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November 29, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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I’m digging myself out of my grading hole, albeit very, very slowly.

I have to admit that reading these essays is kind of fun.  At least some of them.  There was at least one student so far who wrote that s/he needed no improvement in their time management skills…and then on about page five of the essay, it suddenly stopped with a request for an extension/redo.  It’s really hard not to be snarky when things like that happen.

Most of them discuss the same issues, which is not a surprise.  I’ve had a couple, though, that were quite interesting.  My favorite so far is the student who compared getting through college to Lord of the Rings.  Although there wasn’t a parallel for every goal I wanted them to discuss, there were a fair number of references.

I really enjoy it when I get to see a bit of creativity and personality creep into these things.  I also like seeing how much their views have changed since the beginning of the school year.  It’s amazing what three months can do to a person.

The best news is that I’ve figured out a way to revise the assignment so that it’ll be shorter as well as make it more effective.  I worry, though, that this will remove some of the more creative submissions.  I have to admit that I like how some of my students see themselves on an epic journey.

I didn’t do the math November 24, 2013

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I came to a horrifying realization this weekend: I should not have assigned final projects for my class.  Or at least not this one.

I decided to actually use a textbook this year after being sent a review copy of one that lined up very closely with many things I was already teaching.  I pretty much stuck to my original plans for the class, except I made one big change.  I got rid of the programming project, deciding that I really didn’t have time to teach them much other than how to get really frustrated.

There are some assignments that come along with the textbook, and one of them is a 10-15 page essay on goal setting.  It’s a great project.  Students are given a list of several areas that affect a student in both major and minor ways (including thinking forward to what they’ll be doing after school).  The students are supposed to reflect on where they are and where they want to be.  Then they’re supposed to do some goal setting and try to figure out how they can get closer to the ideal that they outlined.

This might be a good project if I had 30 students.  I have almost 100.  And each paper is 10-15 pages long, so we’ll say 12 on average.  That’s about 1200 pages of reading I have to do.  I have two weeks to grade them, so I figured if I did 10 projects per day, I’d be good.  That’s about 120 pages per day.

I got started Friday but progress was limited due to our weekly family activities that occur Friday night.  I figured I would make up the difference yesterday, but came to an awful realization: grading projects is a lot more time consuming than grading programs.

I discovered that reading reports/projects, is really not much better than reading novels. I am an abysmally slow reader; I’ve never been able to figure out how to skim.  When I read a novel, I generally read at a 25 page/hour pace.  That’s about what I’m doing with the reports, too.  I can read about two in an hour…three if they’re shorter and I’m really cruising.  This means I’m spending about 4 hrs/day over the next two weeks to just grade this assignment.  Next fall, I either have to drastically shorten this assignment or do it far earlier in the semester.

I suppose it’s just deserts.  My students were very freaked out when I gave them the assignment and only three weeks to do it.  (Although, to be honest, I believe about 2/3 of them did it within a couple days before the assignment was due.)  If they knew I was regretting assigning it now, they probably wouldn’t be able to contain their schadenfreude.

The assignment I hate grading October 14, 2013

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I have been giving an assignment in my class the past few years.  However, after doing this three years in a row with refinements in each iteration, I’m contemplating whether or not it’s time to throw my hands up in the air and say, “Forget it!”

I have to admit a personal bias in this one: I hate grading this assignment.  It’s time consuming and not something that really keeps my attention.  Each year I’ve given it, I have gotten more explicit in my instructions.  Each year, I have a large portion of students who either ignore the instructions and do it the way they want or completely get it wrong.  There are always students who don’t read the instructions, but the latter group makes me anxious.  I will present information like “A implies B” and “C implies D.”  I ask the students about it, and they will insist that A implies D.

To be fair, about 2/3 of the students seem to get it.  About 1/3 REALLY get it and do a great job.  Their analysis is wonderful, and I think they really benefit from the assignment.

I’m left wondering if I’m not doing something right that 1/3 of the students aren’t getting it or that I must be awesome that 2/3 are.  I suspect part of it is that it’s really hard to see so many students not get something so fundamental to their education.  Despite what you may have taken away from my description of the assignment, it’s really a matter of trying to get students to analyze their own thoughts and then draw conclusions about how to approach school based on those thoughts.  I worry that if they can’t figure those things out, how well can they really handle the more rigorous content?

