How To Deal with Big Intro Classes

With freshman year come classes in a nearly-full Sanders Theatre

Your local Harvard marketeer has probably touted the College’s thousands of course listings as a perk of being a member of the Class of 2013. While the academic options at Harvard are indeed expansive, many of you will find your schedules restricted by the few introductory courses that serve as entries on your dismal pre-med checklist or pre-requisites for that tantalizing econometrics seminar you’d like to eventually take.

Freshmen often find intro classes—which each enroll hundreds of students a semester—to be impersonal, challenging, and even outright annoying. Here are a few tips to minimize your pain:

If you’ve placed yourself or have been forcibly placed on the pre-med track or are otherwise considering a concentration in the life sciences, say hello to Life Sciences 1a. LS1a covers the basic principles of molecular biology and chemistry that you will need for most upper-level courses. If you never took AP Bio or Chem, save yourself the struggle and take Life and Physical Sciences 1a, a course geared for students with limited background. You’ll get caught up in no time and won’t be much less prepared for subsequent courses.

The LS1a professors approach the course material from a deeply conceptual standpoint, so memorizing your amino acids is essential but not nearly enough to stay afloat when exams roll around. Lecture slides and the professors’ accompanying commentary capture the crux of the material, while the suggested textbooks are useful only for reference. Work through problem sets with classmates (trust us, you are NOT too smart for study groups) and make use of the help sessions hosted by former LS1a students. Ask your TF (teaching fellow) for help, and don’t be afraid to approach the professors on conceptual questions that your TF can’t explain. Lecture videos are available online but are of questionable audio-visual quality, so it’s best to drag yourself to class the first time around.

Life Sciences 1b is an introductory genetics course that is arguably the most dreaded, painful course in the life sciences cluster and makes students appreciate LS1a in retrospect. If you’re a prospective English concentrator who is just “interested in genetics,” stifle your curiosity and steer clear. Course instructors are knowledgeable but considerably less inspiring than the LS1a professors, and there is abundant busy work that counts for zero credit. Course veterans claim that the textbook is confusing, verbose, and chock full of extraneous information, so your lecture notes will again be invaluable. Since problem sets are not graded, you’ll need to set your own study schedule and gauge your own progress.

Go to lecture—you literally get extra credit for showing up and answering questions with an electronic clicker. Exam questions closely parallel the practice problems, and you are allowed a cheat sheet on all exams. The gravest challenge in this course is not learning the material but rather sustaining any semblance of motivation throughout the semester. Exercise some self-control, and you’ll be fine.

Physical Sciences 1 (PS1) is an introductory chemistry and physics course designed for life science concentrators. The instructors have written a textbook that is available in PDF on the course website and will spare you the bank bust at the Coop. And the professors’ environmental friendliness doesn’t end with electronic course materials—make sure to note the statistics on global warming and energy consumption mentioned in class, because they will show up on exams. Your TFs (one for section and one for lab) are your best resources for practical help, as are the peer tutors assigned to every section.

Math 1b fulfills the math requirement for a host of science concentrations. While the course material is technically comparable to the AP Calculus BC syllabus, the conceptual focus and trick problems make this class a challenge even for those who passed the AB/BC sequence with flying colors. Students who got a 5 on the BC exam and are prospective life sciences concentrators should consider taking Math 19a, a life sciences-oriented course on differential equations that features advanced material but is relatively painless. Math 1b is taught entirely in section, and the quality of your learning experience is largely dependent upon the teaching fellow you are assigned. Work on problem sets in groups, especially if you aren’t getting the help you need in section. Former students claim that almost every exam question has a catch, so proceed with extreme mathematical caution. If you make it through a question without noticing something difficult or tricky, chances are you need to look back to find your mistake.

Social Analysis 10 (Ec 10), which fulfills a General Education requirement and is a starting point for many prospective economics concentrators, is one of the largest lecture courses on campus—800-plus students. The course is taught entirely in section, with the exception of occasional lectures by the course head and guest professors. The quality of teaching fellows varies drastically from one section to the next. Attendance at section and lecture is crucial: no instruction is videotaped, and a significant portion of the course material cannot be found in the textbook. Take advantage of the unit tests, which enable you to work on practice problems, get individualized help from undergraduate graders, and earn some extra credit. Learn to craft clear, concise answers to your problem sets, which will allow you to perform well under heavy time pressure during exams. Consider attending review sessions offered by another TF during exam period if yours doesn’t offer satisfactory preparation.

Psychology 1 and Science B-62, which both meet the introductory requirement for prospective psychology concentrators, will be merged and restructured into a new course, Science of Living Systems 20. While the course format may change slightly, veterans of both Psych 1 and B-62 agree that the fascinating subject matter and engaging professors make these courses painless and enjoyable.

—Staff writer Monica S. Liu can be reached at msliu@fas.harvard.edu.

For more information on the ins and outs of Harvard life, visit the My First Year homepage.