Ask the grumpies: teaching tricks

CG asks:

The Chronicle forum used to have a section Jedi mind tricks for making your teaching easier. We could do something like that for teaching . I came up with a good one this semester because of online teaching.

My favorite is “let others do the work for you”– meaning if there’s something you don’t want to do, think about if there’s a way you can make it an appropriate assignment for the students.  For example, I find lecturing about the characteristics of government programs to be really boring (like, what’s their budget, what’s their purpose, etc.) and things have to be updated each year.  It makes a really great student assignment– they get to research a program and practice presentation skills and they usually add cute graphics and it’s just not as boring as me writing dry facts on the board in a monotone.

Otherwise I really love everything in Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov (Amazon link so we get a small kickback).

Here’s some posts on teaching tactics.

Here’s some posts on teaching just generally.

Teaching a first semester required course

This is a post initially started in 2011!  But apparently not much has changed in the intervening 10 years…

Teaching a first semester required course is really hard!

The reason for that is that you’re not just managing expectations about the class itself, but about the major and about what it means to be a college student (or graduate student!).

It’s ok to tell them that they need to be taking notes.  They honest to goodness don’t know.  A lot of them went to high schools where they could just get by on their smarts.  In college, at least in a challenging major like ours, they are going to need some memory aids.  It’s ok to tell them to put their cell phones away and laptops down.  I tell mine that they need to be taking notes with pencil and paper and they can only use a tablet if they have a stylus.  Trying to draw diagrams using a laptop without a stylus is a huge waste of time and takes them out of the more important parts of actually understanding the lecture.

We also added to our core syllabi information on how college is different from high school– they’ll be expected to think and deal with ambiguity and ask questions, not just memorize lists.  We tell them they should expect to be stressed out sometime in the middle of the semester and they will feel dumb, but at the end of it they will feel a lot smarter.  That seems to help a lot.

A lot of books written by white-haired white dudes will tell you to treat students like adults.  My teaching evals got a lot better when I started treating them like toddlers (keeping in mind that I would be an excellent pre-school teacher).  Students understand the “teacher” persona and seem happiest when a female teacher fits into a box that they can understand.  They like guidelines and structure and clear expectations while still being expected to learn and grow.

For those of you that teach, do you have any tips and tricks for students just starting out?  For those of you who have been taught, what do you wish your first semester teachers had done, or what did they do well?


AnonSLAC asks:

We JUST found out that classes are going to switch to online for the rest of the semester starting next week.  I teach one lecture class (two sections, chalk and talk with lots of diagrams and equations) and a discussion class.  I have in-class exams coming up.  What do I DOOOOOOOOO?!??!

Any help would be appreciated.

I feel you.  For my midterm on Monday, if school is cancelled (we’re still waiting to hear(!)), I’m planning on having them all sign into Skype or Zoom and I will virtually proctor them via video.  I can do this because they’re all required to have laptops.  I also know they all have smartphones so they will be able to scan in their exams and mail them to me as pdfs.  I am not looking forward to this outcome because I know there will be technical difficulties.  But I’m assuming it will be better than creating a take-home that’s more challenging and harder to grade… and I had cheating problems last semester so I can’t just trust them to do a timed take-home on their own without the monitoring.  (They do get a cheat sheet so this kind of cheating won’t be a problem.)  I’m trying to figure out what to do for people without printers– they could take the exam blue-book style, which is probably going to be the best option, otherwise they will have to pick up envelopes with exams from on campus.  I should scan in the probability distribution tables.

I think I’m just going to gut my discussion class.  We’re only going to do the major required points and cut out the “fun” day.  I’ll have the students record their voice over powerpoints (I need to figure out how to do this) and upload them … and then require each student to ask at least one question and answer the main points questions as homework.  For one of the weekly assignments they’ll comment on people’s discussions on blackboard instead of in person.  And I’ll have them answer all questions from the reading as homework somehow instead of as in-class discussion… not sure how to get them to read other people’s though.  May have to have a second homework as well.  SIGH.  Or I could just let it go.

