Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Electronic Tickler File

March 30, 2020

One of my favorite things that I have done in a while is update my workflow. First, some background.

One of my very favorite ideas from Getting Things Done is that of a tickler file. I started with a physical filing system of 43 folders (31 for each day of the month, and 12 for each month of the year). The tickler file is useful because you can easily remind yourself later of things that you want to do, but now is not the best time to do them. For example, if I want to email an advisee on the 8th to see how an Economics midterm went on that day, I would write myself a reminder on a piece of paper and put it in the “8” folder. If I read a magazine article on a classrom idea I want to try next year, I would put it in the “May” folder, since I will start thinking about planning next year’s classes in the month of May. If I have a friend whose birthday is on April 16th, I would write a reminder and put it in the “April” folder. On April 1st, I then go through the “April” folder and distribute the contents appropriately to the folders “1” through “31” (my friend’s birthday reminder would go in “16”).

The beauty is that I only have to remember two things: each day, I need to check the appropriate folder “1” through “31,” and I need to check the correct month’s folder on the first of the month. Actually, I could put a reminder to check the month’s folder in the “1,” folder, so I actually only need to remember to check the folder each day. This becomes habit quickly: I get to the office (a home office, right now), turn on my computer, and check the tickler file.

This has been great, and the tickler file transformed my life. I no longer had to stress that I was going to forget to do something. The drawback is that I spent 5–10 minutes each morning copying the paper notes of the tickler file to my to-do list.

The solution: use Python to create an electronic tickler file! I use a text file for my ToDo list, and that allows me to update my ToDo list with a combination of Python scripts and cron jobs.

Here is what I did: I created 43 Python scripts and 43 corresponding cron jobs (31 for the days of the month, and 12 for each month of the year). Here is an example for the 17th day of the month:

with open(“ToDo”, “r+”) as f:
old = # read everything in the file # rewind
f.write(“Grade statistics project\nLook at dihedral case for research project\nSchedule dentist appointment\nXPERMANENT DAY 17\nPay credit card billEND PERMANENT DAY 17\n”+ old) # write the new line before

Note that I have XPERMANENT and PERMANENT, since there are things that I will want to do every 17th day (like pay the credit card bill). For the nonpermanent things, I just go to the first item, and click d-f-X to delete everything up to and including X (which I then re-type—I used a capital X because I almost never use it for anything else, so it seems to be a good marker to indicate when I should stop deleting).

I can also easily move items from my ToDo list to the tickler file if I want to postpone it. I simply cut out the item on the ToDo list (shift-D in vim), open a tickler file by typing “:tabnew Python/IndividualDays/,” and pasting the item in the file. Then I don’t need to worry about it until the 17th!

I am slowly (month by month) moving all of my paper notes in the physical tickler file to the electronic one. I am saving myself a lot of time (maybe 30–60 minutes per week) by just having these reminders available to me. I still keep my physical tickler file, as there are often physical documents that I want to remember for later (it is a place to store the documents until I need it), but I am using it a lot less now.

Covid 19: First Day Online

March 23, 2020

Today was my school’s first day of being fully online due to Covid 19. I didn’t have class scheduled for today, though. I mainly want to talk about some important steps I am taking to get into a good routine.

  • My wife and I turned our guest bedroom into an office this weekend. I now have a door that closes, which will be nice for when I had Zoom meetings.
  • I am setting my lovely hexagon clock to alert me every hour. When it goes off, I need to stand up and move around. I have a standing desk at work, and I need do things like go to classrooms and teach. This is not the case at home, so I need to remind myself to move.
  • I like to run, and I try to run to work four times per week. This has been disrupted. Instead, I am going to three days per week for twice as long, which will save me a bit of time.
  • I am trying to separate my time at work and my time not at work, so I either go outside and run or walk immediately before and after work.

I am still working things out.

Covid 19: Going off-script

March 17, 2020


Here is one more thing that I am giving myself permission to do during this Covid 19 online experiment: go off script. For example, my wife found this nice article about Covid 19 from the Washington Post. This doesn’t directly relate to any of my classes, but I tried to explain how mathematical modeling is useful in this video (I don’t think I did a great job, but it is a start).

I am going to look for examples in the news similar to this. Perhaps I might find an article that uses mathematics or statistics to study Covid 19, or maybe I will find an article that mis-uses mathematics or statistics to talk about Covid 19.

Covid 19 Planning: Part 2

March 13, 2020

Well, we are moving to online only courses. Next week’s classes are canceled so that faculty can prep to move online, and then we have online classes at least through Easter. Students are (mostly) being sent home.

Here are a couple of great pages that were shared with me. The first is from the Chronicle. The second is from Stanford.