50 shades of graphite November 1, 2012

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This seems like an odd thing to ponder, but it makes sense to my currently sleep-deprived brain: does anyone know how people tend to react to ink color?  I know a lot of my students get upset when they see red ink.  I tend to use gel pens, however, and use a lot of pink and orange in particular for grading.  The funny thing is, they almost seem to think this is neat or cute.  (This is somewhat surprising as most of my students are male: I would’ve expected them to roll their eyes at me for being stereotypically female because I use a pink pen…)  Lime green is another popular color.

Honestly, though, it seems like they react far more positively if I stay away from using the dreaded red pen.  They’re also more likely to read my feedback.  Last year, they requested me to use pink in particular when one student chuckled about his comments being written in that color.  I told them there were other possibilities, too.  No, they wanted pink.

Has anyone else observed this?

And yes, I’m aware the graphite is used in pencils and not pens.  I just couldn’t come up with a more catchy title.

Barely breathing… September 23, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, teaching.
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I’m teaching again this semester, and they asked me to take an additional section for a different department.  What they didn’t tell me, however, was that this particular section is on a different schedule than the others.  It’s half as long, which means I have twice as much prep and grading to do for this section on a weekly basis, and it’s different from the prep for my other sections.  Given the class is around 30 students, that’s about 60 homeworks per week in this class alone.

So not worth it.  It’s completely wrecked my schedule the past couple weeks.  The good news is that I only have about 3 more weeks of class and that section will be done…leaving me with the other four.  It’s not easy to handle 100+ homeworks each week, but when the additional 60 are two *different* ones, it gets insane.

Remind me never to do this again…especially since the amount I got paid for this section was about 80% of the amount I get for one of the other sections.

I just hope I can get through this without too much burnout.

Lessons learned: teachers need organizational skills, too December 19, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
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I have now developed a greater understanding of a strange professorial quirk that I observed over the years. I had at least one professor each term who would get visibly annoyed if you tried to give them an assignment at any time other than the first thirty seconds of a class period.

My understanding is due to that fact that I have recently become eligible to join the Super Secret Society of Teachers Who Have Lost a Student’s Assignment.  (I’m suffering from a cold, so I was unable to come up with a snappy acronym.  Please feel free to make an effort on my behalf.)


When I was teaching geology labs, I was usually teaching four sections each week in a different building. I found that the best way to keep track of student work was to have four plastic filing envelopes. Each envelope was a different color, and I always knew which one to grab before each class.  At the beginning of class, I’d hand stuff back.  At the end of class, it would all get filed away in my envelope.  This was straight-forward, and I never lost any homeworks this way.  The labs were done in class and handed in at the end.  If they had to hand something else in, it went into my mailbox, which was in the same building as my office (but different than the labs).

This semester, I had 90 students in four classes, in three buildings.  My mailbox was in a different building than two of my classes, and all of them were in different places than my regular office.  I usually had two of my envelopes with me (two classes were on Tuesday and two were on Thursday).  Students also had the option of submitting homeworks online, as much as I hate grading those.

What I hadn’t anticipated was running into students who would randomly hand me homeworks between classes, leave them at the department with the admin staff, or all sorts of other unexpected things.  And, as it happens, I ended up misplacing some homework.  In fact, I went through and filed everything on my desk, and still never found it.  I believe it has ended up in the same place that unmatched socks end up…except that paper always ends up falling back out and will likely be found in the spring of 2013 or some similarly odd time.

If I end up teaching this class again, I think I’m going to make it a policy that homeworks be handed in online.  Sadly, this means that I can’t use the stair distribution when grading:

(Thanks to Concurring Opinions for the image.)

I hate grading in front of a computer screen, but I have to admit that it significantly reduces the organizational demands required to keep track of all the assignments.  Lurking in the back of my mind, however, is the idea of having to teach a very large class where homeworks simply must be dealt with the old fashioned way.  (And no, I’m not talking about burning them.)

Homework – with apologies to the Fixx November 7, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, teaching.
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How much is enough (homework)?

I was correcting  a homework submission this weekend.  The homework was actually a ‘test review': that is, I wanted the students to write down specifics about how they studied for an exam; how well they did on the exam, especially looking at which errors they made; and trying to tie their performance on the exam to how they studied for the exam.  In other words, I’m trying to teach metacognition and self-evaluation skills for exam preparation.

