Course Description & Logistics

To realize the dreams and impact of AI requires autonomous systems that learn to make good decisions. Reinforcement learning is one powerful paradigm for doing so, and it is relevant to an enormous range of tasks, including robotics, game playing, consumer modeling and healthcare. This class will provide a solid introduction to the field of reinforcement learning and students will learn about the core challenges and approaches, including generalization and exploration. Through a combination of lectures, and written and coding assignments, students will become well versed in key ideas and techniques for RL. Assignments will include the basics of reinforcement learning as well as deep reinforcement learning — an extremely promising new area that combines deep learning techniques with reinforcement learning.

Communication: We will use Ed discussion forums. We encourage all students to use Ed for the fastest response to your questions.

Learning remotely: We know with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and other world events, that this quarter will be difficult. We are adjusting our format to try to better support your learning. Please let us know if you have ideas or feedback about how to further improve the class and your learning and we will take those into consideration for this and future offerings.
  • Lectures will be live every Tuesday and Thursday: Videos of the lecture content will also be made available to enrolled students through canvas. During the first two weeks of class, all lectures will be held via zoom. A link will be sent to enrolled students.
  • Group office hours: We will have group office hours on for assignments in addition to 1:1 office hours. The hours for these will be announced the first week of class. We encourage you to come to these as a chance to work with and learn from your peers while being supported by a CA.
  • 1:1 office hours: Students can sign up for 1:1 office hours with faculty and CAs. These will all be appointment-based so that students need not to wait in queue. See our calendar for times and sign up links. [Office hour schedules will be posted by the end of Tuesday on week 1]
  • Problem session practice:We will also make available optional additional problem session questions and videos to provide additional opportunities to learn about the material.

Platforms: All assignments and quizzes will be handled through Gradescope, where you will also find your grades. We will send out links and access codes to enrolled students through Canvas.

Time / Location: All class activities and office hours are in our calendar. Note: Office hour links will be posted by the end of Tuesday January 4 2022. All times are in Stanford local time (Pacific Time, PT).

You can find previous years (Winter 2021, Winter 2020, Winter 2019, Winter 2018) materials here.

Prerequisites for This Class

  • Proficiency in Python
    All class assignments will be in Python. There is a tutorial here for those who aren't as familiar with Python. If you have a lot of programming experience but in a different language (e.g. C/ C++/ Matlab/ Javascript) you will probably be fine.
  • College Calculus, Linear Algebra (e.g. MATH 51, CME 100)
    You should be comfortable taking derivatives and understanding matrix vector operations and notation.
  • Basic Probability and Statistics (e.g. CS 109 or other stats course)
    You should know basics of probabilities, Gaussian distributions, mean, standard deviation, etc.
  • Foundations of Machine Learning
    We will be formulating cost functions, taking derivatives and performing optimization with gradient descent. Either CS 221 or CS 229 cover this background. Some optimization tricks will be more intuitive with some knowledge of convex optimization.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of the class students should be able to:

  • Define the key features of reinforcement learning that distinguishes it from AI and non-interactive machine learning (as assessed by the exam).
  • Given an application problem (e.g. from computer vision, robotics, etc), decide if it should be formulated as a RL problem; if yes be able to define it formally (in terms of the state space, action space, dynamics and reward model), state what algorithm (from class) is best suited for addressing it and justify your answer (as assessed by the exam).
  • Implement in code common RL algorithms (as assessed by the assignments).
  • Describe (list and define) multiple criteria for analyzing RL algorithms and evaluate algorithms on these metrics: e.g. regret, sample complexity, computational complexity, empirical performance, convergence, etc (as assessed by assignments and the exam).
  • Describe the exploration vs exploitation challenge and compare and contrast at least two approaches for addressing this challenge (in terms of performance, scalability, complexity of implementation, and theoretical guarantees) (as assessed by an assignment and the exam).

Course Lecture Materials (Videos and Slides)

See the Lecture Materials page.

Course Schedule

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
Week 1 Jan 3 Jan 4 Jan 5 Jan 6 Jan 7 Jan 8 Jan 9
Lecture Materials
Introduction to Reinforcement Learning

Introduction to Reinforcement Learning
Tabular MDP planning

[Assignment 1 Released]
Quiz 0
Due at 6 pm
Week 2 Jan 10
Jan 11
Jan 12 Jan 13 Jan 14 Jan 15 Jan 16
Lecture Materials
Tabular RL policy evaluation 11:30am-1pm
Q-learning 11:30am-1pm
Assignment 1

Due at 6 pm

[Assignment 2 Released]
Week 3 Jan 17
Jan 18 Jan 19 Jan 20 Jan 21
Jan 22 Jan 23
Lecture Materials
Function approximation 1 11:30am-1pm
Function approximation 2 11:30am-1pm
Week 4 Jan 24
Jan 25
Jan 26 Jan 27 Jan 28 Jan 29 Jan 30
Lecture Materials
Function approximation 3
Policy search
Assignment 2 Question 1-5

