Tag Archives: time management

How the inverted classroom saves students time

Our semester is into its third full week, and most of my time (as you know from checking my Twitter or Facebook feed) is being spent, it seems, on making screencasts for the MATLAB class. I feel like I’ve learned a great deal from a year’s worth of reflection on the first run of the class last spring, and it’s showing in the materials I’m producing and the work the students are giving back.

The whole idea of the inverted classroom has gotten a lot of attention in between the current version of the course and the inaugural run — the time period I think of as the “MATLAB offseason” — through my blogging, conference talks, and everyday conversations at my work. One of my associate deans, off of whom I’ve bounced a number of ideas about this course, related a conversation he recently had with someone about what I’m doing.

Associate Dean: So, Talbert is using this thing called the inverted classroom.

Other person: What’s that all about?

AD: He puts the lectures all online, and instead of lecturing in class he has them do group assignments on various kinds of problems.

OP: Doesn’t that double the amount of time students have to spend on the class?

I’ve never encountered that exact reaction before, although I did mention once that the biggest negative comment from students last year in the MATLAB course was that it took too much time relative to the credit load (1 credit). I liked how my associate dean put the answer:

AD: Well… think about it this way. You are still doing both lecture and “homework”. But which part of that are going to need the most amount of help on?

OP: OK, now I get it.

Exactly. Students are going to need a lot more guidance on the difficult task of assimilating information than they will need on the relatively easy — incredibly easy, in fact — task of receiving a transmission of information. Both phases of the game need to take place in some form, but assimilation is harder, and the probability of sinking massive amounts of time into work that goes nowhere is a lot higher, than in transmission.

I’ve seen some great examples of where the inverted classroom method has actually saved students possibly hours of fruitless labor in the last two weeks.

Today, for instance, we were doing a lab problem set on command line plotting. In one of the tasks, students are asked to produce a 1×2 subplot illustrating the behavior of a two-parameter family of functions. One team was stuck because their M-file wouldn’t execute properly even though their code looked correct. The problem: They used a dash (-) in the title, which causes MATLAB to think that the stuff preceding the dash is a variable name, which wasn’t in the workspace. It’s an innocent error but not one that students with just two weeks of MATLAB under their belts could easily debug themselves. Had they run into this problem outside of class, who knows how much time would have been wasted getting nowhere? But inside class, it was solved in the amount of time it took for them to raise their hands and for me to come over and look.

Another example from today: A team had entered this code:

x = linspace(0,10);
y = 100 - exp(-2*x);
axis([0 15 90 105])

They had entered the code without line 3 already but didn’t like the look of the plot, so they added the axis command to try and change the viewing window. But nothing changed. Why? To the trained eye, it’s simple — you have to have something plotted first before you can change the axis. So just reverse lines 3 and 4. But to the untrained eye, again, who knows how much time would be lost in trying to figure this out? Instead I was able to instruct them directly on this, at the conceptual level (How is MATLAB thinking its way through your code?) and they got it. (It wasn’t just me telling them, “You need to switch lines 3 and 4.”)

So above and beyond being more instructionally effective, I’m realizing — and I hope students are too — that the inverted classroom makes student time a lot more efficient, and there’s a much higher success-to-effort ratio than in the traditional mode of teaching.

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Filed under Education, Educational technology, Inverted classroom, MATLAB, Teaching, Technology

Farewell, Jott, I hardly knew ye

Jott, the voice-to-text program I have blogged about a couple of times, has come out of “beta” (you mean Web 2.0 apps can be something other than “beta”?) and, sadly, is no longer a free service. (You mean Web 2.0 apps aren’t always free?) There will be a “Jott Basic” plan that will remain free, but all it allows you to do is leave voice messages to the online “Jott desktop”; it does not include the feature that made Jott so addictive useful, namely the ability to have voice messages transcribed and sent directly to your email account, Google Calendar, Twitter, or other supported services. For that, you have to pay $3.95 a month for the regular plan or $12.95 for the “Pro” plan. Also, the basic plan includes ads.

I can’t begrudge Jott for wanting to have some kind of a revenue stream, but I have to say that I am very disappointed in this move, and I won’t be using Jott from here on out. I use Jott to capture thoughts, ideas, and other stuff when I am not near a pen and paper or a computer — driving home, walking across campus, whatever — by phoning them in to Jott, and then Jott sends them to a special GTD folder in my Gmail for non-dated stuff and into Google Calendar for dated stuff. Jott allows me to eliminate several “collection buckets” — notepads, voice recorders, etc. — that I would need for collecting on-the-go stuff and instead just use my normal GMail/GCalendar account. It sounds like laziness, but making me go to Jott’s website to my Jott Desktop to get the stuff that I would capture using Jott, rather than sending it straight to GMail/GCal, adds a lot of complexity to my collection/processing routine. Too much.

