Dealing with the distance student’s email deluge

Too many messages, for distance students email is just one source. This flood hides vital communications. Try these ways to deal with the email flood.

The flood of emails

We are all1 deluged with more email than we can easily deal with (at least when we are busy with ‘real life’). This problem becomes much more accute for ‘distance students’. As well as the usual special offers not to miss, uncle Tom’s funny cats, reminders of unpaid bills and the rest, they suddenly face a slew of messages from courses they are enrolled in. Some of these are messages from the teacher and may contain vital, or at least (we hope) useful information. Many will probably be generated automatically by ‘the system’ sending copies of ‘forum posts’.2

Dealing with Forums

Usually these forums are of two quite different sorts. Some are assessed and gain the student marks, others encourage wider sharing of ideas and questions of the sort onsite students exchange over refreshments (hence ACOM calls them ‘Student Lounges’).

Different classes will have the email notification system set up in diferent ways. Usually students can “unsubscribe” from emails, though often they are set to get them as the default option. There are basically three approaches you can take to these post notification emails.

  • Turn them off, and go look at the forums at times that suit you. This suits organised timetabled people. Those of us who are less organised risk missing vital posts this way.
  • Switch them to “digest” mode, that way each forum just sends one email every 24 hours. Great if your main problem is simply too many emails confusing you, but it could result in a long and confusing ‘digest’ – a case of the cure being (perhaps) as bad as the disease.
  • Leave them on but triage your mail box. I dealt with how to do this in a separate post, but basically it means either yourself, or by using “rules”, deciding which to leave in your inbox and which to move to a holding pen (or even delete).
Don’t do as I do.

Don’t do as I do, but find your own best approach! However, here is what works for me. During my regular email triage sessions I either from the subject line, or more often after a quick glance at the contents, decide if one needs action now. If so I go to the forum and respond. Otherwise I delete them, but expect to take another glance (in context of the student they were responding to) when I make a (daily? every couple of days?) visit to the forums to see what’s new.

 

  1. Well, probably only ‘almost all’, but from conversations I think ‘all’ is only a small hyperbole. []
  2. ‘Forums’ are sometimes known by other names but are ‘places’ where students can leave messages and respond to the messages others have left. []

Email triage

Like medical triage in a war zone, email triage is a vital skill for students

Emails flood most students’ inboxes. Some is vital much is rubbish. Triage your email: war medics need to focus on the most serious cases, email triage is similar. Here’s what to do.

It’s a war zone

An overworked service (like a hospital in a war zone) must prioritize incoming tasks (patients). That way they deal first with the most urgent, and they leave less urgent cases till there is time.

For many people today our email inboxes are like a war zone!

Broadly there are two contrasting approaches to email triage. One seeks to attain and maintain a ‘zero inbox’, the other relies on the huge storage capacity available today (and the relatively small size of most email messages – except auntie Jane’s laugh out loud videos)1 together with much better search facilities available in most email clients, and seeks simply to manage the flow.

Zero inbox

I have never managed ‘zero inbox’ [If anyone does this and can suggest a good place for advice I will add a link here.] so below I’ll explain ‘managed chaos’. I will use Gmail as my example but much the same principles work in Outlook and other systems.

Managed chaos

When emails are first seen

NB: I turn off, or ignore, the notification that tells me “you have 3 new messages” – if I am not reading emails just now it is a distraction, when I am doing email it is redundant.2

Every now and then (the timing varies depending on what I am doing, but at least twice a day – morning and evening) I open the email client and look at the messages. First I look at the sender’s name and the ‘subject’. This allows me to delete quite a lot without reading them, and occasionally mark gratuitous rubbish as ‘spam’. (I try to follow the ‘unsubscribe’ link at the bottom of most circular emails if I once signed up but no longer want them, marking them as spam may be counter productive and the difference in time is small.)

I then open the rest one at a time:

  • Some I need to read and act on.  If possible I do it now, if not I mark them as ‘unread’ as a signal to me that they need action.
  • Some I can glance at, notice what matters and then delete.
  • Some need to be kept, but require no action. You can flick these into useful folders depending on their topic and relevance. I used to do this, but no longer bother. A quick search (and as Gmail indexes as I go searching is very quick) finds the ones I need when I need them.

