OSU eCampus CS162 Intro to Computer Science II 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 paced pointers pointers pointers pointers

The beatings are over I survived CS162! If you were wondering where OSU’s eCampus computer science weeder course is, this is it.

The material is challenging and the workload is punishing. The video lectures are crap, but the book is good. The class isn’t well organized (expect poorly written assignments with unclear requirements). 10 weeks is nowhere near enough.

However: I learned a lot. I got faster than I ever thought possible and worked with topics I thought would have had their own standalone courses.

In this article: topics covered in CS162, survival guide, what I thought of the class.

Note: While I normally love to post code here, I can’t share any of my project code (against student code of conduct) or specific assignment requirements, test questions, etc.

Topics covered in CS162

The class is taught in C++ and teaches (or at least requires you to know):

  • pointers to arrays
  • pointers in arrays
  • pointers to pointers
  • pointers to instances of classes
  • passing pointers to functions
  • linked lists made of pointers
  • abstract class and subclasses
  • virtual functions
  • overloading operators (give == an exciting new meaning!)
  • polymorphism
  • writing functions that do something recursively, like reverse a string, sum numbers in an array, solve a math problem
  • data structures: queue, dequeue, stack, linked lists, circularly linked lists
  • sorting algorithms

    Equipment

CS162 is a programming class. Like CS161, I found my Macbook to be sufficient for this class.

I don’t know why they tell people to get a Windows PC and use Visual Studio. I didn’t need it and you won’t need it – there is no assignment based on Visual Studio knowledge.

In fact, judging just by Piazza posts, a number of students seemed confused by the extra files and the “another thing to learn” factor introduced by Visual Studio.

In case you are curious: I did every assignment in Sublime Text and a Terminal window.

Workload

At any given time expect to be working on a 1-week lab assignment and a 2-week project, and mid-course, a group project on top of the first two. You will also write a multi-page document (PDF) for each project with a test plan (input, expected outcome chart), your designs, ideas you changed along the way, reflections on the assignment. This document always took me at least 3-5 hours to complete to my standards. There’s a quiz every couple weeks (15 minutes, not proctored).

I’m a proactive student who started each week’s material the moment it was released, worked on it daily, and generally finished just moments before a new load of work was dumped onto me.

The first two weeks hit like a ton of bricks: a simple Langton’s Ant simulation by itself would have been a large assignment, but CS162 adds a user-navigable menu, input validation, user-adjustable parameters (dynamically sized board, variable turns to run, etc.), and other features that have to be designed, coded, tested, debugged.

Oh, yeah – it has a visual component, too.

There are also two lab assignments to complete while you work on the Langton’s Ant project.

This pattern continues until the end of the course. The toughest week was the one where I was working on a project, a lab, and a group assignment all at the same time.

CS162 Survival Tactics

It’s easy to find people complaining online about how disorganized and intense this class is but what I really wanted when I was in the thick of it was some help. (The OSU eCampus CS subreddit is a good place to look for advice on CS162, too.)

Here’s what I did (or wish I’d done sooner) that made CS162 more bearable.

Take it by itself (if you can)

I know there are financial aid reasons not to but if you’re normally taking 2 classes a quarter, consider taking CS162 alone (or at least with fewer classes than you normally would). It’s a ton of complex material – assuming you haven’t worked a lot with C++ pointers, memory, arrays, etc. yet – and the assignments are black holes for time.

Diagram things out on paper

I found many of CS162’s assignments too complex to hold entirely in my brain.

For example, here’s a crazy thing we did: create a circularly linked list (in C++), let the user fill it and delete nodes from it. When you exit the program, it has to unload from memory node by node. “Empty nodes” are marked with -1 for their values. This drawing I made helped a ton (actually, this was probably the 5th iteration of this drawing).

And here’s another one, this one showing how the heroes in the polymorphism project either rejoin the tournament queue or get kicked out to each player’s respective loser pile.