For my chalk and talk lecture I’m torn between videotaping all my remaining lectures and letting them watch asynchronously vs. doing a virtual lecture with my apple pencil and some computer program on my iPad during our regular class time (I’ve been testing out zoom with the whiteboard, though everything has to get erased after each page).  I could cold call and have them chat for that.  It might not be so bad if I can figure out a good program for it.  I wish I could remember which meeting program that I used like 3 years ago to talk to a statistician was the one that made it easy to write via hand and have people comment.

Our business school recommended zoom for all their professors/students, which our university provides for free to us.  We’ve gotten no guidance yet, but it looks like if you don’t get the professional version from your school it cuts off at 40 min with the free version.

I have been scouring the interwebs for suggestions.

Here’s the chronicle of higher ed on how to go online in a hurry.  Here’s a thread from someone in China.  Almost all, possibly all, my students this semester are local so I’m hoping there won’t be internet problems.

Here’s a couple of different things on how to teach using the ipad Pro and Apple Pencil (note, if you do not have an Apple Pencil, you will need to get one that isn’t personalized since it took a while to get a personalized one from China even before the Corona Virus).  1. Scott Dawson.  2.  teachbetter.coExplain Everything looks promising for this set-up, though it is not free.  Google hangouts (free) and Google Classrooms (your uni needs to have a license) is being pushed by a friend’s university.  I’ll probably end up with Zoom since many of my students are already familiar with it since our university has a site license for it.  I really hope I don’t lose my apple pencil again.

But really I’m hoping that Grumpy Nation will have suggestions about what to do.  Because, like you, this is a brave new world for me.

Grumpy Nation– have any of you done online classes or hybrid classes?  Any suggestions either for lecture or discussion?

In which #1 is irritated by DC1’s public school teaching the “stock market game”

DC1 is in Gifted and Talented Pullout this year, and one of the things that they do is participate in a competition called the Stock Market Game.

As an economist and someone with a personal hobby interest in personal finance, the stock market game irritates me SO MUCH.  The criteria for winning is to be the team that has made the most money picking hypothetical stocks after a set time period.

The way to win this game is to be in the extreme tail of the normal distribution.  Of course, that’s also how to get the lowest score.  Essentially, the game rewards risk-taking, punishes diversification and fails to punish losing gambles.  Since it is a winner-take-all game, there’s no benefit to going for a middle-of-the-road strategy.  You’re going to lose just as hard in the middle of the pack as you would taking enormous chances and being the lowest ranked team.  So you might as well gamble and hope for that upside.

Of course, with real investing there are real losses to taking on risk and losing.  This game equates being the second highest scoring team (or really, the fourth highest scoring team) with being the lowest scoring team.  Anybody who aims for the more sure middle is going to lose because some other teams took risks.

Also, there’s a reason that real stock market investing is a long-term game, not a short-term one.  Games that praise short-term gains and ignore the long-term may even discourage investing because they show the market to be much more volatile than it actually is over a long time horizon.  Of course, that may be better than kids growing up to invest their retirement assets in the extremely risky portfolios that have the likeliest chance of winning this kind of game.

I’m not the first person to complain about this stupid school-sponsored game.  Here’s confessions of a stock market game winner.  Here’s someone at the WSJ complaining about how it teaches exactly the wrong lessons.

(And, just in case you’re a new reader:  You should invest in low cost broad-based index funds for long-term investing.)

Have you ever played the stock market game?

More on teaching tactics: roll call, do now

We already talked about Roll Call— simply calling people’s names from the attendance sheet before class and marking them in or absent, whether or not you use that information.  The book Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov talks about threshold techniques, which is the way you greet students as they enter, and DH has picked roll call to be his threshold technique.

Do Now is another technique that can be useful in technical classes.  Basically you have a little problem for them to solve that they should be able to solve in a short amount of time at the beginning of class.  It’s either written on the board or given in a handout that they pick up as they enter.  It’s a way to check for understanding and to get the ball rolling and the brain activated for class.

DH has been talking about the interaction between the two.

Roll call (effectively his threshold technique), strengthens the utility of the Do Now. People show up early for the roll call, and so they’re there to start on the do-now before class. It’s gaining him probably 5 minutes of time on 3/4 of the students.  And he can use the time since he’s going right up to the bell every session.