Is it worth $4 a month? Not for me; in my household we are pinching every penny we have,  which is one of the reasons that free Web 2.0 apps are such a blessing for me. A search for Twitter posts on “jott” reveals a handful of “It’s worth it and I’m going to pay for it” tweets out there, but a lot more people are like me — disappointed and getting off the Jott bandwagon. Jott would keep a lot of its current users if the free plan would allow Jott to send to just one email or calendar account, and the $4/month plan could send to multiple accounts. Jott, if you’re reading this, give it some thought. Otherwise, it’s been fun, but…


Filed under GTD, Profhacks, Technology, Web 2.0

Teddy Roosevelt’s to-do list

I’ve just finished reading Edmund Morris’ splendid biography The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. I can’t remember how I got interested in this book, but I came away from it greatly appreciative of Roosevelt not only as a great President but as a man whose capacity for both thinking and doing were almost superhuman. Although some aspects of his life seem questionable to me (there’s a distinct subordination of his family life to his career, for instance), I do admire his voracity of mind, his passion for public service and for doing what’s right, and the sheer force of his personality in getting things done.

Here’s one snippet from the book that really stood out to me. Shortly after Roosevelt was nominated for the Vice-Presidency in 1900 (the previous Vice-President, Garret Hobart, having died suddenly the previous year), he went out on the campaign trail for William McKinley. His schedule was, shall we say, vigorous. Here’s a sample daily schedule from the diary of an aide:

7:00 A.M.   Breakfast

7:30 A.M.   A speech

8:00 A.M.   Reading a historical work

9:00 A.M.   A speech

10:00 A.M.  Dictating letters

11:00 A.M.  Discussing Montana mines

11:30 A.M.  A speech

12:00          Reading an ornithological work

12:30 P.M.  A speech

1:00 P.M.    Lunch

1:30 P.M.    A speech

2:30 P.M.    Reading Sir Walter Scott

3:00 P.M.    Answering telegrams

3:45 P.M.    A speech

4:00 P.M.    Meeting the press

4:30 P.M.    Reading

5:00 P.M.    A speech

6:00 P.M.    Reading

7:00 P.M.    Supper

8-10 P.M.   Speaking

11:00 P.M.  Reading alone in his car

12:00          To bed.

That’s a daily schedule that will turn a few heads. On the other hand, all you have to do is substitute “A speech” with “Teach class” and the word “telegram” with “email” and you have a pretty close fit to the modern educator’s school day.

What stands out to me is not so much the sheer frequency of speaking engagements TR had (is this close to what Obama and McCain do today?) but what surrounds those speeches and discussions. Do you see it? It’s reading. This schedule includes 4.5 hours a day of it. And it’s not just memos or strictly political works, but fiction, science, and so on. To me, there are at least three deep lessons to learn from this.

First, making time for personal growth during the day, especially the growth of the intellect, is extremely important. Educators make their living by expending intellectual energy. You cannot continue to expend energy indefinitely without fueling back up somehow, if you expect to last long. This is very easy to forget, as we see the sheer amount of stuff in our inboxes and begin to think that if I just had one more hour, I’d get that much more stuff done and be that much happier. But I think — and perhaps TR thought as well — that happiness can also come from having time to make sure you get fed yourself and not just spend all your time feeding other people.

Second, this time for personal/professional growth can be structured in bite-sized chunks. Look at TR’s schedule again. His reading times average just 45 minutes each, split evenly between three half-hour time slots and three one-hour time slots (the longer ones coming outside the usual work day). In the past, I’ve tried to schedule in these inviolable times for reading and research, but only in single, monolithic, 3-hour long slabs happening once a week. That approach has never worked out for me. So as I think about making time in my busy schedule for reading and writing, maybe the more realistic approach is to take frequent, small chunks of time in which to do it. Surely I can afford 30 minutes a day, right? I probably waste that much time each day checking emails I don’t need to see.

Third, this time for personal/professional growth benefits from a kind of happy diversity. TR was reading whatever interested him, regardless of whether it pertained directly to being the Vice-President or not — ornithology and Walter Scott along with everything else. Personal/professional growth time ought to include, for me, not just mathematics but also new things — say, computer programming, biology, history, and so on. You never know exactly what is going to pertain to your job, and the most pertinent thing for your job if you’re a teacher is a well-rounded, active, happy mind.

