Rambles around computer science

Diverting trains of thought, wasting precious time

Wed, 19 Jul 2006

Thoughts on writing supervision exercises

As an undergrad I often bemoaned the fact that Computer Science lecturers at Cambridge, unlike their counterparts in Natural Sciences, did not generally provide exercises to accompany their lectures. Instead, most lecturers expect supervisors to set Tripos questions. I found this unhelpful, and still do, for reasons I will now explain.

For one, relevant Tripos questions are often few in number, either because a course is relatively new or because the syllabus has recently undergone significant changes. Secondly, even when a good number of questions are available, they often leave some parts of the course untouched -- but there is no guarantee that the upcoming year's questions will do the same. And finally, Tripos questions are often discouragingly difficult, or infuriatingly tedious, for a student who is learning the material for the first time.

All this has led me to conclude that questions which are good for examining a course are typically not good at helping students learn. (Note that I'm sidestepping the question of whether most Tripos questions actually are particularly good for anything.) So, as a supervisor, I've been having a go at writing some questions of my own. It's difficult! But nevertheless, I feel that the results are mostly half-decent as first attempts. The questions themselves are linked from my teaching section, but the following is a list of goals which I try to ensure are satisfied by the questions I write.

Clearly, some of the above goals are mutually reinforcing, while others are mutually conflicting. Striking the right balance is difficult, and one reason why good questions are more likely to be the result of a collaborative, incremental process than of a one-time effort. On that note, if you have any comments on my questions, please contact me!

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