Do Nows and quizzes are pedagogically essentially the same thing– quick checks for student understanding and an incentive to keep up with the material.  However, the Do Now has many psychological and mechanical advantages over the quiz.  Students like the Do Now better than the quiz.   They feel a lot different.  They’re less intimidating. And he doesn’t have to grade them.  They feel more like they’re for the student learning than the end result of a grade.

He was using quizzes for attendance, feedback to the professor, and an incentive for them to keep up with the material. Now roll-call and cold-calling are filling those needs.

me: I’ve definitely been doing more cold calling.  I’ve been trying to learn a new student name or two every class period  so that kid gets picked on.  Once I’ve picked on them, they’re more likely to ask questions.

DH: I’ve realized that cold calling can be a learning tool, and hopefully that comes through when I walk them through anything they’re struggling with, and the way there’s no judgement on wrong answers.  Anyway, off to class.

I hope it went well!  Do you think we should allow students to sink or swim on their own, or is nudging them ok?

Teaching Tactics: Part II

(Part 1 here)

This is a story about my DH.

Very few students start out in DH’s department.  Many of them stop in his department on the way down to the university’s gut major, having flunked out of another major.  He teaches the first core course in the major.  Every semester has seemed more demoralizing than the last.  That’s not quite true… some semesters have been better than others (and moving from 8am to 9am helped a lot), but sometimes he’ll have to fail half the class, sometimes (partly) because they just fail to show up to things like exams.  Often nobody in the class earns an A.  Occasionally he’ll get a few students, ones who picked the major as a first choice, who get an A but they’re the exception rather than the rule.

He worries that it’s him.  It’s not him.  I’ve sat on his classes.  He’s as good as any teacher I had in undergrad.  The students also love him– he gets close to perfect teaching evals, and the students actually write comments in the comment section.  But they’re not learning the material.  And that makes him sad.  Because he’s a wonderful person who cares deeply.

It’s also not him because 40-60% of every entering class doesn’t make it to graduate in that major.

Since he started teaching, he’s been treating students like adults, even if they don’t act like adults.  Gradually he started adding things like making attendance mandatory and grading for it (some semesters with homework quizzes, some semesters just having an attendance grade).  Even so, students would still skip so many classes that adding that to their first two exam grades there’s no way they can pass the class.  Yet they still show up to lab.  Something isn’t reaching them.

This summer we read the teaching tactics book Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov.  It disagrees with a lot of these pie and the sky ideals books, which, incidentally, I will also say don’t work for me and I have WAY better students than DH does (Boice works for me, but some of these other books are ridiculous– all theory, no empirics, and implementation has gotten me into trouble in the past).  One of the major points of disagreement was whether or not to treat students like adults.  This one argues that students need guidance. Some of them are incompetent but teachable.  They don’t take notes because they don’t *realize* they’re supposed to be taking notes and they don’t know how to take notes.  They need to be told to write down everything the professor puts on the board, a technique that Lemov terms “board = paper.”  (#2 does notes scaffolding instead of “board = paper” — that doesn’t work so well with DH’s discipline or the math class I teach because they have to learn to draw diagrams and figures).

We sat down and talked about what DH’s students need.

1.  They need to come to class.
2.  They need to be engaged.
3.  They need to do their homework.

1.  Come to class:

As we mentioned above, changing the points given for attendance, having quizzes, etc. none of these were strong enough to incentive students to get out of bed if they didn’t want to get out of bed.  Students just did not realize they were failing by not showing up.  Tactics along those lines are not going to work because they are insensitive to how attendance directly affects their grades.

What they need instead is to know up front and in their faces that someone is going to notice when they’re not there.  When I had this problem with my students, another professor recommended that even if attendance isn’t part of the class grade, that you take roll every class.  At the beginning of class.  Loudly.  You can just toss the sheets later if you’re not going to use them, but just calling out the names lets them know that you are aware when they’re not there, and maybe you care.  It works.  I still get the occasional unexcused absence, but not consistently and most days everyone shows up.  I make a big deal about missing people, “Bueller, Bueller, Bueller” — they tell each other that the absence was noted.  I often get an apology and the same student rarely misses twice without a university approved absence.  I haven’t had a person fail my class since I started taking attendance.