Due at 6 pm
Week 5 Jan 31
Feb 1
Feb 2 Feb 3 Feb 4 Feb 5 Feb 6
Lecture Materials
Policy search
Exam 1 Assignment 2 Part 2

Due at 6 pm

[Assignment 3 Released]
Week 6 Feb 7
Feb 8
Feb 9 Feb 10 Feb 11 Feb 12 Feb 13
Lecture Materials
Fast learning / exploration exploitation 11:30am-1pm
(Optional) Problem Session 1
3-4:30 PM
Zoom Recording
Exploration / exploitation 11:30am-1pm
Week 7 Feb 14
Feb 15
Feb 16 Feb 17 Feb 18 Feb 19 Feb 20
Lecture Materials
Exploration / exploitation 11:30am-1pm
Assignment 3

Due at 6 pm

[Assignment 4 Released]
(Optional) Problem Session 2
Zoom Recording [Problems]
Batch RL 11:30am-1pm
Week 8 Feb 21
Feb 22
Feb 23 Feb 24 Feb 25 Feb 26 Feb 27
Lecture Materials
Imitation Learning 11:30am-1pm
(Optional) Problem Session 3
Zoom Recording [Problems]
Batch RL 11:30am-1pm
Assignment 4

Due at 11:59 pm

[Assignment 5 Released]
Week 9 Feb 28
Mar 1
Mar 2 Mar 3 Mar 4 Mar 5 Mar 6
Lecture Materials
Batch RL 11:30am-1pm
Exam 2
Week 10 Mar 7
Mar 8
Mar 9 Mar 10 Mar 11 Mar 12 Mar 13
Lecture Materials
POMDP 11:30am-1pm
Final class 11:30am-1pm
Assignment 5

Due at 6 pm


There is no official textbook for the class but a number of the supporting readings will come from: Some other additional references that may be useful are listed below:

Grade Breakdown

  • Assignment 1: 8%
  • Assignment 2: 18%
  • Assignment 3: 16%
  • Assignment 4: 16%
  • Assignment 5: 8%
  • Quizz 0: 1%
  • Exam 1 and 2: 16% each
  • Exercises: 1% (to receive 1%, complete 80% or more of the check/refresh your understanding polls)

Late Day Policy


Assignments and Submission Process


We believe students often learn an enormous amount from each other as well as from us, the course staff. Therefore to facilitate discussion and peer learning, we request that you please use Ed for all questions related to lectures and assignments.

For SCPD students, if you have generic SCPD specific questions, please email or call 650-741-1542. In case you have specific questions related to being a SCPD student for this particular class, please contact us at

For exceptional circumstances that require us to make special arrangements, please email us at For example, such a situation may arise if a student requires extra days to submit a homework due to a medical emergency, or if a student needs to schedule an alternative midterm date due to events such as conference travel etc. They will be considered and approved on a case by case basis.

Regrading Requests

Academic Collaboration and Misconduct

I care about academic collaboration and misconduct because it is important both that we are able to evaluate your own work (independent of your peer’s) and because not claiming others’ work as your own is an important part of integrity in your future career. I understand that different institutions and locations can have different definitions of what forms of collaborative behavior is considered acceptable. In this class, for written homework problems, you are welcome to discuss ideas with others, but you are expected to write up your own solutions independently (without referring to another’s solutions). For coding, you may only share the input-output behavior of your programs. This encourages you to work separately but share ideas on how to test your implementation. Please remember that if you share your solution with another student, even if you did not copy from another, you are still violating the honor code.

We periodically run similarity-detection software over all submitted student programs, including programs from past quarters and any solutions found online on public websites. Anyone violating the Stanford University Honor Code will be referred to the Office of Judicial Affairs. If you think you made a mistake (it can happen, especially under stress or when time is short!), please reach out to Emma or the head CA; the consequences will be much less severe than if we approach you.

Academic Accommodation

Students who may need an academic accommodation based on the impact of a disability should initiate the request with the Office of Accessible Education (OAE). Professional staff will evaluate the request with required documentation, recommend reasonable accommodations, and prepare an Accommodation Letter for faculty dated in the current quarter in which the request is being made. Students should please contact the OAE as soon as possible since timely notice is needed to coordinate accommodations. The OAE is located at 563 Salvatierra Walk (650-723-1066,

Credit/No Credit Enrollment

If you're enrolled in the class on credit/no credit status, you will be graded on work as usual per standard Stanford rules. The only distinction with those taking the class for letter grade is that you must obtain a C- (C minus) grade or higher in the class, for you to be marked as CR.