# Category Archives: Study hacks

## Pushing back

Seth Godin has a lot of good things to say in this short blog post, such as:

When a professor assigns you to send a blogger a list of vague and inane interview questions (“1. How did you get started in this field? 2. What type of training (education) does this field require? 3. What do you like best about your job? 4. what do you like least about your job?”) I think you have an obligation to say, “Sir, I’m going to be in debt for ten years because of this degree. Perhaps you could give us an assignment that actually pushes us to solve interesting problems, overcome our fear or learn something that I could learn in no other way…”

When a professor spends hours in class going over concepts that are clearly covered in the textbook, I think you have an obligation to repeat the part about the debt and say, “perhaps you could assign this as homework and we could have an actual conversation in class…”

As a professor, I love it when students make such demands of me. It’s how I want to teach anyway, and it makes it a lot easier when I know students are not only on board with but insisting that I not simply lecture from the book, repeat problems that are in the book, and expect them to learn only the things that are printed in the book.

So I would add one thing to Seth’s injunction: Students, if you feel this way about your professors, take a look at your peers who don’t feel this way. Do you have classmates who just want the professor to read from the book, give tests that are just like the book’s examples, and not expect more from them? Then push back there, as well. Demand from your peers that they not leave you out on an island demanding academic excellence and getting your money’s worth.

## You can’t become an expert in college

Cover of Outliers: The Story of Success

Here’s something of an epiphany I had at the ICTCM while listening to Dave Pritchard‘s keynote, which had a lot to do with the differences between novice and expert behaviors in problem-solving.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, puts forth a now-famous theory that it takes at least 10,000 hours to become a true expert in a particular area, at the top of one’s game in a particular pursuit. That’s 10,000 hours of concentrated work in studying, practicing, and performing in some particular area. When we talk about “expert behavior”, we mean the kinds of behaviors that people who have put in their 10,000 hours exercise as second nature.

Clearly high school or college students who are in an introductory course — even Dave Pritchard’s physics students at MIT, who are likely several levels above the typical college undergrad — are not there yet, and so there’s not a uniform showing of expert behavior. There are more hours to be put in. But: How many more?

On the one hand, if a person spends 40 hours a week working at this activity, for 50 weeks out of the year, then it will take 5 years to reach this level of expertise:

(10000 hours) x (1 week/40 hours) x (1 year/50 weeks) = 5 years

But on the other hand, a typical college student will carry a 16 credit hour load, which means 16 hours of courses per week. If the student does this over a 14-week semester, and if the student takes the standard advice of spending 2 hours outside of class for every hour inside of class, and if the student undergoes two semesters of classes every calendar year, how long does it take to get to 10000 hours?

10000 hours x (1 week/48 hours) x (1 semester/14 weeks) x (1 year/2 semesters) = 7.44 years

That’s fairly close to double the usual time it takes for people to earn a bachelor’s degree. And it assumes that all that coursework is concentrated into one area, which of course it isn’t.

So there’s an important truth here: Nobody can become an expert on something just by going to college. College might add the finishing touches on expertise that was begun in childhood — for example, with kids who start playing music or programming computers at age 6 — but there’s just not enough time in college to start from zero and become an expert.

This has implications for college coursework. Many of us profs have “expertise” in mind as the primary instructional objective of our courses, but this is quite possibly an unreachable goal for most students. Instead, along with reasonable levels of mastery on core subject content, college courses should focus on what students need for the remaining hours they need to get to 10,000. We should be teaching not only content in the here and now, but also processing skills and broad intellectual tools that set students up for success in continuing towards expertise after college is over.

We can’t make students experts in the time we have with them, probably, but we can put them in position to become experts later. Ironically, the harder we try to make experts out of everyone, the less we stress broad intellectual skills, and the less likely they are to become experts later. How are students supposed to continue to learn, practice, and perform to get to that top level if nobody teaches them how to think and learn on their own?

## Monday GTD moment: Scholarship and GTD

This is the third installment of Monday GTD Moment, where I take a post to blog about Getting Things Done and how it applies in an academic setting. If you’re unfamiliar with GTD, here’s a good overview, and make sure to read David Allen’s book that started it all.