K-12 has true mandatory attendance, so the book doesn’t discuss this specifically, but it does have suggestions on how to make kids know you know they’re there.  Greet everyone at the door.  Use their names in class.  Cold call so that people cannot hide.  (The book has a really large section on cold-calling, which is not like the cold-calling that terrified me as a student– well worth reading, and I’m going to implement it too).

2.  Engagement:

There’s a couple of chapters on engagement, full of great stuff, much of which I already implement because apparently I’m awesome like that (my problems are instead discussed in the two chapters on classroom climate and behavioral problems, but that’s another post that may never be written).

Techniques include names such as, no opt out, cold-call, Vegas, stretch-it, at bats, volleyball metaphor, etc.  No opt out, the first technique, was new to me, it’s where if someone called on doesn’t know and then someone else answers, you go back to the person who didn’t know and make sure they know now.  They have to listen and keep thinking, and eventually get the solution themselves.  These techniques keep all the students awake and moving.  And all students, they don’t let just some students dominate discussion.  You’re not just lecturing, even in a technical class.  (Note, some of these techniques will not work in a ginormous lecture hall, but do work well for DH’s mid-size classes.)

3.  Homework:

Grading every homework would be best, but sadly there’s no money for a grader and DH only has a finite amount of time.  But instead of just letting them decide whether to do their homework and get the grade or not do their homework and get a zero, tell them they need to do it.  Get them to create study groups on the first day of class.  Occasionally spend some time in class on homework problems before they’re due so they’ve gotten it started.  Make doing the homework the norm– everybody else is doing it so you should be too.  It’s expected.

These changes have been working.  Not 100%, but the lost group who is normally checked out this time of the semester is much smaller than in previous semesters.  More homework is being turned in complete than any previous semester.  And most importantly to me, DH is not dreading each class day.  He’s teaching, they’re learning, and he’s learning too.

The big underlying theme from all of these is actually a form of Libertarian Paternalism (or “Nudging”).  With these students, it’s not the hard rules of grades or quizzes or mandatory attendance that’s important.  It’s the verbal iteration and reiteration of expectations.  Even though DH knows their names, calling roll is important.  Letting his students know that he knows they’re there.  That they’re paying attention.  Reminding them that they’re supposed to be taking notes instead of playing hearts on their laptops, that he can see them, that he knows and cares.  These social cues work much better than the realistically more important (to their futures) possibility of actual failure.  And that’s interesting, and a lesson to us, especially if our main goal is to get them to learn the material.

Do you think there’s a role for these kinds of tactics?  What do you do about attendance, engagement, and homework?  Do you think we should allow students to sink or swim on their own, or is nudging them ok?

The Research vs. Teaching chestnut

I wrote on Dr. Crazy’s blog:

“I’m continually baffled about this supposed integration of teaching and research. How does it work? I hear from other people that it’s great, but I don’t see it in my life. Teaching and research DO pull me in opposite directions. I only have so much time. My research area is extremely specialized and I never, ever get to teach it. I teach somewhat outside my area of expertise and it doesn’t enrich me; it just reminds my why I didn’t go into that area. How do you manage when your research interests are not remotely represented in your assigned teaching load? I am curious.”

There was some discussion over there, but I’d like more.

Recently I’ve been complaining that, if my evaluation for tenure didn’t depend on 19-year-olds’ perceptions of how “available” I am, I would never ever let student meetings interrupt my scheduled research time — which I did block out on my calendar at the beginning of the semester.  But when they want something, and they can’t make my office hours, and they can’t make my alternate times either, it’s either schedule a meeting during writing time or take a hit on my dumb evals.  ARGH!

I struggle to get “brain time” where I can clear my head and actually hear myself think amongst the many distractions of my job.  Sometimes I don’t answer email.  I am doing ok on the Boiceing front, writing a little bit frequently in small, frequent sessions — but sometimes you just need a longer session to concentrate on stuff.  Argh, again.

I know this is a perpetual and neverending topic that goes around and around and around.  But I’d be interested in hearing some more perspectives on how to lessen the conflict between teaching and research when one’s teaching bears no relation to one’s research area and one can’t really change that fact.

