Study Hacks Blog Posts on Tips: Reading Assignments & Problemsets

Monday Master Class: How to Read Hard Readings

January 7th, 2008 · 18 comments

A Dose of Academic RealityWords

The first college course I attended at Dartmouth was a freshman English seminar titled: Popular Culture. I signed up for the course because I assumed “popular culture” meant “watching movies.” In reality, so I soon learned, it meant select readings from “cultural studies” — a field in which perfectly useful english words are re-arranged into absurdly evil, kick-in-the-groin articles that, to me, were roughly as comprehensible as Sumarian cuniform tablets. I got a C on my first paper.

Watching movies this was not…

I Am Not — Unfortunately — John Travolta

It took a few weeks for me to realize a simple truth: I am not John Travolta from the movie Phenomenon. (I’m also, it seems, not very good at relevant movie references).

If you’ll remember, in this movie John Travolta sees a bright light one night outside a tavern and subsequently develops incredible mental abilities. Among other things, he can instantly comprehend books just as fast as he can flip the pages.

I can’t do this. Probably you can’t either.

With a complicated reading, even if you go real slow, the real meaning may still elude you. The individual words all make sense, but when strung together by a professional philosopher or comparative literature scholar, they somehow evade easy association with the English language. This is what happened to me in my cultural studies class. And it’s probably happened to you too. Fortunately, there is way around this tight spot…

Pre-Processing Hard Readings

Here’s a simple system that will help you master your most difficult reading assignments. It’s a combination of the strategies I developed at Dartmouth — instigated by that freshman seminar — and those reported to me by the dozens of students I’ve talked with subsequently.

It works as follows:

  1. On the day the reading is assigned ask your professor for guidance. Ask what to expect. What to look out for. And perhaps even a brief summary of the main points. Take careful notes on what she says. Print these out.
  2. Google search the article title. Before diving in, type the name into Google. Look for reviews or reaction essays. You’d be surprised how often someone, somewhere has written something informative about the piece. Print these out.
  3. Do a JSTOR search for more scholarly reviews or references. If the piece is reasonably well-know, a multi-purpose scholarly database like JSTOR will likely turn up some references to the work in other scholarly articles. Accompanying these references might be a few sentences of description or reaction. Print out the relevant pages.
  4. Attach your printouts to the assignment. If your reading assignment is in a book, make a photocopy. If it’s in a reader, make a photocopy. If its online, print it out. Take your hard copy of the article and attach the explanatory material from the previous steps.
  5. Write a pre-read summary. Before reading the assignment, carefully review the supporting materials. At the top of the document in which you’ll be taking notes, synthesize this information into a concise summary of the main points made by the article.
  6. Read the article. Finally, you’re ready to dive into the article. As you read, your pre-processing should help you make better sense of what you encounter. Refer back to your supporting materials as needed. Attempt, to the best of your ability, to take standard Question/Evidence/Conclusion notes. Don’t worry if not everything you encounter makes sense.

Reviewing a Pre-Processed Article

Later, when it comes time to review the article for a paper, or a test, or a class presentation, you’ll have a crucial advantage over your peers. The pre-processing provides a framework for your own interpretation. Without this framework, it is easy to wander in the wrong direction or end up lost all together.

How Much Time Will This Cost Me!?

On average, this technique will add around 20 minutes of extra effort. (It might take more at first before you are comfortable with quickly searching and summarizing.) Clearly, we’d be steering dangerously close to grind territory if we applied this to every reading in every class. Accordingly, reserve this strategy for the truly troublesome assignments. For example, maybe you’re in a graduate course that has just one or two hard readings per week. Or, you face an assignment that you chose to write a paper on or lead the class in discussing. Under these circumstances, these extra 20 minutes will be the difference between hazy confusion and workable understanding.

Monday Master Class: How to Talk to a TA

October 22nd, 2007 · One comment

The TA Factor…Frustrated TA

In many classes, your Teaching Assistant (TA) is your most important resource. This is particularly true in technical subjects. If you establish a good relationship with the TA and ask good questions, he or she can make your life in that class significantly easier.

