jump to navigation

A New Semester January 17, 2017

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, physics, teaching.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

I’m teaching physics this semester, and I have to admit that I’m in a slight panic.  At most places, physics is a 4 to 5 credit class.  It’s only 3 credits here, and I have a pretty strict schedule on what I need to get covered.  I can do it, as long as I don’t get off track, but it’s daunting.

The down side is that sometimes students don’t realize right away that they will be taking the class, so they miss the first couple days.  In my case, that means a week.

I’m doing something different in terms of homework, though, to compensate for how quickly we’re moving.  The students are getting a “mini” homework assignment each class.  Part of me knows this is going to be a pain because grading is generally one of my least favorite part of teaching.  (I think that’s true of most people I know, so I don’t feel terribly ashamed about it.)  The class is also “big,” which means the grading is going to take me longer than I had hoped.  I wasn’t sure if this was a good idea until I went through the first homework.

One of my late additions very clearly didn’t know what was going on.  I saw this was a problem and so I suggested he come see me so I could go over the information he missed.  This afternoon, I stepped him through my notes.  Things were rocking along and then he got that look on his face: it was like a giant light bulb went off.  He stopped, his mouth came open and his eyes seemed to pop out.  Then, after a few seconds, there was that slight smart to a smile.

Oh.  NOW I get it.

I really love that expression, and I think he’s happier because I gave him the opportunity to redo it now that he actually understands what we’re doing.

Paper woes and highs November 21, 2016

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, education, engineering, papers, research, work.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

I really, really hate grading papers.  I’m not sure why I assign them, except that I hope there will be a decent amount of reflection and introspection on the part of the students as they’re writing them.  However, I would rather grade problem sets or even lab reports than papers.

Part of the problem is that I’m looking for content and it’s not always in the same place as you go from paper to paper.  In problems and lab reports there’s generally a set structure.  For papers…it’s not entirely clear.

The other part of the problem is that they just aren’t engaging for me, so I end up falling asleep reading them.  I’m one of those people who has a hard time sitting down to read a book, even for fun, unless it’s intensely compelling.  I will, however, be fine listening to books on tape (or CD or iPhone or whatever they are now).  I thank this means I need to hire a really good voice actor who can read them to me. At the very least, it would be slightly more engaging.  But then I would still have to assign a grade.  :p

On the up side of papers, some of mine are finally getting cited.  The good ones, I mean.  I have watched over the past three years as one of my least favorite papers on which I’m a co-author steadily gained and gained citations.  I couldn’t figure out why except that it’s in a “hot” area.  Now two of my papers are starting to pick up citations (and my h-index is starting to creep up).  One of the papers is a good theory paper which was accepted to a rather selective conference while the other was more experimental in an area I’d like to keep doing research in (at least the theory aspect of it…don’t have the equipment to do experimental work now).  I’m just going to keep my fingers crossed and hope that they pass up the crappy paper in a couple years.  If either one does, it’ll be a reason to make something especially delicious and celebrate.

I walk the line June 24, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, homeschooling, older son.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I’ve been watching the older son grappling with his courses for the past year.  He was taking courses through an independent study organization to finish up some credits he needs to enter college.  I didn’t feel comfortable with some of these (especially literature classes), so we decided to go this route.

In doing this, I’ve discovered that the older son has a deadly combination of issues: ADHD and perfectionism.  I didn’t quite understand how the two fed into each other, but I can definitely see it now.

The older son also had the disadvantage of not working in the classes with peers.  The first few he did were in print rather than online. He would struggle for days to complete a single assignment, and it didn’t make sense to me at first.

Another thing I found odd was how one of his teachers was initially very abrupt with him.  It didn’t take long before she had completely changed her tune and was being incredibly nice and encouraging, which I thought was odd.

The second set of classes have been online and part of the assignments involved discussing things in a forum, so the student could see what the other students had submitted.  This was an eye-opening experience for me.  It also helped me make sense of his teacher’s dramatic change in behavior.

After watching him and seeing what other students have submitted, I realized three things:

1 – He can easily and quickly finish things that are simple.

2 – When things appear to be more difficult and/or time-consuming, he has difficulty concentrating and finds himself unable to stay on task.

3 – Part of the reason things are difficult and/or time-consuming is because he has seriously high expectations for himself that are way beyond what is often required.

I’m not saying he doesn’t have ADHD, because he most certainly does.  We tried for years to forego medication.  One day, he came to me and said he couldn’t even concentrate on projects he wanted to do for fun, so we opted at that point to look at something to help.  (He does take meds, but it’s the lowest dose that’s effective.)

However, in homeschooling him, neither of us had a reference for what a ‘typical’ high schooler should be doing in his classes.  He would give me an assignment, and we would spend a lot of time revising it.  He worked very hard, but progress was slow.  In one or two cases, he would hand things in half done because of lack of time.