Gentle readers?

#2 notes that we are NOT saying that teaching is not important, and we are certainly not saying that we will not be available for office hours.  But it’s MUCH more efficient to have set office hours rather than continually interrupted random ones.  I made the choice early on to take the hit on my evals in exchange for uninterrupted time (given that I *know* they don’t have a course conflict for one set of my office hours), and explain to them on the first day of class that I am not available for “just one quick question” and why I’m not (they also get a sheet that lists where to find help and the order to do things: by yourself, with a classmate, office hours, blackboard etc.).  As a service to my fellow professors I tell the students that the other professors have the same pressures I do.  And, of course, my white male colleagues never get those “just one quick questions…”  At least two of my other female colleagues are drowning under the weight of them… indeed, one of them may not get tenure.

Getting kids to behave in a teaching setting

It’s all about tactics…

We’re reading this book by Doug Lemov on how to improve K-12 teaching, figuring it should help us with college and graduate students too, even if not everything transfers over.  This book is really awesome because it’s about tactics.  What are techniques that you can actually use to get students to pay attention, keep listening, behave themselves and learn (mostly remember) the material.  It’s a great book with lots of great tips in a classroom setting.  Little nitty-gritty details.

We’ve had it in mind as we go through the summer, applying it more to a pre-K setting.

Example.  So DC says to me the other morning, “Ms B said if I flipped my flip flops one more time, she was going to wear them.”
“I think that means she wanted you to stop.”
“You were probably disturbing her or other kids.”
“Really?”  DC asked incredulously.
“Did you stop?” I asked.
“No, I flipped them two more times.  But Ms B didn’t put them on,” ze replied, disappointed.

I think what we have there is a failure of Ms B to communicate.  DC honestly had no idea that she wanted hir to stop flipping or why on earth she would have wanted that.  With kids a certain age, it’s best just to be direct.  “DC, please stop flipping your flipflops.  It is bothering me.”

Also while we’ve been reading this book, DC has started swimming lessons. The first session ze had an experienced and short woman teacher.  DC behaved like an angel and progressed marvelously.  Second session, DC had a tall inexperienced male teacher.  DC acted up in ways that we rarely see hir act up.  And so did most of the other kids in that group.  We were constantly reminding DC to listen to the teacher because swimming pools are dangerous and it is important to listen.  (Indeed, on the last day of class, DC fell into four feet of water and took a while to fish out, but was oddly unfazed.  DH, otoh, almost had a heart attack.)  DC claimed ze just didn’t hear when the teacher said to stop splashing or to stay away from the slides.  He would also give up on kids doing the right thing too soon, and would make idle threats that he never followed through on.

DH spent some time over these sessions comparing what it was that the first teacher and the second teacher were doing differently, especially on occasions with the tall male teacher when the students actually behaved.  Specifically, the kids behaved on the days when they were in the big pool instead of the smaller one where they could stand on their own without life jackets.  In the big pool, they had to sit on a mat for safety reasons when it wasn’t their turn with the teacher.  And, importantly, in the big pool, the tall teacher was the same height as the kids, not towering over them.  It was easier for them to listen to him.

Supernanny was right.  It is important to get down to the child’s level when you’re trying to get them to behave, listen, or obey a command.  Second, when they’re bored, they’re going to act up.  Give them something to do and limit their possible actions.  Too much freedom can lead to pushing that freedom too far, and not being in a position to pay attention to the teacher.  Finally, as before, follow through with commands and threats.  If you give up too early, then they have more reason to ignore your commands and threats.

These are all tactics.  Not high flung philosophies and so on, but concrete small things that improve the experience for everyone and help increase learning because of that.  It is easier to learn when kids are not distracted and it’s easier to teach when kids are well-behaved.

