Another semester, another chance

(Google tells me the title is subconsciously borrowing from Rent.  Well, crap.)

Learning how to teach, like another other form of learning, never ends.  We try, we fail, we do it better next time.  I still have not figured out my teaching philosophy, but here is what I would like to emphasize to my students this semester.

No Child Left Behind – This was my lowest rating on evaluations.  The central problem is this: we actually are aware when a student is having trouble.  However, if the student doesn’t ask questions; doesn’t come to discussion; doesn’t attend office hours; doesn’t approach the teaching staff about their problem, what should the teaching staff do?  As college students and adults, they are the ones ultimately responsible for their own learning, not the teachers, right?  Would the teaching staff approaching borderline students be treating them like children, invading their privacy, or insulting their ability to solve their own problems?

But too many times have I seen students who could use help never ask for it (on the flip side, the people who come to discussion/office hours, while I won’t say they don’t need to come, there are students who need them more).  I think it often boils down to self-esteem: addressing the problem means first admitting to it, which means acknowledging I’m not amazing and perfect and a prodigy.  Most students would rather not deal such a blow to their self-image, so they ignore it since it’ll go away at the end of the semester.  The way to address this, I feel, is to change the students’ perception of asking questions and for help: that it is not a weakness, but a desire to overcome their problems and become stronger.  Even asking a friend is better than staying silent.  However, even when I told students before, it didn’t really seem to sink in.  Maybe it needs more than just a single pep talk at the beginning of the semester and needs to be reinforced by word and deed throughout.

(As an aside: the teacher asking questions is for another reason altogether.  It’s perception, by students, is that being asked a question exposes them in front of their friends.  However, the teacher’s goal is to make sure the student is actively processing the information rather than just copying down notes for later study… like the night before the problem set is due.)

I’m thinking we should try getting the GSIs to contact students who are having trouble.  70/115 on a Babak midterm is probably where I would draw the line; that’s where people would, at this rate, have trouble continuing into the next class in the series.  The goal would be to find someway for the student to improve on the remainder of the semester.  My main worry is that, if you ask a student why they didn’t do well on an exam, they will reply with excuses rather than plans to improve (i.e. it was a result of external circumstances, not internal reasons).  Improvement will probably require behavior change.  Some potential solutions:

  • Form a study group: ask questions, explain things to one another
  • Are they making full use of discussion, office hours, bSpace, etc.?
  • More practice: including past midterms and extra problems out of the book, because what little we put in problem sets isn’t enough
  • Study tips: my favorite is to annotate solutions (students who only check to see how one step leads to the next only get a superficial understanding of the solution; annotating the solution requires you understand how each step fits within the whole and not miss the forest for the trees)

Transparency – In expectations and grading.  Really, this is my attempt to head off what I feel is the cynicism and jadedness in the classroom.  My thinking is this: if students view grading as black box, they have no motivation to change their behavior because there’s no reason to believe the change will lead to any improvement.  However, if there is a behavior the teacher wishes to instill, one way to have students adopt it is to make it in their best interest, i.e. make it clear it will improve their grade.

The behavior I want to instill is for students to write clear, concise solutions.  Where students usually go off the rails is 1) writing down anything that comes to mind to chase partial credit, 2) leaving a disorganized mess that wanders all over the paper, and 3) never explaining why they’re doing what they’re doing or mentioning the underlying concepts.  Bottom line is, when I see a disorganized solution, I can’t help but read that the writer did not have the material organized in their mind, and so they do not deserve high marks.  (1) I view as students trying to game a system because they do not understand it; (2) and (3) they probably just underestimate the importance of.  Therefore the hope is, if grader expectations are explained to the students, they will adjust their behavior.

Handouts – In addition to my old summary/review document, I’ve added a common mistakes document.

And I need to boil this down to a 5-10 minute talk I can give at the start of discussion.

Please leave comments and critiques.


The other day, I made my first attempt at a non-tomato-based pasta sauce from scratch.  Saute garlic, add red bell pepper, cook with red pepper flakes and lemon juice, serve with chicken.  I totally cribbed this from a Gordan Ramsey show.  The red bell pepper was cooked too long, and it was hard to taste the lemon.

Other pasta recipes to mine for ideas:

In summary, the bell pepper should only be cooked a couple minutes, and the lemon juice can be left out.  Possible ingredients:

  • Onions
  • Mushrooms
  • Tomatoes (original or sun-dried)
  • Shrimp or chicken
  • Alfredo sauce and/or cream
  • Parmesan/Romano/Asiago cheese
  • Cayenne pepper, Cajun seasoning, basil, lemon pepper, garlic powder, salt, and/or black pepper
  • Parsley

What do you need to make a man?

Iron enough to make a nail,
Lime enough to paint a wall,
Water enough to drown a dog,
Sulfur enough to stop the fleas,
Poison enough to kill a cow,
Potash enough to wash a shirt,
Gold enough to buy a bean,
Silver enough to coat a pin,
Lead enough to ballast a bird,
Phosphor enough to light the town,

Strength enough to build a home,
Time enough to hold a child,
Love enough to break a heart.

— From Wintersmith, Terry Pratchett

Discworld Dominion

I’m dusting off the Discworld retheme of Dominion I started last year and extending it to include Dominion: Seaside.  The Alchemy and Prosperity expansions are probably too specialized to find good matches, but I think there’s enough to cover the first 3 games (I see some possibilities in Alchemy, but Prosperity is largely concerned with Treasure cards, and there’s only so much Moist von Lipwig to go around).  This may involve renaming old cards.

Progress: see Google spreadsheet

Ships in the night

Rereading Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett.  This metaphor for relationships hit home:

‘The interesting thing about ships is that the captains of ships have to be very careful when two ships are close together at sea, particularly in calm conditions. They tend to collide.’

‘Because of the wind blowing, and that?’ said Glenda, thinking: In theory this is a romantic-novel situation and I am about to learn about ships. Iradne Comb-Buttworthy never puts a ship in her books. They probably don’t have enough reticules.

‘No,’ said Nutt. ‘In fact, to put it simply, each ship shields the other ship from lateral waves on one side, so by small increments outside forces bring them together without their realizing it.’

Glenda cleared her throat again. ‘This thing with the ships…Does it happen quite quickly?’

‘It starts quite slowly, but it’s quite quick towards the end,’ said Nutt.

Ham and potato soup

I’ve decided to work my way through Allrecipes.  Here’s Delicious Ham and Potato Soup.


It’s so simple, you can do prep work while it’s cooking.  I kept the potato skins on for texture (a lot fell off while cooking) and added carrots to maintain the mirepoix.  I was cooking after the shops closed and forgot to buy milk, so I substituted sour cream and more water; worked like a treat.  For thicker soup, I believe you can add mashed potato flakes.

RAF: German AI

In progress: I’m tinkering with an alternate German AI for RAF, playtesting and tweaking as a I go.  The current version can be found here.

Summary: There are 3 major weaknesses to the printed German AI.

  1. Raid targeting: raids hit nearly at random (exception being follow-up raids) and do not exploit holes in British defenses created by earlier raids.
  2. Raid timing: related, even if the Germans hit an area multiple times in the same day, they may let too much time to pass between raids, in which case squadrons can turnaround and intercept anew.
  3. Raid composition: too many bombers, not enough Me 109s, makes it possible for the British to overwhelm even large major raids, which is quite lucrative to the tune of +10 VPs or more.

Change log:

  1. Reimplemented [no AW] event to the Time Advance mechanism.
  2. Even with raid targeting hitting a region multiple times per time step, instances occur where, say, LF2S raids at 6/11 and 1/11 will be intercepted by different patrols.  So reimplemented the Follow-up Raid event.
  3. The first raid of the day is 1000 or later too often.  Implemented Time Advance exception for start of the day.
  4. Raid composition is still too easy to overwhelm.  Bombers past the 1st now translate to fighters.
  5. Early day radar targeting mechanism appears to bias the deck (too many of one region’s targets are drawn).  Made the rule optional.
  6. Too many raids were being generated, especially per time step.  Reduced maximum Time Advance modifier from Me 109s available from +3 to +2.
  7. With the Advanced Warning mechanism where you had to match the previous time step’s AW, the [no AW] event isn’t very effective.  Removed the matching criterion when [no AW] is in effect.
  8. Not enough major raids use Me 109s close escort, so adjusted hunt / close escort probabilities to be 50 / 50%.


  1. Need to detail what happens in all situations when there are no Me 109s in one or more Luftflottes.  What happens during Advanced Warning in a new time step?  What happens to a Target Card when the Luftflotte runs out in the middle of the time step?
  2. [No AW] event a bit too common.
  3. Still too many raids being generated?
  4. Germans now running out of Me 109s quite often, but this also makes it easy for the British to know when to intercept.