Thursday, May 30, 2013

Review are In, 2013

Teaching reviews are in!  I'm happy to say students were more forgiving than last year.  But also, I notice in the reviews the effects of 4 significant changes from last year.   (The best is saved for last.)

1.  Students knew it was my last year teaching the course.  I think they were nicer to me than normal because of it.  (Pity points!)

2.  For the last several years, students have complained that the midterm coincided with "Housing Day", the day the freshmen find out about where they'll spend their later years, and apparently it's a big party day.  This year, I was able to move the midterm.  (For didactic reasons, I assure you -- some of basic material in my course is now covered in an earlier class, saving me a lecture early in the semester.)  Students really appreciated that.  (I maintain that my midterm being the Thursday before finals precedes the advent of "Housing Day" -- someone put Housing Day on the day of my midterm, not the other way around -- but students have not sympathized with this reasoning.) 

3.  This was the first year students had the advantage of taking that new class, CS20, designed to give them more background on CS mathematics.  (We finally have the CS "Discrete Math" class we haven't had but have probably needed.)  I think this helped students, especially at the lower tail, and probably somewhat helped review scores.

4.  The final change may arguably be the most important.  In the past I've given longer assignments over usually 2 week periods;  something like 7-9 problems.  At the urging of one of my experienced TAs, who both wanted the grading split up more and thought the students would prefer it, I broke up the problem sets, so they were due weekly, and were usually 4 or 5 problems.  The feedback from many students was that they liked this approach better (obviously not from direct experience with the class previously, but from what they had heard from other students).

To me, this remains counterintuitive.  The students were getting the same problems either way, so the splitting only added an additional constraint on them.  Instead of having eight problems over two weeks, they were forced to do the first four in week one and the next four in week two.  But, clearly, for psychological reasons many students want (need?) that constraint.  As some have explained to me, they aren't going to start the assignment until they're close to the deadline, so the additional deadline prevents them from becoming overloaded and overstressed by a longer assignment.  Perhaps, beyond the psychology, part of the issue may be student collaboration -- more frequent shorter assignments introduces constraints that probably help encourage scheduling of working together.   

I worry about the time management skills of Harvard students.  Or I suppose for many it's just the way they live -- their schedules constantly packed full with deadlines serving as the basis for their priority scheduling.  I hope they experience a different lifestyle at some point.

However, lessons learned for whatever undergrad class I teach next!  Short weekly assignments.  And be sure to avoid student (non-academic) events when setting up the midterm in the class schedule.

Finally, I still suspect my reviews would be non-trivially better if they happened after grades were out.  Students often think they're doing worse than they are -- they don't see how much the curve helps them.  For example, one senior, after the final, came up to me worried that he/she did poorly enough that he/she would fail the class.  I asked how he/she had done over the semester, and said it seemed very unlikely, but I'd send mail after grading the final.  The student got a C and was in absolutely no danger of failing.  The horror stories of CS124 have been somewhat exaggerated over time -- perhaps all the more reason a "refresh" is in order.  

Anyhow, thanks again to this year's CS 124 class -- for those of you who aren't graduating, I hope to see you around, and for all the students, if you've read this far, I hope you'll send me stories when you find whatever you learned in CS 124 to be useful to you. 


Saturday, May 25, 2013

An Unusual CS Student Blog

As I'm up working/watching a Memorial Day weekend Arrested Development marathon (OK, I'm not working that hard), I found myself wandering over to Justine Bateman's blog.  Like many teens at that time period, I surely had a crush on her during her run on Family Ties.  So I had noticed that last year she had decided to go back to school to study computer science (UCLA -- college to the stars-interested-in-math-and-science, apparently;  I'm talking about you Mayim Blalik and Danica McKellar!).  But I hadn't been reading the blog.  And it's very entertaining, if only because it sounds like a freshman college blog, albeit occasionally with some pointers you might not normally find (like interviews for LA magazines).    This post, about finishing up a big project (making a computer Battleship game), is really familiar to me in tone;  I hear stuff like this from students all the time (and, of course, lived through it myself as an undergraduate). 

The point here -- besides that I now watch and have always watched too much TV -- is that computer science is awesome.*  Awesome enough that a big star of the 1980s has gotten inspired enough to go back to school and learn how to program Battleship, and more.

*And I guess another lesson is that Justine Bateman is awesome too.  Not that she'll ever see this, but Justine -- best of luck to you sophomore year and beyond!   

Monday, May 20, 2013

Grades In

The grades are in for CS 124.  Hooray!

Interesting trend : freshmen, who make up a small fraction of the class, are highly over-represented in the A and A- grades.  This has been happening for some years now. 
Extension of the interesting trend : women freshmen*, who make up a smaller fraction of the class, are even more highly over-represented in the A and A- grades.

I'd be very excited if I were teaching the class again next year -- finding undergraduates who have the potential to be TAs for multiple years is golden -- but I'll be sure to pass the names on to the new guy.**

Other side of the trend :  2nd semester seniors performed substantially below average this year.
But on the positive side :  nobody did so badly they won't graduate.  (At least, not in my class.)  

Getting grades in really makes the class feel over.  Onto summer work!  (Research and writing...)

* Freshwomen if you prefer.
** And any freshman or sophomore in the class who got an A and is interested in TAing should let me know next November or so.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Congratulations to Justin and Jon

Justin Thaler and Jon Ullman had back-to-back thesis defenses today.  Both talks were excellent -- Justin's on his work on verification methods (for cloud computing), and Jon on his work on differential privacy.  While there is still some small paperwork matters (like the actual theses to turn in), I think we should start calling them Doctor Thaler and and Doctor Ullman, just so they start getting used to it.

Congratulations Justin and Jon!

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Calling Out Stupidity

While I greatly enjoy working at Harvard, there are many painfully stupid things said and done by people here -- as I suppose is the case anywhere -- that either I don't feel merit commenting on or I don't feel it's appropriate to comment on.  (And, of course, I'm sure that sometime in the past I've done or said things that others find stupid, and I'm very happy they aren't blogged about.)

However, the recent comments by Niall Ferguson are out in the public, and so over-the-top stupid that even he quickly realized how stupid they were.  And I think it's important to point out, prominently, how stupid they are, because the idea that either childless people or gay people somehow have a discounted view of the importance of the future deeply offends me, and somehow the idea that someone prominent in my workplace would say (or believe, or say in stupidity without really believing) such a thing has made my week substantially sadder.  And so I feel the need to point it out, ideally not to sadden anyone reading this, but to emphasize how sad and stupid the comments were.   

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

A Boy and His Atom

Some researchers at IBM are so good at playing with atoms, they decided to make a movie (called A Boy and His Atom), by moving atoms.  Cool stuff.  Computer science connections:  implications for storage.  Personal connection:  the spouse of the scientist leading the group who made the video is a friend from high school.