By Cris Jericho Goh Cruz Staff Reporter
Many students say that your first year at KAIST is supposed to be your best year. You have more time to yourself. You can hang out with your friends more frequently. You don’t have to worry about your major requirements just yet. Sure, there is some degree of stress and pressure, but all in all, more than the rest of your time at KAIST, freshman year is meant to be enjoyed. Due to the impacts of the current pandemic, however, this semester has been hard for freshmen to enjoy.
Aside from familiarizing themselves with the school and their fellow students, freshmen spend their first two semesters taking mandatory basic courses like General Chemistry I (CH101) and Calculus II (MAS102), so-called “freshman courses”. In any other semester, freshmen’s experiences with these courses vary widely — some courses are more difficult than others. That remains true this time around, but with the entire semester going online, many have been saying it has generally been more difficult than usual.
For instance, many freshmen taking General Physics I (PH141) and General Physics II (PH142) this semester have been very vocal on anonymous online pages and in frequent conversations, about their difficulties with the courses — especially regarding the homework. One student said that their seniors, when asked for help with PH142 homework, said that “this is way harder than our midterms before.” Another student, talking about PH141, said, “the difficulty level of the homework is far beyond the contents of the lectures.” A first-semester freshman also taking PH141 noted, “I feel like I’m more concerned about finishing the homework every week than actually learning the lessons.” Because of the heavy workload for these courses, a number of freshmen dropped them before midterms, hoping they will be more manageable under normal circumstances. Seemingly, the problem is not necessarily the courses themselves, but how much more difficult they have become during this online semester.
Some courses have also drawn criticism from students because of the lectures. A student taking PH142, for instance, said, “I watch the lecture videos from the other section because my professor’s lectures aren’t helpful for the homework.” Another instance of inconsistency among lectures is in Calculus I (MAS101), where different professors take turns teaching different chapters. A MAS101 student observed that “while some professors teach well, others aren’t good.” And for CH101, one student shared that they are “ahead of the syllabus because the professors teach too quickly”, in addition to the lecture videos themselves being “too hard to understand because the quality is not good.” A subpar quality for the lectures in these courses will certainly affect student learning and performance.
Assessing performance is another issue that each course has addressed differently this semester. In regular offline semesters, most of these courses have quizzes, midterms, and finals making up the majority of the grading criteria. This semester, however, there have been wide variations in the decisions of different courses. CH101 has decided to forgo homeworks, quizzes, and midterms, solely having the finals (and a tiny portion for attendance) as the basis for passing or failing. For PH141, midterms were also not held, so aside from the infamous weekly homework, only the finals will be used to assess students. One freshman noted, “it’s a bit unfair because midterms usually help the student know how well they’re doing halfway through, but with only finals, it’s like having only one chance.” On the other hand, Introduction to Programming (CS101) did hold an online midterm, which is different from the usual written exam during offline semesters. However, some students felt the exam wasn’t very fair, due to technical difficulties with the Elice platform and issues with scoring. And again, for some courses that use homework for performance assessment such as PH142 and MAS101, the extreme difficulty can discourage students from doing their best in the class.
In general, freshman courses this semester seem to be very discouraging for many freshmen. In addition to being demotivated from aiming for excellence, some are also discouraged from studying regularly. In courses where the lectures aren’t entirely useful for the homework or the exams, some students delay watching the lectures until the last minute, or simply watch them because they have to, without paying attention. Undoubtedly, there are students who have been discouraged from pursuing certain majors because of the difficulty of their corresponding introductory freshman courses. For instance, one freshman who was considering Computer Science or Electrical Engineering for their major, stated that after their experience with PH142 this semester, they’re “probably going to do CS because EE has more physics in it.”
With the situation regarding the pandemic always being uncertain, the people behind course decisions — professors, TAs, and administrators — certainly deserve a little consideration. But it is difficult to extend the benefit of the doubt when students feel that the difficulty of some courses hinders rather than promotes understanding of the lessons, or that the method of assessment is not fair nor considerate, or that professors and TAs seem more interested in making the courses challenging rather than teaching them. In fact, some courses, such as MAS102, have been praised by some students for being considerate to them after issues were raised while at the same time preserving the quality of the lectures and assessments. But, if some courses can do it, why can’t all of them?