What surprised me is that even the items he handed in half done or that were rough drafts often came back with exceptional grades.  I remember one assignment full of rough drafts of short essays which he aced.  I couldn’t figure it out.

The problem is that both of us really expect a lot out of him, and I learned, after seeing work that other students were doing, that it was likely too much.  Far too much.  While he was going into a detailed analysis of similarities because characters from two different novels set in two completely different cultural and temporal reference frames, it appears his fellow students who likely are trying their hardest, are writing something much more simplistic.  They are being told to elaborate, and he’s being told to eschew obfuscation.

The thing that has me concerned is that college is around the corner, and I worry that he’s going to continue to hold himself to those standards, even when it is so obviously working against him.  He struggles with the idea that it’s better to just hand something in, even if incomplete (by his standards), than to turn it in late, though perfect.

A lot of perfectionists deal with this.  I have told him that it’s not a bad trait, but that he needs to save it for the things that are really important to him.  If he wants to write the Great American Novel that people will pore over and debate and analyze, that is the time to be a perfectionist.  If he’s handing in an assignment that fulfills the requirements laid out by the teacher, who likely will spend ten minutes skimming the entry, being a perfectionist is really not going to help.  He needs to learn to walk that line.  To some extent, we all do.

The assignment I hate grading October 14, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
Tags: , ,
1 comment so far

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?

Terrified of homeschooling (again) March 27, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, homeschooling, math, older son, younger son.
Tags: , , , , , ,

Last night, the younger son was working on his math homework while I sat next to him and played sudoku.  I’ve found that this is the best way to oversee his homework because I don’t really pay attention to what he’s doing unless he asks for help, but I’m close by in case he starts getting frustrated.  And really, I can’t concentrate on anything important when I’m interrupted every ten minutes for an explanation.

The younger son has started running into problems with a concept now and again.  After he gets so many wrong, the program will switch gears and have him work on something else for a while.  Then it goes back and tries the subject again.  This happened for the first time a few days ago.  He complained, saying it was repeating questions.  I told him the program thought he needed more practice.  Last night, it happened again.

“Mom, the program thinks I need more practice.  But I don’t. I know this stuff.”

“Well, you’ll have to prove it to the computer.”  And he answered every question correctly.  The fact that he got peeved about repeating questions is a huge improvement from the kid who would avoid doing pretty much anything for fear of getting it wrong…and if he did try and get it wrong, there would be a major emotional blowout to follow.  That kid is a distant memory…but was around as recently as six months ago.  This, in my mind, is why you need to present challenges to perfectionists.

I’m now anxious for another reason.  I really thought the younger boy would slow down in his math progress.  Yes, I did up the amount of time he spends from 20 to 40 minutes per day, my reasons for which are elaborated in another post.  And he no longer gets everything right.  In fact, on his daily practice, he’s usually hitting somewhere between 80 and 90 percent correct answers.  But he’s still not really slowing down.

At the end of the year, he’s going to be three years ahead in math.  We didn’t expect this, and this puts us past the ‘drop dead’ point where the school can do anything.  His school only goes up to 5th grade at his campus.  The other campus starts at 6th and goes through the end of high school. Realistically, he’s not ready for that with his reading and writing.  So now we’re obligated to keep going with his current math program for the next three years.  Because of the structure of the courses, he will have to slow down signficantly.  However, we’re still looking at a realistic possibility of him being through algebra 2 before he starts middle school.  At that point, we are going to have to see if the school is willing to let him join a bunch of high school students for geometry or precalc…when he’s 12.

I’m nervous about this because of what is going on in his classroom.  He’s not participating in the regular math class, but he does work on addition and subtraction drills.  His teacher is putting on his report card that he’s ‘beginner level’ in math based on these drills.  I really am not worried how he’s doing on this because of the fact that I know he can add two and three digit numbers in his head, even though he still writes some numbers backwards when writing the answers.  I am guessing the pressure of timed quizzes, the act of writing, or perhaps lack of interest are causing his poor performance.  (Incidentally, while he may not do every problem, all the problems he does are correct.)

I am concerned that teachers in the future are going to look at this and believe he doesn’t know math rather than looking at what he’s accomplished through the online math program.  And I’m worried this will have a negative impact on our ability to accelerate him when the time is appropriate.  But, mostly, I’m frustrated that so much of the assessment of his abilities rests on judgements of things like basic arithmetic or handwriting when it’s become so obvious to me that he’s got some serious abstract thinking abilities.  No teacher is ever going to see that unless they give him some challenging material.  (I have to admit that I had no idea until we started down this path with the math program.)  Likely, they won’t because they’re so stuck on what I consider to be somewhat superficial things.

