Scott H Young

Learning MIT Calculus in 5 Days


To access the course for free, click here.

Last week marked week one of my MIT Challenge, to learn their 4-year computer science curriculum in 12 months, without taking classes. As you can watch in the video above, this week was calculus.

I started the class on Monday and wrote the exam on Friday afternoon. This meant I had roughly 4.5 days to watch 30+ hours of video lectures, understand all the concepts and master the math enough to pass a 3-hour comprehensive exam.

Why Bother Learning Calculus?

First though, why bother learning calculus at all? Beyond being a required course for my challenge, I think calculus has an unfair reputation as being either too hard or not useful enough to bother learning.

I happen to think calculus is cool, and that’s not only because I’m a huge geek. Calculus is a tool that allows you to solve really interesting problems, that are much harder to solve without any knowledge of calculus.

For learning computer science, for example, calculus allows you to run machine learning algorithms in artificial intelligence, render 3D computer graphics and create physics engines for video games. Calculus may seem a little daunting or dry from the outset, but that’s mostly because people don’t realize the volume of cool ideas that are based on it.

More, learning calculus in this challenge is also a statement about the benefits of theoretical versus practical knowledge.

Theory Actually Matters (Or Why DIY Learners Often Fail)

A lot of people have been criticizing my challenge for not doing enough programming. I’ll admit, that’s a weakness I need to work on, and I’m making adjustments to try to include more programming assignments for the classes where there are interesting projects.

However, part of the criticism, is weighed against learning theory in general. A common misconception is that the best way to learn is simply to just go out in the real world and do things, and only learn theory when you absolutely need it.

But this misses the purpose of learning the theory behind ideas. It’s not just to fulfill curiosity, or to execute some more practical task. Learning theory broadens the types of problems you can imagine possible solutions to.

You don’t need a computer science degree to learn how to program. I’ve programmed as a hobby for years, and I’m confident that I could probably make most simple programs if I put in enough time (although I’m far from a master).

But computer science isn’t programming in the same way biology isn’t just using a microscope. Learning the theory behind algorithms, machine learning, graphics, compilers and circuitry gives you the ability to think about and take on more interesting problems.

The power of theory is that it expands the breadth of problems you can solve, while practical knowledge improves your efficiency with one set of problems. Studying business didn’t teach me much about running my business, but it did give me a language to think about all sorts of businesses that I haven’t started yet.

That’s the main goal of this MIT Challenge. I want to show that the theory can accelerated and learned outside of school. But I also want to show that big ideas matter and sometimes the best way to be effective in the world is to first understand it.

The Setup to Learn Calculus in 5 Days

A lot of people are asking me how I avoid burnout when trying to complete a 120-hour course in 5 days. But the truth is, the schedule I keep isn’t too exhausting. It requires focus, certainly, and it also has quite a few hours of work, but I set it up in such a way to maximize the amount of time I have to relax so I don’t feel overwhelmed.

Here’s the schedule I used last week, for example:

  • Monday 6am – 5pm (roughly 60 minutes worth of breaks) – Watch first half of lectures at ~2x speed.
  • Tuesday 6am – 6pm – Finish lectures
  • Wednesday 6am – 6pm – Do 4 practice exams, use Feynman Technique on all conceptual errors or processes I don’t fully understand.
  • Thursday 6am-6pm – Repeat process, ensure at least 1-2 Q’s are covered from every topic and use Feynman + practice questions to master the ones I’m having trouble with.
  • Friday 6am-11am – Final brush up, write the exam at 1pm and finish by 4pm.

Not everyone will be able to get through an entire course like calculus in 5 days, however this basic setup of waking up early and starting immediately, but having the evenings off is a great way to get more work done without feeling overwhelmed.

Each day I did approximately 10-11 hours of work, but because I had nights off, I could relax, watch movies, go to the gym or hang out with friends. When people talk about burnout, in my opinion, they are usually talking about missing those things, not the actual number of hours they are putting in.

The truth is, when learning a conceptual class like calculus, burnout is one of the worst things you can do for efficiency. Losing sleep or not organizing your time well enough to have some relaxation time can impair your ability to focus the next day. If you’re tired, you aren’t learning properly.

I did take 20 minute naps during the day, which I found helpful in giving a burst of energy which wanes after several hours of focus. But the timing and frequency of breaks is crucial, since it’s easy to waste hours on breaks and then have to work later in the evening.

I feel comfortable with this schedule going forward, although I’ll certainly have to modify it for classes without video lectures or with larger programming assignments.

