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An Intrinsically Painful Process: Real Learning Takes Place Alone

Naveen Sunkavally

Recently, I have noticed a preposterous preponderance among MIT students, especially among giddy freshman who are eager to learn the ways of the Institute, to form study groups and attend review sessions. Frankly, I believe these study groups and review sessions represent a travesty of learning and feed a dangerous mentality in the MIT universe.

First of all, the words "study group" themselves are an oxymoron. How can one reasonably expect to learn something in the vicinity of a group? Study groups most often degenerate into passive lectures in which one person assumes the rank of "intellectual buff" and dispenses knowledge to others, like a salt and pepper shaker, or a toilet paper dispenser. At other times, study groups degenerate into studies of other kinds, and when these same members are asked how many hours they they studied for a certain test, they claim outrageous figures such as eight and 10.

True learning takes place alone, in the vicinity of curdling bowls of cereal and fermenting socks, when the tormented and delirious individual, in the lazulite, spotty stretches of a too-early Wednesday or Thursday morning, grasps that crucial piece of evidence or insight that will make his or her day. True learning must be active and not depend on others, who may only feed one another's wrong-headedness.

If I sound like I am sermonizing, I am. These study groups foster a dangerous mentality at MIT, namely the "I-came-here-just-to-graduate" attitude. They focus on ways to get by the system, to earn that easy "A" at the expense of turning brains into mush.

The Institute, despite its efforts to broaden the freshman curriculum, encourages this type of mentality. Professors, for example, hold review sessions, the elder brothers of the study group, under the ludicrous assumption that students are not able to review the material for themselves. These review sessions always happen to occur the night before a big test, another characteristic that feeds the "give-me-an-A" and "I-just-came-here-to-graduate" frenzy. Thus, what is often reviewed is not the material, but the test itself.

Study chapters four through six, with a special emphasis on the last section of chapter six, because there will be a question on that, along with six true and false questions, and two short-answer essays, a professor might say, as if learning more than one needed to know would imperil the student's health. If professors truly want to help students, they should hold review sessions well before any test. In that case, it would be interesting to see how many well-meaning students would show up.

What will be the fate of MIT students when they enter the workplace, having grown fat on a royal diet of review sessions and study groups? They will lose the ability to think for themselves. When trying to figure out how to run a new word-processing program, they will prove more willing to search frantically for the nearest and cheapest seminar rather than to tinker and learn it themselves by reading the directions.

One of the most important goals of the Institute and of its students should be to teach students how to teach themselves. Review sessions and study groups, however emotionally comforting and convenient they may be, do not provide the right atmosphere necessary for true learning. We should abandon them, whatever the initial cost may be.

I have already experienced some of the cost of letting review sessions go. Like many others at MIT, I have been slaughtered by examinations. I have seen seen the wreckage of my test papers, and have seen every notion of my being a rational human being snuffed out. But I also recognize that learning is an intrinsically painful process. Rather than searching for ways to cheat the system, I would like to think of those who grade me as benevolent critics, and to think that just as governments must be altered in revolutions once in a while, so must our senses be rocked to keep us constantly stimulated.