Based on my experience with the older son, I guess this is starting to leave me terrified that the younger boy will eventually need to be pulled out of school.  I have that thought every time I get a note about some problem at school.  Admittedly, most of them are small things that I don’t have to worry about.  The thought is sitting just under the surface, though, and pokes an eye out every time something seems amiss.

For now, we’ve decided to just keep him moving through regular school while supplementing math during the school year and language arts during the summer.  I imagine that in about 3 years, however, we’re going to hit a pretty serious fork in the road.  I’m a person who doesn’t take well to waiting, however, so even now it’s still on my mind a lot.

Am I missing something here? January 27, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, science, teaching.
Tags: , ,

Like everyone else, I came across the article on why college students leave engineering.

I was reading it with my jaw hanging open.  Specifically this:

The typical engineering major today spends 18.5 hours per week studying. The typical social sciences major, by contrast, spends about 14.6 hours.

My first thought was: Where the heck can you go to school and study for 18.5 hrs/wk and still manage to pass enough classes to get an engineering degree?!

My second thought was that it explained something that has been puzzling me.  Last semester, my students complained about the amount of homework I assigned for my 1-credit class.  There was about 1  homework assignment per week, and I figured this meant they’d be spending an average of 1-2 hours outside of class on assignments.

When I started school, the rule of thumb was that 3 hours per week outside of class PER CREDIT was required for an A, two for a B, one for a C.  This meant that if you planned to go to school full time (which was 12 credits per semester) and get an A average, you needed to be spending about 36 hours per week just on homework in addition to your 12 hours of seat time in a classroom.

I also learned that, for some classes, this was a significant underestimate (usually math, engineering and physics classes) while for other classes, it was an overestimate.  I remember one senior-level sociology class that I took where I spent, on average, three hours per week on homework and still came out with one of the highest grades in the class.  This is why I always felt it was a good idea to have a nice balance between technical and non-technical classes: it would even out the homework load a bit.

My understanding of a typical homework load is obviously a couple decades behind.  (Although I am not sure I plan to change my tune any time soon.)  However, I did feel good about one point in the article:

STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) have also had less grade inflation than the humanities and social sciences have in the last several decades.

Apparently you can study less in engineering than you used to have to obtain a degree, which I have to admit bothers me a bit.  However, it’s still harder than humanities and you’re more likely to actually have to earn those grades.  Despite the fact that we’re probably pushing STEM fields more than we really need to, I do hope employers take that into consideration.  STEM students have to be more committed to make it through their fields, which are also more technically challenging.  I’d think that should be worth something.

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

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, teaching.
Tags: , , , ,

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.
Tags: , ,
add a comment

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.

Fed up with homework January 30, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, societal commentary, teaching, younger son.
Tags: ,

I’m not fed up with my own homework. (I’m pretty much past that stage, thank goodness.) I’m fed up with the fact that the younger boy, who in first grade, is being given homework.

You know, that stuff that has shown to be absolutely useless for elementary age children?

Every weekend, we get a packet of homework. I’ve had to come up with reverse psychology measures to induce him to complete these. One of the most sure-fire ways is to start doing it for him, but make sure I’m reading aloud the problems because he’s probably hiding somewhere near by. I also read the wrong answers that I’m putting down.

I know he hates it when things are wrong, so he eventually feels the need to come over and correct my erroneous answers. He laughs at me because I can’t figure out his homework when it’s so easy. Then he whips through it in about 15 minutes or so.

That’s the thing that gets me: it’s easy for him. But he hates doing it with a passion. In the past year, I’ve been seeing my fun, easy-going boy turn into a stress bomb.

The kids are also supposed to be doing book reports – two a month. The handbook says that parents are supposed to be helping and that they need to be either neatly written or done on a word processor. However, on the last one, the teacher said that he needed to hand write his book reports now because she wants him to practice his handwriting. (And believe me, it’s really not that bad.)

A six-year-old is now supposed to spend time writing out paragraphs by hand?

As you may have guessed based on what I’ve already written, this caused a horrid reaction. After spending the afternoon attempting to coax him, listen to him crying, seeing him scared to come near me lest I force him to sit down with a pen and paper, I’ve given up. For the rest of the year. Maybe the next one, too. I’ve wasted too many weekends coercing my child to do something I thought was ridiculous rather than enjoying our time together doing something fun.

I am not going to make a first-grader hand write a book report. My husband didn’t even know how to read or write when he entered first grade. Neither of us recalls doing anything as extensive as a book report until at least third grade. And when we did them, we were given papers that prompted us to fill in particular information. We had to write one or two sentences at most.

And you know what? It obviously didn’t hurt either one of us to wait that long.

I’m in favor of challenging children…when it’s developmentally appropriate. I know that my son is physically and mentally able to perform these tasks. However, he’s not emotionally ready, and I think pushing this on a kid this young is doing more damage than good. There are so many other ways to learn at this age that are fun and just as educational.

%d bloggers like this: