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Paper discussions

Table of contents

  1. Goals
  2. Format
    1. Presenters
    2. Questioner
    3. Participants
  3. Assignment guidelines
  4. Due dates
  5. Sign-ups and grading


The goal of the paper discussions is to get complement the broad coverage of the lecture with a very focused study of important papers in the field. At the end of the discussions, you should be able to

  • Understand the topics in each paper, and be able to use specific results in your own research.
  • Follow technical arguments such as proofs from the paper and be able to reproduce them.
  • Get a better sense of how to be a good reviewer and write good papers.


In each paper discussion, a student will be one of three roles: presenter, questioner, or participant. Each discussion is 40 minutes long, and it will be structured as follows:

  1. Overview (10 minutes). Presenters summarize the problem, key results, and significance of the paper.
  2. Pros and cons (15 minutes). Pro and con presenters take turns presenting the merits and limitations of the paper.
  3. Open discussion (10 minutes). We will have a freeform discussion involving all of the presenters, questioners, and the audience. presenters engage with the points raised by each other, as well as respond to the questioners and the audience. The questioners and the audience are encouraged to ask questions and share their thoughts on the points raised by the presenters.
  4. Q&A (5 minutes). Q&A is a chance for the questioners and the audience to ask any remaining questions. Each questioner is expected to ask at least one question in the course of the entire discussion, so they will first take turns asking questions if they haven’t already. Then, time permitting, we will open it up to the audience.

Below are the roles and their evaluations.


The presenters will write a review of the paper and present their critique during the discussion. There are two presenters for each paper: each presenter is like a reviewer for a paper, and is assigned to either ‘pro’ (this paper should be accepted) or ‘con’ (rejected). Since the papers selected in the course are generally high quality and correct, the job of the ‘con’ reviewer is to be respectful but skeptical and point out limitations of the paper, including unstated ones.

To write the review, they are expected to:

  1. Carefully read the paper. To get a good understanding of the paper, you’re encouraged to verify any key proofs, and/or look up related works.
  2. Go to office hours (optional). You’re encouraged to sign up for and attend office hours, and this would be a good chance to ask any questions you might have about the paper and/or discuss your critique, both to help you prepare for the review and the discussion. Presenters can sign up via a link listed on Canvas, and office hours are available within a week from the review deadline.
  3. Write a review describing the pros and cons of the paper, both high-level and low-level. Submit a review by Sunday 11:59pm before the discussion.

These steps are expected to take 5-10 hours. For the longer papers, it may not be possible to verify all proofs in 10 hours. Feel free to note this explicitly in the review.

During the presentation, the presenters are expected to do the following:

  1. Give an overview of the paper.
  2. Present the pro/cons of the paper.
  3. Respond to other presenters’ arguments.
  4. Respond to questions from the questioners or audience.

Guidelines for the review and the discussion are described here. Note that you’re not expected to be able to answer all questions; if there are questions that are difficult to address, then we will discuss as a class.

Presenters are evaluated based on the review and the discussion, both of which will be evaluated based on the correctness, quality, and clarity.


A questioner is a person who prepares intelligent questions for the discussion. The goal of these questions is to encourage more discussion and help elucidate the point of a paper to you and your classmates; importantly, it is not to check presenters’ understanding or make them unable to answer. There will be two to three ‘questioners’ for a paper.

Questioners are expected to:

  1. Carefully read the paper.
  2. Write down three questions. Submit the questions by class (3:15pm) on Monday
  3. Ask questions during the discussion. If you are unable to attend the discussion due to an unavoidable reason, please notify the course staff at least 24 hours in advance; the course staff will read your question in that case. Each questioner is expected to ask at least one question, and they will have a chance to do so during the Q&A if they haven’t asked a question by that point.

Guidelines for the questions are described here. Questioners will be evaluated based on the questions that they prepare and/or ask during discussion.


All other students are expected to participate in the discussion by asking questions and/or provide a summary of the paper.

For the summary, students are expected to carefully read the paper in advance and submit a review summary, composed of a 1-paragraph overview of a paper, a pro, and a con. Review summaries are due on by class time (3:15pm) on Monday and are graded on pass/fail basis. Guidelines for the summaries are described here. For participation, we will track students who ask questions (or help answer questions) in each discussion.

The ‘participant’ component of your discussion grades will correspond to your grades on the review summaries; for example, a pass on all review summaries will yield full marks on the ‘participant’ component of your discussion grades, regardless of your participation. We will use participation to drop the lowest review summary grade for every 2 discussions that a student participates in (e.g., if you participate in 4 paper discussions, we will drop the 2 lowest paper summaries).

Assignment guidelines

Guidelines for all above assignments (presentations, reviews, questions, summaries) are described here.

Due dates

To summarize, below are the relevant due dates leading up to the discussion, all in pacific time:

  • Sunday 11:59pm: reviews due for presenters
  • Monday by class: questions due for questioners
  • Monday by class: summaries due for all other participants
  • Monday in-class: discussion

Sign-ups and grading

Each student is expected to take up one of the following sets of roles in the course of the quarter:

  • 1 presenter role, 2 questioner roles. You will write one review, give one presentation, and be the questioner twice. Your discussion grades (50% total) would be composed of 15% for review, 15% for discussion, 10% for the questioner roles, and 10% for participant roles (review summaries and participation).

As the number of students is less than the number of slots, we will also allow a few students to present twice

  • 2 presenter roles. You will write two reviews and give two presentations. You will be waived from the questioner roles. Your discussion grades (50% total) will be composed of 20% for review (10% each), 20% for the discussion (10% each), and 10% participant. Signing up for two presenters means you present fewer times, but do slightly more work to present instead of ask questions.

There will be a sign-up sheet released in the first week of instruction.