How to Succeed in 15-151 aka “Concepts”
from the perspective of someone who cried when they got their first Concepts exam back and immediately called their parents because “CMU is too hard for me and I need to transfer to an easier program.”
Also from the perspective of someone who was TA and then Head TA for this class.
(yes, they are the same person)
I’m writing this as advice I wish I had as a freshman, and my experiences are by no means universal, but I feel they will still be useful nevertheless.
If you would like to see a looongg detailed version of this guide with examples, stories, comics, and a lot more sarcasm check it out here: https://parmita52.com/2020/10/03/how-to-succeed-in-151/
Otherwise, here’s the tldr:
1. Develop Grit
Have a daily routine or something else consistent in your life that will help you practice the discipline needed to do well and adjust to college.
2 Make the best use of every part of the course
There are a lot of moving parts to this course, let’s make sure you’re making the most of each one:
- Clive’s Notes
- Extra Resources
- Stay engaged and focused
Otherwise, it’s just not worth attending. imo, might as well watch Netflix if you’re not gonna pay attention tbh ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (and I have done this before…for other classes, not Concepts)
- Take notes
You’ll thank yourself later when you can refer to “remember that one problem Mackey did last Wednesday?”
- Enjoy the Ride
These lectures are #iconic. Laugh, make friends. You’re stuck with these kiddos for the next 4 years at least. Might as well bond over the fact that you’re both currently in front of a Diet-Coke crazed mathematician. 🥤
2.2 Clives Notes
- Be disciplined and keep on schedule with the reading
This is why you practiced #1. Grit will help you read what is quite possibly the densest technical reading you have ever faced.
- Be engaged–“active learning” is the technical jargon
Don’t passively skim over things. If you go the extra mile and make your own summary notes/study sheets, you’ll thank yourself later.
- Start memorizing some stuff as you are reading
It’s next to impossible to come up with a proof when you don’t even remember what the definitions and theorems are, let alone how to apply them. If you aren’t convinced by this, check out the long version where I explain in a lot more detail (and pictures) why this is the case.
- Ask lots of questions
This is your opportunity to see someone around your age, who was just in your shoes, solve problems in front of you. Pick their brain!
- Note down key problem-solving techniques
You’ll use these strategies in the homework and exams
- Make friends
You already have something in common with them!
- Switch sections if needed
Don’t feel like you’re stuck in your section if it’s really not working for you. Check the webpage here for a list of options.
2.4 Psets aka Problem Sets
- They will be hard, and that’s okay. That’s the point.
The goal of this class, (and I’d argue of your degree in general) is to help you answer the question “how do I tackle a problem I’ve never seen before?” So yes, the homework is not going to be just like the lecture and recitation problems, but you still will be able to struggle through and overcome.
- Collect all the important def/theorems you think each problem will need
All the prep work from the steps above will really help with this.
- Try your best
Struggle! Think hard! Exercise that noggin of yours! Stretch your brain!
- Sleep on it
You’d be surprised how much problem solving the subconscious part of your brain does.
- Go to OH
2.5 OH aka Office Hours
- Come prepared with specific questions
Once again, the prep work above will help with this
- Recognize when you need help and when you’re better off struggling through on your own
There’s not good hard and fast rule for when this is the case. It is up to you to determine when is too much help.
- Use OH to help your learning process, not to scrap together homework answers
Make sure you understand the advice the TAs give. Not just in the context of this one homework problem, but also, can you see yourself being able to come up with their advice on your own in a new context?
2.6 Extra Resources
- Excel Groups / Supplemental Instruction (SI)
You mean I can sign up for an extra recitation with fewer students, more individualized time, extra practice problems, and snacks??? Nice.
- Parmita’s Online Concepts Notes
Oof, I’m tooting my own horn here, but hey, I think they’re good. I mean Mackey must keep them on the course webpage for a reason, right?
- Two Supplemental Textbooks
Disclaimer: I have only read selected chapters of these books. But they do have lots of good practice problems, particularly for the section on counting, which Clive’s is a little lacking on.
- Make a study plan a week before
There’s a reason there’s no pset this week. Plan what tasks you want to do to study and when you’re going to do them (read notes, redo recitation practice, do exam practice problems, attend the review session, etc.)
- Don’t panic during the exam
Staying calm is to your benefit. Practice being in an exam setting if that helps. Practice breathing techniques, chewing gum, meditation, whatever works.
- Write as much as you know — there is lots of partial credit
Don’t leave anything blank! You will be pleasantly surprised by the amount of partial credit given out just for knowing the correct definitions and theorems to apply. (Even if you don’t end up applying them)
3 Take Care of yourself
- It’s just a class
If you fail concepts, you can take 27–127 in the spring and still graduate on time. It’s not the end of the world.
- There is a huge support system, make use of it
If you feel yourself slipping through the cracks. Get help. It is there for you. Friends, professors, TAs, advisors, parents, therapists. There will be someone ready to help you.
- Have fun! It’s your first semester of college
151 is not the only thing that matters. Make friends! Explore Pittsburgh! (I’m so sorry @ everyone in Zoom University, but don’t worry, you’ll get to see the city soon) Don’t let your classes take over your life!
I hope these tips arm you to have a great semester and push yourself to new limits!
And once again, the looong, detailed, comic-filled (slightly more funny) version of this guide is here: https://parmita52.com/2020/10/03/how-to-succeed-in-151/