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I'm a computer science student who doesn't find lectures useful. I think self-studying is more useful and I should quit my degree in favour of a distant-learning degree. I've tried to convince my parents that lectures are useless for me and that I'd be better served on a distant-learning degree, but they disagree. They think all students feel the same way as me. Do all computer science students really feel this way?

closed as primarily opinion-based by user3209815, aparente001, David Richerby, D.W., Brian Tompsett - 汤莱恩 Apr 23 '18 at 16:58

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Are you mostly asking about common emotions, or are you more interested in objective arguments about how to best pursue your goals? And if the latter, what're your goals? – Nat Apr 23 '18 at 9:00
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    I work in computer science (doing PhD), and I feel that I am capable of doing so because of the classroom learning that I had in my undergrad studies. I am surprised you feel the opposite. May be you are too much overloaded with information from internet. As a matter of fact, I got my bachelor degree in 2012. – Coder Apr 23 '18 at 9:08
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it appears to be about undergraduate education. If I'm misinterpreting the question, please clarify. // May I suggest that you visit several other universities, and also dip your toe in the water by taking one or two online classes? It's much easier to switch programs if you are not launching yourself into a total unknown. – aparente001 Apr 23 '18 at 13:09
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    @aparente001 Please don't combine general comments with close-vote reasons. With the way you've done it, agreeing with your close reason makes it look like somebody is agreeing with your whole comment. – David Richerby Apr 23 '18 at 14:11
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    Does moving home come into your proposal for a "distant-learning degree"? If so, I can think of another reason you parents may be pushing back. – Mike Apr 23 '18 at 14:48
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I'm a computer science student as well, and I find lectures to be useful for getting a general understanding / "overall feel" of a concept. The prof often poses some question that makes you spend some time thinking about the problem at hand. I also feel that lectures are a good way to introduce a new topic to students, because learning some completely new topic from a textbook can be difficult.

However, in order to learn specific syntax and understand the deeper details, I don't find lectures to be that useful (since you need time to slowly learn complicated material). Rather, notes and code samples that my profs post online are much more useful, as I can methodically read them over and then practice writing code myself.

You should remember that a degree isn't all about just learning how to do something... rather, it also involves getting a higher understanding of a topic. To this end, attending lectures and trying to learn from the prof's experience can be rewarding. Besides, a degree from a more established institution will probably give better job prospects than a degree from an online university.

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    If you're thinking about syntax in a CS lecture, you're probably missing the point. CS is not about code, it's about structures and computations. – Jon Kiparsky Apr 23 '18 at 15:17
  • @JonKiparsky I believe Inertial is trying to point out that lectures may not help with you actually, physically coding (syntax, etc), but the overall concepts and idea's are useful. – Childishforlife Apr 23 '18 at 16:11
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    @Childishforlife Yes, and I'm agreeing with that. "physically coding" is exactly what CS lectures are not for. – Jon Kiparsky Apr 23 '18 at 16:24
  • @Jon Kiparsky While CS encompasses a much larger domain than mere coding, I would argue that coding and syntax is still an important component. – user90814 Apr 23 '18 at 21:16
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    @InertialIgnorance In a high school physics class, you probably used inclined planes and springs and such things to explore facets of physical laws about acceleration and waves. Those experiments were important components of your physics course, but the planes and springs are not important components of physics. In the same sense, demonstrating an understanding of, say, the quicksort algorithm by producing a working instance of it is an important exercise in CS, but the instance is not important or interesting. A CS degree will produce understanding of code as a side effect, not as a goal. – Jon Kiparsky Apr 23 '18 at 22:11
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This is not just a problem for CS majors; it's an issue in literally every major. It's obviously not true that literally all students in any major will feel that way, but it is common.

The reason is that different people have different learning styles, and different lecturers have different lecture styles. For example, I majored (quite successfully) in math and physics at a top-10 university but attended almost no lectures after the first one or two in each course, and literally no office hours ever.* The only exceptions were lectures by two professors who routinely gave such brilliant lectures that even I found them interesting and informative. Otherwise, I learned almost entirely on my own by reading books (often not the assigned books), studying for the exams, and sometimes even from doing homework.

