Tipping Points

Things don’t always go as planned in a classroom.   It happens when students miss some key piece of understanding and end up falling farther and farther behind.   The atmosphere in the classroom can become tense:  the instructor tries to keep things on track, but the students who are behind feel bad that they aren’t up to speed and the students who are ahead end up resenting them because the instructors need to slow down.

So how can students get back to a happy medium?

I admit, I like to play games with the way people think.   I experiment with different ways of explaining, and different ways of getting people to behave differently.  I rely a great deal on my understanding (and remembering) emotional cycles when I was a student.

Procrastination, Shame and Blame

The beginning can be something innocent.   A late night, a bad lecture, or missing class for some reason.

Whatever the reason, the student finds themselves with a gap:  their work isn’t done and their understanding isn’t up to the task either.    To fill the gap, it will take an extraordinary effort, and being a little behind doesn’t seem that bad.

The gap in skills starts to affect other work.   The other students seem to get the material, but it doesn’t click for the student.   They feel bad, but it is hard to pinpoint where they lost control or how to get it back.    The instructor is ahead and new material doesn’t make sense.   People who try to help may come off as condescending, or frustrated with their slow progress.   The person blames themselves for the problem, or starts to feel like they aren’t “smart enough.”

As frustration mounts, the person tries to make sense out of the situation.    They rationalize that they must not be smart enough to get the concept, or that the instructor isn’t very good.  They start to feel powerless.  They will blame others for their failures, at the same time that they justify their own insecurities.

When someone feels resentful, hurt, ashamed, or angry, it is easy to put off work in lieu of other distractions.  Which reinforces the skill gaps, which reinforces the negative self-image/sense of inadequacy, which ultimately leads to a sense of futility.

To be clear:  it sucks to watch, it sucks to go through, and its hard to clean up after.   But it is a cycle that can be broken.

Breaking the Cycle

The good news is that people can be brought out of a spiral like this, but there is no easy fix.   The hardest thing to combat is the sense of powerlessness that can accompany falling behind.    As students, it is imperative to recognize that it will take sustained effort.   As instructors, we need to recognize that students don’t always have this self-knowledge.

So here is what I find works as a teacher:   (1) Prioritize skills, and cut lossesEnforce deadlines rather than pile on more work.     This basically comes down to identifying the key things that a student needs to work on rather than the complete past assignments.   Nobody likes to lose grades, but the boundaries helps students break out of looking backward and into looking forward.   (2) Praise and patience.  Acknowledging even the smallest of steps as progress is helpful, and helps relieve the sense of shame.   It also helps to acknowledge that struggle is part of the process, but making mistakes is not failure.    (3) Set out a plan with incremental steps.   The hardest part of breaking out of a procrastination cycle is the sense of being overwhelmed, so having simple (minimal) work is a good way of getting going.   Having a few things to do means that once one thing is done, then the next tier or goal can be reached.   Then the next goal will seem easier to reach.

Finally, momentum can carry the day.

…. and the horse you rode in on!

The funny thing about this is that this applies equally to teachers as it does to students.    Teachers get frustrated and will feel like they have lost touch with their class just as much as students may feel lost in the class.    It is easy for teachers to blame lazy students for not doing their work, but there is shared responsibility:  students need to be encouraged if they are going to get engaged.   It is okay to have a bad day teaching from time to time,  and sometimes you won’t be able to give it everything you want.   Focus on the successes, and it will be easier to be patient.

So:   keep up the good work.

Never give up.

I’ll have to put off procrastinating for another day.

No Cell Phones, Calculators, or Shankings in Class

Winter term has finally begun!Weapons of mass instruction

The first day of a class is always interesting.  You hand out your syllabus, and try to get a feel for your students.   I know students shop around for their instructors, but I sometimes wonder what attracts these particular students to my classes.   Inevitably some students will show up for the first day, and I will never see them again that term.     Whether they just found that my classes demanded too much work (possible) or whether they discovered they have important business for the next 11 weeks,  I always wonder what becomes of these students.

Then there are the students who want to negotiate.  This week, one particular student complained that I was asking them to do so much work that it was equivalent to a part-time job.  My response was “Welcome to college.   If you don’t like this amount of work you need to do, imagine needing to do it again next quarter.”   He didn’t look pleased.

