Dangerous Ideas: Should you miss the max number of classes?

Credit: Austrian National Library

It is a feeling familiar to any student: You sit through lecture for an approximate eternity, pondering the infinite other ways to spend your time. Maybe you are not one to miss, let alone skip, classes that may cost hundreds of dollars per lecture. Maybe you really want to do well or even feel that you owe the professor enough respect for an hour of your attention (more of us should think this way, but that’s another topic of discussion). Regardless of your intention, your attention fades. Experiencing this myself, I asked a more global question: what if I missed this lecture, then lectured and tested myself on the same material?

Let’s evaluate this question empirically, because we can guess the subjective answer is a definitive yes. I will make three primary arguments in favor of missing the maximum allowable lectures from your course syllabus (this is usually under the attendance heading).

*CAVEAT: This argument assumes that you are in STEM-focused, technical or semi-technical classes. If lecture or discussion material are exclusively covered as they are in a non-technical class, I would not advise this strategy.*

1. Lectures do not typically feature problem sets - which are fundamental to your success in a technical course.

Prevailing wisdom among scholars of learning suggests that active recall - the act of reading a question, looking away to answer, and checking your answer with the correct answer - cements deeper chunks of knowledge in our brains. This method is the most efficient for shifting knowledge from short-term and/or working memory to long-term memory. Hearing a professor describe a formula or method is one thing, but moving the pieces around with your mind is another. In fact, hearing something described can sometimes create the paradoxical effect of “display learning (term my own)", where you feel the sense of familiarity with a topic overshadow the deeper intuition required to know and reproduce it on a test.

2. Lectures can be distracting environments and hamper deeper learning of concepts.

I am lucky in that I have never had to endure massive lecture halls filled with hungover students infinitely swiping across their suite of social media apps. I’ve had the rare fortune of small class sizes (or favorable “student:teacher ratios” in the higher ed world) where distraction can be hemmed by social pressures. However, the modern lecture is filled with distractions, regardless of size. Next time you are in class, take stock of how many people take notes for a few minutes then flit away to whatever shinier site or app piques their interest. I personally don’t care how people choose to spend their time or money. The residual distraction for others is what bothers me. If anything, missing some lectures may come with some added mental health benefits- provided you use the time gained wisely.

3. You can’t go anywhere (and should).

All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”

- Friedrich Nietzsche

I don’t know about you, but my best head space is found on foot. Walking around brings an almost instantaneous shot of mental clarity that it’s surprising we have not attempted to hold lectures on the go (I’m looking at you, organizational and learning psychologists..). However, I am not alone. Centuries of big thinkers attributed their success and clarity to bouts of lengthy walks. While I have my doubts on the utility of praising Nietzsche, it is true that he would actively schedule long walks to lay out arguments or treatises for his work. Einstein and Darwin are reported to have done the same.

Even if you fail to work through your target concept, the physical and psychological refreshment will still likely improve your subsequent study. I have already sung its praises in a previous post to think through why you are in school, but it may be even more effective when wrestling big lecture topics or problem sets. I even find that taking a drive by yourself with no music or podcasts can uncover similar clarity.

Words of caution and next steps: All of these arguments are testable and falsifiable. If you find that missing lectures puts you behind the 8-ball on course material, don’t do it! Also, if you don’t trust yourself to spend this time gained wisely, don’t do it! Only if you feel like you can stow away to a quiet space and push your knowledge deeply should you miss class. In a sense, you’re trusting yourself to be the professor for a class of one- do so with care and attention and you may just reap the rewards of deeper understanding and more free time.

COVID-19 Relief Worker

Epidemiologist, Pre-Medical Student

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