Drunk off the firehose: A review of MIT

Although it’s successful, MIT could improve on education & culture

For the last four years, MIT has been my world. The Institute is a cruel and jealous master, demanding nothing less than complete devotion. It consumes you, and you become consumed by it.

Yet the payoff for one’s time here is nothing less than grand; my four years have enhanced nearly every aspect of my person, making me smarter, more hard-working, and better at solving problems. I am more conscious of the complexity and nuances in the problems the world faces today. It’s made me both more eager to tackle them and more capable of doing so.

Yet for all the praise that is heaped upon the Institute by its students, by its faculty, and by the rest of the world, there is still much work to be done. Is MIT one of the best at what it does? Absolutely. Can it do better? Significantly.

As a graduating senior, someone who has lived and breathed MIT for the last four years, I will attempt to comment on its model of education and its culture, the two aspects of the Institute that I have had the most intimate interaction with. While I do not have answers to all the questions I pose, I hope this piece will help frame discussions around some of the problems facing MIT.

The problem with lecture

MIT boasts world-class academics. It conducts cutting-edge research in nearly every technical field, its undergraduate students have unparalleled access to this research, and its graduates go on to incredible success. It is typically unquestioned that MIT’s academics are exceptional; just look at its outputs!

Yet it is also no secret that MIT is incredibly selective. In March, it admitted only 8.2 percent of applicants to the Class of 2017. Thus, the students attending MIT really are really a select group of individuals; they are the ones who would excel regardless of the quality of academics. Indeed, many of these students have self-studied content without the help of any teacher. It is therefore difficult to attribute their success at and after MIT to the classes here.

How, then, can we ascertain the quality of MIT’s model of education?

With the recent frenzy of education reform in America, there has been a significant amount of time and money dumped into trying to figure out the best ways to educate students. Unsurprisingly, it is generally agreed that hours of lecture is not the optimal method, and there is a strong push to make high school classes more interactive and dynamic.

Why, then, does MIT continue to employ the standard lecture/recitation format? For those unfamiliar, most technical classes at MIT consist of two or three 60- to 90-minute lectures by the instructors, with one or two weekly 60-minute recitation sections. Particularly in the introductory classes, lectures are given to hundreds of students in halls. The recitation sections split the class into smaller groups of fifteen to thirty, conducted in various manners dependent on the instructor. Some recitations incorporate lots of student input, taking questions, working problems, and discussing solutions, while others are an extension of lecture.

How useful is this model of teaching, utilized in most other institution of higher education? Empirically, the number of students in almost every class I’ve attended wanes dramatically over the course of the semester. On the first day, finding a seat can be a challenge. On the last day, lecture halls are mostly empty seats.

Is some of this due to students skipping lecture due to laziness, lack of sleep, or work overload? Sure. But with MIT having such an intense and driven culture, many students stop attending lecture because they have better things to do with their time.

During my years at MIT, I attended three or fewer lectures for under a fifth of my classes. This means I went in on the first day (maybe the second, to get a feel for the usefulness of the lecture) and decided that my time could be better spent otherwise. My average GPA in those classes is higher than my overall GPA. I also stopped attending lecture halfway through or later in more classes for the same reason, and I would have attended even fewer had attendance not been part of the grade for some.

Many lectures do not actually contribute to learning. At MIT, students learn the most by doing problem sets or working on projects. Any questions that are not clear can usually be clarified by friends in the class or by the professor during office hours.

Of course, while incredibly ineffective at teaching directly, this system makes MIT students excellent self-learners. A friend of mine from high school was once asked who his best football coach ever was. The student replied that his best coach was the laziest, most ineffective, hands-off coach he’d ever had. Because of the incredibly poor coach, the team was forced to step up, motivate themselves and each other, and figure out as a team how to win.

MIT, and most other colleges in the country, appear to be using this model. As such, much of the content that students learn at MIT, they teach themselves.

When looking at why MIT utilizes this system, two reasons stand out. First, particularly in the required introductory classes, delivering content to 1500 students is most easily done through lecture. High school teachers struggle as class sizes grow beyond twenty or thirty; how can a large institution possibly deliver a targeted, personalized education to thousands? Second, there has been no impetus for change. MIT has churned out fantastic graduates for decades; why overturn a method of education delivery that has been, apparently, succeeding?

Technology-Enabled Active Learning (TEAL)

These questions have answers; indeed, MIT has already begun exploring a few. Freshman physics, both 8.01 (Mechanics) and 8.02 (Electricity and Magnetism) are taught in the TEAL (Technology-Enabled Active Learning) format instead of the traditional lecture-recitation format. Not only has TEAL lowered the fail rates, but according to 8.02 professor John Belcher in a 2003 Faculty Newsletter, TEAL has doubled the learning gains of students as compared to lecture.

In TEAL, students are seated at round tables in groups of nine, split into sub-groups of three. The classrooms are covered in whiteboards and equipped with projector screens. Each table has three computers, and students use clickers to allow the professors to garner real-time feedback of student understanding of conceptual problems. Students are also periodically instructed to work together to solve problems, which they work out at the whiteboard. While professors still deliver lectures, the lectures are peppered with visualizations and experiments that students can do at their table. Undergraduate and graduate teaching assistants float about the room, each covering two or three tables to take questions. Essentially, class time contributed to learning because students are forced to become active participants.

