Tag Archives: advice

Incentivizing healthy group dynamics in classes

I’ve just finished teaching our undergraduate algorithms course this quarter.  I changed the course quite a bit from previous iterations.  This was mostly because I have been designing an online version of the course for our online post-bacc degree (more on that in another post).  It gave me a chance to rethink many aspects of the course.  One was in how the project assignments were managed.

There were 4 projects.  Two were rather large and involved and the other two were still challenging, but not as time intensive.  The projects involved: designing, analyzing run times of, proving the correctness of, implementing and experimentally analyzing algorithms using the techniques we learn in class (divide and conquer, dynamic programming, etc.)  I had the students work in groups of 2-3.  Groups were formed in the first class with the only constraint that each group contain one person who self identifies as being better at theory than practice (based on grades in the discrete math and programming intro course sequences).  I did have feedback that the students were thankful the projects were done in groups as they were challenging.

Anyhow, after the first project I started getting feedback of the form “my team members didn’t do any work!”  Unfortunately, I didn’t really plan a mechanism for correcting for this.  The projects account for 40% of the final grade and looking at the current grades, not all the group ‘leaders’ are ahead based on test performance and not all group ‘slackers’ are behind (as I would have thought).  It’s too late to really do much for this quarter, but I would like to be prepared for next time.

I’ve kicked around some ideas:

  • Have the groups be randomly assigned and change them for each project.  At least then a given student would be unlikely to be always stuck with a slacker, but a slacker could still ride the coattails of the rotating groups.  I do this in my graduate class, but there the tests are worth much more and I don’t want to do that for an undergraduate class.  Also, the last project is the most difficult, and I would like groups to establish a good working pattern by then.
  • Take feedback from groups on who the ‘slackers’ are after the first project and take the ‘leaders’ of those groups and have them form new groups amongst themselves and take the ‘slackers’ and do the same.  I think with this the slackers would end up being forced to work or be penalized and the leaders would get a break.  It might get complicated though.  It would likely piss off some people.  Doing so only after the first project might not be sufficient.  The groups of ‘leaders’ may not be big enough to form new groups.
  • Have the groups distribute the points for each project among the members of the group orhave a group participation score incorporated and based on group members rating each other. I’ve heard of these mechanisms being used but I’m not sure how successful that would be.
  • Have a graded question (either on the midterm or as a quick start of class quiz on the day of the project hand-in) that would only be easy to answer if a student was involved in the working of the assignment.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Or am I over-thinking this and should care less?

My time

Last spring and summer I instituted “my time”.  I started scheduling off 3hr blocks of time 2-3 times a week on my calendar for research.  This happened around the time that I started making my calendar available so students would know when to find me.  (It has made scheduling meetings very easy.)  But I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t interrupted arbitrarily.  I treat these blocks of time like any scheduled meeting.  They are precious.  I will only cancel one or intrude on one for very important things (such as working with collaborators on research or attending a graduate exam).

My productivity went up, I found.  I knew I could rely on a decent chunk of time regularly.  Before, I had found myself with useless one hour blocks squeezed between meetings – not enough time for me to think seriously about a problem.

For some reason I stopped in the fall.  I probably just forgot to reschedule the time for the quarter, with new committee and teaching schedules to work around.  Last week, I was reminded about the importance of uninterrupted time for the creative process from John Cleese’s surprisingly relevant-to-research speech on creativity, posted by Luca.  So, “my time” is reinstated.

Of course, that’s no excuse to waste precious minutes of “my time” writing this post.

Getting started writing

I just finished writing a grant proposal which, while I spent more time on it than I wanted, I had purposely left not much time for it.  I do tend to spend as much time as I give myself on things, which is why I like teaching in the morning and not preparing for lecture until the day of.

Anyhow, when I started working on this, I was having difficulty with writer’s block.  I had plenty of notes, and somewhat of an organization, but I







Frustrated, I decided to just get something down on paper.  I started writing an introduction that was entirely self-depricating, riddled with bad puns and references to “self-abuse” – generally amusing myself.  I very quickly wrote two pages and dug into the meat of the proposal, now adopting the usual (more dry, formal, self-congratulatory) tone that is more common to NSF proposals.

I have to say, though, I think being on an NSF panel could be quite a bit more fun if we actually submitted such … honesty?

Responsibility for versus responsibility to

I received some advice from an established biochemist via a friend in regards to the stress related to advising graduate students.  See, of the new tasks in the past year, graduate advising has been the most stressful for me.  I feel this weight of a person’s career in my hands.  What if I pick the wrong problems?  What if wreck their confidence?

But the advice lifted a weight off my shoulders: you are not responsible for your students, you are responsible to your students.  You don’t have control over whether your students engross themselves in their work, whether they read papers beyond the ones you explicitly say to “read this”, whether they will really focus on their research – you can’t be expected to be responsible for this.  However, you can read and edit their writing, suggest papers and books to read, introduce them to your colleagues, teach them.

It was a simple change in propositions, but it made a big difference for me.

