.

    I think this the algebra you were speaking of, of which I can relate to your experience.

    After having taken physics, this convention makes sense to me, where it would have seemed unnecessarily silly before.

    Sorry about my confusion. I thoroughly enjoyed your article, and I look forward to hearing about your big learning project in October.


  • Zengirl @ Heart And Mind


    Pretty amazing! Knowing your ebooks and guest post at zenhabits about studying, I am somehow not surprised! Looking forward to see what happens!


  • Quin


    When you started this experiment, were you coming into it with any expectations that you’re going to retain any of this new knowledge over the longer term? Or is it really just an exercise in superb cramming, for you?

  • Scott Young


    No problem–actually one of the reasons I picked this course was it was one where I had the least prior knowledge. However, even in this class I found there were many ideas I already knew about. No learning is done in a vacuum. :)


    The goal was to complete the exam–I’m not trying to paint 4.5 days as the ideal learning time. However, my experience has taught me that the *way* people learn matters more than the time period for long-term retention.

    My focus was almost exclusively on developing a deep understanding of the underlying concepts in order to use that intuition to answer questions. That type of understanding endures a lot longer than rote memorization or even skills.

    I can’t know how my knowledge will fare in the long-term, but my hope would be that I would be sufficiently prepared to do a secondary course in physics with little revision, even a few years down the road.


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  • Gadfire


    Actually i don’t have problem remembering or difficulty in absorbing the information.

    The problem is:
    1) I don’t know how to solve the question in exam!i learnt the basic but the questions are more deep…

    For example:

    this what i learnt:(this is just example )


    In exam:


    so is there solution?

  • Scott Young

    Practice on harder questions. Your practice questions should always be more difficult than the ones you’re likely to face on an exam.

  • Nick

    Wow Scott.. I never graduated from college and barely passed high school. I like reading how intelligent some people just naturally are (such as the cae with your blog). My problem has always been the ability to focus without letting my mind wander while still being able to grasp the concepts being explained. I feel having to reread things often with still not being 100% clear on the subject matter. This is feel has been a huge impact on not allowing me to learn. Art was more my thing, maybe it’s the right brain left brain ordeal.

    Awesome post..

  • Scott Young


    Intelligence is trainable though. Learning new ideas becomes easier if you engage in it more.


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  • http://none Srushti

    Omg you are my hero!! Thanks for the info so much! I have my semesters coming in 16 days and we ( me and my friends) haven’t studied a bit. We usually don’t study at all, just read the text once and before exams, we enter into what we call as geek mode and become complete geeks for 2 weeks or so!!
    However, our college admissions are going to be depended on the final exams and this is a just a prelude to them, so I’m sure that all of the techniques you mention are going to be extremely useful.
    Thanks a lot :)

  • Bob

    For the VLC Player, did you download the subtitles track as well?

  • Bob

    Also, did you take notes over the video lectures or did you just listen to them?

  • Scott Young

    No I didn’t use the subtitles, and yes I took notes.

  • Been There…

    You have deceived the people, Scott. No, I am not questioning your ability to do what you say you did but the “epicness of the results”. You seem to be missing a few very important points that might mislead some of your readers.
    For a class such as 8.01 at MIT, the final is no more than 30% of the overall grade. And mark you, 75% was most likely below average. Which would mean that going by your final score a lone, you had not better than a B. It might be easy to think that getting a C in a test at a school such as MIT is good enough but try telling that to students who actually do all the work that is supposed to get done to get full credit in the classes. And you stated it yourself; the practice problems were a lot harder. Now, imagine having to do similarly tough problems for other classes too every single week. So, gauging your success by just the final exam of a single class done in 4.5 days is a lot of cheating. Maybe juggling two classes in say 9 days would be slightly more convincing. Unless of course, you are suggesting that it would such a good idea to have tomorrow’s “work force” learn all the material in a few days a week, one at a time.
    Do yourself a favor, and try this again, (with perhaps a different subject). Religiously doing those long psets and then honestly grading them. Then weigh all your (pset, exam, attendace?, etc) scores accordingly and you can really access whether you actually learned anything in 4.5 days or are just kidding yourself.
    My friend, there is a reason those classes are designed to last a semester. It is not just about learning how to define torque and shit. But can you think deeper beyond that? Can I solve the same problem if it was presented differently? I can almost guarantee that you probably got 75% mostly because they are too lazy to come up with new qns for exams and they keep reusing the ones (or similar to those) from previous years. And not because you actually understood 75% of what was being taught in that class. well, at least, as gauged by the final exam. But truth of the matter is that, that does not really matter because doing those psets is where it is really at. And that is what makes the biggest difference.
    I tried what you are talking about here in order to place out of one of the GREs. I got a 71% in the Advanced Placement Exam and was given a big fat F. You know why? I will tell you. It is coz if one is going to cut corners such as these, then you gotta prove yourself with a much higher score than is expected of those that actually take the class (you know, and do all the work with the heavy thinking, if you know what I mean). Hence, a score of say 95% on the Placement Exam would really mean that you understand enough of the material and probably do not to need the class.
    You seem to be a brilliant guy, man, but do you honestly think that you learnt that material as it was intended in just 4.5 days? Or did you just prove that someone can cram stuff for a few days and not fail a final exam (which again, I must state, are usually meant to be easier than the work from rest of the term). I enjoy reading some of your articles but dude, come on! This was some bullshit!

  • Been There…

    *Unless of course,if you are suggesting that it would such a good idea to have tomorrow’s “work force” learn all the material in a few days a week, one class at a time.

