#AcWriMo wrap-up

#AcWriMo comes to a close today, so it seems fitting to wrap up the month of crazy writing goals with an accounting of how well I did (or didn’t) meet those goals.

As a reminder, here are the three goals I set for myself for the month:

  1. Finish the grant narrative, and send it out to colleagues for comments, by 16 November. (The grant narrative is the “meat” of the application, and is the technical explanation of the work and deliverables.)
  2. Finish the supplementary documents (RUI statement, budget outline, budget justification), and send them to our amazing grants person, by 28 November. (That’s actually kind of a “drop-dead” date—I’d like to have the budget numbers to our grants person a bit earlier so he has time to assemble all the budget stuff on his end and is not scrambling.)
  3. Write my conference talk. I’m giving a talk at a conference (workshop) in early December, but I’m taking my family with me (and my mom too—so excited!), so I would rather spend the conference week hanging out with my family and not stuck in my hotel room frantically assembling slides. So, by 30 November, I will have my talk completely done: slides finished, AND a few run-throughs of the presentation under my belt.

So, how’d I do?

Goal #1: Nailed. I was most proud of myself for this, particularly since my self-imposed deadline was two days after fall term classes ended (i.e., the busiest time of the term). As I mentioned in the post linked above, this was a huge win for me because it was the first time I allowed myself to send out something less than “perfect” for review.  I’ve already gotten some feedback and am waiting for some more, which should come in next week.

Goal #2: Met, a tad late. I conveniently forgot how long end-of-term grading takes. Particularly when you have 34 projects and 65 final exams to grade in a short time span! These goals all fell in the second half of the month, during the grading crunch. I was off by a couple days with my targets for each of them, but I made great progress in the past couple of days to catch up. Right now the only supplementary document left is the RUI statement, and that draft will either be finished later this afternoon or Monday, still in plenty of time to meet the deadline (Dec 17!). And I actually got ahead and started working on some other supplementary docs; those should also be finished this afternoon.

Goal #3: Partially met. I have a complete draft of the talk; all the slides that need to be there are there. I need to add/modify some visuals, do some run-throughs, and edit edit edit. It’s not done, but it’s in awfully good shape, one of the better talk drafts I’ve done.

I am thrilled with my success in this project. I didn’t fully meet my goals, but I came very close, and that makes me very happy. I also learned a few things about myself along the way:

  1. My perfectionism goes into overdrive when I’m working on less-familiar tasks. At this point in my career, I can knock out a conference paper with little angst, because I’ve done it a zillion times. I’m reasonably able to do the same with journal articles now that I have a few under my belt. But grant budgets and RUI statements? That’s unfamiliar territory, and that’s where I floundered.  Having the AcWriMo framework actually helped here—the goals and public accountability kept me from spiraling too deeply into perfectionism and helped me move forward, albeit more slowly than I’d hoped.
  2. I love external validation. Ok, this wasn’t exactly news to me. While I have a crazy amount of self-motivation, the fact is I love the external motivation I get by making my goals public, whether that’s announcing my intentions to a group of friends over coffee (and updating them on my progress weekly) or to the world via a hashtag. I feel good when I meet an internally-imposed goal, but I feel great when I can announce to the world that I’ve met a goal.
  3. Slow and steady wins the race. My grant deadline is 18 days away, and I am not panicked. I am in great shape. My drafts are solid, and I have a solid plan to make them even better and more polished, without killing myself in the process. I am not panicked and my drafts are solid not because I’ve spent large swaths of time on the grant, but rather because I’ve spent small amounts of time every day on the grant. (In fact, often I am most productive when I only have 30-60 minutes in a day—that’s when I’ve done some of my best work, because I am forced to focus.) And because even before AcWriMo, I spent small amounts of time every day for months working on the ideas, reading the literature, and preparing for this. This is true not just for this grant, but for all my work generally—slow and steady, a bit every day, is how I progress.

Even though AcWriMo ends today, I will continue working in an AcWriMo fashion moving forward. I’ll set ambitious goals for myself. I’ll commit to working slow and steady every day. I’ll continue to make myself publicly accountable to friends and strangers alike. And I’ll work on keeping my perfectionism in check. Thank you, AcWriMo, for a wonderful experience!

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#AcWriMo mid-term (sort of) evaluation

We’re more than halfway into #AcWriMo, and I’m pleased to say that I’m making progress beyond my wildest expectations. I have already met my first goal (send draft of grant narrative out for review), and I’m working towards goals 2 and 3 (supplementary grant docs and conference talk, respectively). Today’s “writing” task is to sit down and, just as I did with the first goal, come up with micro-goals for the other goals.

I’ve been most impressed with my ability to stick to my self-imposed deadlines during this process. As a recovering perfectionist, I’ve often set deadlines for myself, only to ignore them because “this is not ready yet” (translation: it’s not perfect) or because “I’m too busy to meet that deadline” (translation: I don’t have time to make it perfect so I’ll procrastinate). This time, I’m making AND meeting them—I have yet to miss a deadline. (I’ve even resorted to working on Friday nights to meet my weekly goals, if I can’t get everything done during the work week.) The biggest test was meeting my Friday deadline. My draft wasn’t up to my usual standards, and I thought for a brief second of letting that deadline slide. Instead, I sent it out in its existing state, trusting that the feedback I’d get from a slightly more tweaked version of the draft would not be significantly more helpful than feedback I’d get from the draft in a “rawer” state. For those who know me well, this is a huge step forward for me!

