No Final Exam

Here’s a thought: what if the class you were in had no final exam? I know, it seems preposterous. Whenever one thinks of a mathematics or science course, a final exam is a no-brainer. It’s never a surprise to the students that your class will have a final exam, because that’s the tradition. Mathematics classes have final exams as a rule. It’s the way that students show that they’ve understood the material throughout the semester.…

Continue reading


Quick introduction: the algorithmic lens

Computers are a ubiquitous tool in modern research. We use them for everything from running simulation experiments and controlling physical experiments to analyzing and visualizing data. For almost any field ‘X’ there is probably a subfield of ‘computational X’ that uses and refines these computational tools to further research in X. This is very important work and I think it should be an integral part of all modern research. But this is not the algorithmic…

Continue reading


Patting Yourself On The Back

As a student or an academic, chances are you have a lot of work to do. Whether that is homework, studying for exams, preparing a presentation, writing a paper, doing research, or teaching, there is a lot that is asked of you. Often, the weeks seem like undulating waves, with regular spikes in work followed by brief periods of respite. This can lead to an unhealthy lifestyle if you are not careful with how you…

Continue reading


Nudging Along Versus Waiting

The eternal question as a teacher or tutor is what to do when a student is struggling. Should you give them a hint, re-explain a key concept to them, or let them sit there and struggle? It’s not always clear which approach should be taken. I’ve often felt the pull to take the first route. After all, they are struggling! Shouldn’t I help them out? This meant I would give them some sort of pointer…

Continue reading


Danger of motivatiogenesis in interdisciplinary work

Randall Munroe has a nice old xkcd on citogenesis: the way factoids get created from bad checking of sources. You can see the comic at right. But let me summarize the process without direct reference to Wikipedia: 1. Somebody makes up a factoid and writes it somewhere without citation. 2. Another person then uses the factoid in passing in a more authoritative work, maybe sighting the point in 1 or not. 3. Further work inherits…

Continue reading


Learning is Offloading

When I’m learning a new topic, all of the details matter. If I want to understand what is going on, I need to have a firm handle on each detail. If I cannot imagine how each part operates and connects with the others, “getting” the concept is difficult. I suspect this happens for others, too. After all, if you want to understand without needing to take a result on faith, you have to know the…

Continue reading


A Survey Of Homework Strategies

If you take a look at any given class, you find that there are a variety of strategies employed by the students. In a way, it’s the perfect Darwinian battlefield: those with the best homework strategies end up doing well and move on to the next course. Some strategies are better than others, and this really shows up in any class. Even if your class is small (say, about ten people), you will find that…

Continue reading


From perpetual motion machines to the Entscheidungsproblem

There seems to be a tendency to use the newest technology of the day as a metaphor for making sense of our hardest scientific questions. These metaphors are often vague and inprecise. They tend to overly simplify the scientific question and also misrepresent the technology. This isn’t useful. But the pull of this metaphor also tends to transform the technical disciplines that analyze our newest tech into fundamental disciplines that analyze our universe. This was…

Continue reading


Just A Blink

When you’re in school, it seems like everything you’re learning is super important. You might even get the impression that you will definitely use what you learn forever. Here’s the deal: that’s almost certainly not true. No matter how sophisticated the material you’re learning is, there’s a decent chance that the only time you will “apply” it in your life is during your studies. After that, you might get a career in a totally different…

Continue reading


Mathematics for Enjoyment

The title of this post may not be words you are used to seeing together. Sure, you might think that mathematics is powerful, but does anyone actually do mathematics just because they enjoy it? If you ask someone other than a mathematician, you might expect the answer to be “no”. If you ask someone if they enjoy mathematics, there tend to be two possible answers that are given. The least common answer is, “Yes, I’m…

Continue reading