I don’t like studying in groups because I don’t like feeling like I’m being held back by other people. It usually turns into people just chatting. I can’t go at my own pace. Most of the time I just seek out solitude so I can study, and think, and focus.

I have ADHD, so I have to actively fight distractions. I know what I need to do to stay on track. I work hard as hell at my school work.

If I’m asked to work in a group, my brain pretty much just shuts off, and I can’t get anything done. How can I focus on solving a problem while also having to listen to what other people are saying? How can I work through a problem without someone just giving me the answer?

I feel like forcing students into this model of “social-learner” can be frustrating for students, and honestly some of the rhetoric is really ableist, or at least biased towards “social” and “extroverted” people being “successful” and “normal.”

Today I had an interview with the director of a cohort program at my school, to see if I would be a “good-fit.”

He asked how I usually study. My answer was “alone.” And I felt like I was immediately written off, and honestly like he was being combative toward me. He showed me the software for getting group study sessions set up and told me, “I have it set up this way so that no one has an excuse to not study together, you know, like they’re “shy” or whatever. You used to study English, so I’m guessing you probably have good social skills.”

During this exchange I smiled and nodded politely. I wanted to say, “No, actually I have horrible social skills. I’m shy, neuroatypical, introverted, and have terrible self-esteem. Not quite sure what studying English has to do with “social skills” but okay, sure. Also not sure why you are placing a value judgement on social skills in this context. I certainly don’t need some dude who doesn’t know me telling me how I need to behave in order to be ‘successful.’”

It was just a very bizarre and negatively charged exchange. It was very judgmental. And it made me want to study by myself forever and ever and never have to talk to people again.

Oh, and he told me I would probably not be a very good fit. I said, “Yeah I guess you’re right.”

I don’t think that everyone should become a mathematician, but I do believe that many students don’t give mathematics a real chance. I did poorly in math for a couple of years in middle school; I was just not interested in thinking about it.
I can see that without being excited mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers.
Interview with Maryam Mirzakhani, the brilliant Iranian mathematician who was the first woman to win the Fields Medal (via curiosamathematica)


Answer by Chi Zeng:

I’ve been there. When I was a freshman at Harvard, I lacked programming experience (and a laptop). I was technologically inept and dove straight into the intro computer science course CS50. Many classmates were smarter than me, and I freaked out in the face of terms such as “arrays” or “null terminators.”

With much hard work, I survived the class, and I have done well in every CS class I’ve taken at Harvard. Last summer, Google even hired me as a software engineering intern. Thank the computer gods they didn’t know that I had no idea what a for loop was just a year ago.

Here are my two cents about how to feel more confident about CS:

  1. Be proactive, not reactive. When you don’t understand a concept, veer away from blaming the teaching staff, your lack of background, or your IQ. Instead, actively ask questions, Google around for information, and consult resources such as mailing lists, Stackoverflow, documentation, books, etc.
  2. Don’t shy from working with those smarter than you. My freshman roommate was a great Java programmer, and he helped me with my psets. He set a great example for me, and we still work together a lot.
  3. If you get a concept that your friends do not, take the time to help them understand. This reinforces your learning, makes you a nice person, and increases your confidence.
  4. Do side projects with new technologies. It’s a great way to gain programming experience while having fun and using what you learn in class. For instance, recently, I made a simple audio editor that is completely powered by javascript (no Flash!): Tunekitten Audio Editor. I learned a lot about implementing design patterns in my favorite language.

Of course, different strategies work for different people, so you must experiment a bit to find out what works for you. Learning to program is hard, but I have come to believe that anyone can do it with hard work. If you ever feel discouraged, watch this scene from Forrest Gump and keep trying.