Cal Newport on Email and Scheduling

November 13, 2019

Cal Newport posted last month about the benefits of figuring out ways to reduce the number of emails you get. In particular, he talked about the benefits of eliminating the 3–4 emails that typically go into working out a meeting time with someone. His solution is similar to, which I have been using for several years.

In the article, he talks about the larger-than-expected psychological relief that the elimination of those scheduling emails provides. I want to back this up: I love to simply refer people to if they want to schedule something with me. This has been particularly important since I became chair of my department—many more students want to meet with me, and this eliminates a lot of emails. Between today’s schedule and tomorrow’s, I have ten students who scheduled appointments with me. That is probably 20–40 emails that I don’t have to sort through, which is something like 20 to 40 minutes saved.

Specifications Grading in Homeschooling

November 6, 2019

My wife and I homeschool are kids, and we joined a new homeschool group this year, Classical Conversations (CC). It has been great for us—it is not a perfect fit, but it is close.

It turns out that the CC uses something very similar Specifications Grading for writing. While the students aren’t graded, they are provided a checklist that looks suspiciously like Specifications. For instance, the students need to check that each sentence has the following.

  1. A subject
  2. A verb
  3. A capital letter
  4. An end mark
  5. Complete sense

Students are given the means to evaluate themselves for each sentence. They have similar checklists for writing—they ask for a topic sentence and concluding sentence (the “clincher”) for each paragraph, and give very specific instructions on how to create each (“The clincher should repeat or reflect two to three key words from the topic sentence.”).

I think that this is brilliant. It gives the students rigid rules (i.e. Specifications) to follow (that they can later break, once they get comfortable with writing) to both instruct them on what to do and to give them tools to evaluate their own writing. It is really cool to see this in action—it really does seem to help the students learn how to write.

Honoring All Parts of the Mathematical Process

October 30, 2019

I went to a sectional MAA meeting 1.5 weeks ago, and I saw a fantastic talk by Aaron Wangberg. He basically said that there are about four parts to doing mathematics:

  1. Experimenting and developing intuition
  2. Making definitions
  3. Making conjectures
  4. Proving and problem solving

(These four may not be exactly the four that Aaron had, but they are close enough for this post). Aaron went on to say that we spend almost all of our time in the four area—proving and problem solving—in a typical math course. He thinks that we should work on all four aspects with students.

(A quick aside: I have always felt a bit uneasy about Moore Method-style notes like those found on They are great, but Aaron gave me a way to put my finger on one of the things that I don’t like about them: they definitely do not provide space to make definitions.)

In many ways, this is not new. However, he put things in such a way that organized my thinking to the point where I think that I can start doing this (which I am sure is not being captured in this blog post). I am newly inspired, and I am trying to figure out how to start doing this justice in my courses.

The other motivator for me is my success in my capstone class this semester. Briefly, I am giving them open problems to work on. They are doing amazingly well. They are going through all four of the parts of doing mathematics listed above, and it is awesome to watch. I am so happy with this course (and so are the students, based on the feedback I have gotten, which is from nearly everyone in the course).

I understand that these are senior math majors, so I would need to scaffold things a lot more for, say, my probability and statistics course (next semester) or courses for elementary education majors (next year). However, I am going to plan on doing this.

Here is my one barrier: I know that this is going to require me to grade very differently. I know that my grading system (and courses in general) have gotten too rigid, so I need to figure out how to grade in a way that (1) I feel good about and (2) allows for stuff like “developing intuition” to count.

Let me know if you have ideas!

Time Blocks

October 21, 2019

My wife gets me. She sent this link by Brooke Castillo to me. She thought I would be interested, and I am.

TL;DR: You should get rid of your to-do list. Instead, you should put everything on your calendar. You are then supposed to only allow yourself the time that you have given yourself on the calendar. I am familiar with this practice, which Cal Newport calls time blocking.

My wife’s email was timely. I had been time blocking, but I consciously moved away from it, thinking that I could save a couple minutes at the end of the day. However, Brooke Castillo’s article reminded me of something. Actually, I think that her article made me realize an aspect of time blocking that I hadn’t fully realized before. But first, some history.

