Margin Notes from a Boring Class: Coursework in a PhD program


Disclaimer: In my entire time of high school/college i.e. post class 10th and till date, I have never been a topper or in other words I have no track record of being great at coursework. I have been an average student for most of the part. Why am I telling you this? Because, cognitive biases, that’s why!

As a part of the PhD coursework, I have to take a total of 24 credits which translates into 8 courses. Here are some things I noted while taking courses:

I feel many courses don’t teach you how to actually solve a problem. The core concepts are taught and an exam is conducted to test your problem solving skill. Working your way through assignments is supposed to teach you how to solve problems, but if you solve the questions yourself the way you have been always doing, how will you learn new methods of problem solving?

The best solution to this problem that I can think of is to have peer-assessments. I had the experience of this in a course on Coursera and it was an amazing learning experience. We were supposed to grade the assignments of 5 fellow course takers. The sixth would be a self assessment.

Many of the courses related to computational techniques focus on pen and paper solving. For example, the assignments/exams should be heavily coding based in a numerical methods class but what happens is that you end up manually calculating determinants and multiplying matrices. If you are lazy you learn to compute a lot of stuff on the calculator but most people just do it the same way they have been doing from high school.

I understand the idea of building up and developing intuition as a skill - for which the pen and paper solving is a must, but I feel it should not be at the expense of acquisition of a new skill. Both should be treated equally which many a times does not happen.

Another thing is that not everyone learns the same way. A class in IISc could be an hour long or 1.5 hours. I don’t know how people stay attentive for this long (especially when the professor may have a somewhat bland teaching style). In an ideal world, I would love to lectures videotaped for viewing later. Most classrooms are well equipped for recording a class. Having a second run of the same class is something that I would have found extremely useful in teaching myself some particularly difficult material. I don’t know why this is not a thing that happens regularly!

Some other problems with the traditional teaching methodology

  • Not everyone learns at the same speed (Perhaps, this can be solved by making all notes available beforehand)
  • Some faculty members use no standard protocol for communication in Class (Google Classroom, SharePoint etc.)
  • TA classes and Problem solving sessions are a MUST. I feel some faculty members feel that students in a grad school do not need such sessions
  • Standard protocol for teaching is a MUST because not everyone is a great teacher. Also, it’s best for a student if the teacher avoids using presentations. Teachers should be instructed to not read out from notes. All of this could perhaps be avoided by giving out some guidelines for teaching maybe
  • Questions on the test must test conceptual understanding and NOT calculation skills. Many teachers try to do this. Also, this depends a lot on the nature of the subject. Of course, a highly quantitative field of study will have exams with a lot of calculation to be done to get to the answer
  • Most of the time, too much content is crammed into a course. If lesser volume of course content could result in a student learning the key ideas better, wouldn’t it be much better?
  • Many a times, there is no mandatory, introductory course on how to do research, how to do basic error analysis, how to write etc. which I feel is absolutely necessary in a PhD program
  • Many a times, the exam ends up being a test of just how well you can take the exam ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Things students don’t do or are not forced to do

Things would be different if students and teachers think and discuss about what essential skills you must have learned after completion of the course. This discussion if done at the start of the course will help a lot. Something like a checklist of essential knowledge or skills I should know after completion of the course would go a long way in realising the value from the course.

If you pick any textbook and make a list of all major headings and subheading and describe them in a few words, this would be such a list of things to take away from the course. I don’t know if many students do this, but I recently decided to do this for my courses just because I was trying to figure out why I was taking the damn course in the first place!

Most people I think know this but never bother stating it exclusively or documenting it. Consciously thinking of this forces you to put thought into the reasons why you should take a particular course and what are your expectations from it.

What could be done

On the exam side, I feel it is better for students to build things or demonstrate understanding by working on projects whenever possible. Of course, if the projects are done in a group, it will perhaps do more harm that any good.

Most of the stuff I mention here I feel is a design problem. By some simple changes in the way courses are administered, I guess the entire coursework experience can be made a bit more anxiety-free and useful to the student.

The other side

While it may seem that I am royally dissing coursework, I must say I think I am being too pessimistic in my approach. In the courses I have taken till date, I can see that they have positively contributed to the way I approach any problem.

Also, most people who take a particular course are subject-matter experts. During class, they will sometimes drop some insights into the topic that will lead to a bulb lighting up in your head somewhere. A different perspective could end up being one of the the most useful takeaways from a course.

Also, this topic is not something that can be easily expressed in ~1000 words without losing out nuanced perspectives. At best, this is a fair representation of what I think about the coursework in a PhD program at the moment.

And now if you excuse me, I have a test to prepare for - the one for which I was supposed to be studying instead of procrastinating by writing this post!