This has been a frustrating homework because so many of the students are very vague.

“I did x and y to study for the exam, but not z.  I did okay on the exam, so I guess I’ll keep doing that.”  I was really hoping they’d get very specific about how they studied for individual concepts.  I’m not grading very harshly because I view this lack of specificity as a result of my lack of specificity in assigning the homework.  I keep making notes of things that I need to do better next time around, but I’m not going to punish the students for not doing the homework I intended but did not clearly articulate.

That said, I came across a perplexing bit of commentary in one submission: “I didn’t have much time to study for this exam because of all the other homework I have to do.  I have a lot of assignments for my university studies class, which is only worth one credit.”

So the student was passive-aggressively complaining about how much homework I assign.

Believe it or not, nothing pisses me off more than a professor who is callous about study time required for courses.  The professor who assigns 30 minutes of homework per week is not adequately preparing the student, and the one who assigns 30+ hours is an ass.  I do realize there’s a bit of a curve involved, and some people need to study more and some less.  When I took my first calculus class, I was fresh out of trig and jumped straight into Apostol’s calculus text.  It often took me in excess of 20 hours per week to study and finish homeworks, but I was also the only freshman who’d never stepped near a calc book before putting foot on campus.

When I planned my course out, I tried to break the topic matter into bite-size chunks.  Our class meets one hour per week for about 15 weeks.  I’m also a big believer that I’m wasting my students’ time if all we ever do is talk.  So therefore, I planned either short lectures or in-class activities for most classes.  Then, to reinforce the concept, I will assign a relatively short homework assignment.

I use the rule of thumb that you need to put in three hours of homework time per credit for an A (on average).  I’m teaching a one-credit class, and the assignments are pass/redo (or fail if they don’t turn them in or don’t redo them within the specified time), so I try to shoot for a homework time of about one hour.  That is, you can do a mediocre job of the homework if you put in a full hour.  If you want to do a better job and lower your risk of having to redo the assignment, you’ll put in more time, but likely not more than 3.

I have some students who obviously put in a lot of time.  I have some that hand in assignments with every i dotted and t crossed.  Then I have some who wander in and hand me scribbles on a piece of paper.

The student’s comment is interesting because I think it indicates both that (s)he has failed to sit down and think about how much time is actually required to study.  I find that disappointing, but if I teach the class again, maybe I really should consider talking about time management.  (As an aside, I find it frustrating that universities will often let you take more than full-time credit loads without any additional costs.  I think it’s to encourage people to get through faster, but I’ve noticed it simply has the effect of overloading the students and not giving them adequate time to study for any of their classes sufficiently.  They feel like they have to do this to reduce their overall loan and/or financial burden.)

It also indicates the student has failed to realize that I have spent time thinking about how much homework I should be giving.  I am guessing the student will be very surprised when they get into certain classes where the professor thinks a student should be able to accomplish a task in the same amount of time as the professor.  There will be classes where it’s impossible to even pass without an excess of 20 hours devoted solely to that class.  And that student will really be floundering then.

I simply left a comment on the paper:  “Wait until you get into upper-level EE classes. :-)”  I’m guessing they won’t appreciate what I’m talking about for another year or two.

In the meantime, I think I’ll kick back and listen to the Fixx…and think about how much is enough.

You CAN get warm fuzzies in engineering August 31, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, teaching.
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I’m starting to grade my students’ first assignment this semester.  It’s a personal essay, giving me a picture of where they’re from and why they chose to go into electrical engineering.  They are also supposed to let me know if they have any specific goals in the course.

I usually leave my grading for the evenings when I’m totally fried.  I grudgingly sat down tonight after dinner to face the music.

I found, however, that I was intrigued.  A lot of the kids come from smaller towns in ND and MN.  In fact, there was only one town I hadn’t heard of.  I also have kids all the way from the coasts…and a few from beyond.

What surprised me was how many of them said they were interested in things like renewable power because they want to go into a profession where they can do something beneficial.  So many of the essays conveyed a sense of excitement and enthusiasm…not to mention a bit of naïveté.  I just hope they can keep their enthusiasm while moving through school.  I’ll have to remind them to keep their eye on the goal if they get frustrated with the process.  Aspirations are not a thing that should be crushed without good reason.

It’s the first time I think I’ve really enjoyed grading.


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