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Problem Sets in Theory and Practice

The primary purpose of problem sets is to enable students to learn the course material. In the physical sciences, the best way to learn is by doing problems. The reason problem sets are often a major part of the grading scheme is not to evaluate student mastery of the material (that's more appropriately done with exams), but rather to ensure that students actually do the work required to learn. Learning the material goes beyond just learning how to do specific kinds of calculations, and includes the ability to use the material in creative ways. For this reason, good problem sets (and exams) often include applications of the course material to situations not specifically covered in this lectures.

In ASTR 160, we are concerned both with understanding the specific scientific issues, and with understanding in general terms how science is done, so the problem sets have a mixture of specific problems, and commentary on scientific issues. But the goal in both cases is the same - to ensure that students think about the material as deeply as possible. The purpose of the policies described below is to help make that happen.

Lateness: Problem sets are due at the beginning of class. Problem sets handed in after I start lecturing, we will automatically take off two points (out of 20). This also goes for any problem set handed in any time after lecture ends. If the PS is handed in one day late (WEDNESDAY), we'll take of five points. If you hand it in by 5pm FRIDAY, we'll take ten points off. We will post solutions to the problem sets on Friday at 5pm, so work handed after this time will be given no credit. If you have a Dean's excuse that goes past the Friday deadline, we'll just skip the PS altogether, and compute your PS grade averaged over one fewer PS.

Collaboration: It is often very useful to talk about the problems with classmates, teachers or others, and you are encouraged to do so. On the other hand, it's very important to do your own thinking, and hand in your own work. Students often feel that these two statements are contradictory, and indeed they do introduce an awkward gray area in expectations. To clarify matters, we'll adopt the following policy: you can talk to whomever you like, but when you get to the point of writing down what you are going to hand in, you should be working alone, unprompted by any other person (including classmates, friends, TFs or tutors), or by anything another person has written. If you are working in a group (often a useful thing to do), please split up before you write down what you will hand in. We will check this by looking for identical phrasing (verbal or mathematical). We'll give a warning the first time we find something problematic, but after that we'll look carefully, and if we find further problems we'll take some form of Drastic Action. Depending on the severity of the situation, Drastic Action may include points off or reporting to the Executive Committee. But you'll suffer even if we don't catch you - if you don't make the effort to think these things through yourself, you won't do well on the exams.