A Rant on Reasonable Expectations

With the semester wrapping up, I feel my status as a teaching assistant for a computational modeling course compels me to address something that we’ve encountered off and on the past several months. I’ll let Condescending Wonka introduce it.

He doesn’t mince words, does he? But it nails the point I want to address: if you have no prior programming experience, why are you 1) taking a course that demands prior programming experience, and 2) complaining about the programming assignments?

To be perfectly blunt: computational biology as a field attracts a very broad swath of folks. Since it’s still to a large degree in its infancy, we have people from experimental biology and chemical engineering and computer science, all with their own wholly distinct backgrounds and experience; it’s not trivial to bring them all onto the same playing field.

We recognize this in our particular program, and thus we plan for it. Obviously there’s still some who fall through the cracks and that’s ok; those who are particularly lacking in one area were likely admitted because of their outstanding work in some other area, and thus we can shift coursework around so they still get up to speed with everyone else.

Ok, truthfully, the problem isn’t even our program. By a vast margin, the students in our Ph.D. program did perfectly fine in the course. The problem was–also by a wide margin–the M.S. students (not directly affiliated with our program) who also enrolled.

In short, my litany of problems:

  • We devoted an entire lab session–the very first of the semester–to showing the students how to implement ODE solvers in both Matlab and Python. Solving ODEs was 95% of the coding needed for this course.At the end of the semester, I still had more than just a handful of students asking me basic ODE-coding questions. And not simple one-line-of-code questions, but holy-crap-I-have-no-clue-what-to-do questions.
  • During our final exam review today (not reviewing for the exam, but going over the now-graded final), several students voiced their complaints that the final was too long. Which is totally fair: it absolutely was. But more than a handful said they were stuck for hours googling for the magical two lines of Matlab code they needed to solve one of the questions. If that is the case–you don’t know the code, and you don’t even know what you’re looking for–you should not be taking a course that involves programming.
  • At the end of the day, I keep coming back to this mantra: it’s a computational course; if you have absolutely no ability to program, either learn before taking the course or find something else. We went out of our way to teach the coding you’d need for the course, posting the examples on the site for all to use as reference, and showing you where the online (and in-program) documentation could be found, even though programming is a prerequisite for the course.

If you want to take the plunge and see if you’re adaptable enough to survive without very much prior programming experience, that’s totally fine! But in my opinion, by doing so you waive your right to complain about having to do some programming. Particularly when we give you everything you need to know. And particularly when the course is a core requirement of a computational Ph.D. program.

End rant. Begin really freaking hilarious picture on icanhascheezburger today:

About Shannon Quinn

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3 Responses to A Rant on Reasonable Expectations

  1. eksith says:

    Clearly, the problem(s) is(are) the expectations of the students, which may be somewhat unrealistic in terms of scope despite the posted examples.

    The fact that this is a new field doesn’t help much, but in a way, this is no different than what the Renaissance was. It’s a brave new world where suddenty the boundaries between the biological, theoretical and technological are simultaneously differentiated, equated and destroyed altogether.

    Breaking new ground means you had to be a bit of a polymath to understand the relationships in the physical world so conventional approaches to introduction may not always work. Maybe the course could benefit from a different description and maybe a small Q&A session prior to sign-up in addition to those examples.

    A “What do you know and What will you need to know” session if you will. Since a lot of people don’t really RTFM, it will be a less broad (oxymoron, yes I know) description of what is taught and is expected of new students. This will better guide prospects into making the right decision. Dive in now or take programming first and then dive in.

    Also, I have a gut feeling that many of these students had problems with the mathematics and logic involved which compounded the problem. After the underlying principles are understood, all code is just a matter of learning syntax.

    Since these people were in the course already, try to be especially as careful and as tactful as you can when you answer the “holy-crap-I-have-no-clue-what-to-do” questions. I understand this is a serious burden, especially considering the time and effort involved, but you are an educator now and the way you handle these will shape how these people will view the field, the world and you for the rest of their lives.

    But count your blessings that you’re seeing this in people still at school, who can (hopefully) adjust and learn, because it’s a lot worse outside and many of them just can’t adjust and learn.

    • eksith says:

      “brave new world where suddenly the”… And that’s my cue it’s 3:30AM and time to got to bed 😛

    • magsol says:

      I’ll acknowledge that some of the problem is on our end: we had issues last year when I was a student in the course, and some of those same issues were still present this semester (though they were compounded by the fact that the course had twice the enrollment of last year’s with the same teaching infrastructure), the biggest problem being that the curriculum is in a somewhat perpetual state of flux. The concepts taught and necessary prerequisites, however, have not changed, and this semester we had a bigger-than-usual first-year class, plus a sudden influx of master’s students (we previously had 0).

      There can be more effort made in communicating these prerequisites, particularly since the bulk of the problems were on the master’s end, and those students are in an entirely separate program from our own and don’t have the benefit of daily interaction to gauge a course. I do agree the problem could always be worse (that was a great article…and a horrifying one), but that also doesn’t preclude us from still trying to make things better.

      It’s always been a pet peeve of mine to simply say “I don’t understand anything”, because all I’m going to do in that case is start from the beginning and keep going until the student says “I don’t understand this“. I’m more than happy to meet the students halfway–it is, after all, why I enjoy teaching so much–but that halfway point is crucial. It ceases being fun when I have to do the work for them.

      tl;dr I happily agree it’s a complicated issue that could use some improved efforts on both ends. I could go on for quite awhile (as did one of the students who did very well in the class) about the shortcomings of the course infrastructure 😛

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