Last week I wrote about grading and GTD. I noted that grading is kind of a poor fit in traditional GTD. A prof can grade anywhere, so the idea of contexts fits awkwardly; and grading “tasks” are usually projects, although we think of them as tasks and although the next actions contained in those projects are usually nothing more than smaller projects. GTD wasn’t really made for the academic profession, and so the staple activities of academics don’t often fit well.

Another area similar to grading in its relatively poor fit within the canonical GTD philosophy is research, or more generally scholarship. By “scholarship” I am including not only the usual pure research that most profs do (at least while they are getting their terminal degrees) but also any significant creative activity based on one’s expertise that contributes to a discipline or the application of a discipline. This is Boyer’s model of scholarship, and it is finding increasing purchase at colleges and universities all over. So, for example, an applied mathematician who contributes her skill by consulting “on the side” for some external project is scholarship; so would be research that she does on the teaching of applied mathematics or using her expertise to  do a math workshop with a bunch of elementary school kids.

Scholarship is hard for many reasons, perhaps the main one being that original creative work is amorphous. When I was working on my dissertation, the hardest aspect of that work was that at any given point in the process, although I could always measure how much work I’d done, I had no way to tell how much more work I needed to do, what course of action was really the best next action, or even if my previous work was going to remain or be wiped out by the discovery of a mistake or a more elegant and general theorem. It wasn’t like reading a book, where you knew not only how far you’d read but also how far you had left to go and which page was next, and you had a reasonable assurance that the pages you’d read wouldn’t disappear from the book once you’d read them.

Even now, I have all these scholarly projects I want to finish (or start), and I struggle to GTD-ize them. For example, I’m currently working through this book on probability as a self-study course. Some parts of this project are pretty linear and predictable and therefore have clearly-defined next actions —  “Read and work through examples in section 1.2”, for instance. But then the nonlinearity hits. I will eventually read through all of Chapter 1 and will need to work through the exercises. Do I do them all in order, or do I skip around? Would it be fair to lump exercises 1-5 together as a single task, or is that another project? Is even a single exercise a task, or a project, and how can you know in advance? Academic or intellectual work is a black box — you have no idea how long it’s going to take, what resources you will need, whether it is properly thought of as a task or a project, or indeed even if David Allen’s idea of a “task” (a single physical action) is even appropriate at any level.

Scholarship is highly nonlinear, which makes it much different from the business tasks for which GTD was originally created. But it’s what also makes scholarship fun and rewarding, and it’s why most of us eggheads went and got PhD’s in the first place. So, what’s a scholarship-enthused, GTD-powered prof to do in order to bring this important aspect of his work under the GTD framework? Here are some thoughts.

1. Use the review process — all six levels — to craft a coherent and realistic scholarship plan. The heart of GTD is the weekly review, but don’t forget the other kinds of review that Allen talks about in the book. Specifically, Allen gives a six-level model for review in terms of altitude: 50000+, 40000, 30000, 20000, 10000 feet and “runway”. The weekly review often tends to stay on the runway — which, if your work looks like mine, resembles the runways at O’Hare around Christmas — but those higher-level reviews are important. Scholarly directions change rapidly and often at the discretion of the individual. In the business world, you don’t often get the opportunity to change the fundamental direction of your work on your own initiative. But in academia, every day has the potential for such change. If I decided tomorrow to stop studying cryptology and start doing mathematical finance, I could do that. That ability is liberating but also a recipe for stagnation. It’s important to see your scholarship, regularly, not only in terms of current projects and areas of responsibility but also in terms of where you want it all to head in the next year, the next two years, and so on. The tenure and promotion process at an institution, if that process is well-designed, will help profs to think in these terms, but only once a year or (post-tenure) every five years. GTD, done with these higher altitudes in mind, would say to think about the big picture a lot more regularly so that your overall plan is more coherent.

2. As much as possible, concretize your research agenda. Since scholarship is amorphous, once you get down to the level of 10000 feet and lower, some superimposition of structure on scholarship is necessary. It doesn’t always fit well, like a nice suit on an unruly young boy. But it’s still important to break the scholarship plan you’ve created down into manageable projects with a list of concrete next actions. Having “Write a paper” as a project will lead nowhere; most scholarly activities are projects within projects, and at bottom you find one project that can finally be broken down into discrete next actions, each of which has a well-defined context. The challenge is to get to that point. (This is a major similarity with grading.)