HOWEVER: I also read an article called Please do a bad job of putting your courses online. The title basically suggests that we should keep things extremely simple. My students are not going to be on campus, so I can’t expect them all to have high-quality internet (several have already told me that they won’t). I was planning on using Zoom a lot when I thought the students would be on campus, but now I am not going to use it as a main tool (although I will use it for office hours).

I get the luxury of having a week to plan, but here is what I am thinking about doing in my statistics classes:

  • My classes will be asynchronous. If students get sick, they are going to be missing scheduled meeting times. I am going to build the class so that they have maximum flexibility in how to do things.
  • I will have ample Zoom office hours (including during the time when we would have met synchronously).
  • Canvas, my LMS, will be the primary way of interacting with students.
  • I might do oral exams instead of written exams. Better yet, I may give the students the option of which they prefer.
  • I will try to cut exam content. If I am assessing it reasonably well with, say, homework, perhaps I do not need assess it in an examination environment, too.
  • I will extend grace to my students as much as I possibly can.

Here are some things that I still want to figure out.

  • What is a low-tech way of building community? Zoom Breakout Rooms seem awesome (and I will still use them for office hours), but I don’t want to assume all students would have access to this. Perhaps I could set up conference calls?
  • What should I do with team projects? Can I still do them? Likely, I won’t have them collect any data now, but could I still have them design the study in teams?
  • How do I maintain equity in an online environment generally?
  • What should I be thinking about that I am not?

Really, I am going to design the rest of the semester the way I always do:

  1. Figure out learning goals (these will largely be the same, but maybe I will jettison some of them).
  2. Re-figure out how to assess them, given the new constraints.
  3. Figure out how to best get the students there.

My final thought: this is going to be far from perfect. Obviously, I wish that Covid 19 would just go away and wouldn’t hurt anyone else. However, we might learn from this. One thing that I am excited about: we are working to figure out how to move our tutoring center online. This seems like something that we could do all the time; a student in his/her residence hall could just Zoom into the tutoring center for a quick question without having to go out in the snow. It seems like we should have already been doing this.

Let me know if you have ideas. Stay healthy!

Covid 19 Plan

March 6, 2020

I was inspired by Stan to come up with a plan for a campus closure due to Covid 19 (or anything else). Here is an initial outline, knowing that my plan will evolve as I learn more about how to work an online course that was designed to be a face-to-face course.

I have two classes, which are very different. Both will use Zoom as the main tool

I am teaching a Mathematics Capstone class, which is essentially a research seminar. We are already using an discussion board on Canvas, so I might lean on that a bit more. I think that we can replicate what we do in class pretty well, with some people breaking off and working together (using Breakout Rooms now) and coming together to share what they have learned (using a combination of screensharing, possible by taking a photo of their paper, and Zoom’s whiteboard). This is very doable.

My statistics class is tougher. However, I run a spiral classroom, and they have seen all of the material already. My plan in-class is to go deeper into the concepts by using clicker questions with Poll Everywhere. Poll Everywhere literally has “everywhere” in the title, so I can keep using that; I can display the clicker questions on Zoom via screensharing, and I can have students discuss via Breakout Rooms.

There will also be times when I think I might have mini-projects, where I might have students design statistical studies to answer certain questions. This can also be done in Breakout Rooms.

My statistics classes also have several quizzes now. I will likely just make Canvas quizzes. Students will be able to either type in their answer or take a picture and upload. I am concerned about cheating, since it would be really easy to text/email answers to friends (my students are generally pretty honest, but not 100% so). Either I will decide not to worry about it, or I might make up multiple quizzes and hand them out randomly.

I think that I might steal one of Stan’s ideas and have “mandatory” office hours via Zoom with teams for 10–15 minutes per week. This may be in place of class time. Also, Zoom will generally work for the usual office hours.

Finally, I will create/provide videos as needed.

Obviously, I am hoping it doesn’t come to this. But I wanted to take the opportunity to think ahead a bit. I think that this is very doable, if not ideal.

On Giving Examples

February 24, 2020

I am having my statistics classes do projects. Basically, they come up with a question, do a mini-IRB process, collect data, and perform a statistical test to try to learn about the answer to their question. They write up their work in a report.

We are on our section project of the semester. The first project reports were fine, but there was a lot of revision needed (this is not unexpected, even though I provided them with specifications). The second round of reports were excellent.

The difference? I provided them with a sample report for the second project but not the first.

I initially struggled with whether this is a good thing or not. I am now confident it is good. The alternative would be to expect them to fumble around to learn what a good report looks like. This seems inefficient and unnecessary. Providing the report was part of the way I was teaching them how to write a report. It is similar to the Benjamin Franklin process, which requires a starting piece of writing to mimic.

Let me know if you disagree that it is reasonable to give them an example copy, and let me know if it is completely obvious that I should have given them an example for the first project.

