Sit still and pay attention!

I’ve been having a problem lately… or, really, all semester. I hate sitting still.

Meetings, lectures, whatever. If we are expected to sit down and only listen, I get really anxious and stressed. I have so much to do, I can’t sit still! Sitting around, stewing, is aggravating.

If the format of an event is everybody sitting and listening to one person talk, there is a better medium for this than an in-person meeting: Video.

Lectures should be pre-recorded, and lecture time should be an active use of my time to learn the material. Listening to somebody talk about a topic doesn’t teach us much.

Meetings where there needs to be input from the people listening? Well… I prefer asynchronous meetings, honestly. I know if it is presented as a webinar, people will be surfing the internet and not fully pay attention; I’ve done this for many webinars. But maybe the problem is with the presentation rather than the peoples’ (*cough*my*cough*) attention span.

I don’t really have a fully formed point here. I’m just waiting for class to start and feeling super anxious. I have a lot of work to do, and my body feels like it’s exploding with nervous energy pulling me in every direction.

It’s my birthday!

Me: “I should keep up with grading by grading one assignment every night!”

My day –

Teacher work: Wake up, eat, begin working on class prep for the day. Fund an old lecture on stacks and queues, write a lab, adjust an old project to be a new project.

Business work: Create a set of wireframes for contract app, send out emails to client and to interns.

Homework: Spend last half hour before class begins working on homework. Fix queue problem.

Teach class: Give lecture, read through documentation of my homework while my students work on their lab, answer questions as-needed.

Get home: Eat fast food, be lazy for a while.

Work on homework: Figure out WTF is going on with this programming assignment since the project spec doesn’t really give us much to go on.

Look at clock: 1:30 am…

Tomorrow’s plans: Wake up early, work on class prep before my first class, teach Discrete Math at 12:30, work meeting, then meet with intern after class to help them set up their tools, eat, teach my 6 – 9 pm class, do homework until late again.

Friday…: 9 am meeting at work, meeting with intern, then I guess homework all weekend. Also need to write a letter of recommendation and do my taxes and finish up the fiancé visa paperwork.

Maybe I’ll fit in grading somewhere around there.

Just because I’m a student doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t respect my time: Study guides

OK, I was going to write this blog post after I was done studying for the midterm, but I’m just too steamed right now so I’m going to vent and then get back to it. My plan right now is to spend this entire weekend re-reading all the chapters of the book and making notes on everything. (I keep these notes on my GitHub.)

I’m salty because I emailed the instructor a month ago and asked for the best way to study for the midterm. The response I got was:

Hi Rachel

Lecture notes and the book are probably the best way to prepare for the exam. 

So I guess that I’m just supposed to memorize every fucking thing out of the textbook, because there is no clear way to tell what this teacher things is important and what we will be assessed over.


A textbook I teach out of with only a few sentences highlighted

I clearly have not highlighted every paragraph of the Data Structures textbook that I teach from.

“Oh well you should be learning everything anyway.”

Sure, read all the content, absorb it all, but what we need to know of and what we need to have burned into our brains are very different. I sift through the textbooks that I teach out of and I sure as hell don’t highlight every damn line with what I think is important.

And it depends between teachers!

What I highlight and think is important is based on my own experience in the professional world with things that have come in handy, what I’ve needed to know, and so on. What somebody in academia thinks is important, someone whose research focus is operating systems, might be completely different than what someone thinks from a practical standpoint.

Textbooks are full of words. These words might be good in creating a flow for the textbook, but they are not reference material, and they do not only contain the important bits – they contain information on context, examples, and explanations. At some level, when studying, I’d prefer a reference book than a textbook, because there’s so much to sift through and pull out.

Something I probably don’t need to memorize, but is still mentioned in the textbook, taking up valuable space: “Two common techniques for loading executable files are double-clicking an icon representing the executable file and entering the name of the executable file on the command line (as in prog.exe or a.out).” – Operating Systems Concepts, 9th Edition, Silberschatz


It's part of a study guide that I've prepared.

It’s part of a study guide that I’ve prepared.