Most of the work in the first week of class is getting the students used to the class.   Things in the first week that I think help:

  1.  Establish your position.  Basically, let the students know that you are in charge but they are not powerless.   I’m more apt to be authoritarian in the first week just so people don’t try to push back later in the quarter.
  2. Let them convince themselves that they need the class.  It is impossible to force people to want to learn, but they are already halfway there when they show up in your classroom.    In my class, I have them introduce themselves and tell me what their dream jobs are.   Then I try to link that dream to passing the class later.
  3.  Give structure and tools.  Some classes benefit from being free-form, but I find that most students need to have a clear idea of what is expected of them.   So,  I give it to them:   everything from classroom expectations,  how much work they should expect to put in, to how they can earn the various pieces of their grades.   After that, I give them the extras:  where to find tutoring, counseling, and financial help on campus if they need it.     My syllabus is a dense document.
  4.  Start building class culture.   A classroom culture is something that will come about on it’s own from the personalities inside it, but as the teacher they will follow your lead.   I let people know that the things that are valued are patience with their own process, and hard work.   It isn’t just about work, though.   I also get excited about math (letting them geek out too), as well as being patient with them to encourage them to ask questions.   Having some inside jokes help too.
  5. Get them thinking about excelling, not just passing.  Extra credit is one of the things that is controversial in some classes, because it can artificially elevate mediocre or failing grades.   I do like to offer things to the class to get them thinking about not just how to pass, but how to excel.  If they expect to excel (by doing extra) then they start to value themselves as good students, and become good students in the process.      (Ah it is fun to play with people’s’ brains)


I’m pretty happy with how my classes look this term.    I’ll know more about them next term.

The game is afoot!


Midterm Misanthropy, Again

I had all sorts of useful things to say at the beginning of this week.   Full of encouragement and good feelings… and then I got done grading.

I like to give folks every opportunity to succeed.   I give them the chance to excel.

I give encouragement.

I give feedback.

I tutor students.

I work insanely long hours.

I am patient.

I even accept (some) late work  with the lamest of excuses.

I have no problem dealing with people who are having difficulty understanding, so long as they try.   Some students are willing!  I have a few very dedicated people in my classes.    Let me say, I appreciate these students!

As for the rest of you… Seriously students?

What I hate is apathy.   If you aren’t willing to try,  then you don’t deserve to pass.   Good intentions don’t matter.   What matters is if you are willing to work at understanding until you actually understand.     If you miss questions because you skipped class,  don’t try to make it my problem.   Quit complaining, it just makes you sound pathetic and I have no sympathy for you.

Why, oh why?   Why the fuck are you wasting my time with so much half-assed work?    I have no problem failing you.   I will fail you.   And you will deserve to fail.

So… Here are my midterm misanthropic  fantasies.

  • I want a burn barrel in class, so I can gleefully torch work that turned in late or incomplete.
  • I want to lock my poor achievers together and have a cage match fight to actually stay in class.    Top 3 can stay, if you can successful factor a trinomial.
  • Instead of giving the thoughtful, reasoned, and encouraging response to the question:   “So what are we going to use for?   I mean really in the real world.”  Just tell the student “You’re right.   You won’t need this. You don’t need to pass a basic math class if you just want to push a broom.”
  • I want to show up at the workplace of a student the next time they tell me after the midterm that they scheduled themselves for work that day, and be the most annoying customer EVER.    Then get them fired from their job.   Then fail them, and laugh maniacally when they beg for change on the street.
  • I want a box of scorpions… for educational purposes.


I will not kill my students and wear their skins.    I will not kill my students and wear their skins.   I will not kill my students and wear their skins…



Necessary Roughness

We all need a reality check sometimes.    Teachers need it, students need it, politicians  needs it.  (I have to say… seriously voters?   Are we even on the same planet?)    I joke about handing out fast food applications with failing tests, but the sad fact is some folks are already headed that way.    The truth is that not everyone is going to succeed.   As teachers, we want our students to be smart, capable, and competent.

Truth is hard, but it preferable to comforting lies.

