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A bachelor's degree takes you three years to complete, and say it consists of about thiry courses, and say each course is based on a book of about four hundred pages (fairly standard for fields like mathematics, physics, computational science, etc).

This could be learned in a month: 30 courses in a month is 1 course a day, or 400 pages a day. If you read for 12 hours a day, you’d need to read 33 pages per hour. Most certainly doable.

Why exactly are degrees several years long when I could self-study it all in a month?

Now I have often heard arguments like this:

A day per topic is not enough to get an in-depth understanding or do exercises or master the topic or be able to pass an exam or complete any decent assignment.

However, a person who obtained their degree quickly forgets most of that anyway. For example, I've had a course in linear algebra. But a person who picks up a linear-algebra book and studies it for twelve hours most definitely will know more about linear algebra by the end of the day than I do currently. Simply because it will be fresh in the memory, while for me, it’s been three years since I had my course in linear algebra.

My point is: Yes, twelve hours a day per course won’t give you a deep understanding, but you’d still know more and be more knowledgable about the topic than a person who actually obtained the degree!

  • 1
    If you don't use certain things you learnt in your degree, that's a better argument for "why did I have this course". If it is important to know, your argument of "I will forget most of it, so I might as well remember even less and forget it much faster" is very backwards. 400 pages a day is probably realistic for a story book, not so much for a highly technical book where you strive to gain an in-depth understanding of the material. – NotThatGuy Jul 18 '18 at 23:51
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    "A person who picks up a linear algebra book and studies it for 12 hours .... most definitely will know more about linear algebra by the end of the day than I do currently" and how much will they retain 3 weeks later? – Morgan Rodgers Jul 19 '18 at 0:00
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    I'm a little surprised that this question is neither perceived as a rant nor off-topic, given that it deals with undergraduate studies. The topic of how much one can study/absord is well addressed as a cursory Google search would show. One more. There doesn't seem to be any effort by OP in reading up before asking. On account of all this, voting to close. – user153812 Jul 19 '18 at 2:48
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    Reading 33 pages an hour is insanely fast. When I did copyediting full-time, I'd be happy with ~50 pages a day, and reading for comprehension is way way harder than mere copyediting. – Allure Jul 19 '18 at 2:56
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    @user153812 I am even more surprised that this question earned 4 upvotes so far. I think it is worse than off-topic or rant. It's troll. Anyone studying STEM topics would know reading 33 pages of STEM books an hour is not possible. – scaaahu Jul 19 '18 at 4:20
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There may be one person out of thousands (or millions) who can learn a lot in such a short time. However, you are not taking account of how the brain actually works. I order to really learn something you have to physically change the brain - establish synapse connections between neurons. That doesn't happen instantly, but takes time - and for everyone else, it takes repetition.

Education is not just about facts. All the facts are online, say wikipedia. You don't need an education for facts. But you have to learn how to actually think: to put the facts together in a useful way so that you can operationalize what you learn. This takes time (and repetition).

I you don't want an overly narrow education, it also takes learning different kinds of things that you can integrate into a whole.

If you "learn" thirty courses worth of material in thirty days, then in another thirty days you will only have disjoint "facts" that don't really do much for you beyond filling out crossword puzzles and irritating people with your "smarty pants" comments.

Moreover, each field of study has a special way of thinking about problems. This can only be learned through practice. A lot of practice. You won't actually have enough time to complete the process in those three years most likely, but if you are always hammering in more facts you won't learn it at all.

However, that isn't to say that the process couldn't be shortened at all. Whether we have an optimal system is open to debate, of course. However, efficiency is not the first goal of education systems.

Doctoral programs especially seem to have been extended in time beyond all reasonableness. Four years should be plenty (past a baccalaureate), but few achieve that anymore.

On a final note, if you try to do thirty courses in thirty days (or even three in thirty days) there will be no time for pizza. A big loss. Actually that is more important than you think. With pizza comes socialization and bouncing ideas off of other people, which contributes to the "integration of ideas" that you need to be educated.


Find a copy of James E. Zull's, The Art of Changing the Brain, for what is known of cognitive science and how the brain actually works.

  • Are you sure that that's how learning works, on a neurological level? "establish synapse connections between neurons"---I thought you change the electric and chemical potentials in the already existing synapses, but the synapse formation is mostly gone by the time you are an adult (making the hypothesis that learning is primarily due to formation of synapses incorrect, it appears). If you are 99% sure about that, well, I am really surprised that brain works like that. – user109420 Jun 12 at 19:45
  • @kartop_man, see ch 6-7 in Zull. Neuronal networks encode our knowledge. To learn we need to reconfigure the networks. – Buffy Jun 12 at 20:04
  • indeed, reconfigure the networks. That does not necessarily mean to physically create new synapses, it may also mean to change some variables within already existing synapses. I will have a look, thank you. – user109420 Jun 12 at 20:06
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But you'd still know more and be more knowledgable about the topic than a person who actually obtained the mothereffing degree!

