Infinity and Beyond

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Getting to grips with this university lark, I think. Having being told by various former work colleagues that, despite the best attempts of universities to convince otherwise, studying at undergraduate life involves attending a few lectures and not much else, I would like to know to which establishments of higher education they were referring. It bears no reflection to how much work that I’ve been putting in.

My month’s worth of experience at Southampton has taught me that someone will get as much out as what they put in. Although it is possible that one could get by attending lectures and a little reading, I doubt that such a pattern would result in a decent mark.

Similarly, it is a little bit frustrating that course tutors have this habit of being vague in the outline for coursework, so that one cannot systematically tick off the criterion necessary to achieve a good mark. As a professional, in what seems like a previous life, this kind of vagueness would have resulted in an ongoing conversation/interrogation with the other party to determine their exact requirements. Whereas at Southampton, the course tutors seem to be trying to break the habit of dependant learning and get students to properly explore a subject. This sits well with me as there is the occasion, if not the obligation, to know why something exists and what the purpose of that thing is.

In the interview stage, I was keen to state that studying at undergraduate level was not viewed as merely an exercise required to rubber-stamp previous experience. It had been thought that for a software developer by trade, the first year may be a little bit void of new material and not much to learn. In fact, I have been surprised how much relevant new material has cropped up and even if the base material is known, there is plenty more room to explore. This is reflected in the mark scheme.

Knowing everything within the syllabus, such as one exists, in the subject matter will get about 70%. There is still an extra 30% to find, which seems to be achievable only by additional work, understanding and development of the subject. I’m not sure if 100% is actually possible with an internationally ground-breaking piece of work. This is the reality of studying at a research-based university: the sky is the limit. Knowledge is an infinite set; nice to have a challenge.

There is a judgement to be made as to how study is required to grasp any given subject to the required level, and therefore this judgement involves knowing when to stop. In the Programming Principles modules, there are the “space cadets” sessions to keep those that have a firm foundation in software development interested and/or occupied. The challenges set contain a basic task and the freedom to explore the task further by extending the work, in exchange for permission to skip the lectures if necessary*. Call me sad, but a good coding puzzle can be fun and I could quite happily miss sleep, food and life in general to find a neat solution to one. Suffice to say, a little discipline is required. As a side note, I like these sessions as there is competition with other people in the class to come up with something different, which almost guarantees the learning of something new.

As there is only a finite amount of time and a potentially infinite amount of study to fit into it, where an appropriate level of understanding of each module would itself alone fit into a working week, it would seem important to get in the habit of allocating time outside lectures. This does not include the vital social activities, extra stuff and sleep which need to fit into the rest of the week. As I have taken an extra module in French and get out every week for some archery, that amounts to about 6 days out of 7 taken. I think I’ve just mastered that scheduling. Useful as the coursework has just started to arrive. How good is the schedule system? It is about to be stress tested. Big time.

* ECS legend Eric Cooke does his best to give colourful lectures on an occasionally dull subject …

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