Now onto multivariate calculus, wish me luck!


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54 Responses to “Learning MIT Calculus in 5 Days”

  1. Benny Lewis says:

    Good job sir! This is going to be a fun challenge to follow all the way through! You’ll inspire me to go study non-language courses soon! :D
    Such a fantastic idea – keep up the good work!

  2. Scott Young says:

    Much appreciated Benny, your video logging of your adventures were definitely an inspiration for me to start the YouTube channel.

  3. santi says:

    Hey Scott, thanks so much for sharing this with us. You are a great model in modern education.

    Good luck with Multivarible Calculus! You can do it!

    All the best!

  4. Adrian Harper says:

    Scott,

    I couldn’t begin to describe how inspirational your blogs, ideas, theories and general content of your web page have been to me. I’ve invested in a lot of books in order to find a proven, efficient and reliable way to learn. I’m very keen on purchasing all of your books, as I’ve already subscribed to your free newsletter and am impressed and motivated to read and learn more. Thank you for the free newsletter, as it has been a wonderful resource for me while I endeavor to achieve the goals I’ve set for myself.

    All the best on your current challenge, I’m sure you’ll surpass all expectations!

    Greetings from Northeastern B.C.

    – Adrian

  5. Nue says:

    Scott,
    I am interested to know what self directed learning resources you utilize learning for this project apart from MIT OCW courses

    Thanks,

  6. Dream says:

    Great job Scott!

    You dont use the book(s) at all?

    I think personally that lectures are much more better than reading textbook since the teacher go threw the concepts with much faster pace.

  7. Apo says:

    So inspiring!

    I was wondering how you would tackle a quest like this if the courses where mainly factual based? Would you use the same techniques? Would it even be possible?

    Best of luck

  8. fran says:

    Hey man, what youre doing here is awsome. i have a hard time doing that in 4 weeks probaply =p i wish you the best of luck and ill follow you all the way through;)

  9. Iair says:

    Great Scott!
    What you can do in the videos?
    Please leave a detailed roadmap. You might be the first person on earth on trying to accomplish such a big self education goal (and MIT !!!) So, you can help others to achieve the same.

    You can try on some weeks to behave (like slowing your pace, etc.) more than a human, and less than a super-human (like as of now), to ancourage others to imitate you. Despite is a personal challenge for you (and the channel and publicity helps you “staying accountable”), after you have finished, you would leave behind that “one superstudent super-human” made it, but what about Us?
    You’re also remarking that you’re fully focused on your challenge? is it totally impossible if you weren’t? (if it’s possible to finish it in 2 years with other things in your head too (other than hang outs, exercise and social life)) you could be the definite guide to replicate “Will Smiths” in The pursuit of happyness)”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pursuit_of_Happyness”.

    Also, in the videos you could try to link ideas in you LOSteroids program.

    Iair.

    All the best,
    Iair.

  10. ali says:

    O Man!! I got my Calculus cleared after 5 attempts :/

    I’m sure you have dexter’s brain in your head :P

  11. Sakura says:

    Please give a detailed roadmap and give your readers access to resources for self-learning. I think that’s the biggest problem for the would-be DIY education scene; we are drowning in information, but we have NO idea how to actually USE it in a practical manner. We want results!

    This is one of the coolest things I’ve even seen attempted. :) Thank you!

  12. Adam says:

    Scott, I suspect you are fooling yourself somewhat here. Having spent 4 years studying for a physics degree, I know for sure that I can go through and learn each course in a week or less, if I concentrated all the material together as you are. But the real benefit of spreading that learning out over a few months for each course is that it gives much more time to develop experience and intuition, which ultimately is what you need. You are giving yourself just one week. Is that enough time to truly develop the experience you need in a field to go away and do something with that knowledge?

  13. Ira says:

    Hey Scott,

    I’ve been following your challenge here on your blog and I really admire the effort you’re putting into dispelling the notion that a university setting or a 16 week semester is necessary to learning anything. I myself have never really learned anything by going to lecture, but at the same time I’m guilty of cramming at the last minute. I’d really like to take up my own challenge of becoming an accelerated learner. Can you give some pointers on how to start? Also, what’s your mindset when doing what you’re doing? I hope my question doesn’t sound strange, but doing something radical (at least for me!), like accelerated learning, requires a different kind of thinking and mindset.

    Thanks!

  14. Scott Young says:

    Adam,

    The way I see it, there are two arguments against doing classes in such a short time frame, and doing them serially, one valid and one I reject.

