How do I ask instructors for more challenging and/or interesting homework?

This question is prompted mostly due to a Numerical Methods and Computer Programming In MATLAB course I took this summer (textbook). To summarize the course it's basically methods for solving linear, nonlinear, and differential equations and systems of those equations, and learning how to program the respective algorithms in MATLAB.

I'm a fast learner for most topics. I already have programming experience, so that half of the class was no challenge. The mathematical concepts I grasped quickly, and as a result most of the lectures were too slow for me. This isn't anything new for me, I often have this issue.

The bulk of the homework problems given were standard book problems and had no real significance or relation to the application of these methods. There were one or two problems that were applied and those were great, but to be honest I have a problem doing homework and have had it for around 20 years now (since grade school). I understand the importance of it, it's rarely (if ever) difficult for me, but it bores me and I have no motivation to do it. It doesn't help that now I work full time with a wife and 1.5 children, so there is a small window in which I even have to fit this homework.

A couple of weeks into the course I thought perhaps if the homework was more interesting somehow (puzzle-like, application problems (aka story problems), etc) then that would be better for me, but I didn't know how to approach the professor about this. Long story short the bulk of the grading is homework and I'm not doing as well as I could be. It's likely too late for this class, but how would I approach this in the future? It'd be torture to have to continue down this road.

• Maybe get a hobby or put time into researching interesting topics for yourself? – superuser0 Jul 24 '13 at 20:04
• Turn it into a challenge. I'm like you, and I hated school, and was not motivated to do homework, but doing homework is part of what you're learning, so... you need to learn to do it. If it you have to play mental tricks with yourself, like starting a stopwatch on trivial programming tasks, do it. This is not going to change, it will follow you your whole life and you need to find a way to get past it. Doing the trivial and mundane is a constant challenge for folks like us. The world is 99% trivial and mundane, though. – Jasmine Oct 15 '14 at 0:16
• 1.5 children?! – nyuszika7h Nov 6 '14 at 14:47
• @nyuszika yeah, wife was pregnant, so it's 2 now :-) – MDMoore313 Nov 6 '14 at 17:19
• So you're saying that the homework was too boring, and that's why you're doing poorly? That seems a little iffy to me. – Jim Conant Nov 6 '14 at 19:53

Why not just ask? Maybe this seems naive but if you approach the professor and say, honestly, you don't feel you are doing as well as you could or even should be, they would be willing to discuss that; a student taking an interest in their learning is a valuable thing. You can state your desire for creative questions, and ask if the professor has any recommendations for outside material, or has some of their own. I can't imagine any professor being anything but delighted at the prospect of a student being self-aware of their performance hurdles and seeking more advanced knowledge in the professor's field.

• As an instructor, I can verify that I am excited when this situation occurs. This kind of interaction leads to good things. – Ben Norris Jul 24 '13 at 20:50
• As a teaching assistant, I have had this happen to me a couple of times and I have been very happy with those students. – Shion Jul 24 '13 at 22:56
• He's not completing the "easy" work though - in that position, I wouldn't give a student more challenging work to do. You have to get past the easy stuff first - sometimes just saying that is enough motivation for them to do the homework. "Show me how easy this is for you and I'll give you something harder" - but simply saying it's too easy isn't the same thing. Prove it. By getting it done. – Jasmine Oct 15 '14 at 0:19

You can try to make the homework interesting on your own. This is a roundabout way around the problem, but it's worked for me in the past.

I had a Space Propulsion class that resulted in a lot of rather tedious homework, even when I wrote the solutions in MATLAB. By the end of the class I was writing programs that allowed you to 1. vary the parameters of the problem, and 2. Show a graphical visualization. If you're writing Diff EQs, try adding the ability to vary the constant parameters, add a vector field graph, and put it all in a nice GUI.

If the teacher/TA spends any amount of time grading the homework (some classes I've taken, they simply make sure you attempted the problem), then they will probably appreciate the time and effort. I got extra credit for a number of my homework submissions that I did in this way.

• But (s)he might say "that was not required". Also, you might treat casually the banal exercises and risk of losing points. Is it worthwhile? – theta30 Jul 25 '13 at 18:27
• The worst that can happen is that you learn far more from the assignment than you otherwise would have, but receive a couple fewer points. If this strikes you as a bad outcome, you should rethink why you are taking this course. – Tom Church Jul 25 '13 at 20:42

Not challenging enough homework problems is not a good excuse to not do them. The homework is necessary when taking programming/math courses. You need to do them so that you know how to crawl before you learn how to run.

You must finish the homework to prove to yourself and your professor that you already know the basics and you're ready to learn the advanced materials. You take the finished homework to your professor and tell him that they are too easy for you and you want more so that he can give you more interesting problems to work on. Professors would really like the students like you because they know they have good and eager to learn students in the class.

I suspect you're in the wrong class. It probably is offered to the students who do not have strong math background as you do. (This is not unusual. I had personal experience that students in my programming class did not know what logarithm is.) In the future, check with the department to make sure the course contents fit into your level of knowledge before you take them so you won't waste your time and money.

Best wishes!

• You're absolutely right, it's no excuse. I never thought about looking for alternative courses, I just follow the flow chart they give me. – MDMoore313 Jul 26 '13 at 11:57
• @MDMoore313 The flow chart they gave you is probably designed for average students. It may not best fit to your case. Again, talk to your prof and best wishes. – scaaahu Jul 26 '13 at 12:22