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I am a senior PhD student who greatly appreciates learning about allied fields. I had been a huge fan of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and I believe some of them steered the course of my life towards grad school. However, I am more and more getting impatient in lectures. I am a Mathematician but I like to study Economics and Computer Science for fun. My university pays for any courses I would ever want to take as a PhD student so I try to enroll but I am losing my patience. I feel the instructor is taking up too much time explaining things that I could grab off the textbook in much lesser time and in the process, form the connections better. Is this normal?

As someone who has had 20 years of schooling since kindergarten, is it normal to get impatient and want to do things by myself. I know I am implicitly making the assumption that one is motivated enough to stick by routines but that's fine.

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    Why not just start picking up textbooks yourself and start learning by yourself? After 20 years of schooling no doubt you have learned how to learn so make use of it. You'll have 100% flexibility to learn what you want when you want how you want. That's what I have been doing and its great. – Fixed Point Sep 19 '13 at 17:06
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    I see from a search that MOOC is Massive Open Online Course. I think this acronym is sufficiently obscure that it should be written out in full. – Faheem Mitha Sep 19 '13 at 18:01
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    @FaheemMitha for simple edits for clarity like this, you should just make them (as I just did). They will be reviewed and accepted in short order. – DQdlM Sep 19 '13 at 18:17
  • @KennyPeanuts Good point. Didn't think of that for some reason. – Faheem Mitha Sep 19 '13 at 21:18
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You have to take into account that many of the courses you attend are not made for you. They are probably made for people that have a lot less experience. Even though you might not have a lot of knowledge yet regarding the topic you are attending a course in, you have much more general knowledge and acquired learning skills throughout your PhD.

If you want to learn these new things through courses, I think you just have to suck it up as the focus of these courses is probably on less experienced people. Alternatively, you could pick up some text books and start learning like that.

13

Is it normal to get impatient and want to do things by myself?

Autodidacticism is a cornerstone of being a successful academic, and hardly surprising for PhD students.

There are number of goals of classroom teaching, e.g.,

  1. Directed learning from an expert in the field (professor, lecturer, etc.)
  2. The opportunity for students to ask questions about the material, and to have discussions about the material that goes beyond what is in a textbook or online.

You would presumably benefit from point (2), but unfortunately, you have to be patient with point (1), especially if the other students are expecting a lot of guided learning.

Instead of enrolling in courses, I suggest seeing what seminars are available in the fields you are interested in. You may have to prepare to get the most out of the seminars by reading up on current research, or learning a lot of the background material independently, but I think you'll get more out of the experience than sitting through formal classes.

7

In my experience as a professor I have with some regularity encountered students that are impatient with my classroom lectures and exercises.

The Problem

In virtually all of these cases it was because the student was missing the point of what we were trying to do in the class. In most classes, content delivery is only one of the learning goals (and not even the most important one, since as you point out the information is available in texts and other sources).

The other learning goals typically are associated with trying to help students think critically about the content consistent with the best practices of the field. Students with a experience in another field can find this frustrating because it requires that they relax their comfortable assumptions about how information is acquired and evaluated. (True learning is always disruptive because it requires that we reconcile our current understanding in the face of new information, not just stockpile facts).

Suggestions

First, I would look at the syllabus of the courses that you are taking. The learning objectives of the professor are probably listed. If they are not, just ask him or her about what they want you to get from the course. My guess is that it goes beyond simply understand the material in Chapters 1 - n.

Second, relax. Don't be in such a rush to simply acquire content. It sounds like you are good at picking up new material but you may be too quick to assume you "get it". I am a biology professor and I regularly encounter this with the teaching of photosynthesis and other "elementary" processes. Students get the details quickly because they have heard it since elementary school but they rarely delve into the deeper implications. You may be missing some of the more subtle aspects of the subjects because you are in a rush to move on to new material.

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    I can't imagine a median econ, math or CS professor teaching a grad course to have ever heard the phrase "learning objectives". I agree with you, though, that the OP is probably missing a point. If I had a non-major student in my class who would show a smartypants' impatience, I would seriously doubt that his knowledge of the background material exceeds the level of preparedness of students who came from the major. Sure you know calculus and matrices better than an average econ student; but can you explain why economic agents make decisions on the margin? Now, without saying "derivative"? – StasK Sep 20 '13 at 18:15
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If your level is far beyond the level of the other students in class, then this is hardly surprising.

Or perhaps, the teaching methods of the professor need to be improved.

2

You sound like a fast learner who grasps concepts easily. It also seems like you have a fair amount of self-discipline and initiative.

Assuming those are true, it makes sense that lectures wouldn't be an ideal way for you to learn something new, and that you might thrive in an online environment, where you have a bit more autonomy and can dictate your own pace through much of the learning.

Lecture halls have a lecturer – who tends to teach at a certain pace – along with a group of students. Some students may find the instructor's pace a little too slow for their liking, and a few who might find that pace excruciating slow.

A good lecturer should sense when the general mood of the classroom dictates a change in pace, slowing down when students are getting lost, or speeding up when students are getting bored. Unfortunately, there are plenty of lecturers who don't process the cues very well, or are simply not interested in doing so. Still, the students are individuals who make up an aggregate; it's not unusual for a classroom to have some who would prefer the professor speed up sitting alongside others who would rather the professor slow down.

I always enjoyed lecturers who taught at a relatively fast pace. Those who didn't got me multitasking; I often doodled in my college notebooks.

To answer your question, I think your restlessness is indeed "normal," particularly for students with your abilities, and your learning style.

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You are impatient in lectures because they are fundamentally not a good way to teach. If universities were about teaching then lectures would already be nearly obsolete - MOOCs are orders of magnitude more efficient. But, for students, universities are about certification and MOOCs aren't trusted enough in that capacity.

This has nothing to do with your being a PhD student - the vast majority of lectures add nothing beyond what can be found in the textbook. Well, perhaps a little, as a PhD student I would assume you actually read the textbook, and therefore have no need for the lecture.

This is not a popular point of view among those who must give lectures, but it is far more widespread among those who must attend them. And, really, who are you going to believe?

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    the vast majority of lectures add nothing beyond what can be found in the textbook ... you had terrible teachers ... – user102 Sep 19 '13 at 16:58
  • @CharlesMorisset - I've gone to 2 prestigious schools. I agree with you, but I think they were not below the norm. They would not describe themselves as terrible, nor would their colleagues. – psr Sep 19 '13 at 17:06
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    I went to not particularly prestigious schools, and I've met many teachers who were able to explain theoretical concepts much better than any book (which is highly non-interactive ...). Perhaps you're lucky enough to understand everything that you read, but I do find that lectures are useful. In the same way that I enjoy attending a conference talk, and not reading only the proceedings. – user102 Sep 19 '13 at 17:20
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    I guess I was lucky then, all my lectures at Masters' level (which are those attended by PhD students) were very interactive :) – user102 Sep 19 '13 at 17:29
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    This answer makes a number of unsourced and unsupported assumptions about what universities and lectures are "about". – DQdlM Sep 19 '13 at 18:15

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