Teaching Concentration

February 19, 2020

Cal Newport just wrote about how we don’t explicitly teach students to think hard and concentrate I am trying an experiment this semester. Every week, students need to submit an assignment where they describe:

  1. Their “muddiest point” for the week, which allows me to get a read on what the students are struggling with and craft class time accordingly, and
  2. A detailed study plan for the week, a reflection on how well they met the previous week’s study plan, and a running tally of the amount of hours they have put into the course.

I tell the students that, according to the federal definition of a credit hour, they should expect to spend nine hours outside of class studying for the class. They are to design a specific plan for the week outlining exactly what times they will be doing distraction-free studying (e.g. I will study from 6 pm to 8 pm on Monday, 11 am to noon on Tuesday, etc).

The running tally is to give them the idea that they can improve if they are struggling; if they having only studied 20 out of the 36 hours they should have studied, then they know that they are struggling due to not putting the required time in.

I tell them explicitly that they can change the plan if they want, but they should reschedule if needed (or be aware that they are making the choice to not study).

I also let them know that nine hours per week is for the average student, and they might personally need more or less. However, the assignments will stick with nine hours throughout the semester.

It is too early to determine if it is helping, but my classes are going really well. Thus, my conclusion is that this activity is not screwing them up.

Back Up Your Cron jobs Automatically

February 12, 2020

I learned about cron jobs a couple of years ago, and I fell in love with them. Basically, they are a way to schedule your computer to do something in the future. Here are some things that I use cron jobs for:

  • Update my to-do list each day with recurring tasks.
  • Schedule recurring emails to be sent (reminders to my class about assignments, notifications of missing assignments, reminders of events, checking in with students and advisees, etc).
  • Text compliments to my wife.

I estimate that cron jobs save me at least two hours of work each week.

One drawback, though, is that cron jobs are not stored as a text file. If your computer is updated, your cron jobs will sometimes be erased. Then I need to recreate my cron jobs from my most recent back up, which might be pretty old (this may or may not have happened to me this week).

However, our wonderful IT person gave me a delicious bit of advice: set up a cron job to back up your cron jobs! I just added a line to my cron list (which you access by typing “crontab -e” in a Linux terminal):

0 1 * * 6 crontab -l > Python/CronTabBackUp.txt

The “0 1” means to run at 1:00 am, the “* *” means that it doesn’t matter what day of the month or month it is, and the “6” means to run every Saturday (0 is Sunday, 1 is Monday, etc).

Now my cron jobs back up weekly without me having to think about it!

Time-Blocking Again

February 3, 2020

I told you that I wanted to try time blocking again this semester after failing at it last semester. I am succeeding, thanks to a very slight modification.

The way time blocking was initially explained to me, I should move all of my to-do items from my to-do list to my calendar. This is a big reason why I failed. I love working in my to-do list, which is a text file that I can easily edit via vim and python scripts, and I don’t like working in Google Calendar (I like working in Outlook Calendar even less). My problem with Google Calendar is that it is too constraining—I have to keep clicking that stupid mouse to get things to happen.

So now, after my script updates my to-do list for the day, I just add times to all of my items in the morning. I can just delete the times as I complete the tasks. If I don’t finish the task in the allotted time, I can easily move it later in the day or in my electronic tickler file.

Lessons Learned from Fall 2019

January 28, 2020

Fall 2019 was an interesting semester for me. I taught two classes, and one was the best course I have ever taught, and the other was my worst.

My best class ever was my capstone class. I basically gave the students an open research question, and they went to town. I got to see them successfully get through all parts of the mathematical process, and it was a joy to see them succeed. I am thrilled I get to teach this course again this semester since it went so well.

My worst class ever was my statistics class. It was bad for a whole bunch of reasons, including but not limited to: I lectured way too much, the students had really bad attendance, some of the main technology we used just wouldn’t work (I had to switch at midsemester), the students did not submit assignments, I didn’t provide enough support on how to study, etc. There were some awesome students in the class whom I loved working with, and I liked working with all of the students. The class just didn’t, well, click for some reason. This wasn’t a terrible experience—I still liked teaching the course—but it just fell flat. I am thrilled I get to teach this course again this semester since it went so poorly.

Here is my takeaway: I am at my best when give the students more leash to explore. I have a tendency to over-construct my class, which restricts what students can do. I am going to work on letting students explore more.

Here are some specific examples: last semester, I had the students use real-world data. They collected data for one project, and I handed them the data for the other three. I gave them the types of data sets they had available, they set up a hypothesis test about the data, and then I handed them the data to simulate them collecting it. This isn’t a horrible idea, but the students didn’t get too excited about my data sets (the life span of ball bearings is less exciting to college students than one might think).

Instead, I am going to have the students collect the data for all of the projects. The project where they collected the data was easily the best one last semester, so I am hoping all of the projects will be improved. I am removing the constraint of “Bret has to give you the data, and the data must be excellent.” I really think that was a barrier to learning.

We will see how it goes this semester!