I think that the single productivity strategy that has helped me the most is to have rigidly set hours for when I work. I did this very soon after my first child was born so that I could (1) spend more time with my newborn son and (2) help my wife at home. I decided that I would be home at 5 pm, and I wouldn’t work at home. I hadn’t expected this to make me more productive. Indeed, I expected to be less productive, since I had less time. However, I got a lot more done at work when I spent less time there and didn’t work at home. I think that there are two reasons for this.

The first reason is that I was able to rest at night. I would come to work the next day recharged. However, I think that the second reason is more important: I am forced to prioritize. I have found the following two things to be true: your task will take as long as the amount of time you give it, and you will spend as much money as is in your budget (I am working on ameliorating the second one, using the envelope system, as well, although I do not do it strictly using cash).

Once I started limiting the amount of time I had at work, I had to start prioritizing, which I didn’t need to do as much when I gave myself all day to work. I had to decide when something was “good enough” and not work toward “perfect.” I had to think about how to get to all my tasks by 5 pm, and I couldn’t lie to myself that I could do some of them at 11 pm after I was finished grading.

So: I think that time blocking does the same thing on a smaller scale. I have to referee a paper soon. If I do not time block, I am going to go crazy over every phrasing. If I time block instead, I am going to have to focus more on the big picture, which is going to be more useful to the authors and journal.

So once again, my wife helps me out. I have been doing it for two weeks, with varying amounts of success. One issue is that I didn’t properly schedule reactive time, which I need to do as department chair. I tried to essentially schedule a project at the same times as I scheduled reactive time, but the reactive time always take priority during that time (which means I didn’t really time block the project). I need to be less optimistic about how much I get done, but this will be good.

Syncing Google Calendar with Outlook

October 14, 2019

Sadly, I work at a Microsoft campus. I don’t like Microsoft products. I have avoided using the Microsoft Outlook Calendar for years, but I started to last year after I became chair—it is just easier for a lot of people to schedule that way. I don’t want to cause headaches for other people, and there is a reason why the campus picks a single tool for all of the people who work there.

Additionally, my campus is about to adopt Starfish, which will (hopefully) help us take better care of the students. This integrates with Outlook, and it we are expected to post our office hours to Starfish. I have been using for my office hours for a while, which I like. However, I don’t want my students to have to use Outlook, Starfish, Canvas, AND, so I will likely change over to Starfish for my office hours. If I want to keep the benefits of (which I believe Starfish can do), I need to, sadly, use my Outlook calendar.

However, how I use my Outlook calendar is up to me. I am choosing to simply sync it with my Google Calendar, which I love (and which my wife uses). I have been using Outlook Google Calendar Sync since the summer, and it is working flawlessly. I change things on Google Calendar, and it shows up on Outlook; I change things on Outlook, and it shows on Google Calendar. I never actually have to go to my Outlook calendar.

Better yet, it is open source and really easy to install on my Windows machine.

Re-Thinking Statistics

October 7, 2019

I came across this paper on teaching statistics last week. It changed the way I think about teaching statistics. Here is my summary of what the paper says.

Our approach statistics mirrors our move from a geocentric view of the solar system to a heliocentric view. The problem with the geocentric view was that it did not perfectly predict the paths of the planets. In particular, planets would sometimes engage in retrograde motion, where the planet would move in the “wrong” direction in the sky from what the geocentric theory predicted. This was “solved” by adding epicycles. The epicycles solved some of the problems, but not all. In all, about 80 epicycles were added to help explain why the pure geocentric model did not fit the data perfectly. Of course, no epicycles are needed for the heliocentric model, so this is a better model.

Cobb, the author of the above article, says that statistics is similar. If we take a sample, we want the sample distribution to be roughly normal (which it can be, thanks to the Central Limit Theorem). The first reason for a statistical “epicycle” is that we are required to know the population standard deviation, which is normally not something we can know. We can estimate this by looking at the sample standard deviation, but this change means that our distribution is no longer normal. The statistical epicycle that “fixes” this that we can use Student’s t-distribution. If we want to compare numerical data from two populations and the samples have different standard deviations, then we no longer have a t-distribution. So now we add another statistical epicycle and introduce degrees of freedom (etc).