On the other hand, if you abuse the relationship, and badger the TA with aggressive questions, or try to weasel answers, you’ll lose this resource, and your life will become significantly more difficult.

Having spent time on both sides of the student/TA divide, I want to provide some simple rules for managing this relationship. This post lists 5 common things you should never say to your TA. Each is accompanied by an example of the right (and more effective) way to accomplish the same goal.

In your experience, what worked and what didn’t work for forming a good TA relationship?

Stop!Rule 1: Don’t say: “I don’t know how to do this problem. Help!”

TAs know that this is code for: “I spent a few minutes and the solution wasn’t immediately obvious so now I want you to give me the answer.” This pisses them off. No matter how exasperated you act, they won’t give you the answer.

Instead: Be specific! Explain what you tried. Where you are stuck. Why you are stuck. And, most importantly, exactly what type of information you need from the TA that would help you without solving the problem for you.

Stop!Rule 2: Don’t say: “I don’t understand what this problem is asking.”

That is not helpful. Once again, most TAs will assume that you are fishing for an answer; e.g., you hope that in his or her haste to help you understand, the TA will accidentally give away the goods.

Instead: Provide a list of specific things you find ambiguous. For each, explain the differing interpretations that seem possible. Many questions are, in fact, ambiguous, and the TA will appreciate this specificity and be happy to help you clarify.

Stop!Rule 3: Don’t say: “I think the problem is unsolvable.”

It is. Okay, sometimes there is a mistake in the problem write-up. But this is rare. And, when this does occur, it’s usually minor and easily identified if you know what you are doing. Most likely you’re just stuck, and you’re frustrated that you’re stuck, and you’re trying to displace this frustration on the rest of the world.

Instead: Refer to the advice given for Rules 1 and 2. Try to identify exactly where you are stuck, and make sure you have listed any specific parts of the problem you consider ambiguous. Nine times out of ten, this exercise will miraculously make the problem become once again solvable.

Stop!Rule 4: Don’t say: “Can I swing by your office if I have any questions?”

Many students abuse this privilege. They use it as an excuse to bother the poor TA, all day, with the type of irritating questions proscribed in the previous 3 rules.

Instead: It’s okay to try to meet a TA outside of official office hours. This is especially true if office hours are held the day before a problem set is due (a tendency I really disagree with from a pedagogical point of view). The key, however, is to schedule a specific meeting with a specific purpose. Suggest a duration and a list of the specific topics you want to discuss. For example: “I’m getting stuck on the first question because I’m still shaky on how to formulate a quality inductive step, I’m hoping we can go over some examples so I can use it more confidently.”

Stop!Rule 5: Don’t say: “Can you tell me if I’m on the right track here?”

TAs know this is code for: “can you tell if my answer is right?” They are not going to tell you this. You’re being less subtle then you think.

Instead: Make sure you understand the problem. Ask questions where things are unclear. Check your work your group members. Then, just trust yourself. It’s just one problem among hundreds you’ll solve as a student.

Monday Master Class: How to Solve Hard Problem Sets Without Staying Up All Night

October 8th, 2007 · 28 comments

I Have all the Time in the World…Problem Set

Last weekend, I sat down for a cup of coffee with Jake from College Chronicles fame. We were discussing a computer science course that was giving him trouble. The problem sets, as is often the case, were killer.

“Is the problem that you can’t find enough time to work on them,” I asked.

“No,” replied Jake. “I have all the time in the world, the problem is I don’t know how to start.”

The Problem Set Problem

Problem sets defy many of the strategies we use to tame academic work. When you’re given a reading assignment, for example, you can estimate, within 10 – 20 minutes, how long it will take you to complete. You can then break up that work into reasonable chunks and get it done. No problem.

Problem sets offer no such consistency. A given problem might take you ten minutes. On the other hand, it might devour an entire day and still yield no progress. This inconsistency is the bane of students, like Jake, stuck in technical classes.

How do you solve hard problem sets in such a way that they can be integrated into a structured, low-stress study schedule? In this post I will present a four step process. The process is an elaboration on the advice given in Straight-A. It’s a mixture of the results of my research for this book as well as personal experience, having fought these beasts over the past seven years.

