Learning MIT Calculus in 5 Days

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Last week marked week one of my MIT Challenge, to learn their 4-year computer science curriculum in 12 months, without taking classes. As you can watch in the video above, this week was calculus.

I started the class on Monday and wrote the exam on Friday afternoon. This meant I had roughly 4.5 days to watch 30+ hours of video lectures, understand all the concepts and master the math enough to pass a 3-hour comprehensive exam.

Why Bother Learning Calculus?

First though, why bother learning calculus at all? Beyond being a required course for my challenge, I think calculus has an unfair reputation as being either too hard or not useful enough to bother learning.

I happen to think calculus is cool, and that’s not only because I’m a huge geek. Calculus is a tool that allows you to solve really interesting problems, that are much harder to solve without any knowledge of calculus.

For learning computer science, for example, calculus allows you to run machine learning algorithms in artificial intelligence, render 3D computer graphics and create physics engines for video games. Calculus may seem a little daunting or dry from the outset, but that’s mostly because people don’t realize the volume of cool ideas that are based on it.

More, learning calculus in this challenge is also a statement about the benefits of theoretical versus practical knowledge.

Theory Actually Matters (Or Why DIY Learners Often Fail)

A lot of people have been criticizing my challenge for not doing enough programming. I’ll admit, that’s a weakness I need to work on, and I’m making adjustments to try to include more programming assignments for the classes where there are interesting projects.

However, part of the criticism, is weighed against learning theory in general. A common misconception is that the best way to learn is simply to just go out in the real world and do things, and only learn theory when you absolutely need it.

But this misses the purpose of learning the theory behind ideas. It’s not just to fulfill curiosity, or to execute some more practical task. Learning theory broadens the types of problems you can imagine possible solutions to.

You don’t need a computer science degree to learn how to program. I’ve programmed as a hobby for years, and I’m confident that I could probably make most simple programs if I put in enough time (although I’m far from a master).

But computer science isn’t programming in the same way biology isn’t just using a microscope. Learning the theory behind algorithms, machine learning, graphics, compilers and circuitry gives you the ability to think about and take on more interesting problems.

The power of theory is that it expands the breadth of problems you can solve, while practical knowledge improves your efficiency with one set of problems. Studying business didn’t teach me much about running my business, but it did give me a language to think about all sorts of businesses that I haven’t started yet.

That’s the main goal of this MIT Challenge. I want to show that the theory can accelerated and learned outside of school. But I also want to show that big ideas matter and sometimes the best way to be effective in the world is to first understand it.

The Setup to Learn Calculus in 5 Days

A lot of people are asking me how I avoid burnout when trying to complete a 120-hour course in 5 days. But the truth is, the schedule I keep isn’t too exhausting. It requires focus, certainly, and it also has quite a few hours of work, but I set it up in such a way to maximize the amount of time I have to relax so I don’t feel overwhelmed.

Here’s the schedule I used last week, for example:

  • Monday 6am – 5pm (roughly 60 minutes worth of breaks) – Watch first half of lectures at ~2x speed.
  • Tuesday 6am – 6pm – Finish lectures
  • Wednesday 6am – 6pm – Do 4 practice exams, use Feynman Technique on all conceptual errors or processes I don’t fully understand.
  • Thursday 6am-6pm – Repeat process, ensure at least 1-2 Q’s are covered from every topic and use Feynman + practice questions to master the ones I’m having trouble with.
  • Friday 6am-11am – Final brush up, write the exam at 1pm and finish by 4pm.

Not everyone will be able to get through an entire course like calculus in 5 days, however this basic setup of waking up early and starting immediately, but having the evenings off is a great way to get more work done without feeling overwhelmed.

Each day I did approximately 10-11 hours of work, but because I had nights off, I could relax, watch movies, go to the gym or hang out with friends. When people talk about burnout, in my opinion, they are usually talking about missing those things, not the actual number of hours they are putting in.

The truth is, when learning a conceptual class like calculus, burnout is one of the worst things you can do for efficiency. Losing sleep or not organizing your time well enough to have some relaxation time can impair your ability to focus the next day. If you’re tired, you aren’t learning properly.

I did take 20 minute naps during the day, which I found helpful in giving a burst of energy which wanes after several hours of focus. But the timing and frequency of breaks is crucial, since it’s easy to waste hours on breaks and then have to work later in the evening.

I feel comfortable with this schedule going forward, although I’ll certainly have to modify it for classes without video lectures or with larger programming assignments.

Now onto multivariate calculus, wish me luck!


