MIT students, in fact, take a reasonable number of classes

It turns out the average MIT student doesn’t overload on courses as much as one might expect.

Spending time on campus or browsing MIT Confessions, however, might give you the wrong impression.

“I hear a lot of bragging… ‘Why would anyone take less than 48 units?’”

#1646 I wish I could say the depression and anxiety so frequently found here were entirely the fault of MIT's high…

MIT Confessions 发布于 2015年3月9日

“I’m only taking 54 units this semester with no clubs or other obligations and I’m already finding it hard to keep up.”

#1395 I'm only taking 54 units this semester with no clubs or other obligations and I'm already finding it hard to keep…

MIT Confessions 发布于 2014年10月1日

I had a friend who took over 100 units in a semester. According to MIT standards, that’s equivalent to over 100 hours of work a week just on classes.

Yet, many of the most ambitious students at MIT have decided on a different path: take a small number of classes — 3 to 4 — and then push yourself to your limits in extracurriculars. This is similarly brag-able, but might yield better opportunities for one’s future than overloading on classes.

One successful alum, a professor of Cognitive Science at UC San Diego, even proposes capping the number of classes an undergraduate can take. Guo never took more than 48 units in a semester himself.

The data is clear: it’s a myth that most MIT undergrads are taking over 5 classes and overloading on academics. It’s just not true.

“The median MIT student takes four classes per semester, which means most people walk around taking 48 units,” writes Danny B.D. ’15 on the MIT Admissions Blog.

A analysis I did for this blog post provides a rough estimate for the average number of classes: 5. As one might expect, this is larger than the median of 4 because both public discourse and the numbers are skewed by a few at the top.

But perhaps more convincing than the numbers are the testimonials of those who ventured into taking six or more classes themselves.

Holden Lee took 8 classes (18.101, 18.152, 18.705, 18.712, 18.725, 18.784, 18.901, and Chinese 3) in his sophomore year. After describing this experience on Quora, he writes: “I wouldn’t recommend taking so many classes under any circumstances. While I survived the semester fine, it was a process of gradual burnout.”

“I’d blocked out almost everything else that semester to focus on work, but found there are little voices in my head that don’t want to be ignored. I liked to write stories, and never had time to pursue it seriously. I thought about that poem, ‘Dream deferred.’”

Matt Hodel writes similarly of his experience taking 6 classes in a semester: “I’m a sophomore who took 6 classes last semester and failed miserably at pulling it off.” He describes falling into periods of depression throughout the semester.

His parting advice? “So I won’t say to never take 6 classes at MIT, or at college in general for that matter. Lots of people do it and many of them can handle it. Just think long and hard about how much you can handle and what your priorities are before making that decision.”

Those who do display more moderation in course loads have seen great results. In Danny’s blog post, Below 48, he describes how taking 3½ classes allowed him to pursue side projects he had been wanting to for a while, “breathe a bit more”, and spend more time with friends.

Guo, the professor who considered capping the number of units at MIT, thinks his taking few classes may have even increased his job opportunities. His employers never cared about how many classes he had taken. His resume only lists his GPA. By having more free time, Guo thinks students can develop “deep expertise” and work on research that will differentiate them from other students.


Appendix: Analysis for finding the mean number of classes taken by an MIT student

MIT doesn’t publicly release this information, or even the mean class size. They do, however, release a distribution of class sizes.

Fall 2015’s distribution is as follows:

I used this discrete distribution to estimate a continuous exponential distribution, which served as a decent model for the data.

I then wanted to find the number of student-classes (summing over the number of classes that each student takes). To do this, I computed the following integral with Wolfram Alpha:

Dividing the number of student-classes by students (~4500), we obtain an estimate for the average number of classes each student takes: 5.07.

Feminist activists take on the Kremlin

by Drew and Arthur

On March 8, International Women’s Day, a group of Russian feminist activists protested outside the Kremlin.

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Their banner said, “200 years men in power, out with them!”
Ekaterina Nenasheva’s post accompanying the video reads:

“Moscow and St. Petersburg feminists, #CapturedKremlin, congratulate you on March 8
UPD: Tishchenko, Orlova and a photographer from Nova already in the Police Station – China Town
UPD: at 14:20 – released all detainees”

Meanwhile, Putin was congratulating the staff at the new perinatal centre in Bryansk. After all, the history of International Women’s day is rooted in Russia.

The feminists gathered in a prominent location, Alexander Garden, right at the edge of the Kremlin’s walls:

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News of the demonstration spread quickly on social media, with over 43k people watching Nenasheva’s video.

Some declared the protesters heroines.

One person wrote on Facebook in Russian: “You are still bathing in a bath with champagne, and your revolutionary friends have already taken the Kremlin.”

Not all coverage of the demonstration was positive, though.

A photo of protesters appearing to have breached the Kremlin walls turned out to be Photoshopped.

The fake photo was quickly denounced, even by the organizers, in a Facebook post that has since been deleted (but was reported on by Buzzfeed).

In that deleted post, Ekaterina Nenasheva says:

“I’m hurting right now for Russian art activism and the feminist collective, because the picture of the Arsenal tower really did turn out to be photoshop. Only a few participants knew about it, and now I know too.
I deeply respect all participants of the protest and don’t want to devalue their actions. All the other photos and videos are real. Thank you, girls!
But I also consider it absolutely unprofessional and unacceptable to have such an approach to work, in any case, the use of photoshop was not part of the original concept.”

