How To Email Your Professor Without Being Annoying

I really enjoyed reading this blogpost and have shared it with my students; I’ve also shared with other advisers to share with their students. The opening paragraphs:

Every semester, I see the tweets and Facebook posts. My professor friends, they are annoyed. Their students do not know how to write emails, they say. What they really mean is that their students don’t know how to follow the conventions of email etiquette in the academy. I used to be exasperated by student emails too. Until I realized that there was a simple explanation for why they didn’t know how to write them — they’ve never actually been taught how.*

But now, clueless students have no excuse, because they can read this post. Profs, share it with your students. Students, share it with your friends. Or don’t, and be the one person in the class your prof enjoys receiving email from.

10 Elements of an Effective, Non-Annoying Email

Here’s a template you can follow in constructing your email to a professor. Each element is explained further below.

Dear [1] Professor [2] Last-Name [3],

This is a line that recognizes our common humanity [4].

I’m in your Class Name, Section Number that meets on This Day [5]. This is the question I have or the help I need [6]. I’ve looked in the syllabus and at my notes from class and online and I asked someone else from the class [7], and I think This Is The Answer [8], but I’m still not sure. This is the action I would like you to take [9].

Signing off with a Thank You is always a good idea [10],
Favorite Student

I recommend reading the whole thing at

College Success Tips

I really enjoyed reading this blogpost and have shared its contents with my students and friends; I’ve also shared it with other advisers to pass on to their students. Here’s the abbreviated summary; the original post has a lot of good advice for each of these points.

Here’s my best list of what to do to succeed in college:

1. Go to class.

2. First day of every class, get two people’s phone numbers.

3. Take notes in class by hand.

4. Rewrite your notes.

5.College is your job. Your job is to be a student. It is a full-time job.

6. Go see each professor during office hours.

7. Do the reading before the class.

In sum:

– You are a student. That is your job. Spend 40 hours a week on your classes, and you’ll have time for fun.
– Do the reading. Go to class. Talk to your professors. Ask them questions.
– Take responsibility for your life and your education.

My amendment to #5 (which I tell incoming freshmen): for every hour that you spend in class, you should expect to spend 2-3 hours studying/doing homework/etc. outside of class. So going to school is approximately the same as a full-time job, but without the hard upper-limit of 40 hours per week.

As a corollary: this ratio is approximately the reverse of high school, when students spend one hour studying for every 2-3 hours spent in class. That’s because in high school, the learning happens in class. (Some AP courses in high school may be exceptions to this rule of thumb.) However, in college, the learning generally happens outside of class. My math students get me in class for 2.5 hours per week. In that time, I can set up the big picture, lay out a conceptual framework, work out a few illustrative examples, and address a few common misconceptions. Emphasis is on “a few,” because 2.5 hours per week isn’t enough time to get students to the depth of understanding that I expect an A student to possess by the end of the semester. So the deeper understanding is obtained outside of class, not inside.

I recommend reading the whole post at

See also her follow-up post

Do’s, Don’ts for Parents to Help Teens Build Math Interest and Success

I really enjoyed reading this article:

A summary:

  • Don’t project negative feeling toward math onto teens
  • Do talk to teens and teachers about what’s being taught in math class
  • Don’t be too quick to hire a tutor for struggling students
  • Do support students with the right tools

I recommend the whole article and the references therein.

Opting Out of High-Stakes Assessments

In response to the growing movement of parents who have opted out of high-stakes testing, Michelle Rhee wrote a defense of the (commercial) enterprise in the Washington Post. This op-ed piece was brilliantly deconstructed, point by point, at I encourage you to read the whole thing. A few excerpts:

[Michelle Rhee]: No, tests are not fun — but they’re necessary. Stepping on the bathroom scale can be nerve-racking, but it tells us if that exercise routine is working. Going to the dentist for a checkup every six months might be unpleasant, but it lets us know if there are cavities to address. In education, tests provide an objective measurement of how students are progressing — information that’s critical to improving public schools.

Except that the current crop of Standardized Tests are not like stepping on a scale or going to the dentist. They are like trying to find out a child’s weight by waterboarding him. They are like having your teeth checked by a blind blacksmith. Because, in education, tests NEVER provide an objective measure of anything, because tests are made by people. Yes, tests are useful– but only good tests. And do you know what good tests are useful for? They are useful for providing information critical to helping further the education of students.

I am not a Systems True Devotee. STDs believe that we just have to create a well-oiled precision machine and it will spit out Smarterer Student Products like toasters off an assembly line. I would stop to further develop the point, but we’re only one paragraph in. These woods are dark and deep, but we have miles to go.

From this diving board, That Woman proceeds to register her stunned amazement that in various places, there’s a movement that is convincing parents to pull kids out of these tests! Really!!! These marvelous tests that will tell us how schools are doing!! What in the name of God are they thinking!?!?!!?


[Michelle Rhee:] This makes no sense. All parents want to know how their children are progressing and how good the teachers are in the classroom. Good educators also want an assessment of how well they are serving students, because they want kids to have the skills and knowledge to succeed.

