In Defense of Text-Based GTD Methods

September 20, 2017

Okay, so the title of this post is not fair to Robert Talbert, who talked about why he is going away from a text-based approach to Getting Things Done and went back to using ToDoist. However, this is a post I have been meaning to write for a week, and it fits in perfectly with what Talbert wrote.

Basically, Talbert wrote that he is moving away from a text-based approach to organizing his life (Todo.txt) and back to the ToDoist app. He explicitly said that this is a personal decision, and he is just reporting what works for him. I am going to describe a way that I solved one of the issues he describes in his post.

Background: I organize my word by having a plain text file on my work computer with all of the things I need to do (in part so that I can use with it, which I love). I do not use the Todo.txt method, and I think that I have probably evolved far enough away from Getting Things Done that I should not be referring to my process as GTD at all. However, I evolved from GTD, so there will still be a lot of overlap.

In addition to my text-based ToDo file, I use

  1. I ssh into my work computer to write down things I need to do if I am on a computer.
  2. A hipster PDA to capture ideas when I am away from a computer.
  3. I use a tickler file to capture items that I do not need to work on now.

Talbert’s main problem with Todo.txt involved syncing, and it sounds like a real problem. However, I never expected my hipster PDA to sync, so this is not an issue for me.

Talbert also mentioned that there is no easy way to do recurring tasks in Todo.txt. He talked about looking into cron jobs to take care of this for him, and he decided that he would rather have an app that just works (as Todoist does—you just click a button or two to make it the task keep reappearing regularly).

I opted for the cron job approach, which I explain below.

First, I will describe the old way. I have lists of recurring tasks I need to do every day. For instance, here is a list of tasks that I need to remind myself to do every Monday/Wednesday/Friday, the days that I teach (the details are not important, although it is worth telling you that I teach Math 124 and Math 343 this fall):

Check Canvas for pre-class work at 10 am
Change Dailywork in Canvas
Update Actual Plan
Grade (Daily Homework for sure, maybe other things)0 1 * * 1,3,5 /usr/bin/python Dropbox/HodgePodge/

Look at next class’s materials

Collect Daily HW in class, give to TA
Change Dailywork in Canvas
Update Actual Plan
Look at next class’s materials

These are things I need to think about every day I teach. The old way was to print out this list at the beginning of the semester, put it in my tickler for the next MWF, read it, type all of the above items into my text-based ToDo list, put the paper list back into the tickler file corresponding to the next MWF, and then delete the items as I do them.

It occurred to me, though, that I could just have the computer write these tasks to my text-based ToDo list. So I wrote a Python script (called that does it and set a cron job to schedule the Python script (cron is a scheduler for Linux machines).

First, here is my cron job code. I just typed “crontab -e” in a command line and added the following line of code:

0 1 * * 1,3,5 /usr/bin/python Dropbox/HodgePodge/

The initial “0 1” means to do “0 minutes after 1 am.” Then next “* *” means do any day of the month (1–31) and any month of the year. The final “1,3,5” means do the first, third, and fifth days of the week (MWF). So “0 1 * * 1,3,5” just means “do something at 1 am every MWF.” What should be done is to run Python (located at /usr/bin/python) on the file at “Dropbox/HodgePodge/

That is it—the computer now runs that Python script every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The Python script is below:

with open(“Dropbox/ToDo”, “r+”) as f:
old = # read everything in the file # rewind
f.write( “343:\nCheck Canvas for pre-class work at 10 am\nChange Dailywork in Canvas\nUpdate Actual Plan\nGrade (Daily Homework for sure, maybe other things)\nLook at next class’s materials\n\n124:\nCollect Daily HW in class, give to Joe\nChange Dailywork in Canvas\nUpdate Actual Plan\nLook at next class’s materials\n\n” + old) # write the new line before

Basically, this code (which I stole from someone—probably someone from Stack Overflow) just copies what was already in the ToDo file, prepends my new items for Math 124 and Math 343, and overwrites the old file with both the new information and the old (so it effectively just adds some stuff to the beginning).

