Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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).

Experiment for this semester: encouraging good student behavior

August 26, 2019

Today is the first day of class, and it is our first day ever in our new building!

I am in the middle of Barbara Oakley’s A Mind for Numbers, which is a book on how to learn effectively (I really like it so far). One of the key ideas is that you should study regularly, rather than binge. It got me thinking about the way I use one of my assignments.

For many of my classes, I have them do problems on MyOpenMath. This is a cheap way (for me) to get them more practice, as it autogrades their answers. They are allowed to attempt each problem as many times as they like without penalty. I have gone through three iterations of how I do this.

  1. The first time I did this, I had a single due date at the end of the semester. That is, they had roughly 250 problems to do, and they had to do it by the last day of class. As you can imagine, most everyone procrastinated some, and some people procrastinated a lot. But I liked that they had flexibility and they were never in a position where it was impossible to get back the points.
  2. As I was planning my classes this semester, I decided to break up this assignment. My school divides up the semester into quarters (called “Mods”), and so I was planning on having two chapters due by the end of the first Mod, another two by the end of the second, and so on. If students missed a deadline, they could spend a token to get the work done by the end of the next Mod. I liked this. I further loosened this in a later draft by just requiring that they have 25% percent of all of the problems done by the end of the first Mod, 50% by the end of the second, and so on. I liked that this gave the students more flexibility, and they can start by getting the low-hanging fruit from all of the chapters (they will have seen all of the chapters by the end of the first Mod, the way I have things set up).
  3. The issue with this improvement is that I think that students will still be cramming, but with four smaller cram sessions rather than one big one. In order to encourage students to work continually on the material, I am now making 4 questions due every day—Monday through Friday, even when we don’t have class&mdash. Students can work ahead if they like (which is a win for me) so that they don’t have to think about this every day.

    One issue I had with this is determining what to do if a student misses an assignment. I want them to be able to make it up. My solution: at the end of each Mod, if you are completely caught up, you can spend one token to make up all of the assignments you missed during the Mod. So students could just cram and do it once per Mod, but it will cost them a token (and I am no worse than I would have been in the second iteration of this assignment).

I am hoping that it gets students thinking about the material regularly and is not overwhelming.

My Productivity Efforts

August 19, 2019

Robert Talbert just wrote about his GTD set-up. As a quick reminder, I use only text files for my GTD set-up. I don’t have the same issues he does, largely because I almost only work in my office (this was a lifestyle decision I made when I had kids).

I have a productivity goal for this semester. I think that there are some basic skills that are not discussed enough in the productivity discussion, with the primary one being typing speed. If you spend time practicing typing and, say, get up to 80 words-per-minute (twice the average typing speed), then your one-hour typing job turns into a 30-minute typing job.

I think of vim as typing on steroids. I have been using vim for years (including for email, which has saved me tons of time), but I still don’t know all of the commands. My goal for this semester is to learn all of the most common commands. I am trying to learn one new command each week, and then practice it so that it becomes fluent.

Vim is one of the reasons why I use text files for GTD. I can move around and edit the documents very quickly.

Good news for me, bad news for many others

August 16, 2019

Many of you know that I am concerned about my job status due to the economics of higher education. The bad news for everyone else is that the median endowment of private colleges and universities is about $8 million. The good news for me is that my school’s endowment is significantly higher than that.

My prediction is that many schools will be closing in the next 20 years. This is obviously bad for them, but it is good news for the schools that survive: they will get some portion of the diaspora. So it seems like my school might be a beneficiary.

Of course, I hope that I am wrong. I hope that enrollments stay high, and that all colleges stay healthy.

MathFest Post-Mortem

August 6, 2019

MathFest is done, and I am easing back into my usual summer life (i.e. scrambling to prep for my courses).

The conference was a great success for me. The reason why I went is that my school had four undergraduates presenting, two of whom were my advisees. If you permit me to brag for a second, two of the four students (including one of mine) won MAA awards for excellent presentations, and my other student was very explicitly recruited to attend graduate school.

I met several new friends, and I met up with several old friends—including someone I have known for ten years online but only met IRL last week. I met with advisees from years ago who are now grown-up professors, which brings me such joy. I went to some cool minicourses.

