CSE355: Introduction to Theoretical Computer Science (Section 12194)


Last update: 2014.02.03


This course provides a first introduction to the theoretical concepts of Computer Science. The focus of the course is the study of abstract computing devices without targeting a specific programming language and/or computing platform. In particular, we will study:
  1. finite automata, which model computing machines with finite fixed memory, and the class of regular languages, which is used for pattern matching languages;
  2. pushdown automata and context-free grammars that facilitate declarative specifications of language syntax;
  3. the universal computational model of Turing machines, and the inherent limits of what can be solved on a computer (undecidability); and, finally,
  4. time complexity theory, which helps us measure the time used to solve a problem.

The course also emphasizes rigorous thinking and mathematical proofs.


  • Class: Monday and Wednesday 3-4:15PM, LSE 106
  • Instructor: Georgios Fainekos (email: fainekos at asu)
    • Office hours: Tuesday 1:30-2:30PM & Friday 11AM-12PM (Calendar)
    • Office location: Centerpoint 203-17
    • Electronic communication policy:
      • I do not respond to emails or to on-line discussions over the weekend.
      • If you have any question that is not related to personal issues, then you MUST first post it on the discussion board on Piazza under the most relevant topic.
        • Piazza enrollment instructions and the access code are provided on Blackboard > Course Information.
        • If you would like to participate to on-line discussions, on-line polls etc you must enroll to Piazza.
      • We will responding to any questions after 1 business day. This will let your classmates enough time to attempt to answer your question for class participation credit.
      • If you think you must send me an email due to the personal nature of your question or you think that your question might not be interesting to the rest of the class, then email both me (and the TA for faster response).
      • Before sending an email please follow the excellent advice here:

  • Teaching Assistants: 
    • Adel Dokhanchi (office hours and in person recitations)
    • Erin Lanus (on-line recitations, videos and Piazza)
    • Office hours & Office location: Please visit Blackboard for up-to-date information
    • Recitations: Please visit Blackboard for up-to-date information


CSE 310
Data Structures and Algorithms


  • Required: Introduction to the theory of computation, Michael Sipser, Thomson Course Technology, 3rd Edition, 2013
    • Note: The 2nd Edition can still be used. However, you might have to consult with your classmates regarding the mapping of homework problems and pages between the two editions. Also, time permitting, we will be having one lecture on deterministic context-free languages. This section is only included in the 3rd edition, but we will provide lecture notes on the topic.
    • Note: The 1st Edition is still acceptable. However, the 1st edition does not include any problem answers and it does not have as many examples and explanations as the 2nd and above editions. Also, you will have to consult with your classmates regarding the mapping of homework problems and pages between the 2 editions.
    • Note: The international editions of the textbook have different numbering in the exercises. If you are using the international edition, you will have to consult with your classmates regarding the mapping of homework problems and pages between the 2 editions.
    • Errata
  • Supplementary reading:
    • Ganesh Gopalakrishnan and Tyler Sorensen, Modeling and Reasoning about Computation, February 25, 2013 [On-line & Also on Blackboard: Content > Other readings]
    • John E. Savage, Models of Computation: Exploring the Power of Computing [On-line & Also on Blackboard: Content > Other readings]
  • Additional References (These are recommended readings for those who want to gain a deeper understanding of the subject or prefer a more formal approach):
    • Introduction to Automata Theory, Languages and Computation, J.E. Hopcroft, R. Motwani, and J.D. Ullman, Addison Wesley, Third edition, 2006
    • Lecture notes by Jean Gallier posted on Blackboard



Grades will be based on:

  • Homework Assignments: 20%
  • In-class Quiz: 10%
    • If your final exam score is higher than the quiz score, then the final exam score is going to replace the quiz score. 
  • Two Midterms: 35% 
    • If your final exam score is higher than the midterm score, then the final exam score is going to replace the midterm score.
  • Final Exam: 35%
    • If your final exam score is below 45%, then you automatically fail the class, unless you do the optional class project.