So that’s our recent experiences in getting pre-K and K-12 folks to pay attention and learn stuff.  We wonder what bleeds over to college students…


  • Some of DC1’s friends from programming class two years ago are starting an AI club.  They’ve asked hir to be an officer (though zie doesn’t know which position yet– not president or vice president).  They had a hard time finding a faculty sponsor and I think ended up with a foreign language teacher.  They also have to have 10 members whereas previously they only needed 5.
  • I’ve noticed over the past year or two that admin people at my university have started to become way less helpful and much more bitchy in every single interaction.  Previously everything seemed like it was coming from a place in which they wanted to help their constituencies (exception:  the grants office and the IRB, both of which have always been pretty awful) and now it’s borderline hostile and they don’t have suggestions for who to talk to next whenever there’s a small problem.  DH says that it was always like this for him at the engineering college and it’s just now spilling over to liberal arts.  Though I don’t think he ever had a problem with his IT like I have problems with IT.  Assuming that it’s not just random:  Is it inflation causing people in customer facing occupations to be underpaid?  Is it pandemic fatigue (though we’ve been ignoring the pandemic for a year and a half at least now)?  Is it Trumpism saying that the idea that we’re all in this together is only for idiots and helping people should be avoided at all costs?
  • If you know you’re not going to referee a paper, just decline right away!  There is no reason to drag it out!
  • Recently I have often felt like the only full professor in the faculty who actually remembers anything ever.  A part of me wonders if this might have something to do with me being possibly the only full professor in the department who didn’t get Covid Alpha.  (I got probably BA5 post-vaccination + booster.)  It’s driving me a little bit crazy.  (Example, department head who was hired 2 years before I was asked for committee volunteers to create alternative measures of excellence given that the university measure doesn’t fit well outside of grant-heavy sciences.  And I was like… didn’t we do that 5 years ago?  Wasn’t X on that committee.  And then X was like, oh yeah, I WAS on that committee.  I should be able to dig up our report.  And Bam!  no need to reinvent the wheel.  But it’s also stuff like remembering that we need to do teaching observation for promotion and tenure cases.  Or that we agreed to certain action items at the last curriculum committee meeting.)
  • DC1’s economics/government teacher told students not to fill out the American Community Survey if they get it (I got one recently!  That makes it 2x I’ve done the equivalent of the Census long form.  I am represented!) because it is a violation of your freedom.  He also told them that they say they will fine you for not doing it, but they don’t actually fine you, because after a while they just give up.
  • Word is correcting “Once sufficient data are gathered…” to “…is gathered…”  DH says this is a sign of the end times.
  • DC1:  My government teacher said he didn’t understand why economists think sunlight cannot be a scarce resource.
    Me (after much twitchy silence): It’s not that sunlight can’t be a scare resource, just that it wasn’t in England in like the 18th century
    DC1: Right, because the sun never set
    Me (after a pause where the wheels in my head turned): I am so proud.
  • Harvey Mudd changed their essay questions for the first time in years.  That means DC1’s wonderfully written, “Why Mudd?” essay from this summer is completely axed.  They only have two questions instead of three now.  I wonder why.  Maybe the lack of SAT scores means they’ve been getting too many applications?  DC1 thinks zie can cobble together different pieces of discarded HMC essays and state flagship essays to answer their “how have your experiences led to what you want to do with your life” question.  But it’s a bit of a setback.

Link love

Go Fund Me for Librarian who is suing people who are slandering her after she spoke up about censorship.

Brookings report suggests long covid is keeping as many as 4 million people out of work.

The Effect of College and University Endowments on Financial Aid, Admissions, and Student Composition

Hyundai accused of using child labor at Alabama factory

Inside a million dollar fake musician scheme

The COVID-19 Pandemic Disrupted Both School Bullying and Cyberbullying

Remember that teacher who was but then wasn’t fired and then quit after she provided a link to the Brooklyn Free library card program? Education Secretary Ryan Walters has asked the state board of education to revoke former Norman Public Schools teacher Summer Boismier’s teaching license immediately.

BA5 Covid boosters will be ready later this week. Here’s where to find them!

I have been doing activisms, I just have been forgetting to post. This past week’s was mainly just donations. I gave $25/each to 4 local candidates. Next week I intend to give $25/each to state candidates. I also have been giving a LOT to donors choose in Red states for books about marginalized kids– basically I have a rule that I give $25 every time I see a news story about censorship and there have been a lot of stories about censorship in the news. Because the Fascists are making real in-roads.