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'Overwhelmed': CS 70 students reflect on recent exam

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Following their midterm, students raise concerns about the increasing rigor of CS 70.


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MARCH 13, 2023

Students are speaking out about the allegedly increasing difficulty of CS 70, the campus discrete mathematics and probability theory course, after a recent midterm was described on Reddit as “unbelievable” and “brutal.”

Held in Wheeler 150, CS 70 currently has an enrollment of 749 — a number that may drop in the aftermath of the midterm, which had an average score of 44%.

“From my perspective, the midterm asked students to attempt to tackle many different questions while not granting students enough time to complete the work in question,” said a current student, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation.

This is a sentiment shared by many: Last week’s exam prompted a barrage of Reddit threads in which past and present students aired out their grievances and concerns about the road the course has taken.

CS 70 is a prerequisite for the computer science major, generally following CS 61A and CS 61B. Students must receive a B+ average in these courses to declare the major.

Campus senior and student instructor for CS 70 Jet Situ noted that, at its root, the course is essential in equipping computer science students with the “core skills” necessary for upper division classes they may take later on.

Situ emphasized that a low midterm average is not indicative of a failing class, and course instructors do not expect students to understand every piece of information that may be presented on the exam — even a GSI would be unable to score a 100%, in his words. He noted that the majority of computer science students pass the class with the necessary grade.

“A lot of students look at the exam and feel very overwhelmed,” Situ said. “But ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s a comprehension of what they know and to what extent they know it.”

Reddit user cs70manifesto, however, highlighted the alleged inequities in the course. In the poster’s eyes, coming into CS 70, students with a preliminary understanding of the concepts at hand have a “massive advantage” in the course.

Therefore, the poster noted, they are expected to be able to keep up with the pace of the inherently difficult course — an assumption that can disadvantage students from lower-income communities or those who were simply not offered higher-level math courses in high school, the poster said.

Professor Satish Rao, who facilitated the first half of the course this semester, said he hears and understands his students’ concerns. He mentioned constant discussions with course staff, in which they debate the efficacy of student recommendations. The course, however, remains mostly unchanging, as does its philosophy of rigor.

“Assessing ‘power’ is not a 100% or 90% thing,” Rao said. “In real life, being creative and probing is a process, but the skills are what we hope to teach. Indeed, I often wonder why this skill is not taught much, much earlier.”

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MARCH 13, 2023