  • Class Participation
    • Bonus points: up to +2%
    • Class participation involves the following:
      • Contributing to both on-line and in-class discussions. This should be an activity throughout the semester.
      • Correcting your instructor and/or TA in class!
      • Helping others figure out fallacies in their line of thought when attempting to solve a problem.
      • Giving hints to your classmates, but not the complete answer.
      • Getting positive feedback from your group members and peers on the homework forms.
  • Optional project
    • Bonus points: +2% to +6% depending on the milestones completed.
    • Important: Only fully working programs take the extra credit. No partial credit is given for good intentions or effort.
    • If you are somewhere in the middle of the letter range, then this means that you might increase your final grade by one letter point.
    • The project will be announced after the completion of Chapter 1.
    • Any programming language is allowed. However, C/C++ is recommended.
    • This is an individual project. The code will be compared among all those who have ever submitted the programming project plus internet sources. The nature of the project makes easy the detection of copied or isomorphic code in an automatic way. If cheating is detected, expect to get at least -10% on your final grade.
I do not normalize the final grades! I put a lot of effort in making sure that the exams are of reasonable difficulty. I reserve the right to adjust the final grades downward, e.g., in the case cheating is detected, or upward, e.g., in the case of noticeable and meaningful class participation.

Algorithm for computing your final grade:
  • HWS: Homework score
    • HWS = Σ{ (HWi/THWi) | for i in {0,1,...,m} } / m
      • where 
        • Σ indicates summation, 
        • THWi is the total possible points for each HW i, and 
        • m is the total number of homeworks
  • FES: Final exam score
    • TFEP: the total possible points for the final exam
  • MES: Midterm exam score
    • If MESi/TMEPi>25, then MSi = max{ MESi/TMEPi, FES/TFEP } 
    • If MESi/TMEPi<=25, then MSi = MESi/TMEPi
      • where 
        • MESi is your actual score for midterm i, and 
        • TMEPi is total possible points for midterm i
    • MES = (MS1+MS2)/2
  • QS: Quiz scores 
    • If Qi/TQi>10, then QSi = max{ Qi/TQi, FES/TFEP }
    • If Qi/TQi<=10, then QSi = Qi/TQi
      • where 
        • Qi is your score for quiz i, and 
        • TQi is the total possible points for each quiz i
    • QS = Σ{ QSi | for i in {1,2,...,n} } / n
  • FG : Final Grade
    • FG = min((0.1*QS + 0.2*HWS + 0.35*MES + 0.35*FES)+PB+CP, 100) + APB
      • where 
        • QS are the in-classroom quizzes, 
        • PB is the project bonus, 
        • CP is the class participation bonus, and
        • APB is the bonus for receiving A+ in the class. For APB to apply the following conditions must be met:
          • (0.1*QS + 0.2*HWS + 0.35*MES + 0.35*FES)+PB+CP>=100, and
          • Special designated bonus questions must be answered in exams with score more than 75%, and 
          • All the optional project milestones must be successfully completed (or) an extra project as indicated under Honors Contracts must be successfully completed.

Grading scale:

 A+ >100%  B- [75-80)%
 A [95-100]%  C+ [70-75)%
 A- [90-95)%  C [65-70)%
 B+ [85-90)%  D [55-65)%
 B [80-85)%  F <55%

Homework Policy

The homework must be turned in at the beginning of the class on the due day.

Homework problem solutions are going to be discussed in the first recitation after the homework due date.

If the homework is turned in late, the maximum grade you can expect is 50% of the total grade.

The homework will have an individual part and a group part [YOU MUST ANSWER BOTH PARTS, i.e., if you are submitting on your own the whole homework, you still need to submit the group part]:

  1. Individual homework exercises must be solved and submitted individually. Individual exercises are not challenging; therefore, collaborative work is not allowed. However, if you are stuck or you do not understand something, you are allowed to post a question on Piazza.
  2. It is highly recommended that you form/join a group. Groups can have up to 3 members. 
    • The best way to understand a new topic is when you try to explain it to someone else.
  3. A person from the group must submit the group homework exercises with his/her individual homework exercises. That is, each group submits only one solution. The names of all the group members should be displayed on the submitted group part.
  4. The grade of the group homework is the same for all group members. However, the grade will be modified upward or downward based on feedback received through peer assessment among the members of the group.
  5. Those who form their own group should email me their group members and join/create a group on Blackboard > Groups.
  6. If you want to join a group and you cannot find one, please use the respective discussion forum on Piazza.
  7. As the course progresses, the groups can be modified.
  8. Again: The best understanding of the material is achieved when you try to explain the material to others. More on Peer-led Team learning.
  9. Collaboration between individuals who are not in the same group or between groups is not permitted and will be treated as cheating! However, if your group is facing a challenging problem and you are not making progress, then you are allowed to post a question on Piazza.
  1. If you submit a late homework, you need to send me and the TA an email.
  2. Bonus problems are not counted in late submissions.
  3. If cheating is detected, then the homework score will be zero and the final score will be lowered by an additional 5%.

