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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Tech tool bleg

Beggars Banquet
On Tuesday, I got to spend the day learning about various aspects of assessment, at SDSU's One Day in May symposium.  So much good stuff! Although I think of myself as relatively savvy about a lot of tools, and a definite data junky, I got lots of ideas about things I could be doing to track analytics in Blackboard and Google Docs. I haven't been a huge Google Docs user so I had no clue that there are so many cool things you can do with spreadsheet gadgets (like create word clouds or interactive timelines, a la Gapminder).

The day got me thinking about how I could use certain tools and I started looking for new ways to deal with one of my most time-consuming tasks. I have a couple different situations where I collect information from students that I want to pass on to other students (e.g., team peer evaluations in the data class or reviewer back evaluations in the writing class). Currently, the way I do that is either through emailing each student or putting the information in the 'comment' field for an assignment in Blackboard. Either way, there's a whole lot of cutting and pasting going on. Blackboard is supposed to have a way to batch upload comments for gradebook items (according to this link) but I can't get it to work. Even if I could, it's less than ideal for really long 'comments' (I think there's a 1000 character limit). I feel like I read something somewhere about a way to allow students to see just part of a spreadsheet in Google Docs but I can't find anything about that when I search. I could make a separate Google Doc for each student and just 'share' it with that one student but a) that doesn't seem like it would really save me any time and b) I prefer not to make students create new accounts if I can help it (although I know most already have Google accounts, if they don't, they'd have to create one to access a private Google Doc). Ideally, I'm thinking of something where I could have a spreadsheet with student identifiers in one column and their comments in another column and students could submit their identifier and see the comments in the associated row.

Rather than bugging just a few people, I thought I'd bug a lot of people and throw it out to you all. Does anyone know of a way to do this?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Managing email

Every once in a while, one of the list-servs I'm on will get messages from people who want to be removed from the list (and apparently don't know how to look for the instructions about how to do so). This morning, there were several on the TBL list-serv and one person added the explanatory note "too many emails, too little time". While I understand the feeling, I also sort of don't. I mean, how many emails do academics really get? I know that compared to my friends who work in the private sector, I really don't get a lot, and I certainly don't get a lot that require immediate attention. That doesn't mean I don't read/answer my emails pretty darn quickly, but rarely do I need to respond as quickly as I do.

However, I do know that when I see there is something in my inbox, I have a tendency to want to drop whatever I'm doing and see what that message is. So I've set up a system where I don't immediately see a lot of the emails that I know don't need my immediate attention. Specifically, I have multiple email addresses and I only have the inbox for one of them open all the time. I have a yahoo account that I've had forever that I use strictly for personal situations where I know I will never need to reply to the emails, like customer accounts and groupon-type stuff. I only check that once a day, while drinking my morning coffee. The second is my official university address which gets all official University communications (which never need a reply). I actually stopped using that account, as much as possible, a few years ago because it was getting so much spam but now that the school has moved to Gmail (and a spam filter that actually works), I also use it for other work-related situations where I likely won't have to reply, such as professional organizations, journal table of contents, ed policy mailing lists, etc. I check that once a day too, sometimes more if I'm procrastinating from other things. Since it is my official university address, I occasionally get emails there from people who have looked me up for some specific reason but it is really rare that those emails can't wait the 12-18 hours it usually takes for me to see them. And then there is my main gmail account that I use for almost everything else. That's the inbox that stays open all the time, and I get a pop-up notice whenever I get new mail, but since practically all of the 'form emails' I might get are routed to one of the other two accounts, a) I don't get a ton of emails coming into that address and b) when I do get a message, it's almost always something that I want to see fairly quickly.

I also have an entirely separate gmail address that I give to students. I have that account set up to automatically forward all emails to my main gmail account, and then I filter those so they bypass the inbox and go into a separate folder (but still marked unread). That way, I don't see that I have new messages in my inbox (so I don't get interrupted) but when I get other new messages (or just when I want to take a break from whatever I'm doing anyway), I'll see that there are emails in the student folder. I've found that this is a good compromise for me - I typically respond to students within, at most, a few hours, but I don't obsess about it the way I think I would if they showed up in my inbox and I got pinged every time.

