Slacking with Undergraduate Researchers

Summer is in full swing, and so are my first undergraduate researchers. Two of my calculus students from last year are working with me on a neat little project that’s funded through my school. I’ve never coordinated undergraduate research before, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but so far we’re right on schedule and they’re working (mostly) independently.

Since the three of us wouldn’t always be on campus all summer, I wanted a good way to make sure we were communicating and focusing on our goals. My students are only sophomores, and while they’re good workers, I knew they’d need more oversight than more experienced students might. I also knew that a hundred different email threads would be a terrible way to do all this, so I started looking into other options. I’ve played around with project management software like Asana, Basecamp, and Trello before, and thought I might give one of them a shot. While they all have their own strengths and weaknesses, these sites offer ways to easily develop and assign tasks to different team members, track progress on those tasks, and facilitate team communication. I know people who use one of these sites just to manage their own to-do lists, and they’re definitely useful organizational tools.

As tempting as it was to throw myself into learning a new piece of productivity software, I ultimately decided this was probably overkill. If I had a larger group, or multiple groups working on different projects, I would definitely consider one of those options just for my sanity. But since we were only managing the three of us I figured we could get away with something simpler.

Screenshot from the IOS interface

Screenshot from the iOS interface

Enter Slack. I first heard about Slack from my obsession with the FiveThirtyEight politics crew, who post their weekly Slack chats on their website. At first glance, it’s just a messaging app and website, but it’s been a vital tool for our group. I have my students post updates every time they sit down to work. They describe what they’re working on and what they’ve found, even if they just went down a dead end. We make note of potential leads to follow up on later, links to relevant papers or books, and nascent conjectures. You can star messages to remember for later, pin them to make them stand out, even react with emoji if you are so inclined (I’m not, but it might be a good motivator for the students).

It’s not just for text either – we post screenshots of our programs, photos of our work, and upload files, though we usually use a separate Dropbox for that. Slack also supports separate ICQ-like channels for different conversations and private messaging, though we’ve only stuck with the one chat for now.

The biggest benefit for me is how searchable our work is. I sometimes have a hard time finding an email I want to reference, especially from my phone. I love that we have all of our conversations in one place, and that I can quickly find the message I want. It’s become an electronic lab notebook/collective memory for the whole group. An unexpected perk is that my students seem much more responsive to the chat than to email. And honestly, that’s probably true for me as well.

This might seem like a lot of fuss over what’s basically a beefed-up version of AOL instant messenger, but we’ve really enjoyed this tool and it’s been great for our communication and productivity. If any of you are using other products like this in your research, please let me know in the comments!


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Collaborator is a jerk?

Comic from, by Randall Munroe, of course.

From, of course.

My last blog post was about my early summer math spree, mostly working with some excellent collaborators. This website gives us some stats about the posts: number of people who looked at it, where they were directed from, what links people clicked, etc. One of the stats is “top searches,” which seems to be a list of search terms that led people to PhD plus Epsilon. Strangely, one of the top searches that landed people at my recent post was “collaborator is a jerk.”

I found this pretty funny, since that post was all about how great my collaborators are. I have been very lucky and happy to work with wonderful people. However, this search term betrays that not everyone is as enamored with their collaborators as I am with mine. I have not ever had a terrible collaborator, or even a bad one. But I have heard about some, and I admit that I have done some things that I later realized were probably really annoying to my own collaborators.

What makes a great or terrible collaborator? For me to work well with someone, the most important thing is that this person wants to work on a project with me. Not just that this person wants to do the same thing, but that they actively want to work together. We both want to do the math, of course, but we both have to really value each other as part of the project. Even when someone is confused, or taking a long time to figure something out, we both (all) have to feel that everyone understanding an essential goal of the project. It really is, because otherwise someone can’t contribute, and then what’s the point of collaborating at all?