On a somewhat related note, I’m planning on taking up Matt Welsh’s advice on evaluating grad students.  He advocates setting goals on a quarterly basis and remarking on how well those goals were met.  I think this will work well for concrete items such as writing up a paper for which proofs have already been established and completing qualifiers, but how should we set goals for work that may or may not be possible (ie. “settle this conjecture”)?

Looking a gift horse in the mouth

When I was a grad student, I was in a professor’s office when an undergrad stopped by to give the professor an art card as a thank you for writing a recommendation letter.  The professor kindly turned down the gesture.  At the time, I thought that, as the offering was little more than a greeting card, such a denial was not worth the effort.  The professor pointed out that a line has to be drawn somewhere.

I agree.  But I’m unsure of two things: where to draw the line and how to explain the line to students, particularly when cultural differences may play a role.  I’ll describe a few situations that have come up.

I am on the graduate committee for a Ph.D. student along with 3 other faculty.  This involves sitting in on qualifiers and exams and helping to make decisions on their course of study and progress.  Immediately after a qualifier exam some time ago, the student came to my office with a puzzle – having seen that I have a small collection of puzzles on my bookshelf – and offered it to me with a thanks for the exam.  I turned down the gift, explaining that it is not appropriate for me to accept such gestures when I am in a position of authority.  This week, I came back from a week’s vacation to see a gift bag hanging from my office door.  The gift bag contained a card from the same student and alluded to the fact that the bag must have recently contained (a thief in our midst!) the same puzzle.  The student thought it would be ok for me to now accept the present.  I have emailed the student and explained again that I should not receive gifts.  Unfortunately, this time, there is no gift to return!

The Ph.D. qualifier exams here are 2 hour oral exams.  Not the most exciting thing.  It seems to become tradition that the student bring food for the examining committee.  This seems to vary from a few cartons of cookies to full-on home-cooked meals with catered coffee from our building’s coffee shop.  Some may argue that bringing your committee a few doughnuts and coffee may be a nice gesture, and this, apparently, is how this tradition started.  However, it seems to have gone much too far.  Of course, I don’t feel that the committee’s decision would be swayed by the quality of the food provided – if anything, better food may draw a failure from the committee so we might enjoy such a spread once more.  A line should be drawn, but how?  I would argue that nothing should be brought.  As faculty, sitting on such committees is part of our job.  We know that the meeting will be 2 hours and are perfectly capable of bringing our own sustenance.    Any line above zero is particularly strange.  ‘A student may provide no more than $10 worth of sustenance purchased at the building’s coffee shop.’  So is a student expected to spend $10?  Now a student has to bring coffee for the lofty professors?  Any line above zero should be funded by the department, not the student.  That would be great, but I don’t see it in the budget.

Finally, my own Ph.D. student and I have an interesting relationship.  We are very close in age, live around the corner from each other and have a fair amount in common.  We also both enjoy baking, although I don’t find I get to as often as I once did.  We’ve exchanged various food items in small quantities, usually eaten during meetings – neither of us can go more than an hour without eating like constantly foraging squirrels.  On the recent occasion of my entering old age, she brought me a small batch of (delicious, creamy, homemade, peppermint, white-chocolate) fudge.  Perhaps I should have declined the gift, which I felt a little over that ill-defined line, but I didn’t.  I have to say – it made great fuel for a recent bike trip.

What do you do in such situations?  Am I too strict, not strict enough for your taste?

Writing reference letters

I was just sitting down to write the first1 reference letter that I have ever written and realized that I have never read a reference letter and have little idea of what should go into one.  This particular letter is for a graduate student applying for a fellowship.  Short post, but any suggestions?

Maybe I should start tweeting.

1 This is actually the third reference letter I’ve written, but the first was to be read by a close friend in the math department and the second was to be read by me.

How to find a postdoc

While I hardly think I should be doling out advice …

In algorithms, there have been a lot of postdoc positions advertising on the two main email lists, TheoryNT and dmanet.  In my experience, many of the positions are in Europe.  I’ve found that a lot of postdoc’s get their position by word of mouth.

I think, by far, the best thing is to get a postdoctoral fellowship.  Freedom!  It seems NSF doesn’t have a fellowship program for people in computer science.  (Is that actually true?) But I have seen (and ignored, as I am not an American citizen) plenty of postdoc fellowship programs for Americans.  If you aren’t American, try your home country.  NSERC has great fellowships for Canadians that you can take out of the country if you got your Ph.D. in Canada and is tax-free if you take it to McGill.  The short of it is, if you have a fellowship you have the academic freedom to study what you want to study.  You can work with whoever you want, whether or not they have a research grant to pay a postdoc.

I’ve also thought that if you plan far enough in advance you could contact someone you really want to work with and convince them to write a grant with your help that includes funding for a postdoc.  Any thoughts of whether that would work?  I know NSF now asks for an “advising plan” when requesting funds for a postdoc salary.  Would having the potential postdoc involved in the writing process help?

And there are schools and departments that have their own postdoc program – I think U. Penn and U. Toronto do.

Any other suggestions?