TJ wrote that MathFest makes you feel like you belong to a community, and I agree with him. This was a very fun and nurturing experience.

But . . .

I have some misgivings about MathFest, all of which relate to the cost of the conference.

  1. It is tough for me to go to MathFest, as the registration fee alone is more than half of my travel allowance for the year—even at the Early Bird rate. As it turns out, I am spending more than double my travel allowance on MathFest. Fortunately, I am able to get other funding from my school to cover this (and my usual research conference in May, I hope, but that is not a sure thing). It is worth pointing out that I prioritize my research conference over MathFest because the former helps me develop research problems for the students, which is a prerequisite to me bringing research students to MathFest.
  2. TJ is right that there are amazing people at MathFest. I was continually impressed at what people were doing, and I was impressed at how thoughtful they are about teaching. I love being part of that community. However, regular readers of this blog know that I am concerned about colleges having enough money to survive (although I have some good news—for me, anyway—that I will write about later). MathFest is clearly worth it since I brought the students; would it have been worth it if I didn’t bring any students? I got some great ideas, but am I going to implement $1500 worth of those good ideas to make it worth it for my school? Again, I loved my experience at MathFest, but I am struggling with how to be a good steward of my school’s funds. In some sense, modulo my bringing students, it seems like my school just paid for me to go visit a bunch of awesome people for fun. Let me know if you have thoughts about this that will make me feel better (Again: I don’t feel bad, because I brought students. But I am not sure if I could justify going without students next year).

I guess that one thing that MathFest helped me with is this: I initially had doubts about whether my research conference was worth it It now appears that I think that they are, since I get more tangible things from it (i.e. research questions for undergraduates) for half the cost of MathFest.

So, please help me: make me feel better about paying a lot of money to go to MathFest.


July 29, 2019

This week, for the second time ever, I am attending MathFest. I love conferences like this, but the registration fee is over half of my travel allowance for the year (early bird, member). My excuse to splurge is that I have two research students presenting (they are going to do really well, too).

So if you see a tall, bald guy walking around Cincinnati, please pulled me aside and say hi.

The State of Higher Education

July 22, 2019

I am less optimistic that I will have a job in 20 years than I would like to be. I have spoken to other people who share my concerns.

I have been trying to learn more about it. I read Why Does College Cost So Much a couple of years ago, which introduced me to the idea of cost disease. We cost a lot because we are labor-intensive by necessity (at this point, anyway, although I do not think that we will ever be able to mechanize learning).

A colleague also sent me Nathan Grawe’s Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, which didn’t make me feel any better except for one thing: more parents have college educations now, so their kids may be more likely to attend college.

Basically, I am pretty sure that a lot of colleges are going to go under once the number of high school graduates starts decreasing in 2025. This, combined with the fact that college is getting more expensive, means that a lot fewer people will go to college. Thus, we will not be able to support so many colleges, I think. I am not sure if my college will make it or not, so I am thinking about Plans B, C, and D (I am considering becoming a data scientist, Montessori teacher, or working for the NSA).

Of course, I love my job, so I am going to go down with the ship. But I am also thinking ahead.

Course Values

July 15, 2019

I am desperately trying to find time to prepare for my upcoming statistics courses. I was reminded yesterday that I could have students use The Islands, which is a virtual world where students can do statistical tests on the population.

I think that this super-cool, and I was excited to use it. One of the coolest things about it is that it makes data collection non-trivial, which reflects real life (but in a way that makes it possible to do for a college student). The students would get the experience of having to essentially knock on doors, wait while someone takes a test, and figure out what to do when someone lies to them (e.g. the virtual people will lie about their weight—if you weight them and ask them, the numbers do not necessarily agree).

But then I realized: I do not want data collection to be a huge part of my course. And The Islands, as cool as the program is, is a big time investment for me and my students. So, unfortunately, I have decided to scrap the idea.

I am grateful, though, that I was able to remind myself to keep looking at the big picture, and make sure that your assignments and activities align with your learning outcomes.

Talbert and Bloom

July 9, 2019

I am starting to prep for my probability and statistics course, and I am thinking a lot about Robert Talbert’s idea of assigning pre-class work, in-class work, and post-class work according to Bloom’s taxonomy. I like the idea. Please read Robert’s post if you are interested.