The Problem Set Process

November 15, 2021
Amélie Lemay

One aspect of the college transition process that I was worried about was how the workload and workflow would be different from high school. For my science and math courses in high school, I generally had daily textbook exercises to complete before school the next day. In college, instead of textbook exercises assigned every day, I usually have one problem set (p-set) per week per STEM course. A p-set is a series of problems of varying difficulty that you complete and hand in to be graded, and the questions are based on the material covered in class that week.

The number of p-set courses you take in a semester depends on your concentration, and most students try to strike a balance between p-set courses, writing courses as well as courses that don't fall into either category (like art courses). This semester, for instance, I have three p-set courses, one art course and my independent study.

My first p-set course at Princeton was MAT202 Linear Algebra. I completed the first few p-sets on my own, but I soon found a study friend with whom I could collaborate. Working with someone else really helped me grasp the material and learn better, and since then I've always made sure to find my study buddies early on in my p-set courses. This level of collaboration is what I've found to be the biggest difference between high school homework and college homework.

P-sets are designed to be challenging, and it often takes a group to figure out the toughest questions. When I'm stuck, someone else can explain how they approached the question, and at other times I'm the one explaining my method or reasoning. Additionally, it's simply more pleasant and rewarding to work on something and come to a conclusion with a group than completely solo. To give you a sense of what completing a p-set is like, I've outlined the general steps I take for each of my weekly p-sets:

1. Read and attempt

Before we start covering the material in class, I like to read the textbook section and give the p-set a first try on my own. I can usually figure out the easier questions, but it's unlikely I'll be able to complete everything on this first pass.

2. Go to lecture and precept

During the week I'll go to the lectures and precepts (small group problem solving sessions), which will often help clarify what I didn't fully understand from the reading. Sometimes a slide in lecture will show me how to approach a question I couldn't figure out before, so I can go back and try it again.

3. Check with a friend

Once I've given all the problems a try, I'll meet up with friends from the class who have also attempted the p-set and we'll compare our answers. When we have the same answer, we'll feel pretty confident that we're right. When we have different answers, we'll each explain what we did and try to understand how the other person solved it.

4. Go to office hours

For the toughest questions that stump my entire study group, or for questions that we just can't agree on, we'll go to the office hours of the professor or the assistant instructor (AI) or a teaching assistant (TA). Office hours are designated times outside of class  to give students the opportunity to ask questions, receive clarification, or just to catch up with the professor or instructor. In my experience, we'll explain our reasoning and thoughts to the AI, who will help clarify where our approach is correct and where we're missing something. The AIs won't tell you how to solve a problem, but they'll often drop helpful hints.

5. Submit!

When I agree with my study group on all the questions, I'll finally submit my pset! Most submissions are through Canvas, so I'll scan and upload my work.

6. View feedback

Wait, submission wasn't the last step? In a few weeks, I'll get back my graded p-set. This feedback is a great resource for studying for exams so that I don't make the same mistakes.