One of the reasons that I have adopted the persona of a and villainous math professor is because people like to project their own failures on their instructors.    Learning isn’t an easy proposition for many folks:   it entails a combination of hard work and painful self-honesty which doesn’t come easily to many students.   Since I already had some inclinations in the direction of evil-genius, I just ran with it.   Humor is a great way to both engage tough topics and disarm them at the same time.   You can hide behind your scars, or wear them as a mark of honor.    I prefer the latter course.

When the time comes to talk students about their grades, my best advice is honesty.   Tact is called for, of course.  If you alienate your students, there is no way they will be willing to listen to you.   Some people will take it well, and some won’t.   I’ve had students beg, bargain, and threaten me for telling them that they were failing.    For those willing to listen, I tell them what they will need to do to pass the next time:  whether it is just doing their homework or to re-learn their mis-learned math facts,  or figure out how to follow written directions.

To those students who thanked me for the wake-up call:   thank you.   You have demonstrated self-honesty and strength of character by you willingness to examine your mistakes.   You have learned from your mistakes, and that tells me more than anything that you are worth teaching.



…   And to the person who recently needed to tell me to “chill out” (and very nicely told me that I was acting like an asshole), thank you.   I know that wasn’t an easy conversation to have.  I value the honest assessment, and I think more of you rather than less because of it.   My sincere apologies for my behavior.

Bring on the pom-poms

Being a teacher means encouraging your students.  They need encouragement to get over the tough process of making mistakes.   Sometimes you need to remind yourself that this is the process of learning.

Doubt will kill their dreams more than incompetence will.

Of course, it also is difficult to encourage students when they are in the midst of making mistakes…  I mean they can really try your patience at times.  I’ve said it before, and I will continue to say:   patience isn’t just a virtue, it is an utter necessity.   People tend to rise (or fall) to the level of expectations, so if you give up on them then they are that much more likely to give up on themselves.  Slap on that smile and cheer them on, because if they give up now then the next time it may be worse.

Occasionally, it is nice if they cheer for you too… but that happens later, after they forget making mistakes.   Hopefully.

For now, bring on the pom-poms.   Break out the cheerleader outfit.   Keep them going.

The show must go on.


Remember:   they will say worse things to themselves than you can say to them.

(Now I need to watch some horror to cheer me up.   I can only take so much “positive attitude” happy-clappy crap before I want to watch the world burn.)

Let it Flow

There is a lot to be said for being detail oriented.   Big things are made up of little things, and little mistakes can bloom in to full blown disasters if you aren’t careful.    Details matter.     Sometimes though, focus on details can eclipse the creative flow of a process and make it joyless.

Have you ever played an instrument, and just thought exclusively of the notes you were playing?    My guess is that it didn’t sound very good.

Or have you run, and tried to focus on your form and gait?   Awkward, awkward, awkward!

Let alone talking to people.   Say you’re at a party and you see someone intriguing… and you go up and are focused so much on what you are going to say, that you end up  feeling like a total fool?

How does this relate to teaching?     As teachers, we often teach certain skills.   Whether it is constructing a sentence,  multiplying numbers, or deconstructing literature, the details of the process are often foremost in our minds.   There does come a point where we need to switch gears from the detail oriented to the overarching process.    Teaching confidence in newfound skills and just… going with the flow.

Letting goA couple of things need to happen before this transition from focus on details to overall process.   The first step is building trust in their abilities, followed by trust in the process.   Once a student sees that they are working from a solid foundation along workable lines, then it becomes much easier for them to relax into a greater process.   From the specifics to the general, students will learn to do big things made up of the little skills they have learned.  And it is so rewarding as you see those details click into place, transforming from mere knowledge and information into genuine understanding.

This is one of the things that I think we should keep in mind as teaching migrates toward recorded lectures and computerized drills.   Various media can demonstrate individual skills fairly well, but people will always need an overview for how those skills fit together.   Teachers are need to show how to see beyond the details and make the process flow into something that feels natural.   Or how to go from playing notes, to playing a song.

Only then do people find genuine joy.   When it moves away from laboring over details, and more about play.

As I write this, I’m also reminded to “let the details go” in my teaching from time to time, and just go with the flow.