This has worked well—my to-do list is ready for me immediately when I get to work, saving me a couple of minutes. In addition to, I also have,,, and, which all have their own cron job. Notice that both and both run on Wednesdays—to be safe, I just schedule the at a different time (12:30 am, which is

30 0 * * 1,3,5 /usr/bin/python Dropbox/HodgePodge/

in crontab, where “12 am” corresponds to the first 0).

I agree with Talbert that this is all personal preference. However, I like my system, I just did this a week before Talbert posted, and this seems to have a nice harmony with what Talbert wrote.



August 30, 2017

Like Kate, I am using a token course currency this semester. I am pairing this with specifications grading, which is where I got the idea.

One twist from the usual recommendation—which I may come to regret—is that I am giving five tokens to my 100-level probability and statistics class and eight tokens to my 300-level real analysis class. The usual recommendation is between one to three tokens.

My reasoning for giving them so many tokens is that I have a reasonable number of assignments that students will need them for, and I want to give them plenty of chances to re-do material.

Here is a list of things that students can use tokens for (RATs are “Readiness Assurance Tests,” and come from Team-Based Learning):

• If you contact me before the deadline, you may trade 1 token to receive a 24-hour extension on one
Daily Homework assignment.
• If you contact me after the deadline, you may trade 2 tokens to receive a 24-hour extension on one
Daily Homework assignment.
• If you contact me before the deadline, you may trade 1 token to receive a 24-hour extension on one
Weekly Writing Homework assignment.
• If you contact me after the deadline, you may trade 2 tokens to receive a 24-hour extension on one
Weekly Writing Homework assignment.
• You may trade 1 token to resubmit a Weekly Writing Homework Assignment that does not need
specifications. The resubmission will be due the Wednesday the original submission.
• You may trade 1 token to resubmit a Challenge Problem that does not need specifications. There is
no deadline for the resubmission.
• If you contact me before the deadline, you may trade 2 tokens to receive a 24-hour extension on a quiz.
• If you contact me after the deadline, you may trade 4 tokens to receive a 24-hour extension on a quiz.
• If you contact me before the deadline, you may trade 1 token to receive a 24-hour extension on one Individual RAT.
• If you contact me after the deadline, you may trade 2 tokens to receive a 24-hour extension on one Individual RAT.

Dropbox to the Rescue

August 22, 2017

Many of you are probably aware of this, but I was able to save myself two hours worth of work by using a feature of Dropbox this morning.

The situation: I was about to create the gradebook for a course (Math 239) this morning, and I figure that I would just copy the folder (“Grades”) containing my spreadsheet and python program for automatically emailing grades to students from a different course (Math 343) rather then starting from scratch.

I worked for a couple of hours, modified the copied documents, and then was done. Then I wanted to look at a class roster for Math 343, so I went to open my grade spreadsheet for Math 343. The problem was that the “Grades” folder was not there for 343: I had accidentally moved the folder rather than copied it. Basically, I overwrote about two hours worth of work that I would rather not re-do.

I slightly panicked, emailed my IT guy, and waited. But then I realized that I had stored all of this in Dropbox, and Dropbox stores all of your files for 30 days.

So I went to the Dropbox website, clicked on the 343 folder, clicked on “Show Deleted Files” on the right-hand menu, clicked on “Grades” (my deleted folder), and clicked “Restore Folder” in the right-hand menu. Those four clicks saved me two hours worth of work.

Thank you, Dropbox.

Productivity tweaks for this semester

August 18, 2017

I am doing two new things to help my productivity this semester. At work, I use Mutt for email (Motto: “All mail clients suck. This one just sucks less.”). I use getmail to actually retrieve the email from my school’s account, and I use a cron job (a scheduler for Linux) to get my emails every minute. My tweak: I changed the cron job so that I get email every four hours, rather than every minute. Thus, there are really only three times during the work day when it even makes sense for me to check email.

If I need to check email between these three times, I can still do so (I can run getmail manually, or I can use the web interface for my school’s email), but that creates one small barrier where I can ask myself if I really, truly want to check email.