PS: Some people got really precious about their diagrams having to be works of art, but you don’t have to for these assignments. Just draw this stuff out, paper/pencil (or a little whiteboard) is sufficient, and plan to trash your first few drawings. If you need some material to bulk out your retrospective writing assignments for each project, photos of the diagrams you make are excellent fodder.

Go straight to Google (and Stack Overflow, and YouTube)

Sure, it sucks to pay $1880 to do so much self-teaching but you’ll get a lot of mileage out of the skill. The recorded lectures are crappy and I felt like they were wasting my time. There are better guides to all of the concepts covered in this class on YouTube.

Buy the book

Here’s the book on Amazon: Starting out with C++ Early Objects

I recommend getting a physical copy so you can have it open next to your computer while you work, and use your monitor(s) for your code and Stack Overflow. It’s the same book you use for CS161 (if you haven’t taken that yet, either), so at least you get two classes out of it. You can also buy the loose leaf edition to save some cash.

After two classes with it I can say it’s a good book. The examples are relevant to the coursework, they’re clear and easy to understand, and there are a good number of examples.

Start every week’s material the day it drops – and don’t count on weekends

Sometimes the new week will be released on a Friday. Sometimes a Saturday. Sometimes a Sunday! And no, the instructor doesn’t move that week’s deadline out just because you lost the weekend due to the materials not being released in a timely manner.

For this reason, I recommend setting up your life (at least for these 10 weeks) to allow for working on this class work during the week (ideally daily). Don’t expect to fit it all into the weekend. Even my light weeks were at least 15 hours spent on the class (usually closer to 25 or 30).

Check Piazza religiously

If they improve anything in CS162, I hope it’s the unclear assignment requirements. They requirements were notoriously bad – assignments are written in a conversational style and it’s hard to know what is really being asked for.

Many students took to Piazza (the class forum) to question (or worse, debate) the requirements until a TA or the instructor herself came along to clarify.

Pretty much every week went like this:

  1. New assignment comes out – oh no, it has unclear requirements
  2. Someone asks for clarification on Piazza
  3. TA makes a call and says do it X way
  4. 2 days later, another student asks the same question
  5. Different TA makes a different call on this new thread and says do it Y way
  6. They have a fight, triangle wins…
  7. You already coded it, so do you redo it to Y or keep it as X or what?

For what it’s worth, every time this happened (and I had already coded it), I kept my code the original way and still got 100% on the assignment.

Test on Flip!

So many things happened in my code in the Flip environment that did not happen on my Macbook. Weird things, too – things that weren’t easy to spot without thorough testing. I made the mistake of not testing on Flip until I thought I was done with the assignment, only to find heaps of bugs that only occurred in that environment.

Only after the class ended did I find out about this awesome way to use Git to deploy to Flip. (I was uploading in Filezilla like a n00b.)

Use Valgrind early and often

It’s a memory management tool that’s already installed on Flip and you won’t be able to find memory leaks without it. If you wait until you are done coding your assignment, it will be harder to find the memory leak. Upload your code and check it with Valgrind every so often and you will save yourself a lot of pain.

The worst weeks were weeks 1, 2, and the final project. 

Okay, they were all brutal. There were many weeks where I thought there was no way I would get everything done and I’m a workaholic. The biggest workloads were the first project (Langton’s Ant) and the final project at the end (make an adventure game).

You do actually have to contribute to the Canvas conversation topics

It’s a misguided requirement because these “conversation” threads quickly turn into 100+ people dumping commentary and links in one place. It’s not a conversation, it’s just a dogpile.

But if you contribute a few posts (I think I made 5 decent, paragraph-sized comments between January and March, evenly spaced throughout the quarter), it’s an easy 20 points that you will (probably) be very happy to have at the end.

Take every quiz twice

(Unless you get a great score the first time around, of course).

You get two attempts for each quiz. A quiz is 20 questions in 15 minutes. (I liked this format). Only the grade from the last attempt is kept. Questions are drawn from a larger pool, so you won’t get exactly the same ones the second time you take it.

