A theory for the attendance phenomenon

For the past two years I’ve been running an informal experiment on the relationship between taking attendance and students showing up. To refresh your memory, I first talked about it in 2012 when keeping track of who was showing up during the first week extended into the rest of the quarter. I noted a year later that it was seeming to have a positive effect on student attendance, even though it doesn’t count toward the grade. Another year into the experiment, although without empirical support to back up my claim, I think I finally have a theory for why it works.

Faculty, like many people, are busy. So we don’t tend to do things like track attendance unless it’s really important, for example, by being a part of the course grade. Students are smart, and at some level they have internalized the implication that if a faculty member keeps track of something it must be because it’s a crucial part of the class. So even though they could probably tell me that their that attendance isn’t part of the grade computation for the course, they can’t help but take showing up more seriously because I do.

And, no, I can’t prove this is the case. But I like the results and the side effects like learning names quickly, so I’m going to forge ahead. It just makes me feel better that I think I understand what’s going on.

Work hangovers

When I got my teaching assignment for the spring quarter, I knew Mondays were going to be tough. My first class starts at 10:10 am and my last class ends at 9:15 pm. But I figured I would adapt. For a very long time I taught a night class every quarter, so ending around 9 pm is not a new experience for me. While I am in no way a morning person, I’ve also adapted to morning classes since for some reason the Python classes seem to be more likely to be scheduled early. For six weeks in the fall 2013 I even taught 4 1/2 hours straight twice a week when I took an overload. Four plus hours one day a week should be no problem, right?

So far this schedule is killing me. By the time I drag myself home around 10 pm, my knees and legs ache and I can barely think straight. When I wake up the next day, I feel like I have a hangover. I only recover by the end of Tuesday, and my productivity is lousy. The worst part is, I can’t figure out what the problem is. Yes, it doesn’t help that I exercise every day, which means waking up at 6 am so I can make the morning class. It also doesn’t help that the most physically demanding part of the day is the last three hours when I spend the entire time standing. But I don’t think any of these things alone explain it. I’ll have to hang in there and see if I adapt with time.


Teaching is an endurance sport

In graduate school I developed patellar tendonitis, cutting short my running life. As a result not many people know that I was an avid runner starting in grade school. I spent three years of high school running cross country, with the last year off only because I was in Germany. Cross country is a fall sport meaning that it began in August when school started. Unfortunately, August in southern Arizona is a hot month, with temperatures in the middle of the afternoon (when practice started) hovering around 110 F (43 C). My non-running friends believed, perhaps correctly, that I was a special kind of crazy to want to run 6 or more miles (10 or more km) in that kind of heat. And, no, I didn’t love every minute of the 6+ miles in the 110 F heat. It was especially difficult when the last part of the course would be hilly so that you were working the hardest when you were the most tired. But nothing made me feel happy the way running did. When you completed that course you not only felt great about having done the mileage but also about having conquered the mental aspects of pushing through the hard parts to reach the end.

The start of the spring quarter at DePaul always reminds me of my time as a cross-country runner. We’ve just completed 11 weeks of teaching, and this year through some absolutely miserable weather, with only one week off. And yet we face another 11 weeks of teaching before we’re done with the academic year. Yes, it’s likely that the weather will improve before the end of the quarter, but that only makes it worse since the last thing any of us will want to be doing is hanging out inside discussing programming in Python. We’re all tired. But we also know that the hardest part of the year is ahead of us. There is simply nothing that gets you through this time except mental toughness. And it’s always this time of year that I’m grateful I spent so many years of my teens running long distances in scorching hot weather, since the instincts that built serve me well.

Hard work pays off

I was lucky enough to have my two final exams early last week, so I finished my winter quarter grading by the end of last weekend. I always post the scores/grades to the course management system for a least a day so that any disgruntled students can contact me before I make the grades permanent, but I didn’t hear from anyone before I submitted them. I moved onto the service and research tasks that have piled up all throughout March.

So it was a bit of a surprise when I got an email from one of my students tonight with the subject line “FINAL EXAM.” Emails like that don’t tend to have good news, but this was from a student who had gone from a failing grade on the midterm to a grade in the B range on the final exam. I didn’t expect that he could have issues with the grading. As it turns out, he didn’t. Instead he told me that he hadn’t gotten the courage to look at his final exam score until today because he was too nervous about it. He was writing to express his gratitude for the help I’d given him during the latter half of the class, and I could practically hear him shouting with happiness even without the all caps. He said he had seen that hard work really did pay off for him, and he was thrilled.