My other tweak is similar, but at home. My wife and I decided to attach a timer to our wireless router so that it is only on during certain times of the day. I suppose that this is less about productivity than quality of life, particularly because we want our kids to be in the habit of coming offline frequently as they grow up.

Both tweaks have been in effect for about a week, and all is working well so far.

New Blog

July 31, 2017


I am in the midst of scrambling to get my courses ready, so I will keep this short. My colleague, Robert Campbell, has started a new blog. Robert is easily the person I speak with most about teaching, so you will likely enjoy his blog if you like mine.

So check out his blog.

Talbert’s _Flipped Learning_

June 29, 2017

I just finished Robert Talbert’s Flipped Learning. Here is a brief review.

I will preface the review with a couple of comments. I have “known” Talbert online for years, although I have never met him in person. I was also mentioned in the acknowledgments, although I did not play much of a role in writing the book (you will see below that I have a lot of work to do with flipped learning). Finally, I did not receive any payment of any sort for anything related to this book, and Robert does not know that I am writing this review (he does not even know that I read it).

This is an excellent book, if only because it actually defines what flipped learning (or flipped classrooms, or inverted classrooms, or whatever) actually is (spoiler: it is not simply showing videos outside of class). Prior to reading this book, I would have said that I have been flipping my class since 2010. I usually have my students read/watch videos/work on problems outside of class to introduce the material and use the in-class time for sense-making. However, this is not sufficient to be flipped learning by Talbert’s definition, and I think that his definition is better than what I had in my head. The issue is that Talbert requires the out-of-class work to be structured, and I often do not do that (basically, the definition is that there has to be a structured introduction to the material prior to class, followed by active learning in the classroom). I have read Talbert write about Guided Practice previously, and I always thought that it seemed like a good idea. The book helped clarify why this is essential, and I am in the process of preparing Guided Practice assignments for next year because of the book. In fact, I found that the book format allowed me to understand a lot of his ideas that I had read about for years, and I found myself wishing that more of my online friends wrote books about how they teach (so please get on that, everyone).

Talbert gives step-by-step instructions on several things that can improve your classroom (designing the course, creating Guided Practice assignments, etc). This really acts as a how-to guide, in many ways. He also spells out what the point is: you do flipped learning to take advantage of the active learning in the in-class.

The last section of his book is helpful to anyone using active techniques. For instance, he talks through what to do when students express dissatisfaction because the professor “isn’t teaching” (or “I have to teach myself everything”). This is worth reading even if you never plan on doing flipped learning.

One thing that is worth noting is how useful I found it that the book was written by a mathematician. He frequently used examples relating to mathematics (three of his six case studies were on mathematics classes), and this helped me digest the material. In contrast, I have been reading a lot about Team-Based Learning this summer, and there have been zero examples of a mathematics classroom (although I found stuff on statistics and math for engineers), and the lack of relevant examples has slowed me down a bit in imagining how my courses might look like if I implemented Team-Based Learning. Of course, some may view the focus on mathematics as a drawback, but I (and likely those reading this post) found it helpful.

It was also enjoyable to read a book on teaching written by a mathematician because Talbert thinks about education in the same way one thinks about mathematics. For instance, he gives two approximations for the definition of flipped learning before settling on the one he uses. Also, he abstracts his ideas on flipped learning as much as possible. I paraphrased his definition above by referring to “in-class” and “out-of-class” time, but he abstracts this to “group space” and “individual space,” respectively, so that he can accommodate blended and online courses.

In summary, I feel like I am a bit of a veteran with the flipped classroom, but I am changing my planning for next year because of this book. It was quite helpful. I will end with my two favorite quotes from the book.

Q: I am having a hard time finding appropriate action verbs to use for my learning objectives…Is there a place I can go for hints?
A: Yes, and it’s called “the internet.”

(Talbert goes on to elaborate his answer above).

