Outlier Calculus Review

JamesHudnall
Age of Awareness
Published in
8 min readMar 24, 2021

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Source: Outlier.org

I recently completed Outlier’s Calculus course. This is a personal review of the program’s strengths, weaknesses, and my overall impression.

Why Did I Choose Outlier?

It’s been more than a decade (ouch) since I participated in any formal math course. Over the past year, I’ve become quite interested in Machine Learning, and the more I explore, the more I discover that Calculus plays an integral role in the discipline. This was the primary driving factor behind me tackling Calculus.

Now, I could self-study using Khan Academy (which helped quite a bit — more on that later), but I also like the appeal of receiving formal college credit, should I eventually pursue a Master’s degree. Outlier checked that box.

The decision was made when I received a frontline worker’s scholarship for any of Outlier’s course offerings. For-credit? Check. Free? Check. As a final hurdle, I did have to take a prerequisite algebra test. Passing that was the final barrier — I was in.

First Impressions

After some initial onboarding, I gained access to the interface, which I thought was quite modern. I installed Slack, which was the preferred means of communication between students and TA’s within the cohort. I downloaded the syllabus and took a look at the curriculum:

Source: Outlier.org

Course Structure

Each chapter is broken down further into sections (shown above), with each section having the following components:

  • Guesswork — Questions are asked that are meant to be an intuitive preview of the topic. I didn’t find a lot of value here.
  • Lecture — Video lectures ranging between 8–30 minutes. Each section has three, pre-recorded lectures, one from each of the three instructors. You don’t have to watch all 3 to progress to the Active Learning.
  • Active Learning — This is the textbook-like portion of the course. For the most part, it expanded on content covered in the videos, usually with worked examples (not nearly enough, in my opinion).
  • Practice Exercises — Here, you have a chance to work through problems that will be quite similar to those found on the quiz.
  • Quiz — Time to prove what you’ve learned! You were allowed a total of 5 quiz attempts per section; 3 versions were available immediately, and subsequent versions unlocked when each of the two midterms became available. Only the highest score counted towards your final grade. Most quizzes had 10 questions.

Time Commitment

There are two options: the 14-week regular offering, and a 7-week intensive. I chose the former, for which Outlier suggests committing 10 hours per week to study. That might be true for more recent graduates; I spent closer to 15–20 hours a week. I’d go out on a limb and recommend steering clear of the 7-week intensive unless Calculus is your sole purpose in life for that time period.

For me, the pace was torrid. Each day in the Slack channel, the TA would announce a new section that should be completed by the end of the day in order to stay on track. Eventually, the announcements were reduced to a weekly basis, which alleviated some of the anxiety.

The feeling of constantly being behind was my single biggest frustration throughout the journey. I understand the need for TA’s to monitor class progression, but the constant reminders, coupled with my working full time really reduced my enjoyment of the course. It became a chore.

Getting Help When Stuck

There were a few different ways to get help when you get stuck with problems.

  • Slack Channel — This rarely worked for me. Most of my fellow students were either deep in study, or absent from the platform. Most of the time it was eerily quiet.
  • Email Outlier Tutors — This worked well, if you didn’t mind a quality answer arriving 24–48 hours later.
  • Brainfuse — Each student was allotted 300 minutes of 1-on-1 remote tutoring through Brainfuse, per month. I didn’t use this service much until the end, and I found it very hit or miss, depending on the tutor with which you were paired.
  • Khan Academy, YouTube & Google — None of these were formally recommended by Outlier, but I found each extremely useful.

Exams

There were three total exams — 2 midterms covering chapters 1–2 and 3–4 respectively, and one final covering everything. Most exams were approximately 20 questions; all were multiple choice, which greatly reduced the difficulty.

Each of these was administered remotely using Examity, a third-party automated proctoring service. To take the exam, you need a webcam, microphone, the Google Chrome browser, and either a Windows or Mac computer (Apple’s M1 platform wasn’t supported). You are only allowed to use a pen, a piece of scratch paper, and a calculator (Outlier recommends Desmos, a free online graphing calculator).

