CMPSCI 390A: Introduction to Machine Learning

Spring 2021, University of Massachusetts

Lecture Times: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 11:30am-12:45pm Eastern

Course Information

Download Syllabus .pdf

Lecture:11:30am-12:45pm Tuesdays and Thursdays

Zoom link:


The course provides an introduction to machine learning algorithms and applications. Machine learning algorithms answer the question: "How can a computer improve its performance based on data and from its own experience?" The course is roughly divided into thirds: supervised learning (learning from labeled data), reinforcement learning (learning via trial and error), and real-world considerations like ethics, safety, and fairness. Specific topics include linear and non-linear regression, (stochastic) gradient descent, neural networks, backpropagation, classification, Markov decision processes, state-value and action-value functions, temporal difference learning, actor-critic algorithms, the reward prediction error hypothesis for dopamine, connectionism for philosophy of mind, and ethics, safety, and fairness considerations when applying machine learning to real-world problems.

Download Course Notes .pdf

TAs and Office Hours

The TAs for this course are Cooper Sigrist ( and Scott Jordan ( Scott will primarily be handling assignments and grading, and so you should ask him questions related to grading. Cooper will primarily be holding office hours.

Office hours will be at the following times:

Day Time Person Link
Monday 8:00am-9:45am Cooper Sigrist link
Tuesday 1:00pm-3:00pm Cooper Sigrist link
Wednesday 4:00pm-6:00pm Philip Thomas link
Thursday 8:00am-9:45am Cooper Sigrist link
Friday 1:00pm-3:00pm Cooper Sigrist link

Office hours will follow the UMass Academic Calendar [link]. For example, Monday March 1 will follow a Wednesday schedule, and so Philip Thomas will be holding office hours and Cooper Sigrist will not. Office hours will run up to and including the last day of classes, May 4.


  1. Homework 1 has been assigned on 2 February 2021 and is due at 11:00am on 4 February 2021. [lin (.pdf)]
  2. Homework 2 has been assigned on 8 February 2021 and is due at 11:00am on 11 February 2021. [link (.zip)]
  3. Homework 3 has been assigned on 11 February 2021 and is due at 11:00am on 18 February 2021. [link (.zip)]
  4. Homework 4 has been assigned on 19 February 2021 and is due at 11:00am on 25 February 2021. [link (.zip)]
  5. Homework 5 has been assigned on 5 March 2021 and is due at 11:00am on 16 March 2021. [link (.zip)]
  6. Homework 6 has been assigned on 8 April 2021 and is due at 11:00am on 20 April 2021. [link (.zip)]
  7. Homework 7 has been assigned on 22 April 2021 and is due at 11:00am on 29 April 2021. [link (.zip)]


Part I: Supervised Learning

Lecture Topic Reading Whiteboard
1 Introduction Chapter 1 (course notes) link
2 Regression, k-Nearest Neighbors, Linear Regression I Chapter 2 (course notes) link
3 Linear Regression II Chapter 3 link
4 Linear Regression III, Gradient Descent Chapter 4 link
5 Gradient Descent (continued) Chapter 5 link
6 Basis functions, feature normalization, perceptrons Chapter 6 link
7 Perceptrons Chapter 7 link
8 Artificial Neural Networks Chapter 8 link
9 Backpropagation Chapter 9 link
10 Supervised Learning - Other Topics Chapter 10 link

Part II: Reinforcement Learning

Lecture Topic Reading Slides
11 Introduction Chapter 11 link
12 MENACE, Notation, and Problem Formulation Chapter 12 link
13 Episodes and Policy Representations Chapter 13 link
14 Midterm Solutions and Linear Softmax Policies Chapter 13 (linear softmax content added) link
15 MENACE-like RL Algorithm Chapter 14 link
16 Value functions and TD error Chapter 15 link
17 Review No readings No whiteboard
18 Actor-Critics, Options, and Off-Policy Evaluation Chapter 16 link

Part III: Ethics, Safety, Fairness, and Connections to other Areas

Lecture Topic Reading Slides
Connections to psychology and neuroscience Sutton and Barto Chapters 14 and 15 [link]
A Neural Substrate of Prediction and Reward [link]
Uncertainty-based competition between prefrontal and dorsolateral striatal systems for behavioral control [link]
Gero Miesenboeck TED Talk [link]
Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency Slides posted on Moodle No whiteboard
Philosophy of Mind Slides posted on Moodle No whiteboard
Ethics See Moodle for Google Docs No whiteboard
Ethics and Safety See Moodle for Google Docs link
Final Exam Review See Moodle for Google Docs link