So I take some encouragement from this little bit of history, that the most effective thinkers and doers from our past had schedules that were even more insanely busy than mine, but never suffered from burnout or lost their passion and drive for what they do — because they took time to feed themselves and grow themselves just as they fed others and helped them, and their country, to grow as well.


Filed under GTD, Life in academia, Profhacks, Vocation

Tao on time management

Update: Welcome, readers from Terry Tao’s blog. I invite you to browse, starting with the Top 12 Posts retrospective page. I’ve got more articles on math and on time/task management if you want them.

Have you ever wondered how a Fields Medalist does time management? Terry Tao is happy to oblige. It’s not your standard GTD-esque post, as Terry discusses some of the pecuilarities of managing time when practicing a subject so unpredictable as mathematics, where long periods of going nowhere punctuated by massive flashes of insight wreak havoc on calendars and to-do lists.

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Filed under GTD, Life in academia, Math, Profhacks

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.

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

Wednesday links

  • Study Hacks gives us a master class on time management for students. Students, put down the XBox and read this for a few minutes.
  • Stanley Fish has a new book titled Save The World On Your Own Time, in which he challenges professors to “to present the material in the syllabus and introduce students to state-of-the-art methods of analysis. Not to practice politics, but to study it; not to proselytize for or against religious doctrines, but to describe them; not to affirm or condemn Intelligent Design, but to explain what it is and analyze its appeal.” Sounds good, in this day and age of the activist-professor, but the commenters at the related piece at InsideHigherEd.com aren’t convinced Fish is sincere.
  • Adopt-a-star. No, we’re not talking about taking Gary Coleman in under your roof.
  • I can’t figure out which is more ridiculous, the school”s reaction to this incident or the fact that a parent would put her second-grader in a “N the N-Word” t-shirt in the first place.
  • Speaking of ridiculous, or perhaps just unbelievable, here’s the 10 Worst Products for Men Ever Created. One-word summary: Recto-Rotor.

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Yojimbo and Getting Things Done

yojimbo-logo.jpgSo obviously I haven’t posted in almost a week, because week 10 of the semester is traditionally the start of Crunch Time, where the ratio of (work load)/(student and faculty preparation) is at its highest point. Later in the semester the workload is actually heavier, but everybody is ready for it so the ratio is lower. Right now, not so much on the preparation side, and everybody is stressed out and working like dogs.

And so there’s no better time to talk about GTD, because in situations like this you really need a system that allows you to get your work done without having dwell on it so much. And you especially need that “trusted system” that GTD champions, so that the scatterbrained-ness that always comes with high load/prep ratio is mitigated by not having all that “stuff” in your mind. If you need a backgrounder on GTD, read this before going on.

The last time I blogged about GTD proper I was comparing some ways to implement a GTD system with software. Specifically, I was reporting on the impending alpha (not even beta!) release of OmniFocus, a GTD app from the awesome OmniGroup (makers of two of my favorite apps, OmniGraffle and OmniOutliner). I was using iGTD and looking forward to trying out OmniFocus. Well, since then, I ditched iGTD and moved over to OmniFocus full-time. For an alpha version of software, OmniFocus is quite nice. There were (and are) bugs but this is going to be a major piece of software, perhaps the next killer app for Macintoshes once it’s in post-beta format.

So OmniFocus is nice, but a couple of weeks ago — possibly out of sheer boredom, or out of a desire to get away from software bugs — I decided to look around at different software GTD solutions. After Googling a little bit, I came upon this post about Yojimbo, a sort of “digital junk drawer” software, and one person’s method for using Yojimbo to do GTD. It looked promising, so I downloaded the demo and have been slowly learning its zen and building a GTD system with it. Yojimbo is pretty impressive, and I’m going to be blogging about my efforts in using it for GTD in the near future, starting now.

