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Last active Oct 2, 2017

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An open letter to CS247.

Open Letter to CS247

The past two assignments in this course have had what I feel to be significant issues that impede learning. I disagree with the philosophy behind the assignments' design decisions, and I feel like my opinions need to be voiced in order to help improve the quality of the course and, by extension, our education.

Counter-productive requirements

For a course about learning good C++ design, the decision to disallow all of STL, templating, arrays, and multiple files confuses me. The first assignment requires the creation of multiple container types, many of which can have very similar implementations. We are marked on not repeating ourselves, so every student completing this assignment needs to refactor their collections into some sort of heirarchy to achieve this and avoid simply copy-and-pasting code. There are a few ways to do this without using the tools we are restricted from using, and all of them lead to poor C++ code:

  • Void pointer casting: One can make a generic container class that accepts a void pointer for each element. This removes all of the type checking help the compiler can give you and makes memory management much more difficult and time consuming. This is the sort of thing that actual companies don't want to see in their code.
  • Inheritance: Another option is to make a generic container that accepts a Node*, and then any type that you want to be able to put in the list can extend Node. This is an abuse of object orientation: there can be no methods in common between Node subclasses because the C++ type system (without using templates) prevents this.
  • Unions: A union can be made of all the types that one could potentially put in a list, but like using void pointers, it is up to the programmer to figure out what type the inner content of the union actually is.

There are other ways of addressing this problem, too, and all of them involve trying to replicate the functionality that a C++ template would give. Allowing templates would not diminish the importance of learning how to use pointers, it only diminishes the need to write long, convoluted code that serves no real-world purpose. Preventing using templates because we have not been taught them yet is not a good reason to increase the complexity of the assignment exponentially like this. It is a much better solution to simply teach us how to use templates, since that is arguably the proper C++ way to solve this sort of problem. By not doing so, many more hours need to be spent on the assignment and we end up learning less.

I can understand the need to want students to implement their own collections instead of using the STL. However, the argument that we have not learned STL before is invalid, since we have all seen STL use before in previous courses.

I have similar complaints about the requirement to have all of our code in one file. We have learned how to make header guards in past courses that everyone in the class took, so not being taught it yet is not a valid reason to disallow using multiple files. This requirement, like the lack of templating, forces us to write bad C++ code, which is directly opposed to the point of the course.

Because of these reasons, the claim on the postmortem that we have poorly organized code because we did not plan well enough is ridiculous and is frankly immature. Refusing to accept any blame for this is an attempt to invalidate the very real problems with the assignment.

Poor testing and specs

In the second assignment, we are given a set of constraints that our programs must conform to. This is, of course, a standard situation that someone in the software industry will encounter. However, in the real world, a developer is given the actual specs that they must conform to. What we received instead was a spec and an "ideal" implementation, which our program must match. The issue is that the implementation did not match the specs, and there were many undocumented behaviours that one must hunt for in the implementation in order to find out why an otherwise valid program fails the given test cases. As a result, an undeservedly large amount of time must be spent trying to discover what undocumented rules a program must follow rather than spending that time actually learning.

Question 2 of assignment 2 is largely based off of question 3 in assignment 1, except a lot of whitespace is different in the expected output. The only thing this accomplished was that it made people spend time hunting down changed and then trying to find out the logic behind them; it does not teach us anything programming-related and is therefore educationally a waste of time. This was addressed recently by making Marmoset not care about whitespace, but it is unfortunately too late: it is not reasonable to change requirements the day before an assignment is due. Hours have already been spent by students working on conforming to the spec that could have been spent actually learning.

Lack of open-endedness

When marking a question like question 2 of assignment 1, where a student needs to justify their design decisions, it is not reasonable to mark them harshly against a set "right answer". There is more than one valid design pattern when programming, and this was not reflected in the comments.

For example, one might argue that a building must be mutable because a school might want to rename it later. I rebut: this is a program in which a building does not change, so why prepare for features that are out of the scope of the project? Why not create a new immutable Building instance with different properties and use that instead of mutating a Building? In real life projects, decisions like these are conversations and debates, and there are multiple correct answers.

There is a great emphasis placed on using ADTs as real-world metaphors, but that is a limiting perspective. There are entire languages where every data type is immutable, and companies are productive in them, so it cannot be called an invalid approach. We are programmers, writing programs: we should not consider every odd edge case that might happen to a real-life object when they are not relevant to the scope of a program.

There is, of course, a line: if you have an opinion, it must be backed up. But when an opinion is dismissed based on someone else's opinion, it doesn't teach us how to think critically and make reasonable decisions; instead, it teaches us to conform to what is wanted to be heard.

Fixing the Problems

I don't want to write a list of complaints just for the sake of ranting. I think that the course has a useful curriculum and can be made useful, but in order to do so, there are some key things that I think need to be changed. All of these changes keep student learning as the focus.

