A.3 Course structure

I’m going to assume that you taken classes before. You may even have taken classes that used proficiency grading. But every semester and every course is different (especially these days!). So I want to go over the basic structure, how the course works, just so we’re all on the same page.

I’ve taught courses with a similar structure before, and spoiler alert, here are the two things those students would most want to tell you right now:

  1. Start off right. There’s a lot of flexibility here and it’s really easy to let your other commitments take priority, but you will not be happy you did that around Week 8. To a large extent, you get to make your own rules for how you do this course – but that means you have to make your own rules in this course.

  2. Ask when you’re not sure – both about statistical material, and about the course itself. This may be a completely new course structure for you, so it makes sense if you have questions about it! What I’ve heard from so many students is “this course was super different, but I really liked it once I got the hang of it.” So, I want to help you get the hang of it, as soon as possible! You can post questions to a Moodle conversation forum (which is great because probably 5 other people have the same question), or contact me directly if your question is private.

A.3.1 The Day-to-Day

The content of the course is divided into modules, corresponding to major topics. We’ll move at a pace of, veeerrrryyyy approximately, one module every two weeks.

I like to think of your experience with each topic as having four stages:

  • A first exposure to the ideas. The goal here is not to understand the topic completely, but to get a sense of the main concepts, and which parts of it seem more or less confusing to you personally. For this stage, you’ll have readings (or possibly video lectures) before class, and pre-class questions for each class – see below.
  • Actually getting to grips with the ideas. This is what class time is for. We’ll have a combination of lecture, discussion, and labs/activities.
  • A second (or more) round of practice. For this you’ll have access to practice problems, which don’t affect your course grade but give you a chance to build your skills.
  • Assessing your understanding. This will (mostly) take the form of assessments corresponding to the different modules/chunks of targets. Yes, this is where your grade (mostly) comes from, but it’s also there for you – it lets you see where you stand, and where you might want to put in additional work.

So what about class? Our scheduled class time is 11:30 am - 12:45 pm Eastern time, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; for the first two weeks, while we’re on Zoom, we may have modified times for our live meetings. If you are signed up for a particular time, please do come to that time; if you have a schedule conflict, contact me about it. Our synchronous class time will be used in two main ways:

  • Discussion of the newest material. This may involve something resembling lecture from me, but you’ll always be part of it – I’ll ask and answer questions throughout. Other times, you’ll take more of a leading role in the discussion.
    • The specific content of the discussion is informed by what I see on the pre-class responses, so don’t forget to complete those!
  • In-class activities, or labs. You’ll typically work on these in small groups.
    • Many, though not all, of these will involve coding, so it’s a good idea to bring a laptop to class each day. If you have issues around this, just let me know!

A.3.2 What You’ll Do

The first step in a new topic or module is to do the readings (or watch the videos, or read the transcripts). Remember, your goal here is not complete ready-for-assessment understanding, it’s getting a sense of the big picture – what the topic is about, the basic vocab involved, and where you think the questions or tricky points are going to be.

Before each class meeting, you’ll submit pre-class questions about the current topic; you can also include some questions about previous topics if you like. If you don’t have any questions, you submit “Screech Questions”: questions you can imagine someone else (like my plushie, Screech) might have about the topic. These are due the night before the session. I’ll review the questions from everyone in the group, and use them to create an agenda for the day. (Note: in the agenda, I’ll prioritize popular/common questions and those that I consider to touch on really important points. We won’t always have time to address every question; at that point, it’s time to head to office hours or the Topic Conversation forums – see below.)

Once you’ve had a first look at a topic, and worked with it in class, you’ll try out one or more practice problems. I encourage you to work with other people on these; but always make sure that you are developing your own understanding (see “Should I join a study group?”). If you want additional practice, let me know and I’ll suggest some extra problems; you can’t submit the extras formally, but you can always chat about them on the forum discussions or at office hours. Then, after spending some time with a module, you’ll attempt (or re-attempt!) an Assessment for those targets. These are how you (and I) assess your grasp of each subject – see this section for more details on assessment.

Technically speaking, there are no required problem sets for this course, just pre-class questions and the project (!). You do not have to do practice problems. I predict that you will anyway, because (1) you earn engagement for doing so, and (2) that’s the way most humans actually learn. You can skip straight to attempting Assessments, but this is probably not a great idea; you only get one attempt at an Assessment each week, so you don’t want to burn them unnecessarily. You also have a limited number of chances to retry Assessments if you didn’t show any real progress the first time (see the fine print).

Throughout this process, you’ll be in communication with me, the TAs, and your classmates. Our main tool for this is the general discussion boards/forums on Moodle. This is the place to ask questions, see if other people also have your questions, answer or expand on questions from your classmates, share stats stories, organize study sessions, and generally interact with our class community.

Not-every-week stuff: From time to time you’ll also have project components to submit for feedback (and Engagement Credits). You’ll supply peer feedback on your classmates’ project components as well. Building on this, you’ll give a presentation of your whole project to your classmates (and me) at the end of the semester. There is a sort of final-exam-equivalent during finals, but there are no midterms or tests.