3. Don’t be bothered if the plan changes. The nature of research puts all scholarship-oriented action lists into an automatic state of flux. That nice, tidy list of actions under the “Prove the twin prime conjecture” project stands a good chance of being brutally rearranged if, say, you discover a journal article that shows your main theorem so far (which you thought you proved 3-4 next actions ago) to be false, or somebody proves it first, or if you get an unexpected opportunity to work on something else which requires dropping or postponing the project. We all know that research and scholarship are highly volatile areas. But one of the strengths of GTD as a workflow management system is that GTD assumes that tactical decisions will change fluidly and constantly, and that’s OK. The system doesn’t fall apart if things change; you just adjust your next actions and move on.

4. Subdivide your Read/Review folder and make it more like an inbox. Read/Review means something very different to an academic than it does to a business person. The entire life of an academic could be summed up by the term “Read/Review”. So I think Allen’s conception of the Read/Review file needs to be expanded for academics. In my system, I’ve got three Read/Review folders for physical stuff and three for electronic stuff — the three folders in each medium being Teaching/Service (articles about the profession, articles about GTD, articles about pedagogy, etc.), Research (traditional research papers from journals), and Popular (math-related but not from journals; sometimes ed tech items make it in here). I treat these folders like inboxes in the sense that I make them part of my weekly review. Sometimes I gather articles that look good at the time, and I do intend to read them, but they get crowded out by something more urgent. I find that I need to go through Read/Review at least 2-3 times a week to process stuff. Expanding on the Read/Review idea helps keep fresh ideas coming onto your radar screen and into your brain.

5. Stick to your guns with GTD on everything else besides scholarship. Being a prof involves wearing lots of hats — we teach, we serve on committees, we grade, we mentor and advise students and colleagues, and many other things. In order to have the time and flexibility to carry out these amorphous, nonlinear scholarship projects, we have to exercise discipline in getting things done that are “morphous” and linear — stuff like grading, prepping courses, working on committee proposals, and so on. If a person can use GTD to get those tasks and projects under strict discipline and control, then there will (for the most part) be time and space in our schedules to do scholarship. But if the manageable stuff is running all over us, then we can forget about research, unless you are one of the tiny minority of professors who do research and basically nothing else.

I think there’s a great deal of connection between being happy in your academic work and being balanced. The more we enable ourselves not only to be excellent teachers but also active scholars, the more we benefit and so do our students and institutions. I think GTD can help in that regard.

Have a productive week!

[Photo by Jay Lichtman; artwork by ynot2006]

Filed under GTD, Higher ed, Life in academia, Profhacks, Scholarship, Study hacks, Tenure

## Five big ideas for freshman orientation

This past week saw most of the incoming freshman class converge on my campus for an initial round of freshman orientation. At the end of the month is a much more extensive exposure to orientation, taking up what appears to be 80% of students’ waking hours from the Friday before classes all the way up through the end of the weekend. One has to wonder how much orientation leads to disorientation.

I'm thinking these students aren't learning about studying or time management.

The purpose of a freshman orientation program ought to be, well, to orient freshmen in college — that is, to give students a “compass bearing” in the strange and unfamiliar world of college. Many such programs do not even remotely address or even desire this goal, preferring instead to indoctrinate students into the correct political stances or endorse irresponsibility in an ill-advised attempt to be relevant. Other programs tend to focus on making college first and foremost a place for fun and socialization and only secondarily (if that) a place where hard work and learning is going to happen.

I’ve seen very few freshman orientation programs that really put academics first and seek to address the points of students’ greatest needs and misconceptions. Generally speaking, those are all rooted in the sudden and overwhelming freedom they get when they enter college. Students don’t have their moms or dads waking them up for school, making their breakfasts and dinners,  planning their after-school schedules, and — especially — checking to make sure schoolwork is done right and on time. Most freshmen I’ve met do not have a good concept of how to manage that freedom, nor do they understand the various ways its misuse can mess them up. That’s where freshman orientation ought to step in.

