Thursday, April 5, 2012

Taking back Master's to Undergrad

We spend our entire lives: primary school, high-school and university using similar (if not identical) structures of learning. Although the difficulty increases, with an increase in tasks as you go, in general, the structure remains the same

Here are some of those tasks that we are used to:

Lectures/Classes - approximately 45 minute periods of learning something new.
  • Requires some preparation reading
  • Involves introductions, definitions, overviews of main techniques, and then detailed algorithms or examples of those techniques
  • Break between class or lectures to get to the next venue.
Practicals - approximately 3 to 5 hours (depending on the subject matter) giving one the chance to physically apply what one has learnt.
  • In Physics, it would be run an experiment demonstrating the physical laws, in computer science it is to program a working version of the topics and algorithms covered in class
  • Generally starts with a simple task, then follows with more difficult challenges.
Assignments - Take home things which last a few weeks, usually involving the theory, working out difficult examples, and providing new incite and critical discussion. Sometimes involving practical demonstrations and experiments.

Tests - whether a pop quiz or semester test or exam, tests are the most commonly used evaluation of assessments. These are usually set out with separate questions for each section (not always though) - testing everything from basic definitions, to techniques to actually formulating new models and solving new problems. A large amount of study (if you're doing it correctly ;)) goes into the bigger tests, while a pop quiz just requires listening and understanding basic topics covered in class and practicas.

Project - a large assignment generally at the end of the semester/term which evaluates a large quantity of the topics covered in the course - an accumulation of one's knowledge involving theoretical side as well as practical.

So... We do this our entire lives, until we get to postgrad. Up until this point, we have had our studies divided up into different types of learning and understanding for us. But at a postgrad level it all changes: One focus, One topic, One thesis, One final presentation - in absolute detail and (in general) entirely unguided.

For those of us who managed to fly through highschool and undergrad, following the method of evaluation prescribed to us, without a bother, often find the sudden change to a research master's to be difficult. There is no granularity of how to divide learning. Most of us just start reading, and start writing - totally unguided - jumping from beginning to end to middle, sitting lost among a pile of journal papers, with endless headaches and panic attacks.

Wouldn't it be beneficial to steal some of those things from undergrad, since we are so well accustomed to them and try to use them in our how we approach Masters? I have a few ideas how this could be done and intend to implement some of them.

Lets take lectures: 45 minutes period of learning something new - starting with the basic definition and overview then going into relative detail with a few techniques. I think think can be used to introduce oneself to a topic one has come across during research. Generally a quick search about the topic can often yield conference paper presentations , which will introduce one to the topic. Then a look at existing textbooks and literature reviews for a few more ideas.

Once one has absorbed the knowledge in a lecture, it is probably time to implement a bit of what you have learnt. Take 3 hours, write up a mini-specification of what you are going to try do and apply what you have learnt. If its calculations, then try to redo those calculations, try program that robot or repeat the experiment. If you get stuck, the research to solve those problems may undoubtedly prove useful in your thesis.

Assignments seem to be akin to Chapters in one's thesis. Perhaps posing one's chapter in assignment form may allow for guidance. It also makes it less intimidating thinking of a thesis chapter as merely an assignment. It is also good to remember that even in the literature review, critical discussion and analysis is required - as it would be in an assignment.

What about tests? Where do they fit in? Well, regular meetings with ones supervisor are important. At these meetings one should be able to explain the topics that have been tackled so far. A good supervisor will ask for a presentation and ask you to answer questions about what you understand and what you have done. Is this like the tests we used to receive in undergrad? Not entirely, as often the "marker" has no idea what the topic is about. But it may be useful to formulate your main thesis points as questions and be able to answer them without looking at notes - a technique often used for studying for tests. This way one can solidify some of the more difficult topics in the thesis.

Projects - well... the project is the thesis. The accumulation of one's knowledge learnt during the duration of the course. Luckily one can use all the "assignments" that one has previously done, make changes, add some introductions and extra experiments... and voila - THESIS!! its not that simple, but I think it's a nice analogy.

Reading through what I have just written, I realized that in my own way, I was doing this sort of thing anyways... but in an unstructured unknowing fashion. I think, just on a mental level, it is good to sometimes think of a chapter as simply an assignment and as little problems and experiments as practicals. It should mentally bring the entire vast and frightening idea of writing a thesis into something we are acquainted with and have (for all you cum laude/honours students) mastered.

Happy research ;)

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