Many of my classmates were exactly the opposite; they would learn nothing from books, and would only learn during lectures and office hours. Even when doing homework, they mostly needed to work through problems with other people, which was utterly foreign to me. But they were just as successful as I was in college — and frankly many of them have been more successful since then in large part due to their natural social tendencies, which are beneficial in every profession, including such stereotypical lone-wolf fields as theoretical physics.

The point is: we just had different learning styles. There's nothing wrong with that, and it's good that our university allowed for these different styles. I assume yours is similar: you might be required to attend lectures, but you're not required to learn from them and only them. And even if you are required to attend, is it really that bad? Can't you sit in the back and read the book or something? (I know that's how I made it through high school.) You should also recognize that it gets better: As you move to higher-level courses, you are less likely to be required to attend, and the lectures typically become more interesting and useful anyway. That's where I found my two brilliant lecturers, for example.

As for whether or not you should switch to a distance-learning option, I'm skeptical. Without knowing more about your situation, your goals, and the type of places you're considering switching from and to, no one here can tell you what your best option is. For example, if you're thinking of switching from Berkeley to the University of Phoenix, and want to go into academia, I would say that is nearly impossible. If you're switching from NoOneEverHeardOfUsU to UF Online, and want a corporate job, then that's entirely reasonable.

Try thinking of this from a problem-solving perspective. You have (or should have) certain goals like

  • Enjoying your life
  • Enjoying your major
  • Learning the material
  • Growing as a person
  • Coming out of it without crushing debt
  • Using your degree afterwards

The problem is achieving these goals with the tools at your disposal — which might include changing your situation. Is your current situation making any of them impossible? Could you really achieve all of these goals any better by switching to distance-learning? Think especially about the future. I remember very well the constant urgency of youth, but I also know that I shot my future self in the foot many times because of my impetuousness. Parental advice should always be taken with a grain of salt, especially since so many paradigms have changed since they were in college (and especially in tech-related fields), but remember that they are looking out for you and that they have a more objective and long-term perspective.


* Looking back I really regret this, especially for subjects that were outside of my major in which I had the most to learn. I chose to spend much of my time on — let's just say — other pursuits, and didn't fully engage intellectually with the extraordinary minds I was paying so much to be around. I could have cut down on the playtime, while having approximately as much fun, and also learning much more.

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    Great point with the list of goals. I'll add: the most valuable part of my CS degree was meeting up with my peers to do the homework and labs. Pair-programming is actually part of the on-site interview at many tech companies. Even as a remote software developer, the role of "lone wolf" who works alone on a codebase is very uncommon. Take advantage of this opportunity to collaborate in meatspace! – Neal Ehardt Apr 23 '18 at 17:15
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Do all computer science students really feel this way?

I don't think that the answer of "do all x students really feel this way" would be yes. It's always a no. It's a feeling and each one of the students will have his own feeling/opinion.

I've been a CS student myself few years ago, and I actually found it really interesting to have lectures from time to time.

In my opinion, the difference between reading a book to learn and hearing a lecture is the attention you may give for particular section of the book where you think you need to give it more than the others, while being in a lecture will let the proffessor attire you to the most important sections.

Should you drop the lectures and be served by distant-learning degree? To me, it's a no again. Having the tutor in front of you giving a lecture and you have the ability to contact him at any time you need (of course not after midnight) is much better than not being able to interact with your professor on daily basis or as much as you do.

At the end, and just as an advice, what I really think is that in this major you will need everything you can to actually improve. Keep going to lectures and alongside lectures make sure to study your book carefully. Practice all what you can and search for all the problems that you might encounter and try to solve them.