In a flipped learning environment, we instructors have to make educated guesses on the “center of mass” of the students’ ZPDs based on their execution of basic learning objectives and design the group space activities accordingly. Getting this guesswork right is part science and part art (possible part magic).

Marzano’s _Classroom Assessment & Grading That Work

June 9, 2017

I thought that I would do a couple of book reports this summer. I have been hearing about Marzano for years, and I thought that I should finally read some of what he says about Standards-Based Grading. The book I read is Classroom Assessment & Grading that Work.

I read the book about a month ago, so I do not remember everything. However, below are the ideas that stuck with me.

First, you should use “topics” for your class, and there should be about 15–20 of them. These are akin to standards in SBG. Whenever you test a standard, you should give the student a question in three parts. The first part should be basic details and/or facts that you would expect every student to know, the second part measures whether students understand what was covered in class, and the third part asks the students to go beyond what was done in class. I am teaching real analysis in the fall, so I am going to give an example for real analysis on the topic of compactness:

  1. Is the interval [2,3.5) compact?
  2. Show that if S \subseteq \mathbb{R} is a compact set, then the supremum of S exists and is in S.
  3. Give an example of a metric space M with a set S \subseteq M such that S is closed and bounded but not compact.

I don’t love my example, but I hope it gives you an idea. You then grade the students answer according to the following rubric:

  • A student receives a score of 4.0 if she is able to answer all three questions (“I can make connections that weren’t explicitly taught.”).
  • A student receives a score of 3.0 if she can answer the first two questions (but not the third) without mistakes (“I can do everything that is taught without mistakes.”).
  • A student receives a score of 2.0 if she can answer the first question (but not the second or third) without mistakes (“I can do the basics without mistakes.”).
  • A student receives a score of 1.0 if she can answer some portion of the questions with help.
  • A student receives a score of 0.0 if she cannot do any of the questions, even with help.

Half scores of 0.5, 1.5, 2.5, and 3.5 can be defined in a reasonable manner (Marzano does this in the book). Marzano claims that this scoring system leads to a roughly normal distribution.

Marzano then suggests that each topic is graded in one of two ways: either you find a function of the form a*x^b “of best fit” for each topic to predict where they will be at the end of the semester (using software). I will not be using this method. He also recommends using the “Method of Mounting Evidence,” which basically means that you keep track of all of the student’s scores within a topic (e.g. 1.5, 2.0, 1.5, 2.5, 2.5, 3.0, 2.5). Once you are convinced that a student’s “true score” is at a certain level, you mark it down and then look for evidence that they surpass it in future assessments. For instance, in the example list of numbers above, the second 2.5 is in italics, which might indicate that our hypothetical teacher thinks that our hypothetical student has convince him that she is definitely at 2.5 level for this topic. On assessments following that corresponding to the italicize score, the teacher will be mainly looking to see if the student jumped to a 3.0, 3.5, or 4.0 as her true score. And is she gets, say, a 1.5 on a future assessment? The teacher just returns the assessment and asks her to correct the missed “easy” work, with the assumption being that the student just had a bad day rather than no longer knows the material.

You can assess students as many times as you like, although Marzano recommends assessing students you are unsure of more. This seems entirely reasonable.

It seems possible that a student could get the hardest question correct but not the easiest question. Marzano mentions this possibility, but basically says that he assumes that a student who can answer the hardest question should be able to answer the easiest. So, ideally, the assessment writer would write questions in such a way that this is true.

At the end of the semester, the student’s score for each topic is just wherever they ended up with from the Method of Mounting Evidence. Marzano then talks about ways of averaging together the topic scores, although this is not particularly of interest to me. His other method for determining a final grade is something akin to what many of us to already, which is creating rules like, “A student gets a B for the semester if no topic score is below 2.0 and the majority or 2.5 or above.”

The two ideas that I am thinking a lot about are:

  1. Topics should be assessed at different levels, as with my real analysis example. I have been heading this way for a while now, and maybe this is the year to try it.
  2. You can give grades based on whether a student can solve it with help. I think that this is brilliant. However, I still need to figure out how to assess this in a reasonable way with 75 students. But I like it.