The study guides I prepare contain all of the information that I expect my students to know, and that they may potentially be tested over during an exam. It may still be a lot to read and learn, but it doesn’t compare to the amount of time they would have to spend in their textbook, guesstimating what may be important and what may not be.

Because how is a student supposed to properly figure what is and is not important? They’re students. They haven’t had the same background as the instructor, and cannot properly judge what the instructor is going to deem worthy to know.

Functions? Yes, you better damn well know the vocabulary relating to functions so that you can know what I’m talking about when I tell you specifically, “you’re not passing in enough arguments into your function call.”, because if you don’t know the definitions you’re lost.

You need to know how to use pointers, and the operator names and in what contexts what * does. But do you need to know how many bytes an integer, float, and double need? I don’t have that information memorized, and it has never affected me. So I don’t tell them to memorize that. That information is good for some background knowledge and context, but they don’t need to know how many bytes they’re allocating, at least in C++, to write a basic program.


So, in summary, it pisses me off when teachers don’t provide study guides. It already seems like a lot of teachers (especially at university level) have disdain for undergrad students, thinking that they’re so frivolous and immature. What could those kids possibly be doing with their time? Obviously all they should be doing is studying! It comes off as disrespectful. Many of us work, many have families – even at the community college level! – We have shit to do, we’re here to learn, but we’re not here to memorize textbooks. Exams really aren’t the best way to assess students, but when we have so many students there’s not really a chance to do things more personally.

I teach full time, and when you teach full time, that’s way more than a full time job. I’m working on visa paperwork and travel plans. I’m studying for classes. I’m trying to get an advisor and learn about gradschool. And I’m the only one at home to take care of things. And, sometimes, I want to play video games.


Next rant: “Why my powerpoints > your powerpoints”? the next chapter on “Why I’m a better teacher than you are”, the ego-driven blog series on why school sucks and why I make it sssooooo much better. ;P

See also: “Why I make my study notes public – so that other students don’t have to suffer as I have. My teaching philosophy in a nutshell.”

More exams are better

Schedule for the Operating Systems class that I’m taking

I am stressed out. The class I’m taking has only two exams – Midterm and Final. The exams together are worth 45% of the grade. This is unfortunate for me, considering that I’m not too great at exams!

In yet another example of “things that frustrate me as a student, so I try to do better at as a teacher”, I don’t like exams that cover too many topics. Sure, make the final cumulative; that’s fine. But, during our “learning period” of the semester, I prefer a tighter cycle – Teach, practice, assess. Teach, practice, assess. You can spend more time doing in-depth study of fewer topics in order to prepare for that topic’s exam, rather than panicking and trying to cover every topic for the first 8 weeks and praying to your exam-god that your teacher’s exams aren’t unintuitive, and that what you think is important to study happens to be the same thing that your teacher thinks is important to study. (For reference, I also hate the lack of study guides!)

Schedule for the CS 200 class that I’m teaching

In my classes, I tend to have about 4 exams, including the final. I like to schedule my courses in chunks, with exams being the clear delimiter between topics. For exam 2, students will be studying up on arrays, pointers, memory management, and dynamic variables/arrays; all related and tie together. Exam 3 is everything OOPey. Structs, classes, inheritance.

For Data Structures, the first exam is over introductory content, wrapping static and dynamic arrays, and building a linked list. The second will be over stacks, queues, and dictionaries. The third will be over trees, heaps, and balanced search trees.

And for Discrete Math, each chapter of the book gets its own exam as well. A nice, clean, split between topics in the course.

I also either prepare study guides, or provide exams from a previous semester. Why? I don’t protect my old exams like a dragon hordes treasure because at some point, somebody is going to have that information. And they’ll distribute that information among their friends, so then only a small pool of people will have it. That’s not fair to everybody, and that’s also not really something I can stop. So start them all on even footing. I hope that it also discourages cheating if students know what I expect of them, and what I intend to assess of them.

So I’m nervous about this upcoming midterm. I have actually taken this class before, as an undergrad, at another university…

… and while I scored really well in my programming assignments, I just don’t do well on these kinds of exams. Math, gimme, I’ll ace that. Exams with coding on paper – ok, I can do that. Exams where you memorize a bunch of random information aimlessly? That is not my strong suit.