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I would not quit for a distant-learning degree. In most universities, attending the lectures is optional. So you could basically choose how often you want to go there, but this differs from place to place. In germany, if you are doing a "distand-learning degree" you also have to go there to write your exams, keep that in mind.

I studied CS and got my masters in 2015. I could choose topics which are very interesting to me and the lectures where a good starting point to the topics. People are actually making a decent amount of effort how to present you a certain topic. You should also not underestimate what service you enjoy as a student: you can ask professors during lectures, go to the office hours etc.

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No, not all students feel that way. For me, attending lectures was by far the easiest way to learn something.

As for other people's feelings, an instructive case study was a class from my third year: the lecturer was pretty terrible, and spent the lecture reading out loud from the lecture notes that we had been given at the beginning of the year. He didn't even bother changing the format, just projected the A4 pages and scrolled through them - and it was pretty clear that the text had been last updated sometime in 1995. (Memorable quotes include "Nowadays, computers have multiple megabytes of RAM.") Fairly quickly, attendance to this class decreased until only 3-5 hardy souls remained. (Despite my preference for lectures, I was not among them.)

Given that this did not happen to any other class I attended during, before, or after this semester, I can only assume that most of the time, most people felt they derived at least some benefit from attending the lectures. (But there are always one or two who feel like you do and only bother showing up for exams - either they learn just fine on their own and graduate that way, or they overestimate themselves and fail out.)

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CS Student. I dislike lectures, I don't go to lectures. I would probably do better if I did go, but I don't enjoy them. However there's no universal rule as to whether lectures are good or bad for any one person, and there's no universal dislike.

  • Welcome to Academia SE! Your post answers the question nicely, but unfortunately the question seems to be a little too broad--usually this forum does not accept "polling" questions or opinion questions where the answer is to tally up each responder's experience. Anyway, welcome and good luck with your studies! – cactus_pardner Apr 23 '18 at 18:18
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Lectures (or reading the text, if you're not an aural learner) are good for learning the theory of Computer Science, which is very important. Exercises and problem statements are great for learning the execution side of it. You need a firm handle on both to be a truly good engineer, analyst, etc.

Now, if you're in like... CSC101 and you're bored listening to the professor explain how printf works... yeah, that lecture/class is probably better spent just doing exercises. If you're taking Discrete Math or Data Structures and Algorithms then you need to sit down and learn the theory behind it. For a lot of people, lectures are a good way to have this information presented to you. For other people, you can learn from a book just as well.

Also, for me, I've found that the structure of the course is just as important as the course itself. If I self-study I tend to bounce all over the place and get bored with a topic and leave it half done. If I have a course laying out the requirements for me and grading me on my progress, I take it way more seriously and focus way better. Just another angle to keep in mind.

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    No, lectures and reading are terrible for learning the theoretical stuff. Lectures are great for building intuition, but the only way to actually learn the theoretical stuff is to actually do the theoretical stuff. Math is not a spectator sport. (I teach the theoretical stuff.) – JeffE Apr 24 '18 at 13:14
  • So if I wanted you to explain to me the math and reasoning behind being able to construct any logical circuit using just NAND gates, you'd just throw a bunch of gates at me and tell me to go hog wild until I stumbled upon the reasoning on my own? – Adonalsium Apr 24 '18 at 13:28
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    No, of course not. But my explanation would not teach you how to build circuits out of NAND gates unless you also built logic circuits out of NAND gates, nor would it teach you to prove things about circuits unless you also proved things about circuits. – JeffE Apr 24 '18 at 13:32
  • Well, yes. I'm not saying lectures are the be all, end all. I'm saying that they serve as a good theoretical compliment to the practical implementation. – Adonalsium Apr 24 '18 at 14:40
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    @Adonasium And I am strongly disagreeing with you. Lectures do not provide a good theoretical complement to practical implementation. The only way to acquire a good theoretical background is to actually practice the theory. Lectures tell you where to find the bear; you still have hunt it down and kill it yourself. – JeffE Apr 24 '18 at 20:22
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This is probably quite common for CS students, or at least it was the case for me. CS still has a reputation for being an academic or theoretic subject when a large chunk of the skills are in the practical application of your computing/programming knowledge.