A Four Step Process for Solving Hard Problem Sets

The motivating idea behind this strategy is simple: your brain can only work productively on a hard problem for 1 -3 hours before needing to reboot. To reboot your brain, so more productive work can be accomplished, requires a significant break. Preferably overnight.

Here’s a four step strategy built around this idea. It mimics the work schedule of the typical high-scoring technical student.

Step 1: Pick Off the Simple, Prime the Hard

Your first block of work should occur early in the week. Set aside 2 – 3 hours, in the morning. Make this the first thing you do that day (when your energy is at its highest). Your goal is two-fold. First, you want to solve easy problems. Your strong focus will help you avoid stupid mistakes. Second, you want to tackle at least two hard problems. You probably won’t solve them. This is why they are hard. But you can do something almost as important: prime them.

To prime a hard problem is to discover exactly why you can’t solve it. Pick an obvious approach — even if you suspect it won’t work — and start working through the problem until you get stuck. Identify why you are stuck. Ask what you need to figure out to make progress. What is it that makes this hard? Then take a break…

Step 2: Think in the Shower

For the next 2 – 3 days, think about how to get around the obstacles you discovered while priming. Don’t do this formally, in the library, with books around you. Instead, do this while walking around campus. While waiting for class to start. In the shower. I used to solve my Algorithms take home exam problems, for example, while jogging.

This is when breakthroughs occur. If you end up with a great insight, take 20 minutes, next time you can spare it, to sit down and write it down formally. If needed, prime a new hard problem so you can keep making progress as your wander campus throughout the week.

If you encounter ambiguities in the problem description that are giving your trouble, send concise questions to your TA requesting clarification. You don’t want these details to slow down progress any longer than they need to. (You might end up e-mailing your TA many times early in the week. This is okay so long as the questions are specific and concise. Don’t wait until office hours. By then, it’s too late.)

Step 3: Meet with your Problem Partner

A team effort is crucial for problem sets. But it has to be the right effort. Don’t meet with a large group. These are rarely efficient. Most of the time is spent griping about the class. Usually, there is one kid in the group who actually did the work, and, in the end, everyone copies off of him. Avoid this. The “smart kid” is often wrong, and likes the group because it boosts his self-esteem. Not to mention that your lack of understanding will come back to tag you on the exam.

The other extreme is to work alone. I see this a lot at MIT. Too many movies like Good Will Hunting got people thinking that to be smart at math means you should be able to stare at a problem for 5 – 10 seconds and then instantly solve it. Sorry. Doesn’t work that way. I walk past real geniuses every day — people, for example, who are my age and are also tenured professors — and guess what: it takes them a long time to solve hard problems; and they work with other people. The ideal configuration for a problem set is a single partner who is at roughly your ability and is willing to meet earlier in the week.

Meet with this partner for 2 – 3 hours to discuss progress made so far. Check your answers on the easy problems. Trade insights on the hard problems. Make new, collaborative attacks on those that still resist solving.

Step 4: Finalize the Problem Set at Office Hours

Show up early to office hours. Arrive understanding exactly why you are stuck on the small number of problems (hopefully) on which you are still stuck. Translate this into a small number of highly specific questions. Ask the TA these questions right after he or she arrives. The key here — and I base this on my own TA experience — is to avoidsimplying saying: “I don’t know how to do this problem, help!” That’s frustrating. Instead, you need targeted information that shows the effort you’ve expended. For example: “I’ve been trying approach XX, it’s promising, but I keep getting stuck with YY, can you point me in the right direction?”

Bring your laptop to office hours and work on finalizing these problems right there. If small questions or ambiguities pop up as you make progress, the TA can be asked on the spot. Aim to leave office hours with a completed problem set. Notice, this is much different from most students who arrive at office hours with very little done. You are arriving with most of the work done, and are just filling in the details.

In Conclusion

Repeated fresh attacks are how hard problems are solved in the real world. Problem sets teach you this skill. The issue, however, is that professors often forget to convey this strategy to their students, many of whom still believe that the high school style, big push tactic for finishing work is still applicable. So keep this advice in mind. Until you’ve approached a problem fresh, 3 – 4 times, you haven’t really yet tried to solve it.