Freshmen aren’t the only ones affected by the situation, no question. Every member of the KAIST community has had to deal with different problems this semester. But it’s unfortunate that the youngest members of the KAIST community, who should have been enjoying their freshman year before having to face more challenges later on, have been unable to do so because of the poor response in their mandatory classes. It is entirely possible that the next semester will have to go online as well. We must hope that KAIST learns from the mistakes of this semester to produce a better and more considerate plan for next semester. Maybe then, next semester’s freshmen might still be able to enjoy their first year in spite of the circumstances rather than also be discouraged. But some aren’t so hopeful. When asked whether they think freshman courses would improve next semester, one student glumly sighed: “I don’t really think so.”
"The assignments are difficult, rather than the class itself. Some problems are basically impossible to solve only with the knowledge that can be gained from the lectures or textbooks."
"I have checked the past papers for both Calculus I and Physics I and [they seem] to be more doable than what we received as homework right now. I cannot imagine how horrible the finals exam will be."
The Calculus Problem
By Duman Kuandyk Senior Staff Reporter
Courses were forced to change their teaching format this semester, and Calculus I (MAS101) was no exception. Considering that it is one of the main required courses for undergraduate freshmen and therefore has a huge number of enrolled students, its organization promised to be a hard task.
Right now, over 600 students are taking Calculus I, divided into fourteen sections. During the semester, the course structure has undergone major changes. It was originally intended to take place in an online format for the first eight weeks, followed by an offline exam, and then move to a conventional teaching format for the rest of the semester. But due to the uncertainty over COVID-19 outbreaks, as well as numerous organizational problems, the teaching staff already had to make changes to the course in April.
At first, it was announced that the offline midterm would be replaced by an online test in the take-home format, but later, the midterm was canceled altogether. On April 30, the professors announced that if the offline final can be held, it will comprise 70% of the students’ overall grade. Otherwise, the course will adopt an S/U grading scheme. For a long time, the standard for a passing grade was not clear, and only after a student individually contacted the professors at the end of May was it announced that the passing threshold would be a B- grade, with those at the borderline having to take an oral exam through Zoom.
This announcement raised concerns among students, especially among those currently taking the course in their final semester. According to KAIST rules, international students who enrolled in a fall semester are only able to take Calculus I in a spring semester. Those who aren’t able to take the class in their first semester due to heavy workload or needing to take College Mathematics end up putting it off until later semesters. Many students are only able to take it in their final year because of conflicts in the schedule with the major courses.
The threshold of B- was particularly worrying because the general consensus is that Calculus I is more difficult in the spring. There are no official statistics on Calculus I grades among international students, but many find it very difficult to get a grade higher than B0 because of the course content. The difference in course difficulty between fall and spring semester is largely attributed to the fact that Korean freshmen, most of whom come from science high schools, enter KAIST in spring and take MAS101 right away. International students, who are more likely to be disadvantaged by their differing educational backgrounds, have to compete with Korean students based on relative grading. As a minority in such courses, international students have a lower chance of getting good grades. Given that in normal semesters, even a D- grade makes it possible to graduate from university, many considered the decision to cut off the S grade at B- unfair, especially under current circumstances. For students planning to graduate this semester, failing the course would disrupt their graduation plans, and they would have to stay for at least one additional semester. One student pointed out that this would be unfair since it could delay employment plans, which is particularly important in the context of the expected economic crisis due to the pandemic.
Students additionally complained about the organization of Calculus I this semester. Each week, ten problems were given out as homework, but only two randomly selected problems were marked, leading to disappointment from students who were able to solve seven problems but unluckily got zero points because the unsolved problems were the ones counted. Furthermore, students under social distancing restrictions raised concerns that since they have to stay at home with conditions unsuitable for productive study, the increased load on the subject became overwhelming.
After numerous complaints and the involvement of KISA, the teaching staff decided to respond to the students and announced the following decisions. Initially, they announced that the oral examination did not apply to all students, but only to those on the S/U threshold. They clarified that the oral exams are designed to check whether the students are familiar with the basic knowledge necessary for taking Calculus II, so the problems will not be as challenging as a regular exam. They also gave graduating students the opportunity to request a letter grade, provided that they send proof of graduation.
The Department of Mathematics, after all, showed an ability to respond to students' complaints. The updated course assessment decisions are more flexible than the original ones. But the question of whether such decisions will improve the lives of students taking this course remains open.
"I spent almost 120 hours on coding just for the 6 labs and 2 homework tasks, and every time I sit [to code], I end up having a breakdown because the professor never taught us half the information required."
"We can’t ask the professors any questions as most lectures are pre-recorded. The CS101 TAs take time to respond as they have a huge load and a lot of the questions go unanswered. The required homework questions are too difficult. We can’t even discuss with classmates in the library. Sometimes the TA’s reply is just to read the question again."
A Physics TA's Perspective
Jisun Lee Staff Reporter
No one expected that COVID-19 would prolong online classes to last the entire spring semester. The students didn’t, and neither did the people on the opposite side of the computer screen: the teaching assistants (TAs) and the professors. While they scrambled to devise ways to best facilitate the teaching process, some courses sparked controversies as to whether these methods are truly beneficial to the students, and in the center of these controversies stood General Physics II (PH142).
Since the beginning of the semester, many students expressed frustration about the level of difficulty of the assignments given by PH142 TAs. Most homework problems require a comprehensive understanding of the topic, often far beyond the scope of the basic knowledge and very straightforward example problems covered in online lectures. The complexity of the problems makes them disturbingly difficult to solve, even after paying close attention to lectures. Fatigued by spending excessive amounts of time on each problem, many have felt unmotivated to attempt to solve them on their own. As a result, receiving good grades on assignments has become increasingly dependent on Internet searching skills, subscriptions to problem-solving services, or wide networks of friends and seniors, rather than the ability to understand and apply physics concepts.
As students continuously voiced concerns about these issues, The KAIST Herald interviewed two General Physics II TAs to hear their thoughts on the assignments this online semester.
The main question during COVID-19 for those in charge of organizing classes is how to facilitate students’ learning process amid situations where communication and many teaching methods are limited. PH142 TAs explained that the main purpose of handing out assignments is to assist students in fully understanding the contents of each chapter. Students are expected to enhance their knowledge of the subject by solving a wide array of questions. In regular semesters, General Physics II has weekly quizzes along with midterm and final exams to assess the students’ performances. However, the fairness of online quizzes and exams has been continuously questioned, since the lack of monitoring makes them highly susceptible to cheating issues. As an alternative, TAs have been using assignments to analyze how well the students comprehend what they learned. They explained that although the assignments may be challenging, students should take their time and effort to solve it by themselves, discuss with or ask others to clear up any points of confusion, actively learn anything they need to know, and apply their understanding of the topic to derive the final answer. Through this learning process, students can hopefully consolidate their knowledge on each physics topic.
The TAs said that they have been making questions that ask about concepts they find important or topics they believe will be intriguing for the students. They have been trying to create original questions that are not commonly found in other general physics textbooks. They addressed that since KAIST students tend to be high achieving, providing some degree of difficulty is needed. Some choose questions that ask concepts they personally found confusing when they studied general physics. One TA responded that he hopes “students can find the joy of solving the problem they previously struggled with, as I did.”
They did, however, acknowledge that they have realized students are facing difficulties in handling assignments this semester. While there are students who fully understand the problems, they are not the majority. Contrary to the original intent of assisting in learning physics, students often simply give up or resort to copying others’ work to cope with the burdensome deadlines that come around the corner every week. Thus, adjusting the level of difficulty of the assignments has also been a subject of concern for the TAs. They review each question before handing it out; however, it is not a simple task to find the right line. If the problems are too easy, they won’t be able to distinguish between students who diligently solve the problems and those who do not. If it is too difficult, it realistically does not help students in learning new concepts. A TA commented that he believes “the ideal level of difficulty would be something that yields an average of 5 to 6 [out of 10] and is slightly more difficult than textbook questions. I believe the questions I made have been overall hard and it is something [the TAs] should be more considerate about, such as simplifying the questions or decreasing the scope of concepts they ask.”
What everyone should remember is that this unprecedented online semester is new to the TAs and professors as well. Since it is their first time managing online classes, it inevitably entails many unexpected challenges. The TAs pointed out that the lack of communication between students poses the greatest challenge to them, as it hinders them from giving adequate help to those who need it and getting feedback from the students. To address this issue, they have been running optional Zoom recitation classes every week, but there still remains an inherent challenge in communication compared to conventional face-to-face classes.
The school, professors, and teaching assistants have been putting in efforts in upholding the goal of basic freshman courses: to teach students knowledge that would serve as the foundation for them to delve deeper into science and engineering studies. However, during this process, they must gauge how much students have learned through some form of grading. While accurately assessing students' performances is important, it raises the question of whether grading is more important than being considerate about the difficulties students go through amid this crisis — coping with health and safety concerns, adjusting to abrupt changes in their lives such as lockdowns or social distancing, and trying to find their way through this chaos. In stressful times when everyone suffers due to the pandemic, competitive assessment of students should not be the primary concern. After all, the ultimate goal of education is to spark genuine interest in the subject, not to kill passion. And if the current measures have been doing the exact opposite of what is intended, the next question to ask is: how should it change?
"For a lot of us, the house isn’t a peaceful place and there are huge family issues to deal with. I have never felt so stressed in my entire life. I hate KAIST’s competitive culture and its pressure on students."
"The General Courses are so difficult, they focus on solving exercises rather than inspiring students to do science. General Course should give students the love and the passion of that subject first, not push all the hard things at once for the students to suffer."
At the Discretion of Professors
By Ada Carpenter Editor-in-Chief
As students struggle with courses this semester, there has been much dissatisfaction with the way they are being run and evaluated. The unprecedented online semester has caused difficulties for those managing the classes, and in many cases, the problems have not been mitigated for those taking them. While professors themselves scramble to organize their lectures to function online, it appears students’ fates have been left at their discretion and mercy.
Ultimately, the difficulty levels and wide variability of classes every semester depend on the choices and preferences of the professors in charge. While some, like General Physics, are managed by all the involved professors in collaboration, others such as General Biology seem to vary so hugely between sections that the differences can only be explained by dependence on the whims of each lecturer. This semester, the difficult circumstances have greatly amplified the inconsistencies and inequalities in the standard of education and evaluation even within departments.
With this in mind, The KAIST Herald got in touch with several current professors of basic required courses, including those of Calculus I (MAS101) and General Physics II (PH142). Prompted by the concerns of students, the questions posed included ones about homework difficulty, grading policy, professor-student interaction methods, and plans for improvements to the online courses.
Of the professors contacted for an interview, only one agreed to answer our questions, the others deflecting responsibility to others who would “have more generic and official information”. While some did acknowledge that this is an important and timely issue, the answers we received were limited and relatively unhelpful. This is a sentiment undoubtedly shared by the many students whose emails to their professors have been ignored or missed this semester. Other issues that have been raised were instances in which professors changed their grading policy several times, and insisted upon strict attendance policies even for international students currently residing abroad, who have had to wake up at ridiculous hours to “attend” the real time class. Many students feel ignored and alienated by their professors particularly because they have no opportunities for in-person interactions. In response to this concern, a professor of MAS101 did point out that every class should have been holding online office hours via Zoom — but the real provision and uptake of these is undoubtedly far lower than ideal.
As for the most major issue — the mismatch between lecture and assignment difficulty level — it seems professors are least willing to reconsider their stance. Despite conceding that the standards for achieving top grades are high, the Calculus I professor interviewed stated that he “assumes [his] level of teaching” is appropriate for incoming freshmen. This sentiment exists across departments; while professors may listen to student concerns, fundamentally they take full liberty in deciding the benchmark that students must meet in their classes, irrespective of individual circumstances.
We cannot ignore the fact that this online semester has been challenging for professors too, who have had to juggle the reorganization of their lectures with ongoing lab research. But it has also put students more dependent on the whims of professors than ever. Not everything should be left to their discretion.
"Since the assignments are way too difficult, people who purchase Chegg membership or receive Tutoring have a significant advantage. I lose all motivation to study when I realize that although I put in all my effort in solving the problems by myself, it would take me much longer and I’ll still get lower grades than those who receive help."
"The courses are way too fast-paced and it fails to be introductory courses."