    The valid argument is that serial learning omits spaced repetition which is a way to improve long-term memory of the ideas. I’ll admit this is a weakness of my approach, so I’m working on some setups that will have periodic reinforcement and testing of the ideas (such as randomized questions from previous classes, at the one and six-month marks), but I haven’t fully resolved this issue. My reasons for doing the classes serially have already been stated in the FAQ.

    The other argument is that by learning quickly I’m somehow learning more superficially, than someone who invests more time. In all honesty, I think the opposite is true. Given the intense timeframe I’m operating under, memorization is way too inefficient to pass the types of problem sets and tests MIT gives. You need to understand the ideas at an intuitive level, or you won’t be able to do the problems.

    Will my skill with symbolic manipulation or programming be weaker than someone who spends 4 years learning? Maybe. But, I also have 3 years of a head-start to master things I really care about.

    Iair,

    I’m keeping the videos deliberately short, but I’ll try to elaborate more in each of them. I’ll also try to suggest more steps for people to follow along.

    Admittedly, my speed of progress is not attainable for people who want to learn part-time or are weaker in the subjects, but I’ll try to show how the efficiency gains I’m making are accessible to most people.

    Ira,

    I made a whole video course to try to teach it: http://www.scotthyoung.com/lmslvidcourse/

    Apo,

    It would definitely be much harder. I’m going to be doing Biology in a few weeks, so we’ll see whether I crash and burn trying to deal with the amount of terminology which needs to be memorized.

    -Scott

  15. Karan says:

    MIT is way backward. Single & Multi Variable calculus (including everything in the corresponding MIT courses) is what we’re studying in Grade 12 here in India. I though people joke when they say ”American high-school Math and Science syllabus is a joke when compared to India”.

    Although yes, I’m quite at both of them but still can’t get how exactly can they be used for solving ‘interesting problems’…

  16. Peter says:

    I’ve been following this blog for a few years now. I’ve learned a lot.

    I analyse everything, looking for facts, truths and ways to improve. But I doubt myself sometimes. Too many times. Your writings have served to reassure me many times.( even though I shouldn’t need reassurance.)

    I don’t usually comment, but what you’re doing in this challenge really strikes a note with me.

    Some things I see in you, that I am working on in myself, are consistency and focus. You don’t doubt yourself, but you’re not arrogant or naive either. In those ways you inspire me. Thank you.

    -Peter.

  17. Aisha says:

    Hi Scott,

    This is completely random and unrelated to this topic.

    Just wondering if you are single?

  18. Aleexander says:

    Hi Scott,
    I’ve a technical question: which videoplayer do you use to watch the lectures at accelerated speed ?

    ciao
    Alexander

  19. Derek Rodger says:

    Hi Scott,

    One thing I am curious about is how you go about breaking down the material when it’s based on a textbook rather than a video lecture.

    (I’ve only just started working through the Learn More, Study Less program, and the blog archives, so my question may already be answered).

    For example, do you read the Intro and then the Summary, read the chapter sections, go through the end-of-chapter questions to see what the focus is on and then drill into more detail and applying the various holistic techniques?

    Cheers.

  20. Eric Ullrich says:

    How do you watch the video in 2x speed?

  21. Gui says:

    Hey, Scott, good luck on the challenge!

    Do you have any focus ritual or something else that helps you stay focused?

  22. Will Kwan says:

    Hey Scott,

    I’ve been hovering around your site a lot this past while, as I’ve developed an increasing interest in your MIT challenge and have been looking through a lot of your older posts. The more I think about it, the more I begin to regret all the time I’ve wasted in the flawed and ineffective learning environments provided by many of my teachers. Your website is a testament to the fact that extreme productivity is accessible to ordinary people, and that the best way to learn is from our own initiative.

    Your challenge inspired me to do a little something of my own. It’s not very impressive compared to what you’re doing, but my goal was to ace the SAT with 3 weeks of prep. I’m a Canadian high school student who’s probably gonna go to a Canadian university, but I thought it would be a neat self-learning project to undertake.

    Like what you’re doing, my studying was heavily based around doing practice tests, but I was able implement a few of the awesome ideas you’ve shared in your blog. I took the test last week, and I think I did quite well. I plan to write a few blog posts myself describing some of the studying and test-taking strategies I used.

    Thanks for having such a cool site,
    William

  23. joel says:

    Hey Scott,
    Do you have any ideas as to where I’d be able to find any free online courses in neurology?
    Cheers,
    Joel.