I’m also impressed that I’ve been able to prioritize, even during the crazy busy time that is November. You see, our term ends in November, finals are going on as we speak, so I have an insane amount of grading and end of the term accounting to do. Also, I’ve had some other deadlines I’ve had to meet. AcWriMo has allowed me to prioritize and to “selfishly” claim some time for my research and writing, in a time when it would normally fall by the wayside. And I’ve been honest with my students: I’ve mentioned that I’ve had to meet some research deadlines, so grading would be a bit slower than normal. For the most part, they’ve understood and been supportive.

One more thing: I’ve been able to stay on track, stay sane, slay my procrastination demons, etc…all while lacking a key stress regulator in my life: exercise, and specifically running. I’ve been recovering from bronchitis, and just started exercising again last week. But I’ve also been injured, and haven’t run since August. Normally this would drive me stark raving mad, so I’m really pleased with myself that I’ve kept my stress in check and worked so productively without these very important mental/physical health elements in place.

The second half of AcWriMo will be even more challenging than the first half. Final grades are due next Wednesday, and I have 2 projects and 65 exams to grade between now and then. Recommendation letter season is starting, and I have a long list of students for whom I’m writing letters this year. Plus there is the Thanksgiving holiday this week. Keeping my focus, sticking to my goals (micro and macro), and remembering that “done is better than perfect” will surely get me through these challenges and onto the finish line!

The flipped classroom, part deux: What’s working, what’s not

Long(ish)time readers of this blog know that I’ve been experimenting with a variation of the flipped classroom lately. I plunged in last spring with my Intro CS class, and it went so well that I decided to flip both of my classes this term. Overall, I am still pleased with the results, but in flipping two classes I’ve learned a bit more about the practical aspects of the flipped classroom (and time management, too).

For the purposes of context, the two courses are 200-level courses that are required for the CS major. One of these contains a broad mix of ability levels (everyone from seniors who have taken almost every course we offer to sophomores fresh out of Intro CS, and one intrepid first-year student), while the other is mainly students who have just taken Intro CS.

What’s gone well

I have yet to post a video: I’ve stuck with my original model of posting targeted readings for each class, along with a small assignment to test comprehension of the material. This strategy continues to work well. While I could probably buy myself some more class time if I posted mini lectures online, I’ve found that doing very targeted mini lectures in-class on the trickier concepts works well and usually leaves plenty of time for in-class activities. And the daily assignments, when I have time to review them, show me immediately what students are grasping and where they are struggling.

My teaching, I feel, is more creative as well. When your goal is to minimize lecture and maximize problem-solving, application-oriented activities, you have to think very carefully about what you’ll present and how. This has made me view the course material in new ways, and caused me to re-evaluate some of the topics I typically present.

I’ve also found that I stress less about getting “behind” in the content. I’m less concerned overall with presenting content and more focused on “are the students learning what I want them to learn from this unit”? Content can always be finessed to match the schedule. And again, this sharpens my focus on what’s really important in terms of learning objectives.

Finally, having the daily assignments worth a small number of points continues to be a fairly sufficient motivator for having the students do the work ahead of time. This is more true in one class than in the other, but I find that most of the students are doing the prep work most of the time.

Challenges

The biggest challenge I’ve faced is finding a sustainable model for the daily assignments. Obviously, this was much easier to handle when I was teaching one course, but I completely underestimated how much time keeping up with the grading (even if it’s just a quick check) would take. I am way behind on the grading here!

Surprisingly, Moodle (our course management system) is much more of a hindrance than a help here. It takes FOREVER to grade even simple assignments: so many clicks, so much navigation! I’ve resorted to having students hand things in on paper at the start of class, which is easier for me to grade but means I can’t peek at their submissions before class to plan out our class time.

I’ve had more success with two types of assignments in particular: Moodle quizzes and discussion forums. Quizzes are auto-graded, which is wonderful, but the Moodle quiz interface also allows me to scan all the quiz attempts and see which problems people are missing and how many attempts they require before they can answer the questions correctly (and color-codes them too!). I find I am better prepared for class when their daily assignment is a quiz. With discussion forums, I can also scan the responses quickly and grade them fairly quickly too. In the future, I will definitely rely more heavily on these types of assignments.

Another challenge is that this type of course takes a lot more energy than a typical lecture course. I’ve found that when I’m tired or extremely busy (which is often the case this term), I fall back on lecturing because it’s “easy”. Yet I definitely feel like the more lecture-heavy classes are less effective overall—I joke that the more I talk, the less my students learn. The investment of energy up-front reaps way more rewards in the end, and if I invest the time up-front my students will, too.

What does the future hold?

Next term will pose a very interesting challenge: I’m teaching basically a new prep (a course I haven’t taught in 4 years that I am completely overhauling), an elective course on computer security. Essentially I’ll be inventing and flipping a course at the same time. Oh, and security is not my area of expertise, either. I’m glad I got the chance to play around more with flipping two very familiar classes and work out some of the logistical kinks before tackling a much more challenging-to-me course. Luckily, I have a lighter teaching load (1.5 instead of 2.5 courses) next term too, which should alleviate some of the time management issues as well. My experience in flipping 3 courses has strengthened my commitment to the concept, and I look forward to next term’s flipping adventure!