View on GitHub


An Introduction to Reinforcement Learning

CMPUT 397 Reinforcement Learning


For the current schedule


Syllabus pdf


Fall, 2019

Lecture Date and Time:

MWF 13:00 - 13:50 p.m.

Lecture Location:

CCIS 1 140


This course provides an introduction to reinforcement learning intelligence, which focuses on the study and design of agents that interact with a complex, uncertain world to achieve a goal. We will emphasize agents that can make near-optimal decisions in a timely manner with incomplete information and limited computational resources. The course will cover Markov decision processes, reinforcement learning, planning, and function approximation (online supervised learning). The course will take an information-processing approach to the concept of mind and briefly touch on perspectives from psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy.

The course will use a recently created MOOC on Reinforcement Learning, created by the Instructors of this course. Much of the lecture material and assignments will come from the MOOC. In-class time will be largely spent on discussion and thinking about the material, with some supplementary lectures.


By the end of the course, you will have a solid grasp of the main ideas in reinforcement learning, which is the primary approach to statistical decision-making. Any student who understands the material in this course will understand the foundations of much of modern probabilistic artificial intelligence (AI) and be prepared to take more advanced courses (in particular CMPUT 609: Reinforcement Learning II, and CMPUT 607: Applied Reinforcement Learning), or to apply AI tools and ideas to real-world problems. That person will be able to apply these tools and ideas in novel situations – eg, to determine whether the methods apply to this situation, and if so, which will work most effectively. They will also be able to assess claims made by others, with respect to both software products and general frameworks, and also be able to appreciate some new research results.


The course will use Python 3. We will use elementary ideas of probability, calculus, and linear algebra, such as expectations of random variables, conditional expectations, partial derivatives, vectors and matrices. Students should either be familiar with these topics or be ready to pick them up quickly as needed by consulting outside resources.

Course Prerequisites

One of MATH 100, 114, 117, 134 or 146 One of STAT 141, 151, 235 or 265 or SCI 151 (or any MATH 125 or 127 CMPUT 175 or 275, or permission from the instructor

Course Topics

With a focus on AI as the design of agents learning from experience to predict and control their environment, topics will include

Course Work and Evaluation

Some of the course work will come from the quizzes and assignments in the MOOC, with an additional final and small project. There will be one small programming assignment or one quiz due each week of the course, in the MOOC. There are also supplementary practice assignments and quizzes available through the MOOC, that are optional. To stimulate in-class discussion and get you thinking about the material, we will also assign Thought Questions. The relative weighting on each component will be approximately as follows (small adjustments may be made during the term).

Course Materials

All course reading material will be available online. We will be using videos from the RL MOOC. We will be using the following textbook extensively: Sutton and Barto, Reinforcement Learning: An Introduction, MIT Press. The book is available from the bookstore or online as a pdf here:

Academic Integrity

All assignments written and programming are to be done individually. No exceptions. Students must write their own answers and code. Students are permitted and encouraged to discuss assignment problems and the contents of the course. However, the discussion should always be about high-level ideas. Students should not discuss with each other (or tutors) while writing answers to written questions our programming. Absolutely no sharing of answers or code sharing with other students or tutors. All the sources used for problem solution must be acknowledged, e.g. web sites, books, research papers, personal communication with people, etc. The University of Alberta is committed to the highest standards of academic integrity and honesty. Students are expected to be familiar with these standards regarding academic honesty and to uphold the policies of the University in this respect. Students are particularly urged to familiarize themselves with the provisions of the Code of Student Behaviour and avoid any behaviour which could potentially result in suspicions of cheating, plagiarism, misrepresentation of facts and/or participation in an offence. Academic dishonesty is a serious offence and can result in suspension or expulsion from the University. (GFC 29 SEP 2003)