My strategy was to use the first attempt to see what’s on the quiz and make my best guesses as to the answers. This gave me a feel for the questions and sometimes revealed tricky ones. I usually got about a 16/20 on my first try but Canvas tells you which ones you got wrong, and what the correct answers were, so this is a chance to see what you missed and study it some more. After a little studying I’d retake it, usually getting 18/20 or 19/20 that second time.

Grading

The final’s worth 15% of your grade, so save some steam for the end. There was a bonus, extra credit lab announced right at the last minute, too, but its points could only be applied to your lab grade.

  • Weekly labs – 30% of your grade
  • Quizzes – 15% of your grade
  • Projects – 30% of your grade
  • Group activities – 10% of your grade
  • Final project – 15% of your grade

Overall impression: OSU CS162

I hated it at times, but it was worth it. I never would have pushed through some of this stuff on my own, without a grade and a degree motivating me. OSU’s online CS is meant for people with a full-time job and the occasional signs of life outside of class but I had to take a couple days off work here and there to accommodate the workload, and I barely saw my family. The most difficult parts of this class – deciphering confusing and unclear requirements – were totally unnecessary. OSU should hire a proofreader and clean up CS162’s assignments. And some weeks the workload was just pure insanity – the week with the group project stands out in particular.

But… it’s over! And I got a 97%, so I’m going to take a much-deserved week to rest up for the next class.

Onwards to CS225!

Other student reviews of CS162

Leave a comment and I’ll update this post with your review!

OSU eCampus CS161 Intro to 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.

With my successful completion of CS161, I am now 1/16th of the way to a Computer Science degree! Despite being labeled an “intro to CS” course, this class wasn’t a walk in the park – the two exams (worth 60% of the grade) were the tough part.

CS161 syllabus, topics

My CS161 was taught by Tim Alcon. He was remarkably responsive on the class forum (“Piazza”) and over email. There were something like 200+ students in the class, though, so assignment grading was done by a group of teacher assistants (TAs).

Syllabus: CS161 syllabus

Topics covered:

  • Introduction to C++ language
  • variables
  • methods
  • arrays
  • passing data into methods
  • data types
  • while loops, for loops
  • memory management (introduction)
  • pointers
  • object-oriented program structure
  • good coding style (comments, naming)

If you’re a prospective student reading this and these topics are all brand new to you, you should get familiar with them prior to the class. The class moves pretty quickly, especially past week 3.

These are all courses/video series I’ve worked through myself and recommend to anyone wanting to get started with programming:

CS161 class format

The course is 10 weeks long. Every Wednesday at midnight the next week’s homework and reading (called a “module”) becomes unlocked in the class portal (known as “Canvas”). You can do the reading/homework as fast or as slow as you want, as long as it’s turned in by the due date, typically the next Sunday or Wednesday (so you had either 5 or 7 days to get everything done before the next batch opened up). There weren’t any videos or supplementary materials beyond the book. Basically it’s read the chapter, do the homework, repeat. 

Early in the course, I found this drip-feed of content frustratingly slow. I wanted to work ahead and take advantage of free time when I had it. I usually had my assignments done within a day of their release. After about the halfway point, though, the class picked up the pace and I was turning in homework much closer to the Wednesday night deadline.

CS161 homework assignments

Every week had a reading assignment (usually 1-2 chapters from Starting out With C++: Early Objects) and a coding assignment. Some weeks also had a group assignment and/or a reflection assignment (1-2 pages written response). For the code assignments, you upload .cpp files to upload via “TEACH” (OSU’s interface for uploading homework).

The time commitment was reasonable, in my opinion. My daughter was born the same day class started so I had the advantage of being on maternity leave from work, but a newborn is demanding and I ended up squeezing homework and reading in anywhere I could, at odd hours of the day. In the early weeks of the class I spent about 4-5 hours a week on reading and homework combined. In the later weeks, I was spending 8-10 hours per week on the reading and homework combined. However, it’s worth adding that I’ve worked as a programmer (front end web developer) for the last 2 years, have already completed a web dev bootcamp, and have put myself through various online self-paced CS courses (this one just happens to be worth a college credit).

I thought the assignments were clear in their requirements and it was easy to understand what I needed to do.

