Posted by: atri | October 24, 2009

How to do better in this class

(I am making this post sticky for the rest of the week. Do not forget to look below for the newer posts. –Atri)

Update Oct 26: Added a suggestion on how to write better answers for homeworks.

I had a long talk with one of you in my office today and I mentioned some “tips” on how to do better in this class. I thought it might be worthwhile to repeat the main points on the blog (all of them require hard work, which is a necessary pre-requisite). I have mentioned most of them earlier but I guess there is no harm in repeating.

  1. If you think you understand the lecture but are still doing poorly on the homeworks/exams try this: when you get back home, try to reproduce the proof(s) we did in class today without looking at the book or your notes. If you cannot, you have not really understood the material. You might have followed everything I said in class but what you really followed was the material I had said maybe 2-3 minutes earlier and probably have forgotten about things I had said earlier. In particular, while listening to a lecture, one tends to have a narrow focus on what the speaker is saying at present and forget about the big picture.
  2. I have found out over the years that you really, really understand the material when you teach it. Try to form a group and then teach each other the material presented in class. Take turns teaching and listening: when you listen ask questions!
  3. The idea in the two points above is not to memorize proofs but to grasp the main ideas/techniques in stuff you have seen in class. This is going to be increasingly important in rest of the class as the homework and exam problem will actually test how much you understood the general principles/ideas/techniques rather than if you can reel off the specific details of an algorithm or proof (though the latter ability will not hurt you).
  4. In a homework or exam if you do not follow why you lost some points, go and talk to the grader and try to figure out where you went wrong. We do not really like it when someone comes and is only interested in getting more points but we like it when someone comes by and wants to understand what went wrong and improve.
  5. Being considerate of others is nice but not necessarily so when it comes at your expense. If in a lecture you think have a silly question: ask! If you think you’ll slow down the class by your question– it’s one of those times when being “considerate” is not so good. Or say you want to talk to me or Jeff outside our regular slots but you think you’ll be an inconvenience to us. Again, we appreciate your thought but we rather you ask your question– now we might not always have the time to help, but we’ll try our best to do so.
  6. Writing down crisp correct answers is not easy to do. Many a times you have the right idea in your head but when you write it down, you lose a lot of points in the homework/exam. This can be frustrating. However, you must work hard at writing down good answers. Here is a suggestion: finish writing up your homework by Wednesday afternoon. Take a break for a day and read your solutions again Thursday evening: almost always you’ll find that your solution was not written up well and you can improve you submission. (It is very hard to be a good critic of your own writing: it takes a lot of effort and time.)
  7. I want all of you to do well in this course and get a good grade. I could do this by making all the homeworks and exams very easy but I am not going to do that– you won’t learn anything that way. My hope is that you will take this course as a challenge and work hard– Jeff and I will do our darndest to help you along the way.

Now some of you might think it is a waste of time and all this theoretical work will not be useful to you. Look up questions asked in interviews for places like Microsoft or Google and check out what percentage of them are algorithmic questions: if you have not already done so, you might be surprised.

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