Lectures aren't suited for learning practical skills like programming and in my opinion the way CS is currently taught in universities is outdated and really doesn't teach the knowledge required for most jobs in the field. The majority of useful learning you will do will be in your own time solving computing problems through doing rather than studying.

I think you have to spend the time at college learning in a way that suits you to get the most out of the course, even if it's not the 'recommended' way.


I myself was a Comp Sci student who hated the way my college course was taught and felt I was getting nothing out of it. Six months in I took the plunge to drop out and try to get into the industry on a apprenticeship scheme. Now almost 2 years later I am a confident Junior Developer on a decent salary with good future prospects.

The above paragraph is not there to influence your opinion but rather to say it is possible to get into work without a degree and still have a great career to look forward to, if you have an alternative plan of action and it's the right choice for you.

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    CS doesn't just "have the reputation of" being an academic subject. It is a branch of math. "Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes", as EJD is supposed to have said. Computer science is useful for programmers because it tells you about the raw material you're working with, but it's not supposed to tell you about how to be a software developer. – Jon Kiparsky Apr 23 '18 at 15:19
  • @JonKiparsky Except that in real astrophysics, people spend their careers developing telescopes and exotic detectors and algorithms since those limit the progress of the field. It's acknowledged that the vast majority of astrophysics majors will not get a job in the field (<20%), thus academia specifically develop skills that are useful otherwise, e.g. a theorist goes to finance with big data, a instrumentalist goes and designs cell phone chips, etc. Fancy name-brand CS needs to acknowledge there's no demand for mathematicians, and all demand for software engineers. – user71659 Apr 23 '18 at 15:38
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    @user71659 I think you mean to say that real astrophysicists often go on to develop telescopes and exotic detectors and algorithms using their knowledge of astrophysics. The science of astrophysics is about objects outside of our solar system and what we can know about them, not about the tools we use to gain that knowledge. Likewise, computer science is about computations, not about the particular lines of code you type to execute those computations. Algorithms are not implementations. – Jon Kiparsky Apr 23 '18 at 16:28
  • @JonKiparsky Nope. Theoreticians come up with demands for instrumentalists, who go and build telescopes to meet those demands. The process of gas clouds in stellar formation has nothing to do with P-N junctions needed to make a detector to observe those clouds. While everybody has a general idea of what's going on, an exoplanet "observer" has little knowledge of the He cryocoolers on the JWST and vice versa. You take a obsolete view of science now that "big science" is the name of the game: nobody can hope to be an expert in anything but a tiny part of the whole project. – user71659 Apr 23 '18 at 17:31
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    If you want to get contentious about the Dijkstra quote, probably this is not the right thread for you. – Jon Kiparsky Apr 23 '18 at 22:06
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The answer to the explicit question is, obviously, no. It is not the case that all CS students find lectures boring.

The implicit question is more interesting: it seems that you're asking whether your feeling of boredom in lectures is in some way justified or justifiable. I would say, no, in general it is not. A course is not just a way to cram some set of facts into your head, it's a way to get you accustomed to a certain set of tools for reasoning about problems in a certain domain. Lectures serve a couple of purposes in this regard: they are a device for exposing you to the sort of reasoning you need in the subject matter, they are an opportunity for you to rehearse this sort of reasoning, and they're a way for you to test your reasoning against the professor's and your classmates'. If you're not actively engaged in the lecture, following the line of thought that the prof is developing, asking questions where appropriate, then you're not getting much out of the course. Anyone can read a book and pass a test. The point of taking a college-level course is to learn the subject.

If you have one professor whose lectures bore you, the problem may be with their presentation of the material. Talk to your students and other profs in the department to find out what you may be missing, or talk to that professor. If you feel that all of your lectures are boring, the problem is probably with you, and until you change something you'll be wasting your time in that course.

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