I've posted a few more chapters to my book about poverty and education. You can read one of the most recent chapters below, or download the entire (current version) from github. Alternatively, you can read it online at github.
Finding Your Depth
Admitting you are out of your depth is one of the most treacherous grounds you will tread. In a certain sense, most intelligent people spend most of their time operating outside of their body of known material. This is because they tend to get bored retreading old ground.
Some people are more comfortable with it than others. Some people don't even seem to notice they are way outside their knowledge pool. And, occasionally, that can be a good thing, because the world is big, and knowing how much others know that you have no idea of is a massively ego-shrinking experience, and some folks run their gas tank on ego.
When you don't know how much you don't know, you don't realize that others have already run the experiment you are running, or built the program you are writing, and that is actually a good thing for students. Everyone wants to feel like they have done something important and useful and taking the time to write that already-written program may grant you the experience to later write a program that no one else has thought up yet. Maintaining that sense of discovery and pure Maker joy is one of the tricks really excellent teachers will work hard to cultivate for you.
I remember one of the projects my first year at Olin was to design a set of apparatus that trundled a container of rice up a ramp using a 2 liter bottle of water. I was super ecstatic about designing a new and more efficient water wheel to do this. I thought that I could optimize the spokes on the wheel to be shaped in such a way that it would be super efficient. I spent hours in the cad software we were using and with some experimental software trying to come up with something. I learned a lot about both pieces of software, but in the end a water wheel is a stupidly inefficient way to transport water.
As a student though, it is all about what you can learn on the journey to the answer, not just what the answer actually is. So I still consider the experience to have been valuable even if all we had at the end was an ugly piece of 3D printed plastic that was probably the worst rice ramp in the room.
How do you know then, when you are too far out of your depth? I think it is about listening to your mental gears. If you are trying to get stuff done but finding yourself stuck in park all the time, it may be time to seek out some assistance. It may be that your professor can provide you with the few vital pieces of information you need to get into first gear where you can start making progress again.
Don't put it off for too long though, if you start having problems. Grinding gears for hours at a time can end up causing mental blocks where you start to believe that you can't accomplish whatever it is you are trying to do. Your subconscious will likely have no problem coming up with some reason why you ought to be incompetent at partial differential equations, just as an example.
Don't listen to it. If you are bad at something from the start, just consider it an opportunity to grok whatever it is in far greater detail than other classmates.