OSU eCampus CS325 Analysis of Algorithms review & recap

This post is part of an ongoing series recapping my experience in Oregon State University’s eCampus (online) post-baccalaureate Computer Science degree program. You can learn more about the program here.

Six-word summary: brutally difficult, but it’s over now!

CS325 – it me

In CS325 you’ll study recurrences, asymptotic bounds, probably every major sorting algorithm plus some silly ones, dynamic programming, graph traversal, recursion, linear programs, and more.

CS325 Review

Well, the rumors are true – this class is hard. I’d place it in a tie with CS162 for overall difficulty. But where CS162 tries to kill you with a brutal workload, CS325 tries to kills you with instructional materials that don’t adequately prepare you for the homework or the exams.

The lectures are not sufficient preparation for the homework – you’ll rely on YouTube and Stack Overflow to get through each homework question. The weekly homework assignments are time-consuming and the documents you prepare are long. Mine were anywhere from 5-15 pages of graphs, pseudocode, and written explanations for my work.

If you can take CS325 by itself, you should.

There was a noticeable (and distressing) disconnect between what was on the homework and what was on the exams. I scored 100% on the homework assignments, but failed the midterm. It’s like the homework and exams were from different classes!

A week or so after the midterm was graded it was opened up so students could see which questions they got wrong and dispute wrong answers, if they could prove they had it right. I thought for sure I’d prove the TAs wrong on at least one or two of mine, so I reworked all of my incorrect answers – and reworked and reworked them – until I eventually figured out what subtle thing I missed while taking the test.

I definitely struggled in this class, and for the first time I wondered if I even belonged in this CS program.

Class structure

  • 10 weeks
  • 7 assignments total
  • Group work: weekly graded discussions on Canvas, a 3-person group project the last two weeks of the quarter
  • Proctored midterm (20% of final grade), proctored final (20% of final grade)
  • No homework assignment the week leading into the midterm
  • No homework assignment once the group project at the end begins
  • You can bring a 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of typed notes (size 6 font!) into the midterm and the final with you

Tips for CS325

Take every extra credit opportunity (they’re rarer than you think). There was an extra credit opportunity on the first homework, but there wasn’t another opportunity until the last homework!

Comment early, often, and be helpful in the Canvas discussions. There’s an opportunity for 1 point of extra credit in each of these weekly discussions. I was able to earn it most weeks by doing all of the following:

  • As soon as the discussion thread was available, I “structured” the discussion by creating a series of replies, one for each homework question. In each reply, I posted the contents of the homework question for easy reference. This gave each homework question its own thread for my group mates to use.
  • When I figured something out on the homework, I posted pseudocode or a “how I approached this problem” guide to the Canvas discussion to help others. I spent easily 1-4 hours on creating this type of “tutorial”, every single week.
  • I started the homework right away. On Sunday I did the lectures, on Monday I did question 1, Tuesday I did question 2, etc. By midweek, I had half the homework done and was able to assist with answering questions from group members just starting theirs.

This was a ton of extra work. I see why people blew off the Canvas discussions. But the discussions did two key things for me:

  1. It helped my understanding of the various topics to revisit them and “teach” them to others
  2. The extra credit helped me squeak by with a 92.58% in this class, which got rounded up to a 93% (the cutoff for an A). I needed every. single. point. I could get.

Study recursion – put it on your exam sheet! A lot of the class’s materials (lectures, book reading, and homework) will “gloss over” recursive solutions to problems. They’ll be like, “this is the slow way to do it with recursion, now here’s the better way to do it with <the technique of the week>”.

You might be tricked into thinking the exam will want you to know the fancy technique – you’d be wrong. The midterm will expect you to produce the recursive solutions, which you won’t code for the homework or even look at past the few minutes they get in each lecture. I thought this was unfair of the class, so that’s my tip to future CS325 students: study the recursive solutions. Put them on your “cheat sheet”. Know them inside and out!

The extra credit competition among the final project groups is a poorly-designed zero-sum game that you have almost no chance of winning. Here’s how it works: 60+ groups implement algorithm(s) to solve a given problem in as little time as possible, then post their best running times to a Canvas thread. The assignment won’t tell you what “good” times look like – you’ll figure that out by looking at results that trickle in from the other groups. The winner is whichever group (or groups) has the best performance times in the two different categories.

I think this competition could be made better by awarding extra credit to any (and all) groups that can pass a certain benchmark, since that’s hard enough on its own. My group picked difficult-to-implement but highly performant algorithms and did our work in C++ and we still lost to multiple other groups by a little bit. Unless you’re super dying for that extra credit, I think the winning move here is not to play. Take the time you’d spend optimizing your final project towards an unknown goal and spend it studying for the final instead.

The book sucks. (This is the book.) Okay, maybe the book doesn’t suck, but it doesn’t map nicely to the class material and it won’t walk you through how to solve the kinds of problems you’ll face in the homework. I think the teacher requires this book just for the sake of requiring a book.

You’ll need the power of Google (and YouTube and Stack Overflow) to uncover how-to’s and guides for actually solving problems. I still did the readings every week, just in case something useful turned up, but the book is more like an introduction to the topic, not a guide. I relied almost 100% on external resources to actually learn this class’s material.

There are better videos and walk-throughs for every topic this class covers on YouTube and people’s blogs. Seek them out! There are people who recorded themselves going step by step through real problems pertaining to topics like recurrences and dynamic programming in ways the class-provided lecture videos do not. I owe my A in this class to the generous people of YouTube who took the time to demonstrate these difficult topics.

More than any other class before it, CS325 requires self-teaching and finding help on your own. Whether that experience is worth $1900 is left as an exercise to the reader – there is, of course, the argument that self-teaching is what you’ll do on the job so you might as well get used to it, but there’s also the argument that $1900 ought to buy you at least a little bit of hand-holding.

I’ll be in two classes next quarter: CS271 (Assembly and Architecture) and CS361 (Software Engineering I), so say hi if you’re in either of those with me!

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