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Recitations for Class Should Not Be Ignored

Column by Brett Altschul
staff reporter

Over the course of Residence and Orientation week, I've heard numerous upperclassmen giving advice to members of the Class of 2000. Some of these tips are quite sound, but some will come back to bite the freshmen who follow them.

In particular, I've noticed that many freshmen are told that recitations for classes aren't important, and there's no reason to go to them. I admonish all freshmen not to follow this poorly-thought-out piece of advice. Recitations are an important part an MIT education, for more reasons than you might think.

In many classes, a significant amount of the subject matter is introduced in recitation. This is especially true of some introductory classes with a lot of freshmen, where there's a broad range of material to cover. Both Introductory Biology (7.012) and Introduction to Psychology (9.00) function in this manner. In fact, in 9.00, some of the activities in recitation are graded. However, this is only the most obvious reason why recitations are critical.

In many cases, the recitation offers the only chance to see problems worked out. In 8.012, the advanced version of Physics I, some of the problem sets are extremely difficult. However, much of the recitations are spent working on the difficult problems, with the section leader explaining some of the critical insights. Some of those problems certainly stumped me the first time Isaw them, but recitations helped me end up with a high grade.

The issue here is not the ability to complete problems sets. I easily could have gotten a bible of coursework for the class, since the problems change fairly little from year to year. (Primarily for that reason, the use of bibles are forbidden in that class; that doesn't seem to stop anybody from using them though). However, when the test date rolls around, it helps a great deal to have actually paid attention in recitation. After the test, the people who relied on bibles stand around griping about how obscenely difficult the test was, while the more mature students discuss alternative methods of solving some of the tougher problems.

The fact that people who attend recitations frequently do better on the problems is really just a trivial corollary of a more important fact. Those people just comprehend the material more fully than the students who blow off recitation. Sure, freshmen are on pass/no record grading, but if you don't understand Physics II (8.02) very well, you're going to drown when you take Circuits and Electronics (6.002).

Even if you think you're just taking physics (or whatever) to satisfy the General Institute Requirements, it's valuable to understand the material; you may discover that you love physics and decide to major or minor in it. You may discover that physics is more useful in your major than you thought. Finally, there's the sense of accomplishment you get from really learning the material well. Doubtless, some of you will snicker at that, but I'm sure I'm not the only person who enjoys understanding things.

Recitations also provide an opportunity to meet other people at MIT. Immense lecture classes in immense lecture halls often seem very impersonal, but recitations are small and generally quite informal. You can take the opportunity to meet your classmates and the section leader. While they may seem aloof and threatening, most teaching assistants should prove quite willing to talk to undergraduates. Graduate students are an excellent source of information and advice. Knowing a few grad students can also help you get a good position in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. Personally, I've met some good friends in recitations.

I don't mean to say that you need to religiously attend every recitation for every one of your classes. I've missed recitation sections when I was working on an article for The Tech, when I wanted to attend another activity, and when I slept late after a long, work-filled night. Still, I do go to most of the recitations for each class, and I certainly pay attention at each one.

So whatever some greasy upperclassman may whisper in your ear about the pointlessness of attending recitations, don't listen. Recitations are very important, adding both breadth and depth to an MIT education.