Dealing with test anxiety

One of the things that I have to deal with is students who have a hard time taking tests.   Now I know that there is a lot of hullabaloo about “teaching to the test”, but there is also a clear need to teach people how to take tests.

I teach future doctors, nurses, and law enforcement people.   Do you want these people to fall apart during pressure?

Smilodon TestsRealistically, everyone faces situations when they get flustered and can’t cope from time to time.    There can be many reasons why a person has a stressful reaction, but it all comes down to brain chemistry.    We all have an amygdala, that little piece of our brain that we evolved to survive living alongside Smilodon… and our amygdala are responsible for governing our stress response.   Fight, flight, freeze and appease:  our innate defenses in times of life-threatening stress.

Unfortunately, the amygdala cannot differentiate between saber-toothed-tigers and math tests.

So here is what you can do before a (known) stressful event (e.g. your math test):

  • Overprepare.    While reviewing material is a good idea, if you are anxious about a test it can be useful to give yourself extra time to polish your skills (and build your confidence).
  • Give yourself triggers.  Memory is a funny thing.  Often we will unintentionally link stimulus with certain skills or memories.   You can do this with a scent, or a physical trigger like tapping your hand.  I had one student who literally had a thinking… thong.   He told us about it.   It was endearing, and a little awkward.
  • Reframe the event.  If you are the kind of person to work yourself up before a test, then see if you can change the context for yourself.   If the word “test” freaks you out, see if “quiz”, “assessment”, or “exercise” is better.
  • Take care of your body.    Mind and body are not separate, and abusing your body will play out in poorer brain function and more dramatic stress reactions.   Which means you should eat healthy, and sleep regularly.


Here is what you can do during your test:

  • Feel it, then act (not react).   There is nothing you can do to prevent a stress reaction once it has started.   But if you can recognize the fact and have a plan in place, you can think rather than just flail destructively.
  • BREATHE.   One thing that happens in all stress reactions is people will hold their breath, or breathe very shallowly.   So take a few deep, regular breaths.   It allows your body to relax and get past its stress reaction.
  • Affirm yourself.    Remind yourself there are no saber-tooth-tigers in the room.   Also tell yourself that you are going to ace the hell out of this test.   Tell yourself you are both too stubborn and sexy to fail.
  • Use your memory triggers.   Now is the time to chew that special gum, tap your hand, or remind yourself that you are wearing your thinking thong.


Whether we always recognize it or not, our brains are just like the rest of our bodies.   Tools that we can use to do what we want them to do.   But you will need to train them.    Just like it takes practice to learn how to run a marathon, it also takes practice to put ourselves in stressful (but necessary) situations.

And for my students who just survived your first test:   smile.   You were not killed by a mathematical Smilodon.

Live to study another day.


Image from Fark.comI’m subtle like a tarantula on a piece of angel food cake is subtle.    In my element, I’m expressive, friendly, snarky, an oddball, a data-omnivore, helpful and imaginative.    My sense of humor gets the better of me sometimes.    I have a lot of personality, and I’m not afraid to use it.

Every teacher comes to their teaching persona in one way or another.   Before becoming a teacher, I slummed around the world of business.   Let me tell you:   the (conservative) business world doesn’t care for employees with “character”.   Mostly, they want you to keep your head down, do your work and not steal all of the office supplies.   Learning to blend in is a survival technique.

I like working in a job where having a personality is an asset rather than a drawback.

As a student, my two favorite types of teacher were those I characterized as “a genius from another dimension” and “scary as hell”.   Which is to say, I liked to be entertained, engaged, and to have my assumptions challenged.   I learned a few very important lessons listening to those instructors.   People will rise to the level of expectations, so setting a low expectations isn’t a good idea.   I also learned that there are multiple approaches to problems, and innovation can sometimes be messy.   Also, I learned that colorblind instructors can dress REALLY funny sometimes.

A big piece of teaching is engaging the students.   Whether this is accomplished with entertainment, with fear or respect (like my “scary” teachers) or with activating a person’s self-interest, engagement is a necessary before we can convey any information to a student.   Knowing which way you can engage with your students before hand is helpful.

It is a good idea to develop your teaching persona.   And don’t be afraid to be yourself.