I'm sure there are easier ways to do all this but this works well for me. How do you manage your email?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Some suggestions for your summer reading list...

"Regular" posts should hopefully resume relatively soon but as the grading stack slowly goes down, I'll just share a couple of links that provide some great suggestions for books on (mostly college) teaching. Rebecca Onion's list is based on suggestions from her Twitter community and includes some teaching classics but also some that are more about the general state of higher education (rather than specific teaching advice). Sherman Dorn builds on Onion's list with several books that are likely to be more helpful for new teachers. I have to particularly second his recommendation of Teaching What You Don't Know, by Therese Huston, which I found invaluable when I was preparing to teach the data analysis course two years ago.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Suggested reading

The new issue of the Journal of Economic Education is now available. I was particularly happy to see an article by Donna Gilleskie and Mike Salemi that eases my mind a bit about how I teach Principles: in "The Cost of Economic Literacy: How Well Does a Literacy-Targeted Principles of Economics Course Prepare Students for Intermediate Theory Courses?", they find that "students who complete a literacy-targeted principles course perform no worse in intermediate theory courses than students who complete a traditional principles course."

Table of contents:
The Cost of Economic Literacy: How Well Does a Literacy-Targeted Principles of Economics Course Prepare Students for Intermediate Theory Courses?
Donna B. Gilleskie and Michael K. Salemi

The Effects of a Translation Bias on the Scores for the Basic Economics Test
Jinsoo Hahn and Kyungho Jang

Does Living Near Classmates Help Introductory Economics Students Get Better Grades?
Jeffrey Parker

Sources of Funding and Academic Performance in Economics Principles Courses
Dagney Faulk, Arun K. Srinivasan and Jon Bingham

Teaching Integrity in Empirical Research: A Protocol for Documenting Data Management and Analysis
Richard Ball and Norm Medeiros

Following Zahka: Using Nobel Prize Winners’ Speeches and Ideas to Teach Economics
Martin P. Shanahan, John K. Wilson and William E. Becker

Classroom Experiment on Banking
Mary Mathewes Kassis, Denise Hazlett and Jolanda E. Ygosse Battisti

Starting Point: Pedagogic Resources for Teaching and Learning Economics
Mark H. Maier, KimMarie McGoldrick and Scott P. Simkins

Active-Learning Exercises for Principles of Economics Courses
Oskar R. Harmon and James Lambrinos

Friday, May 4, 2012

When does feedback become 'pre-grading'?

I'm at that point in the semester/assignment cycle where I'm getting a lot of emails from students who are working on their final papers. Some will ask me in class if they can send me a draft to look over. What I generally tell them is that while I won't "pre-grade" their papers, I will certainly let them know if they are (or aren't) on the right track. This is particularly an issue with a couple of assignments where students have a tendency to mis-understand what I am asking them to do. For example, in my writing class, I ask students to write a short (400 word) proposal for a policy brief - they are not supposed to write the brief itself (which was the focus of a previous assignment where they were assigned topics), nor try to make an argument for or against a policy, but they should think about what policy topic they would want to investigate and write a proposal to convince me that such an investigation is needed. No matter how I explain it (and I have now tried many different ways), there are always a number of students who do not understand that they are proposing a larger analysis and they instead try to summarize the policy debate into the two-page maximum, or they write an opinion piece about why a particular policy is needed.  So after they turn in their rough drafts, I usually email those students and explain they are not quite on track. The problem is that many of those students end up sending me additional drafts, as they try to fix things. And at some point, once they ARE on the right track, I have to figure out what to tell them. Do I focus just on the fact that they are finally understanding what I want them to do and tell them "Yes, this looks better", even if their actual execution of the assignment leaves much to be desired? I worry that if I do that, they will think I mean that their paper is now fine and they have no more work to do. Or do I give them feedback on the other aspects of the paper that they still need to fix? The problem I have with that is that is feedback that none of their peers are getting and that I would not have given them if this last draft were the first draft I had seen from them (i.e., if they had been 'on the right track' from the beginning) so that seems to be move more into what I see as "pre-grading" and it doesn't seem fair. On the other hand, isn't my job to help them write the best paper that they can?

This sort of thing is why I am counting down the hours until the semester is over...