Others used it as an opportunity to discuss the much talked about “fake news”.

Fake news. Actual fake news. 😂

Joseph Griffiths 发布于 2017年3月8日

Drew’s media diary

After tracking my computer usage for 6 days, I was interested in three questions:

  1. How often do I use my computer for consuming, and how often do I use it for producing?
  2. Which are the websites I consume from the most?
  3. By studying the types of media I consume, what can I learn about myself?

Tracking all my media usage was not as difficult as it may have been for others in the class. I don’t use a smartphone, so I have no mobile consumption (beyond phone calls!) I occasionally read print sources, such as The Tech, but that contributed to fewer than 30 minutes this past week. Almost all of my media consumption is done through my computer, which I’ve been tracking with an application called Timing.

To answer the first question, I reviewed all the time I spent on my laptop and divided it into two broad buckets: productivity and media usage. This was more of an art than a science. I thought of productivity as any application or website in which I was actively producing something (e.g. writing something in LaTeX, composing emails, reading a pset on the computer while solving it on paper, buying stocks, etc.)

These tasks served as a nice benchmark for the thing I was really interested in: my media usage. I defined this category as anything that wasn’t “productive” as defined above, i.e. consisted almost entirely of consumption. This included reading news or blogs, browsing Facebook, or even reading other posts on this website!

Granted, these categories were separated by a fuzzy boundary at best. Some things like email were hard to classify: when was I consuming emails and newsletters vs. when was I preparing an email? Furthermore, Timing had trouble knowing when I was actively viewing something on my computer, so all the data should be treated as having huge error bars. (Times are probably underestimated.)

I believe the results still yield interesting results, however:

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My media consumption is (thankfully) consistently lower than my productive uses of the computer. It is still considerably large, however. What surprised me was that I wasn’t spending a lot of time on any single website, but rather that I was spending a little time on many websites, which added up to significant periods of time in “consumption mode.” (See the chart below for more context.) Consumption in the age of the Internet is incredibly distributed.

My overall usage of the computer was lower on the weekend as expected (see Feb. 18, a Saturday). However, the weekend is also when the highest percentage of my computer time is spent on media consumption.

The chart below sheds light on my second question:

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Google Hangouts, which I included in media consumption (although that could be debated), took up 149 minutes because of several videochats I had this past week. (One of these was a conversation with other Americans across the country discussing the recent political events.)

As a subscriber on the NYTimes, I’m happy to see it make it into my top 3, and the time I spent on it is about what I’d expect.

To answer the third and final question, however, requires a more aggregated analysis:

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This chart yields the most value for me.

Social websites like Facebook and Twitter are having a large impact on how I see the world, even if I don’t go there for traditional news. That’s because they make up over half the time I spend consuming media on the computer. Just by the nature of scrolling through their newsfeeds and adhering to their algorithms, I am being shaped by them.

I don’t read the mainstream media (like NYTimes, Washington Post, and WSJ) as much as I would expect. When I think about where my opinions form and where I find the facts that I reference in conversation, they usually stem from these mainstream sources. However, given that only a fifth of my media consumption comes from there, I must be weighting these sources substantially higher in my head because of the perceived credibility that comes with them.

I was happy to see that new forms of journalism (like BuzzFeed and MuckRock) are the next largest category. These are sources that can provide alternative perspectives and in new forms. I intentionally try to seek them out, and so it was reassuring to see that I’ve been somewhat successful in keeping up with it.


To end on a fun note, here are some fascinating tidbits that I picked out from my week’s worth of data:

  • The longest time I spent on a Wikipedia page at one time was 7 minutes. Article: “Gas constant
  • The news websites that didn’t make it into the charts above (because I visited them for under 3 minutes) included CBS Sports, NYPost, The Independent, The Verge, Huffington Post, Fox News, and The Crimson.
  • I like to visit BuzzFeed occasionally because they have some great original reporting. However, I still don’t spend as much time reading them as I would like! See below:
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Drew’s Bio

Hi there! I’m Drew, an undergraduate student at MIT studying computer science & electrical engineering, along with physics.

Motivation: I see journalism and participatory media as a great equalizer — holding powerful people and institutions accountable, while giving a voice to the voiceless. The democratization of media online these past two decades has brought more voices into the mix (a positive force), but at the cost of some veracity, responsibility, and credibility (a negative force). However, I believe there is no fundamental reason that the positive necessitates the negative — and rather that we are simply still waiting for a creative, new approach to media that will provide the benefits of journalistic democratization without sacrificing journalistic integrity.

Technology: programming since before I can remember; interned at Sony Ericsson and Khan Academy as a software developer in high school; co-founded and served as CTO of a start-up with 6 people; consulting at the World Bank on big data

Journalism: writing and editing for MIT’s school newspaper, The Tech; reported on the Boston Marathon bombing trial from the courtroom for half a year; interviewed people such as IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde

Random life experiences: biked across the U.S.; worked in a quantum computing lab; built iOS apps in ’09; got rid of my smartphone for a dumbphone

Twitter: @drew_bent