The first time I took the course, it was taught by Dr. Cotter, who is one of my favorite teachers. Even having an interesting teacher didn’t make it easy for me to do well!

Of course, I’m older now, I’m more experienced, I’m better at knowing how to learn. I have been using more resources as I study these concepts so that I have a better understanding than I would if I only studied from the textbook. But still, I resent not knowing what is expected of me. I resent the lack of respect for my time, by making the exam an amorphous mystery – good luck.

Today, I woke up early. On Tuesdays, that means 8 am, since I teach my first class of the day at 12:30 pm. I woke up early in order to work on class materials for today and tomorrow, in the morning while I’m free to work from home with my coffee and bagel and music. Because once I’m in the office, my productivity takes a hit.

Over the weekend, I had prepared the topic lecture, made the video along side it. I built the homework and online quizzes. I still needed the actual in-class exercise for class today, which is how we spend the class periods for Discrete Math — I spend about 30 minutes lecturing, maybe more time if there’s some example problems to work out — then I have them work in their groups to learn the new material via these exercises. The exercises start them out simple and progressively get harder, with explanations before each section.

Went to my first section of Discrete Math, lectured, and graded things while they worked on their exercises. Home for lunch, then back for office hours for two-and-a-half hours.

I work on my exam for Data Structures tomorrow, which I had started last week but had not finished. My brain isn’t working; I feel restless, cramped, unhappy, anxious. I do not enjoy being required to physically be in a location when I can do the exact same work in other locations. I know how to be productive, I know what environment I work best in, but so many organizations and companies equate “time spent” with “productivity”, that a lot of my time ends up wasted.

I spent a little time video chatting with Rai from my office. I cried for a little bit, because the exhaustion is always there. I miss Rai, and I’m constantly tired, and I’m constantly working.

And then I keep getting arbitrary little tasks that eat up more time – write a short report in response to the departments’ personality tests on how I’m planning on working more effectively with somebody, reformat ALL OF MY SYLLABI because they don’t exactly match the department template (this is my fourth semester, and suddenly?), have weekly meetings on professional development for myself. One faculty member stops by for absolutely no reason, but makes up bizarre excuses to come talk to me, and it makes me hella uncomfortable. I’ve been told that I need to be physically present to show that I’m working. None of these things make me more productive; they make me less productive because I can’t get in “the flow”, they make me unhappy, they make me unhealthy.

I spent most of my office hours reformatting one syllabus. Because that’s a good use of my time.

Went to my night class, taught that. Came home, time to finish up that Data Structures exam for tomorrow – the multiple choice questions are done, and I worked on part of the programming assignment during my class tonight while the students were working. I still have to write the unit tests tonight so that I don’t have to spend as much time afterward on the grading.

I still have to come up with a list of, I don’t know… additional prerequisites for one of my Fall 2017 classes, because arbitrary reasons. I have to update these syllabi now. I have to finish grading my exams from last Thursday’s class. I have a lot of grading to catch up on in general.

I ate cheese in tortillas with some green salsa for dinner. For breakfast I had bagels, for lunch I had chips and refried beans. I don’t go out and exercise, except for the time that I walk to my destinations on campus. I usually don’t get enough sleep. I wake up anxious and feeling like shit. I have nothing to look forward to, because even if there were some new video game or something, I wouldn’t have much of any time for it. I can squeeze in an audio book on my 40-minute commute to KU. I usually watch YouTube clips of late night shows while I’m eating breakfast in the morning.

I still have to find a graduate advisor and set up my committee and write up my degree plan. I still have to do my own homework and study for exams and go to thesis defenses and write reports on them. All the professors are interested in thesis students; I want to do a grad project. I’m a “non-traditional student” who knows what the fuck I want, and I don’t want to spend years on that kind of research. I have ideas for grad projects. I want to do my own thing, get a degree, and open up more career options for myself.

And, as always, my startup gets put on the back burner. I don’t have time, and I certainly don’t have the emotional energy. I’m miserable.

