Tips For Students From BIU’s Outstanding Lecturer

Here are Dr. Erez Sheiner’s opinions on subjects that concern many students

I have a confession to make — this blog-post was mainly for me. Erez is very different from any other lecturer you’ll meet in academia, and not just because of his excellence in teaching.

Erez has gained my respect a long time ago, and I knew it would be fascinating to sit down with him and ask all the questions I was curious about ever since I was his student.

For those of you who don’t know, Dr. Erez Sheiner is a lecturer in the math department of Bar Ilan University. He teaches in the CS (computer science) department as well, where he wins “best lecturer” almost every semester. Erez also has a successful youtube channel dedicated to math and a TikTok account! On Facebook, he is a top fan of the popular page — biu confessions. This page posts anonymous messages and people comment on them, and you get a top fan badge if are active and comment a lot. I told you he is not your ordinary lecturer.

If this intro made you curious about Erez himself — it is understandable, and the next blog-post will be about him. Here we will be talking about academia, student life, short-term boot camps, work-life balance, and more!

I’ll start with a topic that was very frustrating when I was in university — cheating in exams. Having people getting higher grades in exams and eventually graduating with excellence (which is the top 3% of the year) because of it — is discouraging. You wrote about that subject: “Dealing with cheating needs to take up less of our efforts during school”. Why do you think that?

It does concern many students, I just had a conversation about it yesterday. grades have even bigger consequences than job opportunities: Some people don’t get a chance to study CS in university because they didn’t pass the threshold. This is much more critical than graduating with excellence. Graduating with excellence is not that important. This is actually critical for their path.

But companies look at GPA, and so students graduating with excellence have a big advantage.

Do they? I don’t know, I keep hearing different opinions from different people. Anyway, I think the most important thing is knowledge, and there is a correlation between knowledge and grades. Unless you’re cheating, of course.

I think this is the problem with capitalism in general. If everyone was studying for the knowledge and not for the tests, no one would’ve studied. So this competition based on grades was created, and that competition creates frustration, and cheating is only one type of frustration. That is why I don’t like it when people emphasize it so much.

I, personally, didn’t have that problem when I was a student but I did experience, during my army service, people that did less than me but knew how to talk and climb higher.

This is my advice: In the long run, it will be worth it. The good, honest, hard-working ones are the ones that get far. And yes, some cunning people do get far as well, but I don’t envy them at all. I think they are miserable. If COVID-19 is causing social distancing, being a liar is being socially distanced all your life, and I don’t wish that to anyone.

Another subject I was curious to hear your opinion about is work-life balance. At Bar Ilan University it is often the case that students are also young parents. As a father of four, do you have any advice to give the students?

Yes — don’t pursue a Bachelors's degree when you are a parent, it’s impossible!

Well, on a more serious note — this is tough. I have some good parenting advice, but tips for managing school and family I don’t. If you are not willing to wait until you finish school, this is what I have to say: take into consideration that your studying is going to be worse than what it could’ve been if you chose to wait with having kids, but you have kids and this is the biggest gift. You will still become educated and be better than you were before, so that’s good.

I believe that being a parent improved me as a lecturer. One day I might try to explain something to my kid and he looks shocked and doesn’t understand anything, but then you come back tomorrow and something suddenly clicked! A very common mistake of lecturers is that they categorize some students as stupid and some as hopeless. I learned that no matter how it looks now, that hopeless student can be smart and just has unrealized potential. I’ve seen it so many times that I truly believe it.

Speaking of work-life balance, working during school is really really hard, mainly because studying takes many hours, more than a regular 9–5 job. One of the things I don’t understand is students that sacrifice their studying and go to work just because they don’t feel comfortable living off their parents. It doesn’t make sense! If they are willing to help you during those years — take it! Don’t be silly! Studying is already hard so if you can make it a bit easier and clear some more time— do it.

While scrolling through your Facebook profile, I found an interesting post. you wrote — “Most of the challenges in school are psychological and not academic. The material is accessible in many forms, but you need tools and motivation to study”. Can you explain that?

When I say that it’s psychological I mean to say that it’s harder than you’d assume.

After years in education, including private tutoring, I can tell you that the biggest challenge is to make the student work. They hate hearing that because they think they already work hard. Truth be told, they don’t do what is required from them: “This lemma is not important, I can skip it” “I don’t need to go to the lectures, only to the practices”… and then they are so surprised when they fail the course.

Why does that happen? Cognitive dissonance. That is when you have two contrary thoughts in your head, and you will do all in your power to change them until they become consistent. In our case, one thought is “I don’t know the material well enough” and the second is… literally anything else: “the exam is too hard” / “everyone else is cheating”… When the truth is “I didn’t study enough”.

So, on one hand, you have “studying is hard”, and on the other hand “maybe I don’t need that?” and what is easier to choose? “Maybe I don’t need that”! And today it’s even worse because there are some people out there with a motive to convince you that “high education is worthless and old-fashioned… all you need is a five months boot camp… I have a friend that didn’t graduate high school and he is so successful now” etc.

So it sounds glorious but it is a lie. Do you have a successful friend that didn’t even graduate high school? And what is up with all the other people that didn’t graduate from high school? Where are they?

I believe that the biggest obstacle in the way of students’ success is the thought maybe this is not really needed, or that it is not supposed to be that hard.

For example, when someone from the high schoolers (students that are studying for their BSc during high school years) came to me and complained that their course is harder than their peers’. To that I say: and how do you compare your course to Tel Aviv University’s? Or Technion’s? You need to stop comparing random points in the process and start comparing yourself to yourself and give weight to your progress.

How should you decide if you should quit or not? The rule is very simple: If you know now more than you knew a week ago, if you know how to solve an exercise that last week looked impossible — then you made progress. You gained knowledge. Keep going.

You mentioned it before, but I would love to go deeper into the subject of BSc vs short-term boot camps.

Let’s put it that way: If you could take even Unit 8200 graduates and teach them what they need to know, without them having a Bachelor’s —Someone would’ve done it by now.

Even those Unit 8200 graduates are getting a BSc, and there is a reason for that. If a BSc wasn’t worth the effort — people wouldn’t do it. There are platforms out there, like Coursera, that claim they are as good but that’s not the case.

I truly believe that the pursuit of a BSc teaches you abilities you wouldn’t get anywhere else. Studying for 3 years is not equivalent to studying for 6 months. You see where you are now — are you aware of the fact that it’s your BSc that helped you get there?

Well, I believe it’s my grades that helped me get to where I am. A high GPA gives you more opportunities.

That’s where you are wrong! What about your relocation*? Would you have studied computer science by yourself and moved to another country, if you didn’t choose to go to university? Do you understand that this level of independence is part of the journey you’ve been through? Claiming you would’ve experienced it without your studying is incorrect.

You can’t ignore the fact that getting your BSc matured you. It seems confusing because this is not the declared goal of academia. They tell you they are here to teach you data structures when actually they are here to teach you how to face challenges, how to be independent, and how to learn by yourself.

On that note: If you ask me, a bad lecturer is better than a good one because a good lecturer teaches you the material but a bad one forces you to learn by yourself, and this is an important skill!

To be honest, maybe you are pro-academia because you are teaching at a university

That’s not the reason. Let’s assume we are in the future and Google starts its own campus. I will be able to find myself there pretty easily. Education will always exist and I’ll be where education is. Besides, I can teach outside of academia, and I do it even today. So my opinion doesn’t come from an economical perspective. I truly believe in it.

Getting your BSc is hard work and you may not see the benefits at the moment but they are there. It’s like a spinning bike: if you measure your success by how many kilometers you’ve progressed — you’ll think it doesn’t work, but when you measure your success how you should — then you understand the meaning.

The bottom line is this — Academia is not perfect, and there is room for improvement, but there is a reason it’s still going, even after hundreds of years.

The last topic —students who are still in high school. Some say that sending high schoolers to study for their BSc is making them miss out on their childhood. As someone who got his BSc in high school, what is your opinion?

Whoever thinks that way is ignorant. They clearly don’t know how it really works. Besides being a former high schooler, I’m managing the high schoolers program because I believe in the importance of it.

Don’t get me wrong — it doesn’t fit everyone. Kids who are joining only because of their parents should not join. Whoever is suitable for the program is blooming there. I enjoyed it, both intellectually and socially. This was in contradiction to my high school experience —where I didn’t understand the kids around me and they didn’t understand me. This program has been running for 20 years and we have thousands of graduates and success stories.

But why the rush? You can also be successful even if you follow the regular path of academia after high school

I am not trying to sell it. Only those well-suited for the program should join. I was bored in high school, and I bloomed in academia. Join only if you enjoy it. Well, it will be challenging, not everything is fun, but if every second is misery then it doesn’t suit you, and that’s ok.

* About a year ago I relocated from Israel to Ireland.

That was amazing! It’s hard to ignore the passion Erez has for education, and that’s inspiring. I also loved the spinning bike metaphor, and I’ll definitely come back for that parenting advice.

To be honest, since our conversation, I realized how correct he was, saying that some decisions we make lead to others, even if we don’t see the connection directly.

This blog-post was focused on academia and student life. If you liked reading those answers, you would enjoy the next blog-post. The next blog-post will focus on Erez himself, where we will be talking about teaching, being excellent at it, social media, fear, money, and more.

I write about things that interest me as a software engineer, and I find interest in various subjects :) || Come visit at www.cupofcode.blog