Yojimbo is software intended to collect stuff — stuff of all kinds, including but not limited to web links, serial numbers, passwords, text notes, PDF’s, media files, and so on. The basic idea behind Yojimbo is you add stuff to the “library” that is created in Yojimbo, and then you can add tags and labels to each piece of stuff. You then use the tags, labels, and other meta-information about your stuff to organize and search your stuff for whatever purpose you may need. Essentially Yojimbo is a sort of database program to index and search whatever stuff you drag and drop into it.

yojimbo-1.jpgTo the right is a screenshot of my overall Yojimbo library (click to enlarge). As you can see in the large pane, I have some text notes, a web bookmark, a PDF (which is being previewed in the lower pane), an encrypted text note (“Allocation of Problems”), and something with a yellow label at the bottom… more on that in a minute. These are just items that I either authored directly in Yojimbo or added to Yojimbo from outside the software. The PDF, for instance, was a web page that I printed to PDF and sent to Yojimbo; installing the software adds a very handy print menu item that allows you to print anything — anything! — directly into Yojimbo as a PDF. You can then move the PDF elsewhere later just by dragging it to somewhere else on your hard drive.

yojimbo-2.jpgThe real GTD action takes place over in the left sidebar, which contains what Yojimbo calls “collections”. A collection is just a subset of your stuff. Some of the collections (the first five you see here) are program defaults. But the user can create his own collection, and that’s the real strength of this program for GTD.

You see two kinds of blue folders, which are the collections I’ve made for GTD. One has a little tag on top of the folder, and the other doesn’t. The tagged folders are collections that contain only items with a specific tag, so they function much like smart folders on OS X. The untagged folders contain whatever I put in them.

So Yojimbo has a rather simple, unstructured approach to collecting and cataloging stuff. That makes it very flexible and particularly well-suited for GTD, especially if your house rules for GTD may be a little nonstandard — as is the case for a lot of people in academia.

My usage of Yojimbo for GTD is evolving daily — I’ve only had the demo for 12 days — and so what I’m about to describe as my system is a work in progress. Pretty much my system looks like the one I linked to above. Let me explain.

Every project that I have is given an untagged folder. You can see those in the lower 1/3 of the sidebar. The number off to the right of those folder indicates how many pieces of stuff are in the folder. What’s inside those folders? Glad you asked. One of my advisees is doing an independent study with me next semester on mathematical methods in artificial intelligence. Getting that study ready is a project, which in GTD-ese means that it is a large-scale item to get done that involves a succession of individual, atomistic tasks along with supporting material. Here’s what’s inside the folder:


The top thing in the list is a PDF of an article that I want to include as part of the independent study. Later, once I have the study more fully fleshed-out, I will create a folder on the hard drive for it and move that article there permanently. But for now, this is supporting material for the project of getting the study ready, so here it belongs.

The other things in the folder are my actions. An action in Yojimbo is represented by an empty text note with the action listed in the title. If I have notes for the action, like I have for the one highlighted here, I can add them in the text field. The thing to note here are the tags. When I create an action (just Cmd-N inside the folder) I can add a tag to it just by tabbing into the tag field and typing the name I want. The tags are used to indicate the context. For example, the action I have highlighted above involves doing some web searching about projects in support vector machines, so the context is online. Every context ends in an “@” symbol; traditionally, contexts in GTD start with @, but as Robert Foxworthington points out, it works better if you put the @ at the end because of the way Yojimbo auto-completes the tag name.

So now, the moment I entered in that action with the “online@” tag, it not only was entered in to this project folder, but it was also automatically entered in to the “online@” tagged folder. Here’s what’s in that folder:

This way, whenever I am online and need to get stuff done, I can view the “online@” folder and see what actions have that context. (You can Cmd-click multiple folders in the sidebar to see multiple contexts. For example, it would make sense to select “online@” as well as “email@” and “computer@” all at the same time if I’m in my office and online.)

Yojimbo lets you not only tag items but also label them. The difference, from what I can tell, is that tagging is adding metadata to something, whereas labelling is merely adding a visual distinction to an item by means of color-coding the item. You can search by label type, though, so this distinction is somewhat fine. Every next action — the all-important element of GTD which indicates the next physical thing that can possibly be done in a project — is labelled as such with a bright orange label. Every action that is not a next action is labelled with a light gray label. Every action that must be completed today is given a bright yellow label. The labels allow me to quickly distinguish between next actions, regular actions, text notes which are not actions at all, and other stuff when looking in a folder.

Once I complete an action, I simply click on it and hit the delete key, and it goes in the trash folder in Yojimbo. Same for projects that reach completion.

I’m getting more comfortable with Yojimbo and GTD each day, although I don’t think I’ve honed it to quite the level of trustworthiness I would like. There are some things to watch out for when using Yojimbo for GTD and some features that I really wish Yojimbo would add. But there are plenty of positives as well which give Yojimbo an advantage over OmniFocus and iGTD. I’ll write about those in the next article.


Filed under GTD, Profhacks, Software, Technology