  24. Dream says:

    Scott, I do not know if you forgot to post the result(the exam), but I just wanted to mention that or remind you(if you ever said that you would post it here).

  25. Sara says:

    I’d be very interested to see how you’d modify this structure to learn skills where you need a high level of practice, coupled with some strong theoretical knowledge.

    i.e. if you were to custom-build a course for yourself to teach yourself key skills in a new or quickly changing field, how would you go about learning these skills and testing them? When there are no “practice exams” you can refer to in order to find knowledge deficiencies? That’s where I spend a lot of my development, and it’s always a worry that I’m missing something highly useful that I just don’t know about.

    Surely a certain amount of it just comes down to regular practice, to make habits out of processes, but figuring out what knowledge and skills I need to learn, then design an efficient way to do that is a rather massive task.

    Many thanks.

  26. Scott Young says:

    Dream,

    All the exams I’ve written are posted on the homepage for the challenge (including solutions).

    Karan,

    My best friend is from India, so I know a good deal about the education system they have. I would say, yes, India has a good educational system, but the format of it is slightly different from North American schools, which tends to exaggerate the feeling you have about its significance.

    In most schools in the US and Canada, students are required to learn all subjects, whereas in India, students select a focus (one of the sciences or maths) and as a result get more specialization a bit earlier. This gives the impression that the curriculum is faster, but it’s just a bit more generalized in NA.

    That said, most good schools here will offer AP classes which cover calculus (although not to the depth and rigor of MIT, usually).

    Sara,

    That’s a big question I’m facing as well. I’m trying to work on methods to accelerate the practice component, because even in mathematical classes I found the hardest part was mastering the symbolic methods without having any errors (skill) not the concepts, most of the time.

    As I get into more programming-intensive classes, I’ll work on that.

    Eric,

    VLC Player.

    Derek,

    I’ll be heading into textbook-only classes soon, so I’ll be able to offer more insights once I approach them.

    Joel,

    Try the OCW site. There’s lots of stuff. Yale, Harvard and Stanford also have Open Course Ware libraries.

    -Scott

  27. [...] reader emailed me after I wrote about learning calculus in five days: “I question that you’re just a person of average intelligence who knows how to learn faster. I [...]

  28. Sara says:

    Thanks for responding, Scott. I’d be very keen to hear you go into more detail about that side of things as you develop strategies to do this course.

  29. Ann says:

    I’m definitely following your progress Scott. Your blog is one of the few I come back to again and again.

    I’m interested in nutrition and a couple of other subject matters. Can anyone advise on where I can find the required classes for a degree in nutrition or any other subjects? And also the required text?

  30. Oleg says:

    What is his motivation for learning? :)

    Thanks!

  31. Jake Ringwald says:

    Didn’t you already know calculus though? You have been to college before.

    Also, to the kid from India, MIT has these classes that does not mean that everyone takes them as freshman. Many MIT students take calculus before senior year in high school. There is a lot of variability in the American education system.

  32. Scott Young says:

    Jake,

    I had taken an intro calculus class in my freshman year, which only covered differentiation. MIT’s was considerably deeper, covering about 2/3s more than the course I had taken (although, in fairness, MIT courses seem to be slightly longer than the ones at my home university).

    Of course, my entire learning process, holistic learning, is based on the idea that we can always link ideas to what we already understand so there are very few “blank slate” classes where I feel there is no starting point of things I’ve already learned.

    -Scott

  33. brenda opande says:

    You have inspired me to do the same thing ur awesome keep it up

  34. Phineas LL says:

    Some ppl were asking how you can speed up the videos.
    This is a way you can do that:
    (i’m unsing google chrome)

    Step 1: Go to the video on youtube
    (Go to step 2 if you found it on youtube)
    Search the video on youtube or… :
    -Go to the page where the video lecture is.
    eg: http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/mathematics/18-01-single-variable-calculus-fall-2006/video-lectures/lecture-1-derivatives/
    -Go to the the source page (right click and view the page source)
    -Press Ctrl+F to open the Find bar and type: youtube
    -You will find a link looking like this: http://www.youtube.com/v/7K1sB05pE0A (don’t go directly to this link because the video player doesn’t have settings… and it’s low quality)
    -Copy the last part (that unique code..or whatever that is)
    7K1sB05pE0A in this example
    -Paste that after this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=
    -This takes you to the video on youtube

    Step 2: Speed up the video
    - go to http://www.youtube.com/html5
    - click on Join the HTML5 Trial
    - go to the video ( eg: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7K1sB05pE0A) and click on the settings (a small gear in the right corner of the video player).
    There you can choose the speed (2.0x, 1.5x, Normal, 0.5x, 0.25x).
    This option is available only with html5

    BTH: Great, motivating website; just found it
    Thank you for teaching me how to learn :)

    GOOD LUCK!