In my reply, I told him he had earned the final exam grade. And he did. He typically spent 90 minutes every Wednesday in my office, working on the assignment or studying for the exam. Most of that time was spent with each of us silently working, only broken by the occasional break for a question. At first it was a bit awkward, but given that he’d come to my office hours the first time because I was scolding him for obtaining outside help that I didn’t think was useful for him, I could hardly complain about it. Over the weeks I got used to it, and eventually came to enjoy the mostly silent study/work time. After all, I had given  him a speech about how hard work was crucial for success in computer science, and it made me happy to see him take my words to heart. And I was almost as thrilled as he was when he jumped nearly 30 percentage points from the midterm to the final exam. It’s students like him where I can make a difference as an instructor, and seeing his success is so rewarding.

Good people

In the past few weeks I’ve had a lot of chances to see people at conferences and meetings. I’ve met both new people and connected with people I already knew, and today it dawned on me what an amazing bunch of computing educators I count among my friends and colleagues. They’re smart, inspiring, energetic, and funny. Most importantly they’re good people, which I was particularly reminded of this morning.

As a part of my spring break inspired research binge, I’ve devised a survey for a new mini-project. Since this is a rare project that I’m doing by myself, I wanted some feedback on it. One of the people I contacted for feedback is a very busy person. He lives in New Zealand, so it’s the start of his academic year. He also has two kids and another one on the way in April, as well as bunch of obligations I’m sure he’s not had time to share with me. Despite all of this, he took the time to think about my survey and sent me some great suggestions on how to improve it. I’m grateful that he made me a priority among all the other things he has to do, and I’m feeling particularly lucky to have him as a part of my life.


My last final exam for the winter quarter finished about an hour ago, but the end-of-quarter restlessness set in this morning. Until it lifts, I forget that teaching classes puts a subtle but constant weight on your shoulders. For example, I’m almost always aware of my email during the quarter. A delay of as little as a few hours in a reply to a student’s question can impact whether they make progress or not, which makes a big difference for the novice programmers I teach in terms of frustration and engagement. So during the quarter checking my email is almost always in the back of my mind. When I’m between quarters there is much less chance that I’ll get a message that can’t wait 12 hours to be answered. The lifting of just that pressure leaves me feeling almost giddy, and with the new feeling of freedom comes a form of restlessness.

The only time I’ve experienced something similar is when my daughter goes on a sleepover, leaving me with a large hole in my usually tightly-scheduled day. I want to do all the things that are typically difficult to do, which in the case of my home life means going to movies or for long walks. In the work situation, the equivalent desires are to work on my existing research projects or start new ones or even just think about what conferences or trips I have planned or could plan. I get almost itchy with the possibilities, in no small part because I know the time until my daughter comes back or I get two more classes full of students brimming with questions is short. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy the responsibilities of being a parent and a professor. But I also enjoy just being Amber, and indulging the latter is much rarer. So if I contact you with crazy ideas in the next 10 days, try to have patience with me.

In praise of reviewing

Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes discussing my work with me knows that my top two most-hated things about my job are (in order) meetings and grading.  What people are less likely to know is that third on the list is paper reviewing. Yes, reviewing is a useful, productive thing to do, and you need to get it done to be a good citizen. But it’s always the thing I put off when I have anything else to do. Part of the problem is that writing a good review is difficult, since it’s important to acknowledge the good things about the work while suggesting ways that the article could be improved. But I think the main issue is that it feels like homework rather than something creative and fun.

That said, there are times when I really enjoy reviewing. Most recently I was asked to review a paper for a special issue of a journal. The issue isn’t one close to my research area, although the article I was given is a lot closer to my interests than one might expect for the topic. As I read the article yesterday on the train I found myself fascinated. It introduced me to some work I wasn’t familiar with, and in particular, to an article written by someone I’ll serve on a panel with at the upcoming ITiCSE conference. I’m not sure I would have learned about that aspect of his work without having been assigned the review, and I’m looking forward to reading it. At its best reviewing broadens your horizons in unexpected ways, and experiencing it yesterday made me happy. Now I’ll have to find a way to apologize to the colleague who got the brunt of my grumpiness when he asked me to do the review.


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