I've read several posts from Caltech students who indicated they didn't attend some classes. How prevalent is this at Caltech? Do students skip all classes, freshman-sophomore classes, and/or upper level classes? Do professors welcome those who skip class to office hours?
More questions about classes - Do lectures typically follow the book? Are there courses without texts? Do professors whose lectures extend well beyond the text or who don't use texts provide notes?
A fair number of students skip a significant number of classes. Freshman year, some students get overexuberant about the pass-fail system and skip, but then become more regular visitors as grades begin in the third trimester. Overall, class attendance probably increases as students get older, since the material is harder and the classes tend to be less "standard" -- i.e. out of a signle book -- and more eclectic, gathering the professor's unique perspective from many sources. So it becomes expensive to skip class and not know what went on. Still, there is a (pretty small) minority that virtually never goes to class; it works for some people! On average, by the middle of an average non-frosh class, I'd say about 60%-70% of the students are in regular attendance. Morning classes like Math 5 or particularly uninteresting classes do significantly worse, and popular, energizing classes do significantly better.
Profs welcome students who skip to office hours, since many of them skipped class when they were students too.
As for whether lectures follow the textbook, that completely depends on the class. There have been classes (e.g. Math 120b) where the book was just a reference and the prof lectured on whatever topics he found the most useful. There are courses without a textbook per se (usually in the humanities) but a packet of readings is typically handed out. Very few courses have no written companion at all.
Most professors who lecture on non-book topics provide notes or outside references on the key points (e.g. a 2 page handout to cover the highlights of a few lectures), but there are definitely lectures that you can only get by going to lecture -- there aren't so many, but they're there. However, every time I've needed to understand a lecture more clearly, a professor has always been able to refer me to something -- perhaps even a research monograph -- where the subject is treated in detail.
Bumping this four-year-old thread. We just visited Caltech and several students said that "classes have 40% attendance", "people skip about half of all their classes", etc. I understand that Techers are smart enough to learn on their own, especially with recitations and office hours as needed. And they all seemed happy anyway.
But it seemed from people my son talked to, from Ben's post above, and from other threads that the reason that students skip class is that the teacher isn't worth listening to. So in your experience, do you skip class because you learn better on your own, or do you learn better on your own because the teacher doesn't say anything worth hearing?
I definitely had a couple of teachers in my first two years that were not worth listening to, but even then they were in the minority. In my upper-division courses, almost all of the profs are good to very good, definitely worth listening to.
I had a decent number who weren't really worth listening to. I found I'd just sit there either scribbling down notes that seemed nonsensical later on, or I'd get bored and zone out since they were very uninspiring speakers (As in they'll be in the middle of a sentence, then pause for 30 seconds, then start over. Repeatedly.).
Of course other professors are fantastic and worth attending every lecture.
I only skip classes where the prof is particularly bad (boring, just reads off lecture slides, etc.) or when I'm not interested in the subject but have to take the class (mostly math classes). I'd say that frosh/soph year I attended about 60% of my classes. Now that I'm a junior and off core, I attend all of my classes.