  35. Mister says:

    @Karan don’t look down on MIT.
    Blame the education system, but don’t look down on others.
    Terence Tao studied Calculus when he was 7 years old. (not Grade 12)

  36. anukriti says:

    hey, dear friend scott, i think the tecnique is not that impossible….. for me i have to complete this whole calculus part in 10 days …. m preparin for an engineeering xam so m ready …..m gonna follow ideally as much as possible….thankxxx for this idea…

  37. dave says:

    I always try to get as much done in 1 day but the phones and electronics are a big distraction. we must avoid these things as much as possible. and for every time we slack off, we punish ourselves by giving 1$ in a box and see how we wasted time

  38. jimmmy says:

    Such a scam.. lol

  39. Anonymous says:

    Hi Scott,
    I am quite impressed with your undertaking and am hoping to be able to complete a somewhat similar challenge. I’m in eigth grade and have finished Algebra and Geometry (a sophmore course). I am hoping to be able to teach myself pre-calculus and some basic calculus so I can understand some of the math of quantam physics. Do you think that I will be able to do it? Do you have any suggestions? (Please keep in mind I go to public school during the day). Any tips would be greatly appreciated! Thank you!

  40. Anonymous says:

    I’ve begun taking the General Relativity and Black Holes physics class on the MIT site. It is actually not hard! Good luck to you on your studies!

  41. Steve says:

    Just stumbled on this site and I’m excited to get started. I’ve always been a self learner since an early age. My plan won’t be as aggressive but I hope the benefit is the same. Man keep it up!!!

  42. Martin says:

    I am trying to learn all the math needed to be proficient in financial engineering on my own. What would you recommend that I could do by myself that is free to learn and understand the topics?

  43. [...] » How to quickly learn a free online course. [...]

  44. Paul says:

    Hi scott,
    Your accomplishment is really impressive,
    I stumbeled on the site while searching about how people
    Learn calculus in other places (or countries) since this course (ours is devided in two parts, multi/single variable) and linear algebra is really boring and tiering for me since this classes in my university are really proof based, I’m just amazed how much easier this calculus is without several proofs each two hour lecture. There is no practical examples or why we learn this stuff in our uni, like solving verbal problems and why we need this or that, and that limit for stacking cubes example. If thats good enough for MIT is good enough for me. By checking the syllabus ours are like a mix of “calculus with theory ” course and the normal single/multi calc on MIT. Thought the final exam has less proofs then in the practical sessions and lecture the questions themselves are complex in terms of using a lot of tricks/ugly long function/and remote equations (but you get a formula page of your choice)

  45. ben says:

    jolly good show.you don’t even dive into a book or anything, you rely on the lectures and tests only. Finishing the lectures in 2 days is pretty good. When I am not busy at work I have similar amount of freedom. You are definitely much smarter then me, as when I get stuck I spend hour one something. Keep posting! :)

  46. Rick says:

    I’m watching some videos to enhance my calculus skills and I’ve found the optimal speed to be 1.5x.
    I have no difficulty understanding what the professor says (English is not my mother language and I have only a B2 degree) and I have the time to take notes, too. The .pdfs are much appreciated.

    I change the speed directly on youtube, try youtube.com/html5 !

  47. Brian says:

    I’m only 12 and I learned all of this in four days people’s! I think I have too much time on my hands…..

  48. Dave says:

    This is great stuff. I graduated MIT over 20 years ago and took many of these classes then, but it was very much “survival” mode for me. I am thinking of a career change and preparing to enter a graduate program which requires calculus…I dusted off the old transcript and painfully remembered the 18.01-18.06 progression, then started looking at OCW. I was surprised at how not only did I remember many basic things, but how I learned new things and have a different appreciation for things now, so many years later. But I remained “daunted” by the sheer volume of video to watch and the prospect of doing all those problem sets again.

    As I recall, the most time-consuming aspect of an actual MIT education was doing the problem sets. I think it was typical to spend at least 10 hours per week for each class to get through the problem sets. The lectures…I got some duds I think for many of those and could barely stay awake (especially after working on the problem sets the night before.) Lots of life lessons since then…the MIT undergraduate experience was harder in many ways that are not captured by just doing the work here.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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