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Classes in Edinburgh

Class has started, and I’m fully immersed in a completely different style of learning than at Caltech. At Tech, and even in high school, most learning is done in the classroom or on problem sets. Students rely on their professors to present most of the course information to them and to explain it well. Textbook readings are assigned to hammer home certain concepts, but the textbook and lectures follow each other closely. Problem sets can introduce new material or ask students to devise their own problem solving tactics to solve problems in the same topic as that week’s lectures.

In the UK, learning happens almost entirely outside of the classroom. I have 2-3 hours of class a week for each of my four classes, and about 4 hours of reading a week for each of them in turn. This means I’m spending twice as much time learning outside of the classroom as inside, and most of the material in the textbook reading assignments goes above and beyond what is covered in lectures. Professors expect students not only to do these readings, but to form study groups and complete all Tutorial readings and homework assignments. In the US, recitation sections are organized in large lectures so that students in smaller groups (about 20-30 students, at Caltech) get instruction on the topic of the lecture that week or practice problems, which are completed on the blackboard by TA’s as examples. In Tutorials in the UK, a maximum of 12 students meet with a "tutor" (the same thing as a TA), and review problem sets that were required to be finished before class time. These problem sets are never graded, but are used as "formative assessments," so that you know how well you are learning the material as the class proceeds all semester. In the US, formative assessments come in the form of weekly graded problem sets. In the UK, you will have maybe 2-3 graded assignments the whole semester, followed by a large final exam at the end.

In sum, Professors in the UK place much more of the responsibility for learning course material on students. I honestly prefer this method, and I think the expectation that I keep up with course readings and notes and problem sets (even those that are not graded) is making me a better student. If I make it back to Caltech with these study habits, I’ll be in great shape!

As for the classes I’m taking while abroad, I am enrolled in Human-Computer Interaction, Extreme Computing, Accelerated Natural Language Processing, and Social Anthropology: The Life Course. These are all classes that do not have Caltech equivalents, although Extreme Computing is a great introduction to distributed systems, which Caltech does have a course based on, and ANLP goes very well with the other machine language classes I’ll be taking at Tech.

Also, because I’m spending so much time taking notes out of textbooks, I’m touring all of the coffeeshops around campus. Taking advantage of sedentary reading time by justifying expensive coffee is a great idea šŸ˜›