‘Failed’ autograder, lack of assistance: Students express frustration with CS 61B

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As the semester draws to a close, many students in “Data Structures,” or Computer Science 61B, have begun voicing concerns over the course’s structure and the staff’s apparent lack of response to their complaints.

Many students pointed out technical difficulties with the course, including autograder difficulties, as well as an alleged lack of assistance from instructors and a heavy workload.

A notable problem with the course includes issues with the autograder, a program that acts as a “robotic rubric” for projects, labs and homework assignments, according to Kellyann Ye, a sophomore student in the course. Multiple students alleged that the autograder often malfunctions near the deadline for certain projects because of a large influx of students turning in their projects at the last minute.

“The autograder has failed for basically every single project we’ve had this semester,” Ye said. “The staff know how many people are in the course — they should’ve been able to observe the pattern.”

One such problem occurred during the class’s most recent project, Amazon. Students were graded based on the speed of their program, according to Ye. Because of the large influx of submissions, however, the autograder slowed down, causing many students to lose points where they would not have if it was “running at full capacity,” she added.

Paul Hilfinger, the professor for CS 61B this semester, said in an email that students continue to submit their projects at the last minute despite the staff’s frequent reminders not to, causing the autograder to become overloaded and backed up. He added that the problem is exacerbated when students submit their projects multiple times.

“We’ve allowed this to be nice, but may have to start being more restrictive,” Hilfinger said in an email. “We are experimenting with various ways to alleviate the problem.”

Sofie Herbeck, a sophomore student enrolled in CS 61B, said many students experience difficulty in receiving timely help from the professor and TAs. Office hours are only held in the middle of the day when many students have classes, she said in an email, and Hilfinger’s office hours occur at irregular times.

Herbeck added that this course — particularly the lack of available resources — has made her question her decision to pursue a major in computer science.

“I don’t mind the projects being difficult, but the way the course is currently structured makes it feel like the CS department is using it to discourage people from pursuing this major — especially those with less prior experience,” she said in an email.

Campus sophomore Michaela Warady, who is also enrolled in the course, and Ye both said that with the weekly homework, labs and frequent projects, CS 61B has taken up more time than any other class in their schedules. Warady added that the way the class is structured does not seem to take into account the amount of work the students must put in, as there is often an overlap between projects and exams.

“ ‘Frustrating’ is probably too casual of a word for it,” Ye said. “I’ve dropped responsibilities for extracurriculars and other classes that I didn’t want to drop but had to in order to do well in this course.”

Ye, who uses a PC, also pointed out that in general, the computer science department seems to be geared toward Mac users.

Hilfinger said in an email that, to a certain extent, the CS department prefers MacBooks, as PCs tend to exhibit differences in the software necessary for the classes. He added that he has frequently seen students experience difficulties in setting up their Windows configuration to work with the required software.

“Professor Hilfinger hasn’t done anything about the issues,” Warady alleged. “That’s very stressful because that means we have to deal with all the problems pre-emptively on our own and predict that these problems will happen — otherwise we’ll fail the class.”

Amber Tang is the lead higher education reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ambertang_dc.