If I were to make up such a program, here are five big concepts that I would make sure the freshmen got in significant doses:

1. The basics of college-level academic expectations and how they differ from those of high school. This is by far the biggest need. I cannot count how many freshmen I’ve had, many of them academic standouts in high school, try to operate in college using high school parameters and end up doing poorly. The common refrain is “I never had to study in high school!” (High school teachers: What’s the deal with that?) Yes, in college, professors assign stuff for you to do, but no it’s not always taken up for a grade, and yes you are still supposed to do it. Yes, professors will expect you to complete the readings prior to class, and yes, you will look like an idiot if you don’t do them. Yes, we are serious when we say “two hours of studying outside of class for every hour inside”. Freshman orientation is a chance to set the academic tone for the entire college for the entire year. In fact one could argue that it always does so, and it’s just a matter of whether the formative impression students get is one of games and pizza parties or one of rigorous, rewarding learning.

2. Time/task management with a view towards a student-friendly version of GTD. This is a close second to academic expectations in terms of need. I’ve blogged about time/task management many times before. College is not, of course, all work and no play. But it is primarily work, and work involves getting things done with timeliness and quality. How many orientation programs have you ever seen which stress that there are only so many hours in a week, and you have to first give plenty of time to personal maintenance (sleep, etc.) and schoolwork, and THEN divvy up the remainders for the “fun” stuff? The tendency of orientation programs to have an 80/20 ratio of “fun” stuff to academic stuff doesn’t help. Time management is not something many freshmen have even needed to think about, so they need training and practice, and they need a system that works for them. I propose GTD, because it’s exactly the kind of system that doesn’t require much thought — indeed, a main idea with GTD is to minimize the amount of time you spend thinking about your system — and can be implemented with fancy computer software or just with a pencil and notebook. Here’s a good article which outlines a student-focused implementation of GTD that I think would serve well.

3. The meaning and centrality of academic honesty. This is really a subpoint of #1 above, but one which is so problematic these days that I think it must be driven home with force — especially since some so-called educators are redefining plagiarism to the extent that cut-and-paste hack jobs are considered endearing works of intellectual creativity. That works fine for 4-year olds, but not so much for grownups. Every semester I have to intervene, sometimes punitively, when students cross the lines of academic honesty, because their threshhold for dishonesty is a lot higher than mine or my college’s. I think most freshmen (or older students) don’t realize how important academic honesty really is to higher education.

4. Basics of nutrition and exercise. When I was a freshman, I ate horribly — including multiple trips per week to the pizza buffet across from my dorm — and I gained not the usual “freshman 15” but more like 30 pounds that I struggled to get off all the way into graduate school. When you have the freedom to eat a breakfast that consists of lime jello, Cocoa Pebbles, and Mountain Dew — or maybe just the Mountain Dew — then you very well might do so. A lot of students forget that their brains are part of their bodies, and as your body goes, so goes your ability to think and pay attention in class. Even varsity athletes seem to struggle with this point. And I think it’s ironic that many colleges are spending millions on lavish new student athletic facilities but giving nothing in their freshman orientation about the importance of exercise or simple strategies for exercise during the school year when it’s busy.

5. The meaning of “free time” and how to spend it fruitfully. Many freshmen have a backwards idea of time. They think that every hour of the day is lawfully theirs, and when a professor gives an assignment it is cutting in to “their” time. The opposite is really the case. The freshman’s time belongs not to them but to the university and whomever else they are obligated. “Free time” is best defined as the time left over once a person’s obligations are taken care of. So freshmen have a lot less free time than they think (and some have so overloaded themselves that they have no free time). This means that free time, being scarce, is valuable and therefore must be carefully managed. If you budget 10 hours a week of free time, will you spend it playing video games or watching TV? Or exercising? Or working on a fraternity service project? Or doing some reading for pleasure? (The importance of reading for pleasure might be another item for this list.)  Nobody can tell a person how to spend his free time, of course; but there are some choices for doing so that are better than others. Orientation programs should spend some time driving home the truth that investing free time in something that will bear fruit for you later on is better than simply spending it on unfruitful things. That fact will lead different people to make different choices, but at least there’s a reason behind their choices which, maybe, will make their college education more full.

After the orientation program has addressed all that stuff, THEN the freshmen can play goofy group games and have pizza parties.

What are some other elements that you’d like to see in freshman orientation?

