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!

OSU eCampus CS225 Discrete Structures in Computer Science 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: Not as bad as I feared

Here’s the deal: OSU’s eCampus CS degree only requires one math class. A lot of people dread it, though, because it’s their first math class in years (or decades).

However, I am happy to report that CS225 is completely doable by someone who isn’t a natural at math. You would be hard-pressed to find someone with less of a math background than me, and yet, I managed a 94% in CS225!

Behold, my math “credentials”:

  • I had to take algebra twice (in 8th grade, then again in 9th)
  • I only earned a B in sophomore year geometry despite really trying
  • My last high school math class was Algebra II (another B)… not pre-calc, not calc, not physics, nothing past Algebra II
  • My only college math class (and I do mean only) was Math 118, and it was the sort of math class you take when you are pursuing a fine arts degree
  • I got a single digit score on my ALEKS assessment at the start of OSU’s CS program

Not my strongest subject, by far. But I think there’s plenty of room in programming even for those of us who suck at math, so if this is you, worry not – CS225 won’t derail your dreams.

CS225 Review

This was a good class. The homework problems made sense, the pacing was good, and the test questions were (mostly) recycled from the book, homework, and practice quizzes. The instructor seems to run the whole thing on autopilot but I didn’t need to contact her for anything.

There’s only a handful of homework questions due each week, but potentially dozens more you can do from the book and “last quarter’s homework” if you want. (I did all the extra work, and I think it really paid off at test time.)

Good news: this didn’t happen in CS225!

Class structure:

  • 10 weeks
  • 2 homework assignments per week
  • 1 quiz per week (7 total, no quizzes before/after midterm and none in the final week)
  • 1 midterm around week 6
  • 1 final in week 10

The tricky part about this class is the grade weighting. 90% of the grade is from quizzes and tests. The midterm is worth 30%, the final is worth 30%, and your 6 best-score quizzes are worth 30% (collectively). The homework is a mere 10% of your final grade. Since both the midterm and the final are proctored, you do have to know your stuff inside and out before you sit down to take the exam.

Fortunately, nearly all of the test questions were outright copies of, if not very similar to, questions you would have seen in the homework and practice quizzes.

If there’s anything this class isn’t so good at, it’s the video lectures. (Seems none of these OSU courses so far have decent videos.) On the bright side, YouTube is bursting with math enthusiasts who have made short, memorable videos on every topic this class will cover.

My little CS225 algebra prep guide

Many people ask online what they should study in preparation for CS225. I think the ALEKS modules are complete overkill. I found myself Googling these seemingly basic concepts that I completely forgotten in the 15 years since my last math class:

  • factorials – what does 5! mean?
  • adding fractions – a/b + c/d = ?
  • multiplying fractions – a/b * c/d = ?
  • dividing fractions – (a/b)/(c/d) = ?
  • factoring these things – (2a + 1)(a + 2)

And that’s it. The rest you can pick up in the class itself.

More CS225 tips

Here are my general tips for succeeding in CS225.

Do the extra assignments, too

Every week has the homework that’s required, and then a larger set of extra questions that are just for your own edification. I did those extra problems and found them worthwhile come test time. I also did all the practice quizzes.

Get a Chegg subscription

I never heard of chegg.com before I took this class (I found it through Googling my questions). $15/month gets you unlimited access to the book’s answer key. Not because you’re going to copy the answers and blow off the homework, no – you need to know what you’re working towards on every question you tackle. How else will you know if you got it right? :D

Warning: not every single answer is in Chegg. I think I found maybe 4 of my assigned problems that were just blank in Chegg. But.. chances are if you Google the problem, someone on the math Stack Exchange or their own blog has posted a solution. Or you can solve a different but similar one that does have an answer, and then take a pretty good guess at the one you’ve been assigned.

Get the physical copy of the book

Yes, this is the most expensive book of the entire program, but you can buy it used on Amazon (which is how I got mine, and the book was in great shape).

A physical copy is great. It’s easier to jump around in than a .pdf, you can sticky note various topics, and you can take it with you and study in more places! I also rented a .pdf version of the book, but it didn’t display well on my tablet or my phone.

Study hard for the tests – and attempt every question

The two proctored exams are 60% of your grade (30% is your 6 quizzes, 10% is the weekly homework). Some of the questions are taken word for word from the book or homework.

Here’s a hint: simply attempting an exam question is worth a lot of points. Every exam question is worth 10 points and they’re ‘free form’ (you type in a box, not multiple choice). Even if you can’t (or don’t have time to) solve it, explaining what you would do to solve it can get you 7/10 or more points on the problem. Therefore, the winning-est strategy is to pace yourself such that you have enough time to at least lay out the basics of your answer to every question.

I ran out of time on the midterm and had to slap together half-baked responses to the last three questions. However, since I was able to type out what I would do if I had more time, and still ended up with a 93% on the test. Phew!

I took the class by itself

I’m on the 4-year track and while CS225 is popular to pair with CS161, I’m glad I took it by itself. As I said earlier, I am not the greatest at math – so taking the class by itself helped me have plenty of time to dedicate to extra problems, studying for exams, and re-watching the same videos until I felt like I understood the topics.

And.. that’s it! My next class starts in autumn, so I’ll report back on my OSU studies in December.