Leading up to the first exam, I prepared by completely clearing my desk, shoveling everything into the closet, placing a bed sheet over the bookshelf behind me — basically making my home office as bare as possible. I was expecting to be asked to rotate my webcam around 360 degrees for a proctor before starting the actual exam. It turns out, all of my preparation was for not…

After installing the Examity chrome extension, showing my ID, and checking countless boxes stating that I wouldn’t cheat, my webcam light turned on and the exam opened on my screen. No nerve-wracking human-proctoring of any sort. No FBI-esque sweep of the room. I was able to open Desmos (calculator) in another tab, and I was all set.

After reading a bit more about Examity, they claim to monitor eye movement, among other things. My assumption while taking the exam was that I was being monitored closely throughout. I was quite surprised that I didn’t have to show my surroundings, or even my desk for that matter; the webcam viewing angle is quite limiting.

End Result

It was a very intense 14 weeks. Despite the imposter-syndrome, initial thoughts of dropping the course, and countless weekend hours spent hunched over my iPad, my determination and persistence paid off:

Final Grade — I got an A!

Pros, Cons and Tips

Here are a few considerations that may help anyone considering taking this course:

Pros

  • Receive college credit from the University of Pittsburgh that proves content “mastery.”
  • Modern platform with engaging lectures.
  • Having “skin in the game” helped ensure I completed the course. Poor grades and withdrawals would be shown on my transcript.
  • The material coverage, and the fact that I actually learned quite a bit.

Cons

  • Not enough worked examples. I’m confident most students learn by following examples; Outlier was quite stingy in this department.
  • I found the amalgam of 3 different professors to be more confusing than helpful. Outlier recommends watching all 3 lectures for each section to get different perspectives, but I found the course time-intensive enough already.
  • Within the Active Learning, formatting issues made me feel like I was in some kind of a beta test. There were display issues with some of the math formulas not showing negative signs (talk about a headache). This got better as the course progressed, but still gave off an “unfinished” feel.
  • Somewhat expensive at $400, though still relatively competitive with other, for-credit institutions. I was able to land a scholarship, so this didn’t factor in to my decision process.
  • Other, free resources are comparable in quality (and arguably better in overall content breadth and depth). Honestly, as much as I enjoyed the high production quality of Outlier’s videos, I firmly believe Sal Khan does a better job explaining identical topics with nothing more than a tablet and stylus.

Tips

  • Take good notes. I started off using a regular notebook, but late in Chapter 3 I graduated to an iPad. This gave me the ability to take screenshots of problems, paste them into a notebook, and then work out the problem just below. This proved invaluable when it came time to study for the exams. I could quickly browse and remember the techniques.
Example problem worked out on iPad
  • Regarding the video lectures, I eventually landed on Professor Chartier for the best blend of topic coverage (not all professors covered all subject matter), logical explanation and personality. This was personal preference; you may resonate with one of the others.
  • Within the Practice Exercises section, don’t do all of the problems within a given problem set. If you can confidently arrive at the answer for one problem, move on to the next.
  • Be active in the Slack environment. Participation here counted for 5% of the overall grade. Aside from that, it felt nice being able to help fellow students with problems I understood (and vice versa).
  • Use Google, Khan Academy, and online Derivative/Integral calculators to supplement your learning. In theory, the calculators could be abused to pass some quiz content (quizzes aren’t proctored). However, if you are solely reliant on them, you won’t fare well when it comes time to take the exams.
  • Final quiz grades aren’t always final. If you missed a question due to formatting, or because you answered a somewhat ambiguous question in a way the automatic grading didn’t anticipate, you can email support and ask for reconsideration. I did this 3 or 4 times, and was successful each time.

Final Thoughts

Despite the torrid pace, Outlier helped me overcome thoughts of self-doubt that previously prevented me from tackling Calculus. I’m proud of the grade I received and the underlying confidence I’ve gained, in so doing.

I would’ve liked more time to gain a more thorough understanding of the core concepts, beyond that which was needed to receive an A. Had I not been working full time, I would’ve supplemented even more with outside material.

If your main interest is learning Calculus, without needing to prove anything to anyone, I’d recommend completing one of the Calculus curriculums on Khan Academy. There, you can find the same content, many more worked examples, as well as more detailed explanations.

However, if you want to prove that you understand Calculus, Outlier covers a wide swath of introductory Calculus content, and the end result is transferrable credits from a reputable University. They have a modern UI, quality video content, and a work-in-progress platform that appears to be improving over time.

Now on to Statistics…

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