Me?  I’ll wear my Darth Vader tie and write offbeat story problems.

Culture of Pretending

My apologies for the late post:   I was seriously delayed by a blinding migraine on Friday.   Then a D&D game on Saturday.   Then kittens on Sunday.    Funny how life keeps happening.  Now back to your regularly scheduled post.

Which hurts you more?   Being embarrassed, or being ignorant?

Recently I was listening to a podcast, which had a very interesting interview with a Peter Boghossian.   I tend to listen to such things for the comedy value involved and not for watertight argumentation… but something they said just stuck with me.   At the end of the show, they started to talk about the very prevalent “culture of pretending” that exists in academia and the US (and, I suspect, the world).

Basically, people will smile and nod, pretending to understand you rather than risk asking a question.   This is real.   This isn’t helpful.  And this is dangerous, especially in a classroom.   I’m sorry to say, I’ve done the same thing… and when I catch myself doing it I try to do something about it.   The really tough part is when you ask someone who you think knows the answers, and find out that that person is pretending to know the answers too.

Being ignorant is correctable.   Being stupid is not.

I will admit, I love data.  One of the worst feelings in the world for me is not knowing something, so I end up doing a surprising amount of reading and research.    I am a data omnivore, there are few (broad) areas that I don’t know something about.   And I still have vast areas of ignorance.

I also fact-check the memes that people spread on Facebook, or the news, or just the “everybody knows _____”  things that people say.   You would be amazed how much misinformation people post, and others just accept at face value.   I cringe any time our political leaders open their mouth and demonstrate not just ignorance but downright stupidity.    The things that people believe is often biased, or based on half-understood studies, or bogus studies that don’t get reviewed or repeated.

Everybody is a novice at least once.

I think one of the hallmarks of intelligence is curiosity.   This brings me to two of my favorite questions I love to hear in a classroom:   how and why?    “How” for me shows the short term clarification that students need for method, and “why” looks at the broader understanding and structure of things.   And I have had to tell students that I don’t know the answer to their questions before… and they have been startled.   Especially when I offer to find the answers and get back to them.

Example from tutoring:  when a student asked me how the trigonometric concepts of tangent and secant related to the algebraic concepts of tangent and secant lines.    (Short answer:   they don’t.  They are related mostly by name, not necessarily by concept.)   A few days later when I reported this back to the student,  they weren’t completely happy with my answer… but they accepted it.

I love it when a student isn’t satisfied.

I have only one desire if that happens:

Scratch.   That.   Itch.

The internet, where all the cool kids are

Well, it has only been two weeks and it has already been a bit of whirlwind quarter.   I had the misfortune to start the term a bit sick, and I have been able to teach by the grace of DayQuil and cough drops.  My doctor assures me that I’m not contagious, and that I’m ready to get better.

Any minute now, that would be nice.   (grumble, grumble… stupid lungs)

This  quarter ALL of my classes are “Emporium” classes.   This basically means that the students are learning at their own pace online, while I teach them en masse in the classroom.

Honestly, I miss writing Zombie test questions.   So much for technology.

The realities are, we live in an increasingly digital age and teaching needs to utilize new technology.   Teachers:   you need to get on board, or else.   Gamification of education and having instant feedback are very tempting tools to have!  The downside:  the more that classes are structured online (and curriculum is designed by people removed from the students) then the less connected the instructors can feel from the material, or the software.    One thing that doesn’t sit well is the underlying assumption that the progression of topics is set, which does not lend itself to differences in student’s learning styles.    But nothing I’ve seen in the classroom is perfect, so…. on with the show.

It takes some adjustment, and  teaching online presents its own challenges and benefits.   Because classes are self-paced and online, it makes pacing lectures challenging, and some students will feel like attending class is entirely optional.     Of course, I quickly disabuse them of that notion.    Also, ask them to write down their work.   It confuses them at first, but they’ll appreciate feedback on their process later.     Two pieces of good news with adaptive learning software:   no grading, and very detailed reports.  So we can retailor the class fairly quickly when needed.

So… don’t be a slave to the software.   Good teaching is still necessary, and the students will still benefit from different techniques and tricks than the software will provide.

Now, go scare some students.