  • Simon

    Hi Scott,

    I’m an 11th grader in the International Baccalaureate Program and this year I will single and multi-variable calculus on my own in order to write my extended essay. What do you think are the pre-requisites for learning this material? Is the level too high for a high school student? (I’m in higher level mathematics btw).

  • Hugh

    Hi Scott,

    I want to try this—although in 10-20 days rather than five. During that week, around what time did you usually go to sleep?

  • Ali

    I just cannot believe this. Can you do a Calculus problem RIGHT NOW?

  • Samar Pratap Singh

    Try to do them orally and it will be a fun game . I can differentiate any function orally.

  • Samar Pratap Singh

    Try to do them orally and it will be a fun game . I can differentiate any function orally.

  • Nick

    Hi Simon,

    Late response, but better late than never right? I did IB too, though about 10 years back. Univariate calculus traditionally takes two semesters at the university level with the second semester introducing some multivariate portions.

    Unless you are very good a learning math from a book you will find it difficult to teach yourself calculus I and II. Your foundation math skills have to be strong and your knowledge from algebra to trig has to be solid. That said, it is doable albeit not easy (unless you’re some genius that reads a theorem and can immediately explain it forwards and backwards haha). Though with a hefty IB schedule I do not know if this is something you want to try and do by yourself. I would seek out a professor that will be willing to be your mentor/tutor if you run into trouble.

    Good luck!

  • Nick

    Hi Simon,

    Late response, but better late than never right? I did IB too, though about 10 years back. Univariate calculus traditionally takes two semesters at the university level with the second semester introducing some multivariate portions.

    Unless you are very good a learning math from a book you will find it difficult to teach yourself calculus I and II. Your foundation math skills have to be strong and your knowledge from algebra to trig has to be solid. That said, it is doable albeit not easy (unless you’re some genius that reads a theorem and can immediately explain it forwards and backwards haha). Though with a hefty IB schedule I do not know if this is something you want to try and do by yourself. I would seek out a professor that will be willing to be your mentor/tutor if you run into trouble.

    Good luck!

  • Samar Pratap Singh

    Yes, of course..

  • Samar Pratap Singh

    Yes, of course..

  • Alisha

    So when you say watch them at 2x speed do you just straight up watch it or do you take notes while doing so?

  • Alisha

    So when you say watch them at 2x speed do you just straight up watch it or do you take notes while doing so?

  • Jacob Smith

    Awesome!

  • Jacob Smith

    Awesome!

  • Jacob Smith

    I also use that speed, although I am a native English speaker. A faster or slower professor might merit a different playback speed, however.

  • Jacob Smith

    I also use that speed, although I am a native English speaker. A faster or slower professor might merit a different playback speed, however.

  • Dude1995

    Dude, you are an inspiration. Thank you for providing free resources and not only talking the talk but walking the walk. You have earned a fan forever.

  • Dude1995

    Dude, you are an inspiration. Thank you for providing free resources and not only talking the talk but walking the walk. You have earned a fan forever.

  • Stephen

    Good day just came a cross you site I was wondering if you think I would could do the same thing your doing but with civil engineeing

  • Stephen

    Good day just came a cross you site I was wondering if you think I would could do the same thing your doing but with civil engineeing

  • Mohan Raj

    guys i am fully new to calculus. wiil this be helpful to me

  • Mohan Raj

    guys i am fully new to calculus. wiil this be helpful to me

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  • John

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  • Steven Peresio

    Hello Scott if you don’t mind I’d like to test your knowledge in calculus 4 years and a half later . Two planes A and B are traveling at the speed of 650 miles per hour and 550 miles per hour respectively . Plane A is traveling due east as plane B is traveling due south . At what rate the distance between plane A and B is changing after two hours of travel ? Good luck 🙂

  • Steven Peresio

    Hello Scott if you don’t mind I’d like to test your knowledge in calculus 4 years and a half later . Two planes A and B are traveling at the speed of 650 miles per hour and 550 miles per hour respectively . Plane A is traveling due east as plane B is traveling due south . At what rate the distance between plane A and B is changing after two hours of travel ? Good luck 🙂

  • Daniel

    Make it challenging man that’s basic math. Don’t make it seam like it’s an impossible question. Just cause that was hard for you and you figured it out doesn’t mean your smarter.

  • Daniel

    Make it challenging man that’s basic math. Don’t make it seam like it’s an impossible question. Just cause that was hard for you and you figured it out doesn’t mean your smarter.

  • Daniel

    Only if your just trying to get a good grade but if you have to use it day to day no its not. Takes time to learn and remember. This is memorization for a grade just to get through it.

  • Daniel

    Only if your just trying to get a good grade but if you have to use it day to day no its not. Takes time to learn and remember. This is memorization for a grade just to get through it.

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