Course at a Glance: Problem Sets
What are problem sets?
This course is built around solving problems (see Strategy for the rationale behind this choice). Along with each scientific scenario you will get a set of problems. You will find a range of questions, from straight-forward to Huh? As best I can, I'll include problems that put the concepts we are talking about within a context where they actually arise in real life. In those cases, you will find that the biggest difficulty is often understanding what the problem is all about. Once you grasp that, the solution sometimes takes care of itself. Questions that do not readily connect with what we are talking about can certainly be more frustrating than drill-type questions, but finding connections can be more exhilarating than reciting definitions of abstract terms and gives you practice at the kind of skill that you will more likely use in whatever you do in the future.
What do I do when I have no idea how to answer a problem?
You might find this to be a common occurence, especially if you're new to molecular biology or to programming. Even if you're not, sometimes it's difficult to figure out what the problem is getting at (just as it is in real life). First of all, don't panic! This is normal. This is life. Learn to welcome confusion as an old friend. The true enemy is not confusion but despair. When you remain unsure of your moorings, that is when anything is possible. Revel in that brief freedom! Relax and let the problem tell its story.
Second, reflect on what you need to know in order to answer the problem. Seek a connection like, "the problem would be easy if I only knew how many bilirumps there are in a frazzle." Then your task reduces to the usually simple matter of finding the requisite fact. If you're new to molecular biology and you've determined that the difficulty lies in a hole in your molecular education, seek out someone in the class who knows more. If you're new to programming and the stumbling block is a subtlety in Perl, find someone savvy in programming. But either way, first pin down what you need to know so that you can go to the expert with specific concerns. Learning is most effective when you can direct the learning process.
Perhaps you feel that there is not
enough information available to answer the question. That's a start! In
that case, try writing out an unassailable proof that the question cannot
be answered. Often in doing so, you find a hole in your argument, a hole
through which you can escape and answer the question. And, like a worm
on a hook, keep wiggling. When you try new things, you might work yourself
Finally, we will devote considerable time in class to problems. This requires, however, that you bring with you the issues to be discussed. We can't jump over any hurdles until you have encountered them.
Will problem sets be graded?
No. But you may turn them in to receive feedback. This service is offered up to one week after the end of a unit (i.e. after we've done all we're going to do in class regarding the specific scenario). This policy is intended to encourage you to do problem sets as they are dispensed (to avoid unsightly buildup at certain times during the semester) and also to protect the faculty members from gluts of more work than we can handle.
Then why should I... I mean they're not going to be graded, right? So...
Who am I to tell you the best way to master your craft?
In MY experience, however, concepts aren't really learned unless we can
USE them in their actual contexts, i.e. by solving problems. With that
in mind, all exams will be based on problems.
And, since I am not infinitely creative, I will take the questions on the
exams from the problem sets we've already handed out, with minimal modification.
In short, the exams will assess your ability to solve the problems on the