And two or three years from now, unless the rapid reader has an eidetic memory, she will certainly remember even less of it than someone who's been exposed to the subject multiple times a week during the course of a semester and then used it later on.

Look at learning a foreign language. I can spend all day reading a book, and I'll remember something, but I don't think four days of reading a set of textbooks will give me the skill to actually speak the language or write in it or apply it.

Degrees take time because the material is difficult and cannot normally be picked up "by osmosis" just from reading it.

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A degree is far more than just reading material. For example, you left out the time used to practice what you learned. (There are plenty of resources out there that will describe the benefits of going to university that you haven't mentioned: exposure to many topics, social skills, work ethic, networking, etc.)

I don't think anyone is claiming that getting a degree is the fastest way to learn something. It certainly isn't!

  • so what is the point of getting one? – user94263 Jul 19 '18 at 3:57
  • @Stefan Jobs require them, exposure to many topics, social skills, worth ethic, networking, etc. – Austin Henley Jul 22 '18 at 0:37
  • @austing Henley, but Google and good IT companies dont care about them. – user94263 Jul 26 '18 at 11:25
  • @Stefan the majority of people don’t work for those companies. In my experience with Google recruiters, they obsessed over GPA and grades. – Austin Henley Jul 26 '18 at 12:50
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At many universities, units will list an expected time commitment (i.e., in class and out of class activities).

To take a hypothetical but plausible example, the time commitment might be 10 hours per week per unit with 4 units (i.e., 40 hours per week of class, study, and assignment preparation). If you want to do your best, you might put in more time than this. Including the teaching period and exam study period, this might amount to around 16 weeks (plus or minus a few). So that's 32 of 52 weeks.

There's a reason why a full-time work week is around 35-50 hours. At a certain point, people stop being productive, and the marginal return on effort will be minimal. Sleep is essential for learning and memory consolidation. So you can't skip that either.

So in general, how a university conceptualizes a full-time load is not arbitrary. And if you feel like you have more time, then you can invest that in learning the material better and doing better on assignments.

At some universities, if you have good grades, you may be able to overload your enrolment (do an extra unit above a full-time load). But in general, this will have consequences for the amount of time you allocate to each unit.

In other cases, you can get credit for prior learning.

Thus, the main slack-time where you could potentially accelerate your degree are the holiday periods. Universities vary in the degree to which they run units over break periods (typically the summer break). In most universities, it will be a shorter period where you might be able to fit in one or two intensive units. In others, as in my university, the year is structured to enable students to potentially do a full-load over summer (i.e., do typical 3 year degree in 2 years).

In the end, fundamental transformations of your knowledge and skills take time. Degrees are structured in a way to enable this transformation. If you are highly intelligent and learn fast, then many students will just master the material better than others, rather than dedicate less time to their degree.

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To my knowledge, universities don't state "a degree takes 3 or 4 years to complete". They say "to be awarded a degree, you need to have completed ____ requirements". It is those requirements that take 3-4 years to complete.

There's commonly a standard timetable which students adhere to. For example students might typically take 5 courses a semester. However, there's nothing stopping a student from overloading. In principle therefore a student can take 6, 7, maybe even more courses a semester. He can even work through summer. But here's the catch: can the student do that and still pass all those courses? Remember it's usually not just reading. There could be labs, homework assignments, essays, exams.

Furthermore, often you cannot take a course without having completed the prerequisites. For example you cannot take Quantum Mechanics II without having completed Quantum Mechanics I, for good reason, since you need the material in the first course to understand the second.

That's not saying it can't be done. I completed two years' worth of courses in 1.5 years. Maybe an even more motivated student can go even faster. But to squeeze three years of coursework into one month- I don't believe it's doable even if the university bent over backwards to let you try.

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Reading is critical to learning but it is terrible for retention of knowledge. In order to learn a student should consider moving back and forth between theory and application. This allows the concepts to become not just in the head but apart of the person.

To move that fast through content would nevet allow a student to develop expertise in their discipline. I know of universities that offer intensive courses in graduate school. You cover the material in one week of lecture and then have the semester for assignments. Often those students learn nothing because the content is cover in 40 hours in a week rather than over a semester. The rationale is that the students can't quit their jobs to study which should man that they don't have time to learn.

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