And when people tell me “Work smarter, not harder” or “You have to make time” I just want to scream at them. My partner is stuck on the opposite site of the world, and has been there for the past four full months. Tomorrow is our anniversary. He was given two weeks notice to pack up his life and go back to his home country. On top of everything else I’m doing, I’m also trying to get our fiance visa paperwork done.

I wake up every day with the radio turning on to NPR. The news is constantly about 45 and his shitshow. I worry about the future. I worry about the climate. I worry about my friends and family, especially after this shooting in Olathe of an engineer from India. One of my students was friends with that man. I have students from so many different countries. Everybody deserves to be safe.

I’m so exhausted, but I have so much work to do. I try to get ahead of the pile at night, but it doesn’t help. I work slow, I’m sad. Then I keep getting handed more bs to work on that has no value whatsoever. I started the semester burnt out – the break between winter and spring semesters was not relaxing, with the political climate.

There’s nothing I want to do. I don’t enjoy anything except maybe junk food and sleep. I’m angry that I’m once again stuck where I am. I keep trying to work toward more freedom, but things just get worse.

How I prepare for weekly lessons

Lecture prep with textbook open and video editor open.

Here’s a preview into how I create the content for my courses. I always hated slides straight from the textbook publishers, so I always make my own. I also frequently have to re-teach or re-view content that I’ve learned previously, so the best way to learn is to consume all the information and then be able to regurgitate it in my own words.

For discrete math, I first go through the book and highlight the important bits – definitions, laws, notes about how things work. So much content in textbooks is just fluff… while it can help you gain context for what you’re learning, I wish it were separated a little more… give me the pure information in one section, and the pure exposition in another. Examples after that. Make it easy to parse.

So I come up with what I want to cover – then I usually look line for additional resources. I frequently quote Wikipedia pages on math because it’s easier to cite; I don’t want to get in trouble for quoting the textbook (because proprietary, ugh.) There are also Wikibooks (a, b) on Discrete Math, and other class resources from other universities.

Next, I build my lectures. Yep, it’s a slideshow (built with the open source LibreOffice Impress), however:

  • I try to write out all the information that I want to cover for the chapter in these slides. I hate when class slides are useless on their own.
  • I use the slides to give information, show examples, and give practice problems.
  • I turn it into a video, for students to watch on their own time.

As I turn it into a video, I alleviate some of the shitty parts of slideshows further:

  • I don’t just record myself talking as I run through the slideshow “live”. Nope. I throw the slides in my video editor (kdenlive, also open source), then record my talk for each slide separately (with Audacity, also open source). I put them all together in the video editor. This means I cut out all the “ums”, pauses, and stumbles.
  • I insert in working math by-hand by recording myself working problems in a paint program (GIMP, open source) with my drawing tablet (a cheapo Wacom), recording the screen with OBS (also open source).

 

I’m currently writing the lesson plan for a chapter on logic circuits, which means I pull out another handy open source tool: dia.

Using dia to diagram circuits

It’s dia!!

I’ve found that I’m too busy this semester to actually grade paper homework. With my own homework and studying to do as a grad student, it just isn’t practical. Therefore, I’m also leveraging our LMS (learning management software) to build custom homework questions that are self-grading, and give students immediate feedback.

Creating a quiz in D2L

 

Millennials rock

“demographers and researchers typically use the early 1980s as starting birth years and the mid-1990s to early 2000s as ending birth years.”

I think that teachers of the my generation and future generations will end up being more effective because of our experience with various types of technology. Many of us have grown up editing videos, using YouTube, or even making animations (*cough*Newgrounds*cough*…) and when we leverage our experience into our professional lives, we become that much better at creating tools and content. As kids and teens, we learn to be content creators, whether we’re making videos about video games, or programming tutorials, or drawing, or whatever our interests are.

We aren’t afraid of technology, and we pick up the tools we need and teach ourselves. I have a toolbelt full of software for video editing, audio editing, music writing and sheet music creation, diagramming, art, animating, software development, and more. I taught myself to animate as a tween, which is a skill that has served me throughout the years. I began making YouTube programming tutorials when I was about 18, which is another skill that I still build and use today.