Allow to help you comprehend this, O She. You are correct that parents and educators do want to know these things. Your mistake is in believing that they can only know this by looking at standardized test results.

Yes, the Great and Powerful Woman Who No Longer Has a Curtain To Hide Behind imagines a world where parents sit at home after eight months of school, wringing their hands and saying, “Oh, jehosephat, I wish we knew how Janey was doing in school. But we have no idea.” Meanwhile, at school, teachers sit and the lounge and say, “Yeah, I’ve been with this kid for eight months but I just don’t know how he’s doing. Thank God we’re going to be giving a high stakes high pressure badly written unproven standardized test soon so that I’ll know how it’s going.”

In That Woman’s universe, parents and teachers (sorry– public school parents and teachers) are dumber than dirt. In fact, the list of People Standing in the Way of Educational Excellence gets longer and longer. Parents, teachers, democratically elected school boards– reformy fans have an enemies list that keeps lengthening.



[Michelle Rhee:] We don’t need to opt out of standardized tests; we need better and more rigorous standardized tests in public schools. 

Yes!! When you’re doing something stupid and bad and non-productive, do it More Harder!!


[Michelle Rhee:] We also shouldn’t accept the false argument that testing restricts educators too much, stifles innovation in the classroom or takes the joy out of teaching. That line of thought assumes that the test is the be-all and end-all — and if that’s the perspective, the joy is already long gone. 

Here’s a multiple choice test for you, dear, exhausted reader. Select which statement best reflects the meaning of the above excerpt:

1) Do not assume that the test is the be-all and end-all. It will just be-all the way we decide to end-all teaching careers, school existence, and student futures.

2) You cannot claim that this year’s testing is sucking up all the joy of teaching, because we actually drained that lake long ago and killed the fish flopping in the mud with fire and big pointy sticks.

Jonathan Katz on Some Problems of Common Core Mathematics

Courtesy of Diane Ravitch:

Jonathan Katz taught mathematics in grades 6-12 for 24 years and has coached math teachers for the past nine years.

He prepared this essay for the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of high schools that evaluates students by exhibitions, portfolios, and other examples of student work. The Consortium takes a full array of students and has demonstrated superior results as compared to schools judged solely by test scores.

What is of special concern is his description of the mismatch between the Common Core’s expectations for ninth-grade Algebra and students’ readiness for those expectations.

Here is a key excerpt…

[The Common Core standards seem] to honor the idea of problem solving and the many ways a student might engage with a problem. It seems to value the process of problem solving, the ins and outs one goes through as one tries to solve a problem and that different students will engage in different processes.

To implement such a standard, a teacher would need to present students with problems that allow for and encourage different approaches and different ways to think about a solution—what we call “open-ended problems.” Yet, when you look at the sample questions from the Fall 2013 NY State document you would be hard pressed to find an example of a real open-ended problem. Here is one example in which a situation is presented and three questions are then posed.

Max purchased a box of green tea mints. The nutrition label on the box stated that a serving of three mints contains a total of 10 Calories.

a) On the axes below, graph the function, C, where C (x) represents the number of Calories in x mints.

b) Write an equation that represents C (x).

c) A full box of mints contains 180 Calories. Use the equation to determine the total number of mints in the box.

A situation is presented to the students but then they are told how to solve it and via a method that in reality few people would even employ (who would create a graph then a function to find out the number of full mints in the box?). If you are told what to do, how can we call this solving a problem? (This would have been a very easy problem for most students if they were able to solve it any way they chose which is what we do in real life.) In fact, all eight problems in the same of Regents questions follow the same pattern. Students are told they have to create the equation (or inequality or system of inequalities or graph) to answer the question. Thus there is no real problem solving going on—merely the following of a particular procedure or the answering of a bunch of questions. Why don’t we use problems where there is a real need for an algebraic approach? Why would we ask students to look at a simple situation then force them to use an algebraic approach, which complicates the situation? We should be helping students to see that the power of algebra is that is gives us the means of solving problems that we would have great difficulty solving arithmetically.

If we were truly trying to find out if our students are developing the ability to problem solve, we would never create questions of this nature. They would be more open-ended so students had the chance to show how they think and approach a problematic situation. But that can’t happen on a test where everyone is instructed to do the same thing so we can “measure” each student’s understanding of a particular standard. This is not real mathematics and a contradiction of the Common Core Standards of Mathematical Practice!

Why does this matter? The consequences are huge, and not just for students. Consider the message we are sending to teachers. Since students will be assessed on following given procedures rather than how they strategize and reason through a problem, then teachers’ lessons will become all about following procedures to prepare their students for an exam they must pass in order to graduate. This will simply perpetuate the same failing math teaching practices we had in the past, will compound the dislike that students already have for math class, and will not in any way help our students to develop mathematical thinking.


How the Texas Testing Bubble Popped

The Dallas Morning News recently ran a three-part long-form article on the passing of HB 5, which significantly rolled back the number of high-stakes exams that are administered in Texas. From the concluding paragraphs:

So in a relatively short time, a Legislature that had been the most all-in in the nation about high-stakes testing as the key tool for accountability became almost as all-out as federal law would allow.