Beyond this basic agreement in motivation, here are some things I think about in collaboration:

Great in a collaborator Not great in a collaborator
Speaks up but also listens carefully, has great ideas, works hard, asks good questions, willing to work examples/do computations


Very passive or easily cowed, or incredibly attached to their own ideas, not interested in listening to others, or unwilling to ask questions or display ignorance, condescending, undermining, impatient with explanations
Generally responsive, but understanding when people are busy or just a little flaky sometimes Totally unresponsive, or inflexibly demanding of everyone’s immediate attention
Willing to write, willing to edit, okay with other people editing their work Unwilling to write anything, or won’t read other people’s work, or very controlling of written document, rewrites everything
Likes to do stuff, also happy to let other people do stuff Won’t do anything, or does every possible thing before anyone else has a chance to contribute
Consults with collaborators about speaking for the group, seeking outside help, involving others, submitting work, making major edits Makes group decisions unilaterally

Reading this over, it’s mostly really obvious. Some of it comes down to being a jerk or not. Since it seems like most people try not to be jerks, maybe the interesting question is: how do nice people accidentally drive their collaborators crazy? I have definitely found myself doing things that I realized later weren’t good. For example, sometimes I have been intimidated and afraid to ask questions. I have also been so eager to contribute that I have tried to do everything, and I have gotten overwhelmed and been unresponsive for way too long. Luckily my collaborators have always been very gracious, and given me some good ideas on how to work better together in the process.

I’m curious: what do you think are the most important qualities in a collaborator? Good/bad stories of working with people?

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First steps in standards-based grading

I’ve written before about my experience teaching my graduate course this semester, but I haven’t talked about one big experiment I tried: working towards standards-based grading. I started hearing about different implementations of this over the last year or so, and thanks to a Project NExT panel at the joint meeting from Eric Sullivan and Benjamin Braun (links go to their slides), I thought I’d take the plunge.

The idea behind typical standards, specs, or mastery-based grading is to track students’ progress with mastering skills directly, instead of filtered through a weighted average of percentages on assignments. In addition, students have multiple opportunities to improve their work and demonstrate mastery of these skills. Final grades are usually assigned based on how many skills have been mastered.

I didn’t do a full implementation of standards-based grading this semester, but I did get a good start. I skipped the really hard part of this – listing all the learning objectives for my students – because I’d never taught the course before and some of my goals for the class felt kind-of nebulous. This class is algebra for teachers, so a lot of the course is about teaching students to think abstractly, generalize, and write simple proofs. Writing these goals in simple, assessable terms seemed like too much work for a first attempt.

Instead, I started with the easy part of standards-based grading: the actual grading part. I graded each homework problem on a scale of 0-2. A 2 is mastery. Maybe not completely perfect, but it’s clear that the student has demonstrated that they have the skills I’m assessing. A 0 is work that is completely on the wrong track, and 1 is somewhere in between – maybe undeveloped or incomplete, but with a good start. I liked this scale a lot, because it reduces the variance in my grading: if I try to grade a problem out of ten points, the difference between a 5 and a 7 might depend more on my mood than on the actual quality of the work. But the lines between a 0, a 1, and a 2 are almost always clear.

I had a very small class, so I let my students resubmit their work as many times as they wanted. Others put a time limit on resubmissions to prevent a glut of grading at the end of the semester. But the idea is that students can keep refining their work until they are proficient at the skills we want them to learn. And it forces students to learn from their mistakes instead of just shoving a bad grade in the back of a folder and never thinking about it again.

I assigned final grades based on how many 0s, 1s, and 2s students had by the end of the semester. An A was more than 95% 2s, a B more than 85% 2s, C more than 75%. Students knew exactly what they needed to do in order to get the grade they wanted and (most) would resubmit accordingly. One student was terrified that she was going to fail in the beginning of the semester, but after working with her extensively she ended up bringing her grade up to an A.

I have to admit, this was not an unqualified success though. These were graduate students, most of them current teachers with families, so I was very lenient on deadlines. I figured everybody would turn in the required resubmissions by the end of the semester without a lot of hand-holding. That was not the case. If I had this to do over again, I would have been more proactive and made sure that every student knew if they were underperforming.

I will definitely be doing this again for my smaller classes. The simpler scale saved a ton of time and effort, so the re-grading didn’t feel like that much extra work. Next time I’ll even try to align my assignments with learning objectives. I’m also interested to see how undergraduates respond to this method – my guess is that they’ll jump on board a little more easily, but I’m not sure. I’ll report back next year.

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