When I interviewed Prof. Peter Dourmashkin, one of the pioneers of TEAL a few years ago, he said that TEAL “… is more about learning the information instead of just distributing it.” It is this fundamental difference between TEAL and lectures that needs to be targeted.

Is TEAL perfect? Of course not. As an 8.02 TA, I picked up on a number of aspects that could be improved. First, the undergraduate teaching assistants should be better utilized. Ideally, each table would have its own TA, getting to know the students and helping them. The TAs should be better prepared for class to better help their assigned students. The lecture slides should be updated regularly to avoid confusion (the current set has not been completely redone in years).

And recitations should be more like problem-solving sessions. TEAL, like lecture, discourages questions because of the volume of students, leading to weaker personal interaction with the instructor and the fear of “looking stupid.” A recitation section run by TAs would be a valuable tool in addressing student questions. Although some students proclaim to dislike TEAL, end-of-term surveys show the same levels of satisfaction as with the previous lecture format.

The possibilities of edX

The disadvantage to an expansion of TEAL is the cost. Hiring more TAs, creating more TEAL classrooms, and finding the time to develop TEAL curricula is a drain on resources. Of course, MIT is in a unique position to expand TEAL because it has access to such vast resources. Yet TEAL does not have to be the lone approach to solving the problem of MIT’s outdated educational method. The dawn of edX provides a unique opportunity to the MIT community. Contrary to fears of devaluing MIT degrees, edX, if used properly, could enhance MIT’s education system in an unprecedented way.

Imagine a class where students are given a list of online video lectures that they can watch, fast forward, rewind, and otherwise focus to really target what they understand and don’t. This would be done outside of class, leaving all the time currently spent on lecture to be used on active learning. Students could have interactive recitation sections where they are able to ask questions and work problems in groups. They could have TEAL-like sections where the professor tests their understanding of concepts via clickers. Classes that currently don’t have space for them could add lab sections, giving students hands-on understanding of the content. The possibilities associated with incorporating edX into MIT curricula are limited only by the creativity of the people here.

MIT should spearhead the innovation of these new active learning tools, and these changes should be implemented at every school that still uses the lecture/recitation format.

The contributions of culture

I mentioned earlier that much of the content learned at MIT is self-taught — but much of the deeper understanding is acquired through interacting with classmates. MIT’s culture is unlike anything I have ever been exposed to. Being surrounded by brilliant, curious people who aren’t afraid to ask the big questions and tackle the big problems is enriching beyond imagination.

It’s no secret that MIT students don’t sleep much. Perhaps less well-known is that much of this sleep deprivation is voluntary. I cannot count the number of times I sacrificed precious hours of sleep just to talk with the people I live with, and I don’t regret a single moment of it. Debating presidential politics, solutions to global warming, and whether we’d rather fight an ostrich or a coyote to the death opened my eyes to other viewpoints and shaped the way I think more than anything else at MIT. Whenever I speak to prospective students, I always tell them the real reason to come to MIT is the students.

And the students help each other with such enthusiasm. I expected MIT to be hyper-competitive: how could it not be with such a group of overachievers? Surprisingly, I discovered the Institute is the most collaborative environment I’ve ever worked in. There is a great sense of everyone being in it together — I suppose mutual suffering, sleep deprivation, and failure create a special kind of bond.

For all the great things one can say about the culture, there are aspects of it which are unfortunate, but perhaps necessary byproducts of such an excellence-driven community. Since arriving at MIT, I have not read a single book for pleasure. I have not done physics or math for fun. I have not contributed to campus life or causes as much as I would have liked.

MIT has drained from me all the things that I used to love and do for fun. In some cases, it even drains the enthusiasm I have for my major. On the occasions when students are not working or doing activities with clubs or campus groups, they often prefer to relax with friends because they are too exhausted to do anything else.

Part of the problem is the pervasive feeling of, to varying extents, guilt when not working. When students take a break or finish a pset, there is always a nagging in the back of their mind that they have more assignments. The severity ranges from quiet lurking to full-fledged guilt at not working hard enough.

The “drinking from the firehose” metaphor is rather apt — the work and expectations at MIT feel very much like a flood. They hit you hard, and no matter how much effort you put forth, you never really catch up completely.


And so, although there is a feeling of relief that comes with graduating MIT, the nostalgia is much stronger. MIT has given me so much through its professors, its students, and its opportunities, and I wish I could give back to others a fraction of that. It’s sad to think that I will likely never again be so engrossed in a place that is so interesting, so curious, and so driven to change the world, but I know that I will hold dear in my memory and actions the time that I spent here.

Much of this article was spent on what can be improved, and indeed much can. MIT needs to completely overhaul its method of delivering education, and should continue to focus on mental health to patch up the less glamorous aspects of its culture. But as long as MIT continues to be the home to such passionate, motivated people, it will continue to change lives and change the world.

Thank you, MIT.

1 Comment
Deepansh Chaudhary over 10 years ago

Very well written - I must say that Ryan has summed up his thoughts quite comprehensively. I am sure that students in good institutions around the world share much of what he has written.

On the other hand, I would also like to mention that such experiences are essentially designed and geared to enable a young mind tackle real-world challenges. One such example is stress which is a very common discussion in the modern workplace of today.

In my opinion, 'univers'ity is suppose to prepare one for the universe and it seems that MIT grads undergo a very solid preparation. Of course, there is room for improvement as everything around us and we, ourselves, are continuously evolving.

College is an important aspect of formative years and it is true that self-teaching is the key to acquiring any knowledge or to develop an innate talent.