The course materials suggest that you need a Windows machine and Visual Studio for CS161, but that’s not necessary – I did a lot of my homework on my Macbook and I never opened Visual Studio on my Windows machine. On my Windows computer, I used MinGW as my C++ compiler and wrote my code in Sublime Text. With this setup, I didn’t have to worry about Visual Studio adding anything extra to my files and my homework always compiled on Flip, the school’s Linux environment that you can log into and upload your project files to for testing. (This is the same environment the TA’s use to check if your work compiles.)

Some weeks had group assignments, which were coordinated over the Discussion groups in Canvas. The two major group assignments were basically “everyone upload last week’s homework, then decide amongst yourselves which one is best and write a page explaining why you picked it”. I found my classmates responsive and eager to complete the assignment; this wasn’t the group assignment horror-show you might remember from high school, at least not here in CS161 where it wasn’t about producing a completed project together.

Assignments were usually graded about a week or so after turning them in. Feedback was a line, at most, usually “Looks good!” or “You didn’t give this method the right name, -2 points”.

screenshot-2016-12-25-14-46-44

CS161 exams

The most important thing to understand about OSU CS eCampus exams is that they are “proctored”, which is academia-speak for “supervised”. This was my first experience with proctored exams. (And this will be the case of all exams for the online CS degree program, not just CS161.)

There are two proctoring options:

  • Take it in person at a local university/college/community college/test center (this is what I did)
  • Take it at your own computer with a live webcam stream of your face running the whole time with a service like ProctorU

I thought the ProctorU option was creepy as hell, plus I couldn’t guarantee the people I live with would actually be quiet while I took the exam. They require a 360 view of the room you’re in before you start, and any interruption is grounds for your test to be disqualified. Getting up to yell at someone / deal with a fire / etc is enough to make the person supervising you over ProctorU disqualify your test. Reading others’ first-hand experiences with ProctorU also put me off the service pretty quickly, but I never actually tried it myself.

Taking the exams at my local community college’s test center was easy once I confirmed with them that they were approved for OSU tests. I scheduled a time (they even had Saturday hours), showed up, sat down at a computer, logged into my OSU Canvas account, and started the test. The test is timed, and the test center provides paper and pencil (which they keep after the exam). The test runs in your web browser. My local test center charged $35 per test.

As for the exams themselves, I found them rather tricky. Each of the exams (there are 2) are 20 multiple choice questions with 4-5 answers to pick from. You have to hand-trace through the code (which is often iterative) and spot any errors that might be included in the code. (The paper and pencil help a lot here.)

In real life, you get the help of a compiler and unit tests (that I’m sure you wrote because you’re a good programmer) to help you understand (or debug) a bit of code, so the tests felt unnecessarily difficult and unlike my professional coding experience.

Here’s an example. One exam question had something like this (embedded in a much larger block of code):

if (x = 3) {
   ...stuff here...
}

I caught the single = sign, but I didn’t know it would actually do something in this case. In C++ (and other languages), this evaluates to true and sets x to 3. I’m just citing this as an example of how you have to know the fiddly bits of C++ to really excel at the exams. (I managed an 80% and an 85% on the exams.)

The test is graded as soon as you submit it, but you won’t know which ones you got wrong until they unlock the tests a few weeks after they’re done. Furthermore, while they’ll eventually tell you which questions you got wrong, they won’t tell you what the correct answer was.

screenshot-2016-12-25-14-43-32

So, don’t expect the exams to be much of a learning experience until the course has ended and you can work through the questions with an IDE and compiler.

Overall impression: OSU CS161

OSU’s eCampus Computer Science program looks solid from here, and I thought CS161 was a good value. The materials were well put together, the pacing was reasonably challenging, and the course’s time demands seem manageable for someone with a full-time job and family (I was on maternity leave while I took the course). I came into the class with more prior experience than the class is really meant for, but I still felt satisfied and challenged by the material. The OSU eCampus Reddit forum is a helpful resource for information on individual classes, admission process, instructor reviews, etc.

Onwards to CS162!