As inevitable as it may look in retrospect, however, the shift was anything but at the time. Politics, policy and more than 30 years of history pushed hard against the change in course. As House Speaker Straus put it recently:

“We got as close as we could to something not happening, but it happened.”

HB 5 did not have my unequivocal support, as it removed the requirement that all high school students take Algebra 2 before graduating from high school. But, on balance, I think HB 5 definitely helps more than it harms.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

The Failure of Test-Based Accountability

From Marc Tucker’s blog on Education Week:

In my last blog, I pointed to the data that shows that, after 10 years of federal education policies based on test-based accountability, there has been no perceptible improvement in student performance among high school students (which, when you get right down to it, is what really matters) as a whole, or when the data are broken down by different groupings of disadvantaged students.  There is little doubt—whether test-based accountability is being used to hold schools accountable or individual teachers—that it has failed to improve student performance.

That should be reason enough to abandon it.  But it is not.  The damage that test-based accountability has done goes far deeper than a missed opportunity to improve student achievement.  It is doing untold damage to the profession of teaching…

Test-based accountability and teacher evaluation systems are not neutral in their effect.  It is not simply that they fail to improve student performance.  Their pernicious effect is to create an environment that could not be better calculated to drive the best practitioners out of teaching and to prevent the most promising young people from entering it.  If we want broad improvement in student performance and we want to close the gap between disadvantaged students and the majority of our students, then we will abandon test-based accountability and teacher evaluation as key drivers of our education reform program.

But no one, certainly not me, would argue that we should not hold our professional educators accountable for their performance.  The question is, what would accountability look like if we actually regarded our teachers as professionals doing professional work, instead of interchangeable blue-collar workers doing blue-collar work?  That is the question I will deal with in my next blog.

I encourage you to read the whole thing:

The following video made the rounds a few months ago and ties in with the above point. It is less about the shortcomings of the Common Core than our leaders’ fixation with quantifying educational output. As the speaker says well, “If everything I learned in high school is a measurable objective, then I have not learned anything.”

MAA Calculus Study: Persistence through Calculus

I just read a recent post by David Bressoud, former president of the Mathematical Association of America, concerning the percentage of college students in Calculus I who ultimately enroll in Calculus II. Some interesting quotes:

[J]ust because a student needs further mathematics for the intended career and has done well in the last mathematics course is no guarantee that he or she will decide to continue the study of mathematics. This loss between courses is a significant contributor to the disappearance from STEM fields of at least half of the students who enter college with the intention of pursuing a degree in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics.


Our study offered students who had chosen to switch out a variety of reasons from which they could select any with which they agreed. Just over half reported that they had changed their major to a field that did not require Calculus II. A third of these students, as well as a third of all switchers, identified their experience in Calculus I as responsible for their decision. It also was a third of all switchers who reported that the reason for switching was that they found calculus to require too much time and effort.
This observation was supported by other data from our study that showed that switchers visit their instructors and tutors more often than persisters and spend more time studying calculus. As stated before, these are students who are doing well, but have decided that continuing would require more effort than they can afford.


[W]e do need to find ways of mitigating the shock that hits so many students when they transition from high school to college. We need to do a better job of preparing students for the demands of college, working on both sides of the transition to equip them with the skills they need to make effective use of their time and effort.
Twenty years ago, I surveyed Calculus I students at Penn State and learned that most had no idea what it means to study mathematics. Their efforts seldom extended beyond trying to match the problems at the back of the section to the templates in the book or the examples that had been explained that day. The result was that studying mathematics had been reduced to the memorization of a large body of specific and seemingly unrelated techniques for solving a vast assortment of problems. No wonder students found it so difficult. I fear that this has not changed.

The full post can be found at

From “Reshaping High Schools”

A colleague pointed out the following article to me: Put Understanding First, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. A sampling:

Unfortunately, the common methods of teaching and testing in high schools focus on acquisition at the expense of meaning and transfer. As a result, when confronted with unfamiliar questions or problems (even selected-response problems on standardized tests), many students flounder. Consider a high school algebra question that was included on state tests in New York and Massachusetts:

To get from his high school to his home, Jamal travels 5.0 miles east and then 4.0 miles north. When Sheila goes to her home from the same high school, she travels 8.0 miles east and 2.0 miles south. What is the measure of the shortest distance, to the nearest tenth of a mile, between Jamal’s home and Sheila’s home? (Students were provided with a grid they could use to plot the answer.)

Fewer than 40 percent of New York 10th graders correctly answered this item, despite the fact that the requisite knowledge is “covered” in every Algebra I class in North America. Test results such as these reveal not a failure of coverage but a failure of transfer.

Out-of-context learning of skills is arguably one of the greatest weaknesses of the secondary curriculum—the natural outgrowth of marching through the textbook instead of teaching with meaning and transfer in mind. Schools too often teach and test mathematics, writing, and world language skills in isolation rather than in the context of authentic demands requiring thoughtful application. If we don’t give students sufficient ongoing opportunities to puzzle over genuine problems, make meaning of their learning, and apply content in various contexts, then long-term retention and effective performance are unlikely, and high schools will have failed to achieve their purpose.