  • Make sure testing isn't an afterthought. As students who have to do the assignment, we have to work with what we are given. When constraints are present in the example executable but not specs, we can't test our programs well. In order to truly practice test-driven development, one must be able to write unit tests from the spec alone.
  • Ask whether a constraint is beneficial to the learning. Constraints are useful teaching tools, but they need to have an actual benefit. When introducing a constraint, ask the question, "why is this being added?" If the answer isn't strictly because it enhances the learning experience, then the constraint should not be added.
  • Make the challenge of assignments be relevant to the coursework. When an assignment is hard because code organization for a large program in one file is hard, that means that the work being done is not helping us learn.
  • Don't hide the best way to do something from us. We learn by doing: if we are forced to write poor code because we haven't been shown the right way to do something yet, that is a sign that we need to be shown the right way to do it. Otherwise, we learn how to do it the wrong way. That would be counter-productive.

These are my personal opinions, and you might not agree with all of them. That is perfectly acceptable; mostly, I hope that this can be the beginning of a discussion with the class about the assignments and their purpose in our education. Our class cares deeply about quality of the education we receive and I know we can do better.

Thanks for your time,

Dave Pagurek

@armcburney

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armcburney commented Jun 6, 2016

I agree 100% with everything you said. Thank you for taking the time to make this post.

@hudson155

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hudson155 commented Jun 6, 2016

There were a few lines in this letter that stood out to me, and I'd like to comment briefly on a few of them. Firstly, however, I'll agree with Dave on behalf of our class that we care deeply about the quality of the education that we receive, and would like to work with the course team to improve it.

Because of these reasons, the claim on the postmortem that we have poorly organized code because we did not plan well enough is ridiculous and is frankly immature.

As a former high-performance track athlete, I'd like to make draw a parallel here. Just as with programming, running a sub-50 second 400m dash requires race planning and strategy. Let's say coach told me to run 400 repeats at pace without using starting blocks or track spikes, and while wearing sweat pants. If she then told me my times were poor because I had a poor race plan, I would be livid.

If we are forced to write poor code because we haven't been shown the right way to do something yet, that is a sign that we need to be shown the right way to do it.

This basically speaks for itself.

There is more than one valid design pattern when programming...

Although obviously true, I for one am not getting this impression through the course material or in the lectures. I believe that it is extremely valuable as a developer or academic to acknowledge this truth, and to value and respect differing opinions. Good education is about learning and about comparing alternatives, not about advertising and enforcing one's personal preferences.

Thanks for your time,

Jeff Hudson

@JamesBla

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JamesBla commented Jun 6, 2016

As an individual in our class has suggested, actions like this in the enterprise environment could cost someone their job - quite honestly these string of events is just unacceptable.

@ju-de

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ju-de commented Jun 7, 2016

+1

@quackerd

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quackerd commented Jun 7, 2016

First of all, personally I am not a big fan of C++. To be precise, I HATE it for all kinds of undefined behaviors the compiler does behind the scene. Quotation form the first year C prof: "C to C++ is like lung to lung cancer".

"Ask whether a constraint is beneficial to the learning."
"Don't hide the best way to do something from us."

Regarding the assignments and how the prof restricts usage of certain C++ functionalities, I am sure the prof has good intentions. They want to make sure that students UNDERSTAND how things work under the hood. They want to make sure that students understand how all kinds of constructors work, instead of simply how to use existing "fancy" STLs/templates. This should be what to expect from the education of a university known for its computer science, otherwise I don't see any difference attending UW than a community college. Once you understand how stuff work, those fancy "class"/"template" are just a higher level abstraction of the concepts.

You might think I am an idiot and it's a waste of time to implement stuff already implemented. Well I am an OS guy. I always care about the underlying mechanism. I never write code that I don't know what compile is doing in the background. After years of dealing with compiler, assembly, ABIs, I have to admit that they, implicitly, helped so much in my daily coding, including the non-OS-related and high level languages.

"Make sure testing isn't an afterthought."
"Make the challenge of assignments be relevant to the coursework."

I totally agree. It always amazes me that in some courses how much the specification differs from the expected output. I remember the worst scenario was in the OOP course, where the specification was simply incorrect and students had to write their own test cases and compare the output (char by char) of their own program and the given binary. This was a huge waste time on just formatting the output.

@davepagurek

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davepagurek commented Jun 9, 2016

@secXsQuared I definitely agree that it is worthwhile implementing things yourself to learn how they work and learn why we have the abstractions we use. Knowing what everything does allows you to jump between languages and abstractions and create your own tools without any parts being mysterious black boxes. I am also a strong advocate of learning the mechanism.

There is a line, though, between being educationally useful and just being tedious, and I believe this course's assignments cross it. These are things that our class has already been taught and does not beed to be pounded into our heads again, and even still, the length of the assignments and the hours put into them do not justify leaning only that one piece. It's simply not efficient, and not the best use of our time.

If the point was to be taught why templates are useful and how they would work if they were not a language feature, then it is my opinion that a better assignment would be to implement a smaller scenario (possibly a subset of the current assignment, like only the pathfinding part or only the not pathfinding part.) Beyond that, there is less and less value per hour spent.

@llawford

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llawford commented Jul 28, 2016

"we changed the requirements" on the day it was due? Wow. I wish I was surprised...

At least now I know it's not unique to my school/dept. to jerk students around during the assignments.

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