The New Proposed Curriculum Fails

May 10, 2017

I told you a couple of weeks ago about how I was nearing the end of a 4-year process on building a new curriculum. We had the vote last week, and we lost: the faculty decided to reject the proposed curriculum. We lost by five votes (if we had only changed three people’s minds! Actually, I am not sure if I would have wanted the curriculum to pass by one vote—I don’t want 50% of the people unhappy).

This is disappointing, but the people have spoken. There may be a tiny bit of hope for the curriculum, though: I talked to several people (at least three, which would be enough for it to pass) who wanted more details about a separate, but related, distribution requirement that will be decided in the fall. So it is possible that the Faculty Senate will decide to resurrect the curriculum after the distribution requirement is settled, but there is no guarantee of that.

That is the bad news. The good news is that a lot of my time has just been freed up over the next couple of years.

New General Education Curriculum

April 24, 2017

I haven’t been writing much up until now because I have been in the middle of creating a new general education curriculum at our school. This is year-four of the process, so we have put quite a bit of work into this. We are in the middle of a five-day discussion period, followed by a five-day voting period on whether to adopt the proposed curriculum. Our current general education curriculum is a pure distribution requirement, where students take

  • a two-semester writing seminar in their first year
  • one Mathematics course
  • one Natural Science course
  • one Social Science course
  • one Fine Arts course
  • two Humanities courses
  • two Theology courses (I am at a Catholic school)
  • one Ethics course
  • one Gender course
  • one Intercultural course
  • one Experiential Learning course
  • a capstone course within the major

The Gender, Intercultural, and Experiential Learning courses can be double-counted with other courses; that is, a course could count as both Humanities and Gender.

There are many reasons why our Senate decided to explore changing the curriculum. Historically, very few people were happy with the way our current curriculum was decided upon in 2005ish (I was not at my current school then). Additionally, many feel that these courses occur in isolation, and the students are not given any opportunity to see how they are related.

Here is a link to the website of our proposed curriculum. This was a huge amount of work, and roughly 1/6 of our faculty ended up working on it in some capacity. It is safe to say that this curriculum is no individual’s ideal curriculum, but rather a result of considering 300 faculty members’ needs and desires for their students.

We are happy with this curriculum, although I have no idea how the vote will go. Many people have come out both in favor of it and many people have come out against it. If this does not pass, we (my school, not me in particular) will have to spend a couple of years revising our curriculum to get it up to snuff (many of the current outcomes are unable to be assessed, for instance).

Galois Theory

March 22, 2017

I am lucky enough to be teaching a course on Galois Theory that only has five students in it. The set-up of the course is this: we are working out of Pinter (which I really like due to its ease of reading, great problems, and price of $12; I don’t like that he defines subgroups/subrings/etc in a weird way and is sloppy with defining variables), and students present problems from the textbook to each other.

This will be obvious to people who do IBL, but: holy cow do you get a sense of what students understand and what they don’t. A large part of this is the small class size, but this IBL-like format helps. What students understand (or not) is often not what I would expect.

Because I only have five students, I am doing oral exams. The format is this: I give them four problems the week prior to the exam. Students are allow to work together to figure out the answers. They come to the oral exam having written one of the four problems up nicely in LaTeX. The oral exam starts by the student choosing one of the remaining problems and explaining it. I then (randomly) pick one of the two remaining problems. The session ends with me presenting a problem they haven’t seen before (I try to make these easy enough that the student should know what to do immediately). We will do these exams four times during the semester, and they take 30 minutes per student.

Once again: this testing format makes it crystal clear to me what (and how well) students understand things, and it is clear how I should adjust the in-class work based on the information I get from the exams.

I am wondering if this could scale: could I give a class of 25 students, say, 4 questions, have them write up one, and then have them write the solutions to a subset of the remaining problems? I like that this is a learning opportunity for the students, since they get to learn from each other in an exam situation, but they are still individually accountable. However, I am wondering how much is lost if the exams aren’t oral.