Remark: Answering questions, explaining concepts and pointing out mistakes to other students at the discussion forums on Piazza s highly encouraged and it actually counts towards class participation. Please use your judgement on what constitutes an intellectual and intelligent discussion about the HW assignments VS solving someone else's HW assignment. 

The homework policy will be strictly enforced since it is already very permissive. The 50% policy is intended to minimize the consequences to those who for any reason cannot turn in the homework on time.

NO excuses will be accepted, so plan ahead!

Rules for electronic submission of homework

The homework must be submitted electronically and as a hard copy. Detailed instructions will be provided on the homework instructions.

Some general guidelines:

  1. If you are asked to submit other files, e.g., JFLAP files, besides your answer sheet, then you must compress all the files into a ZIP file.
  2. You may type or scan your answers. 
  3. In either case, the only acceptable format is PDF. 

If you are using MS Word to write up your answers, then you can download and install the following add-on:

In-classroom Quiz Policy

There are going to be 3 in-class quiz. The examination time will be between 10 and 15 minutes. These are going to be multiple-choice, closed book, closed notes and no cheat sheet. The material covered will be from the previous examination until the previous class. 

On-line Quiz Policy (Self assessment)

The class follows the Just-In-Time-Teaching (JITT) philosophy. This means that you have to read the assigned material before coming to class and answer a brief on-line quiz. This will help me identify potential weaknesses and revise that day's lecture based on your answers and feedback. The quizzes will contain 2-4 very simple questions which are graded and which simply test whether you read the assigned material or not. 

You are allowed to meet with your group to discuss the quiz questions if you like. Note that some questions on the quiz may not be the same for all group members.

Midterm Exam Policy

In class, 1hr long, a 2 page (1 piece of paper) cheat sheet is allowed. Nothing else must be on your desks besides your pen and/or pencil. The exact material for each midterm exam will be announced in class.

Final Exam Policy

In class, closed book and closed notes. You may have a cheat sheet. The instructions will be included in the Final Exam Review Notes. The final exam is cumulative.

Makeup Exam Policy

Makeup exams will be given only for medical reasons or other personal emergency. You must submit verifiable documentation with your petition for a makeup exam.

Plagiarism Policy

Your work for this course must be the result of your own individual effort or - when permitted - the result of your group. Having said that, you are allowed to discuss problems with your classmates or me, but you must not blatantly copy others' solutions. 

Copying (or slightly changing) solutions from online sources, other books or your friends is easily detectable. 

If such copying is detected, then a zero grade is applied to the respective assignment, -5% to the final grade and a formal report! 

Do not forget that if you can find an answer online, then so can we! Actually, if there is an answer on-line, then we download 10 versions and we check your answers for copying.

The best way to prepare for the midterms and the exams is to do the homework according to the rules above!

Class evaluations and feedback

I take very seriously class evaluations and feedback. During the semester, I will be posting surveys on Blackboard for feedback on both the course organization and the course content. I will appreciate it if you respond to these surveys. Ideally, the changes I implement will help you better succeed in the course.

As an example, in 2012, there were on-line quizzes before each class according to the JITT teaching philosophy which were required and graded. Student feedback stated that the idea of pre-class quizzes was great, but too stressful. Thus, this year we keep the on-line quizzes, but only for self assessment reasons, i.e., they are not graded. 

Finally, it is extremely important that you respond in the final anonymous survey solicited by the university at the end of the school year. The overall feedback helps me make changes for the next year.

Honors Contract

Options for honor's contract:

  1. 8-10 page survey paper with basic theory and 1-2 applications on any topic from the following list:
    • probabilistic automata .
    • omega automata
    • timed or hybrid automata
    • advanced topics in complexity theory
    • complexity classes beyond NP
    • automata learning
    • current problems in automata theory
  2. Work on a small theoretical research problem from automata theory 
  3. Build software tools to support learning outcomes for the course

 Special Needs

If you are entitled to extra accommodation for any reason (such as a disability), I will make every reasonable attempt to accommodate you. However, it is your responsibility to discuss this with the instructor at the beginning of the course.