Filed under Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture, Study hacks

## Keeping the “extra” in extracurricular

Over at Study Hacks, they are floating the “dangerous idea” that

Outside of a few exceptions, college extracurriculars are of minor importance to your efforts to find a job after graduation. There is no benefit to be gained by suffering through an overwhelming load of activities at the college level. [emphasis theirs]

The article makes the point that extracurricular activities in college can add a little color to your job applications later, and of course it’s always healthy to be active in things you enjoy. But overall, they advise that college students keep the number of their activities small, use those activities to surround themselves with interesting people, and don’t be afraid to cut back.

I agree, and this fits with the idea I’ve blogged about before that time is a scarce resource that (like any such resource) requires budgeting and careful management. There are only a certain number of hours in the week that you aren’t sleeping, bathing, eating, or attending class — that number is computable based on your credit load — and if you use up all those hours on extracurriculars, when are you going to study? And most college students budget their time out to the extracurriculars first and then give the meager leftovers, if there are any, to studying. There’s nothing inherently wrong with most extracurriculars, but students simply can’t have them all. Eventually one must pick and choose and pay the opportunity cost for not following certain appealing activities. (Not a simple thing for today’s overscheduled teenage generation.)

I think a lot of freshman orientation programs out there contribute to this problem by having 85% of their activities be about fun and community, and the other 15% devoted to study and time management. Unsurprisingly, that’s roughly the same ratio students end up having of “fun” stuff to studying when they get into the semester.

College students, especially incoming freshmen, should definitely go read the entire article.

Filed under Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture, Study hacks

## LaTeX as a word processor?

Good article here at The Productive Student giving five reasons why students should use $\LaTeX$ as their word processor and not Microsoft Word:

1. Never worry about formatting again.
2. It looks way better. [By the way: Very nice article on LaTeX’s typesetting at that link.]
3. It won’t crash: LaTeX is basically a plain text file. You can edit it anywhere, in any text editor, and it basically can’t crash on you. File size is very small which makes it very portable.
4. It’s great for displaying equations, which is why it’s the leading standard among sciencitifc scholars.
5. It fits in with the workflow of a student and allows you to do one thing well: Write.

The writer also shares some of his practices for writing papers (not necessarily math or science papers) with $\LaTeX$, stressing $\LaTeX$‘s ability to handle bibliographic data as the “killer feature”.

$\LaTeX$ was not designed to be a word processor, so there are some downsides for using $\LaTeX$ for word processing. Graphics are not easy to handle, if you are going to include any in your document. Some basic formatting tasks like footers and margin settings are tricky to manipulate. And above all, there is a fairly formidable learning curve to $\LaTeX$, not the least of which is the fact that you have to install things yourself (something a surprisingly large number of students don’t know how to do) and use a text editor. (We forget that text editors are essentially an alien world to students who are raised on GUI’s for everything.) And for collaborative projects, Word’s ability to insert comments and track changes in a document is really essential.

Still, I think most college students can learn $\LaTeX$ if they put their minds to it, and the fact that it’s free and portable and “future-proof” is awfully appealing in a world where this year’s version of Word can’t be trusted to interoperate with last year’s.

Finally, I think there’s a lot to be said for something the article brings up as well: You should use a text editor to write content, and a word processor to format it. Type it up in a basic editor or Google Docs, and then import it into your favorite proprietary program(s) to make it look nice. Separating content from form will save a lot of people headaches and improve their writing as well.

Filed under GTD, Higher ed, LaTeX, Profhacks, Study hacks

## Happiness and productivity in college, the GTD way

I missed this the first time, but Study Hacks posted this article on Getting Things Done for College Students back last summer. It’s basically a self-contained overview of GTD, although it differs from “canonical” GTD in that it takes into account that college students don’t have a fixed 8-5 work day. Instead, they propose fixing down “work hours” and making that be your work day. There are other college-student specific variations in the main article. Well worth a look if you are a college student needing a trustworthy system for productivity.

That article is just one link in this massively-link-filled post on being productive and happy in college in general, which contains so much good advice on time and “stuff” management for college students that I think the average college student would be overwhelmed by it all. But it’s definitely deserving of a read from all students out there.

How come they don’t teach stuff like this in the freshman year, or in freshman orientation?

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Filed under GTD, Profhacks, Student culture, Study hacks