  • Been There…

    *Unless of course, you are suggesting that it would be such a good idea to have tomorrow’s “work force” learn all the material in a few days a week, one class at a time.* Seemingly a good idea but really…think about it!

  • Scott Young

    Been There,

    Certainly making assignments optional significantly reduces the amount of work in “completing” a course. Whether that makes it unimpressive isn’t a question I can really debate, since it’s subjective.

    But I’ll address some of your points, briefly:

    >”You can really access whether you actually learned anything in 4.5 days or are just kidding yourself.”

    An exam, while not perfect, is a basis of evaluation for the material of the course. So, in passing an exam, I’m completely justified in using it as a measurement of having learned the content of the course. This is particularly true of a class like physics, which lacks programming projects or physical labs which introduce knowledge untested on a final exam.

    Yes, the assignments are more difficult, as I said, a final exam is an imperfect sampling of knowledge. But to say one hasn’t learned anything by using this approach is absurd and hyperbolic.

    > “I tried what you are talking about here in order to place out of one of the GREs. I got a 71% in the Advanced Placement Exam and was given a big fat F.”

    Yes, but I’m not holding myself to the standard of Advanced Placement. Universities are notoriously strict when it comes to skipping required classes. By a similar argument you could say that anyone who can’t get into MIT (because of less than perfect GPAs) doesn’t understand high-school courses.

    The truth is, you can set the bar wherever you’d like. I’m going with the clear and straightforward, “can pass a comprehensive final exam” as a basis of evaluation.

    > “[B]ut try telling that to students who actually do all the work that is supposed to get done to get full credit in the classes. … So, gauging your success by just the final exam of a single class done in 4.5 days is a lot of cheating.”

    There seems to be two different points you’re making here. One, is that it’s unfair because I haven’t done all the work. Second, it’s unfair because I haven’t learned what was taught.

    The first point I readily agree with. I’m not an MIT student, so questions of fairness and earning credit are irrelevant. My goal isn’t to show that I’ve done the same amount of work, it’s to show that I’ve learned the same topics without doing most the work.

    The second point I disagree with. Is writing an exam as the only basis of evaluation going to be the same as grading all the assignments, midterms and as you humorously put, attendance? No, but evaluation is inherently a sampling process. If we were really serious we could force all students to write hundreds of problems of every conceivable type and difficulty, to exhaust all possibilities and confirm 100% their level of knowledge. But we don’t, because sampling is a feasible and acceptable process for estimating a student’s knowledge.

    Exam grades, to my knowledge, do not typically exceed assignment grades so that calls into question whether they are “harder” (in fact, many classes professors readily admit the opposite). They may be technically more demanding, but they also allow for opportunities for mild collaboration and feedback.

    For all this bluster about learning, the main argument you seem to be posing is that it isn’t fair that I get to skip most the work and still claim to have “learned” a subject. However, what you’re missing is that is exactly the point I’m making, that you can learn a subject in many ways (and in fact, I do write many of the assignments as preparation) and sometimes there are efficiencies to be had by using a different method.


  • Physics Student

    What? Are you serious? You clearly don’t understand a bit of what you wrote on the first question. As a prospective physics major, I look at part (a) of Question #1, and see 0=y-mgt. WHAT? What is that? Where did the “m”come from? You repeat this again in parts b and d. Where on earth did you get mass from in these kinematics equatiomns? What on earth is “carry forward error”? The notation is also terrible: the y with a dot on the top is NOT a position vector, it is the first derivative. Part (c) is wrong, too, yet you put a check next to it. The question asks for the SPEED, which is a SCALAR quantity (therefore, the minus that you placed there makes your answer wrong- — you indicated the velocity!).

  • Scott Young

    Physics Student,

    All good points. I hadn’t noticed the question with speed/velocity, which is definitely a limitation of self-corrected exams.


  • MIT student

    I never take this class. I did the Advance Placement Exam to skip the class. But, what I can tell you, the exam grading is too generous. There is so called propagation error when people grade. But that only happen if you make math mistake (like 1+1 =3). But if you do conceptual mistake (including putting wrong moment of inertia or wrong equation of force) previously, you will get 0 (or less than 20%) for the part of the problem.

  • MIT student

    I mean the next part of the problem..

  • Scott Young

    MIT student,

    It’s possible. I post my grading plus the answer key so that anyone can compare the results.


  • Hansu Lee

    Finishing entire MIT CS curriculum in 1 year? I smell B.S. I’m sorry I had to say it.

    I am a person with very average intelligence. It took me a good 3 months of full-time study to sufficiently internalize calculus and discrete maths. When I see MIT version of discrete maths, it’s definitely more challenging than the material I used. And I can’t believe that one can smash that course within a month while studying 3 other very challenging subjects.

    Are you sure you really studied them? Just watching videos and hear what lecturers say doesn’t mean you actually learned something.

    I am being very skeptical because MIT is legit. Their curriculum challenges even bright students. My version of CS education is 20~40% downgraded version of MIT curriculum and I still struggle with it if I really want to ‘understand’ concepts.

    Also, for a person who didn’t have any training in physics, 4.5 days is way to short internalize basic physical concepts. If you really did it, then I bet you that you are on par with Feynman’s intellect.

    My theory is this you are one of the following:

    1) you are a genius

    2) (or more likely) you are full of lies

    Even if you are not lying (which means you’re a genius), what you did cannot be replicated by 99.99% of population. Because only geniuses can absorb basic classical mechanics in 4.5 days without any background knowledge in physics.

    So if you’re indeed a genius, please don’t make such a statement as ‘I’m average and everyone who is as determined as I am can do the same.’