Cobb argues that all of these statistical epicycles distract students from good statistical thinking—the students dwell on the details of the statistical epicycles rather than thinking about inference actually means. He proposes using simulation as a way out of this (and direct calculation of some small examples so that students know what the simulation is doing). This used to be prohibitively computationally expensive, but no longer. He quotes Fisher from 1936 as: “the statistician does not carry out this very simple and very tedious process, but his conclusions have no justification beyond the fact that they agree with those which could have been arrived at by this elementary method.”

Here is the example that Cobb gives for how to teach inference. Suppose that you want to determine if some new medical intervention decreases the recovery time for surgery patients. You have a control group and a treatment group with 3 and 4 patients, respectively. Cobb proposes that instead of doing anything about normal distributions, you simply do a permutation test: you assume that the intervention made no difference, then look at all of the 7-choose-3 ways that the seven patients could have been divided up into control and treatment groups. You calculate the statistics for all 7-choose-3 divisions, and then you figure out how many of those are at least as extreme as the data you actually got—that is your p-value. In the case of really large numbers, you would just simulate doing this a bunch of times, and figure out what percentage of the simulations are at least as extreme as the data from your study.

I have been on board with doing simulations for a couple of years now, but this paper gave me a new insight: I had been thinking about simulation as being a way for students to understand things related to the normal distribution, but Cobb is saying that the focus should be on statistical thinking rather than the normal distributions that I was focused on.

One big barrier for me to realize this earlier is that I am a mathematician teaching statistics—this point may be completely obvious to a statistician (or a more competent mathematician), but I was too ignorant of statistics to realize that there is an underlying statistical thinking that I should be focusing on (maybe I was aware of it, but I didn’t think about it enough). I had tunnel-vision about what I was “supposed” to teach, and didn’t realize that I should be teaching something more foundational. I will try to remember these statistical blinders of mine when I see a student thinking the same way about, say, calculus (“I just want to plug stuff into the formula.”).

P.S. Feel free to correct any mistakes I made in describing the statistics above. Leave a comment.

Linux Workspaces

September 30, 2019

My computer set-up is this: I have a Windows machine, but then I log on to a virtual Linux environment, so I spend most of my day on Linux. One advantage of this is that I can do the same thing on my classroom computers, so I am effectively using my personal computing space in both my office and in class. This means that I can set things up on the computer before going to class, saving me a bit of time.

I also have tasks that I do daily. For instance, I have online assignments that I grade at every day, and I leave that website and the gradebook open on my desktop. Similarly, I am on Canvas, my LMS, daily, so I leave that open.

My students noticed that I have a lot of tabs open (three for Canvas, one for MyOpenMath, Google Calendar, and GMail guarantee that I have at least six tabs open), and they asked if it drives me crazy. I truthfully answered, “Sort of,” and explained why I do this. Then one of my students suggested that I use different workspaces, which I have never used.

I didn’t think anything of it, but it stuck in my brain. About a week later, I accidentally noticed the workspace option on my computer, and that was enough of a cue to get me to try them. Here are the three workspaces I use:

  1. General Workspace. In this workspace, I always have one terminal open for my to-do list, and Chrome open with two tabs up: Google Calendar (for appointments) and GMail (for emailing with my wife). I open up other tabs and files throughout the day, but they disappear as soon as I am done with them (including work email). I am really enjoying a workspace that is clutter-free for much of the time—I have already thanked the student who suggested it twice.
  2. Grading Workspace. This is the workspace where I go every morning to get a bunch of grading and class maintenance out of the way. I have my grade spreadsheet, several terminals with ready-made commands, and Chrome open. Chrome has tabs for MyOpenMath, Canvas, and a Google Sheet that I use daily. That is really all that is ever open.
  3. Class Workspace. This is where I will open up files and applets that I use in class. This also ensures that there is no chance that students will accidentally see the gradebook. I can prepare this after each class so that it is ready to go for the next class. I am typically on this space twice per week (since I teach twice per week).

So far, I am loving this. My only complaint is that Linux has been slow lately. However, I think that this is just a random slowness—perhaps due to maintenance by IT—since I can’t figure out why have multiple workspaces would add to the computer’s load (and top does not indicate that this is a problem).

