The following tips are offered based on our experience with CS 170!
In a conceptual class such as this, it is particularly important to maintain a steady effort throughout the semester, rather than hope to cram just before homework deadlines or exams. This is because it takes time and practice for the ideas to sink in. Make sure you allocate a sufficient number of hours every week to the class, including enough time for reading and understanding the material as well as for doing assignments. (As a rough guide, you should expect to do at least one hour of reading and two hours of problem solving for each hour of lecture.) Even though this class does not focus on projects, you should plan to spend as much time on it as your other technical classes.
The effort you spend on the homework assignments is the largest factor in your mastery of the material, and thus performance in the class as a whole. The staff posts detailed solutions of the homework problems each week, often with multiple solution approaches and commentary. Regardless of how well you did on the homework, make it a priority to carefully read the solutions and compare them with your own work, even for the problems you got right. The main reason to do so is that sample solutions will often be simpler and cleaner. You will have a higher chance of solving similar problems under exam pressure if you have a simple picture. You may well learn a different way of looking at the problem, and you may also benefit from emulating the style of the solutions. It might seem attractive in the short term to just ignore homework solutions, or delay reading them until the day before the final. Some students will even try to finish the homework faster by looking up solutions to problems online. But these practices are detrimental to understanding in the long term, and thoroughly understanding solutions is a critical step to mastering the material. These homeworks are provided to you not as a chore, but as an opportunity for you to challenge yourself and explore the wonderful world of algorithms. Don’t short-change yourself by skimping on them. As an added incentive, we will draw from the homework problems when writing exams.
Read through the homework problems as soon as they are available, and let them percolate in your brain. Schedule multiple times throughout the week to attempt the problems. Often, the solution will only come to you the second or third time you try a problem. Definitely do not wait until the night before it is due to start working on the homework. If you do this (alas, procrastination is all too common), (a) the stress will make it harder to be creative and solve the problems; (b) you will be tempted to ask your homework group for too many hints (or outright solutions) to the problems, which borders on cheating and impedes your learning, and (c) the stress will sap the joy of finding algorithms!
The instructor and TAs hold office hours expressly to help you. You are free to attend as many office hours as you wish! Discussion sections are an opportunity for interactive learning. The success of a discussion section depends largely on the willingness of students to participate actively in it. As with office hours, the better prepared you are for the discussion, the more you are likely to get out of it.
As stated above, you are encouraged to form small groups (e.g. of four students) to work together on homeworks and on understanding the class material on a regular basis. If you’re unsure about how to find a study group, attending homework parties is a great way to getting started. In addition to being fun, this can save you a lot of time by generating ideas quickly and preventing you from getting hung up on some point or other. Of course, it is your responsibility to ensure that you contribute actively to the group; passive listening will likely not help you much. And recall the caveat above that you must write up your solutions on your own. Spend some time on your own thinking about each problem before you meet with your study partners; this way you will be in a position to compare ideas with your partners, and it will get you in practice for the exams.