We don’t rely on expensive proprietary software to come along and let us teachers achieve what we need – there are tons of tools for all sorts of things, and many are free and open source. And if those tools don’t exist, there are more and more tools popping up for building your own.

We are the generation that creates!

(And is also sleep deprived from too much work. Looks like I’ll get less than 5 hours of sleep tonight…)

Lecture sucks

Scribbles on a slide that is incomprehensible if you're viewing independent of the class.

Scribbles on a slide that is incomprehensible if you’re viewing independent of the class.

One of my classes (that I’m a student in) is split into a lecture and a lab. The lecture is three days a week for one hour, and it is only lecture – slides without a theme (black text, white background), instructor talking, stuff from the textbook, occasional review questions.

They’re so boring. They suck. I can’t focus on them.

As a teacher, a lot of my teaching philosophy has been shaped by the frustrations I had as an undergrad — quizzes worded specifically to trick you, tests where the teacher doesn’t give you any clue as to what they think is important and what they will cover on the exam, boring-ass lectures…

Admittedly, since I teach at a community college, all of my classes are held in computer labs. It is wonderful. I have the ability to flip my classroom, record video lectures to watch as homework, and do programming during class. At university, there are too many students to have all computer science courses in labs – this is true at KU and at UMKC. Still, even though we are constrained to classrooms with desks instead of school computers, it would be nice to try to shake up the class in other ways.

My math classes aren’t just me lecturing the entire session. I give a short lecture, the video lectures that I recorded last semester are available online, and each week I write up an “in-class exercise“, which contains introduction text and examples, and then a series of questions. The students work in groups, and submit only one copy per team. They’re free to ask me questions as well. We spend time learning and practicing in the classroom, instead of putting all the onus on them figuring it out totally alone from the homework questions.

I resent pure lectures. They feel like a waste of my time. If the lectures are just going to reiterate content from the book, why not just let me read the textbook instead? Another big issue I have with lectures are that (1) I never go back and reference my notes. I just don’t. Over my 7 – 8 years as a college student, I just never go back, and (2) When I have taken notes in the past, any time I’m trying to recall something really specific, I can never find it. Probably because I cannot write as fast as teachers can talk.

This is why I record video lectures.

Students can watch again, pause, and watch when it is best for them.

Some teachers in previous classes would just record their in-class lecture – all 1+ hours of it – and post it as-is. You can’t find shit by sifting through such a long video, and it’s still boring as hell. It isn’t concise at all.

This is why I edit my video lectures.

I pre-script them. Usually, this means my slides are pretty detailed and it’s my main script. I export my slides to image files, put them in the video editor, then record my audio in Audacity. That way, I cut out all that is extra. Those go in the video lecture, too.

Then, if it’s a programming class, I use OBS to screen capture while I do some example coding – this is less scripted, but gives the same kind of example coding you’d get from a lecture. If it’s math, I open up GIMP and plug in my Wacom tablet and work some example problems. I further edit these down to get rid of long pauses and excess “ums” and speed up sections where I’m only writing stuff out or coding stuff after I have explained what I am doing.

I comb several books to figure out what points I need to make on the topic, and I put my slides together. Everything I would test over, I mention. I want my students to get everything they need, and be able to access that information at any time.

But it sucks for me.

I’m already the type of person who likes to control things, and gets annoyed when Redbox’s user interface isn’t as streamlined as I would like. (Brightspace has inconsistencies in user interface that drive me up a freaking wall!!!)

This means that when I’m a student rather than a teacher, I get really frustrated by the classes I take. I’m frustrated by the boredom, the inefficiency, the unknown, the schedule.

Best I can do? Basically go through the course content the way I would as a teacher – and write my own notes. Basically come up with the same sort of resources that I would as a teacher (because sometimes we have to teach ourselves the content while teaching, too – do you think I really remembered discrete math from when I took it 10+ years ago??)

So, just like I make repositories for my courses and throw all the content I make, available for anyone at any time (https://github.com/Rachels-Courses), I do the same with my classes. My notes, the code I write to try to learn the content, and so on. (https://github.com/Rachels-studies).