Automating Reports

September 25, 2019

One experiment I am doing this semester is having assignments that are due five days per week, even though we only we only have class on two days per week. Here is a quick summary for those who do not want to read the post:

  1. I am using MyOpenMath for the daily homework assignments. The main reason I am using it is that it is free, but I am also stealing problems from a publicly available library of problems.
  2. Students need to get 4 additional points per day. This is a very small assignment, particularly because I have it set up so that students can reattempt a problem as many times as they like with no penalty. My goal is practice, not perfection here.
  3. Students can do any problems that they want. So students can pick the easiest problems from each chapter at the beginning. This is aided by the fact that we just finished a whirlwind preview of the course yesterday—the students have already seen all of the course material. For the rest of the semester, we are going to go over the details.
  4. Students are grading on an all-or-nothing basis each day. If you have the correct number of points, you get full credit. Otherwise, you get no credit.
  5. This is key for me. We break our semesters up into quarters. At the end of each quarter students can spend a token if they are completely caught up, and they will get credit for all of the daily assignments they missed that quarter. I did not want students to be in too big of a hole at any point in the semester.

I like this plan so far, and most students are doing well with it. A handful of students (2–5 out of 27, typically) will fail to get credit on any given day, but these names rotate, so no student is missing every day.

On problem that came up early on: how do I let students know when they failed to get credit for a daily assignment? I wrote a Python script to email them, of course. I have a page in my grade spreadsheet where I enter a “1” if the student gets credit and a “0” otherwise. At the top of the column is the number of points that they are required to have for that day, and I have a row right above that where I have “TODAY” written in it. (I am typically proud of the “TODAY” hack to figure out which column should be read; I struggled for five minutes to figure out how to get Python to know which column to use. Then I figured out that I could simply put that information into the spreadsheet rather than code it up in Python, since I have to go into the spreadsheet daily anyway).

My script them scans the first row to see what column says “TODAY.” It then loops through the column and emails anyone who has a 0 for the day.

The only unfortunate thing is that I have to go into my spreadsheet every day to enter the scores. This doesn’t take long (I mainly copy-and-paste the column and swap some 0’s around), but it does take effort. I would love to figure out a way to get the information directly from MyOpenMath into my spreadsheet, but I don’t have those kinds of skills yet.

Books on Learning

September 9, 2019

I recently read two great books on learning. I was expecting the first, A Mind for Numbers, to help me coach and advise students. I hadn’t realized that the second, Ultralearning, would also help me in that way.

Both talked a lot about learning theory, including the inefficiency of many of the tactics that students often use to study (e.g. highlighting, re-reading texts, etc). I am starting to teach this stuff more in my class, since this is material that students often haven’t seen before. One of my students wrote to me to tell me that she was confused about how an article I had them read related to statistics. I told her that the article wasn’t about statistics, but it was about how to learn statistics, which is an important part of this course.

Ultralearning referenced The Unschooled Mind, by Howard Gardner of “multiple intelligences” fame. I just got that from the library, and I am looking forward to it even though I am skeptical that his theory of multiple intelligences is useful.

I particularly think that A Mind for Numbers should be required reading for all college students. The title suggests that it is geared toward math and science students, but the advice is so general that all students will benefit. I am going to assign it to my advisees.

My Legacy

September 4, 2019

I think that I did the greatest thing that I am ever going to do as an educator. We just moved into a newly renovated building, almost all of the classrooms are new, and four of the five departments in the building are new to the building.

The new classrooms were originally arranged by the furniture people in long rows, all facing the front of the classroom. On the first day of class, I rearranged the tables so that they are in islands of four students. I sent pictures to the custodial staff to show them what the default should be. The old arrangement is really only good for lecture; this new arrangement works for both lecture and group work. My hope is that this is going to make professors more likely to do non-lecture activities in class. I am really proud of this, and I doubt that I will do anything that helps professors do active learning more than this. One of my new neighbors in the building is Economics, and I am embracing their teachings.

(This was not a total success. One of the classes that I teach in keeps getting re-set in the lecture style. I find this particularly frustrating because this requires that the tables run directly into the whiteboards on the sides of the room, rendering them useless. This project was mostly successful, though).