I have not written about ‘rules’ here as I hardly use them, they are a powerful way to manage the flood, but seem to me hard work! Many people like it but I have also turned off the Gmail ‘feature’ that sorts circular emails into a seperate box, that too is a complication I do not need! (See here for how it is meant to work – reversing the how to turn it on instructions turn it off : )

Taking a second look

At the end of the day, or when you need a break from other work, look back over the emails you have not dealt with and deal with them. They will now be marked as ‘read’ and can be left unless one day you need them.

Job done, emails tamed (at least 90% of the time ; )

  1. Which you either delete or if her sense of humour matches yours keep and enjoy. I usually delete them sight unseen! Along with e-cards and other rubbish. []
  2. I can see them for myself thanks! []

Proof reading your work

Proof reading an essay is simple, not time consuming, but vital to good grades.

Proof reading essays is vital if you want better grades. Work with lots of errors in spelling and grammar, or sentences that do not make sense, suggest to markers a student who does not care about the quality of their work. You can find and correct all of these things with a little time spent proof reading your essay.

Listening to your work: an easy way to proof read

The first step in proof reading your essay is to check it for sense and flow. While one can try to do this by looking at the text, it is much better done by listening. Listening to a computer interpret what you have written is especially revealing. (The computer has little or no understanding but follows rules of grammar and intonation that have been programmed in, it is thus good at showing up clumsy sentences.)

As well as clumsy sentences, listening to your work can help us spot where we have failed to make the ideas flow. By listening you may spot jumps in logic that you missed while focussing on looking at the words.

Many commercial word processors, like Microsoft Word, have the capacity to read text aloud (MS Word on PC instructions). The open source word processors use an add-in to do this. Read Text can be downloaded and installed from this link. The add-in adds a small icon to your menu bars, I needed to move this so that it did not occupy a whole line to itself, or the description linked above tells how to use it.

It helps to follow along with your eyes as the computer reads, what you should spot (and probably correct) are places where the computer has not made sense of what you wrote (reword it, add or revise punctuation, etc. till it works) or places where you spot jumps or repetitions (again edit to correct the problem).

Spell and grammar checkers

Most students know about spelling checkers, some foolishly don’t use them to check their spelling, or ignore their warnings. Ignore the warnings at your peril! Poor spelling may not be important to you, but it will signal loudly to your markers that you are careless.

Grammar checkers can also be really useful. Even the basic grammar checker in Libre Office often shows me silly mistakes that students could have avoided in essays I am marking. A better grammar checker, like the one in commercial word processors, or the free Grammarly, will do an even better job.1 Correcting your errors will also improve your writing, meaning you have less errors to correct next time.

The last step in proofing your essay

For the final step, you will need a friend or family member who can write good English. (Perhaps you can offer some service in return, or cook some treat as a thank-you : ) The ideal person will be  able (and if you encourage them enough) willing to be a tough audience. You want them to say things like: “What did you mean to say here?” or “I’m sorry I don’t understand this!” or “This does not seem to follow from that…” Much better such comments come from a friend than the marker!

Previously…
  1. There is a subscription “pro” version of Grammarly which catches far more mistakes and corrects more complex errors. It is too expensive for me to try, but then I have spent decades learning to correct my own grammar. []

Writing an essay

Writing an essay is like riding a bike, practice makes perfect.

Here are my top tips for writing an essay. Each year I mark hundreds of essays. Most could have got much better grades. Clear, well-structured essays earn better grades. I’ll show you an easy way to write clear well-structured essays.

People hate to write

Don't let writers' block stop you writing an essay. Writing begins with research. Most people hate writing. Even professional writers suffer from “writers’ block”. They will do anything else except actually write. Students with assignments do not have the luxury of years to prepare their masterpieces. They work with tight deadlines. If you follow the advice in the earlier post “researching an essay” then you are already past the first barrier, you have begun to write!

Let me explain: As part of the research process, indeed as the goal of that process you have a title and a summary paragraph. I described the summary paragraph like this:

The first sentence should define the areas or issue. The last should present a conclusion. In between the sentences should each address one thing, and together they should present the arguments and sorts of evidence that lead to the conclusion.

If you have actually done this, instead of skipping over it as an unnecessary extra, you have a framework that you will now expand writing your essay.

From summary to essay

Keeping an essay on target means writing a better essayYou are basically going to turn each sentence into a paragraph or two of your essay. So, how many sentences do you have? (Remember, they need to be short and focused.Long and complex sentences should have been edited out!)  If each sentence was a paragraph (of the average length of paragraph you write) how close would you be to the word target? When this estimate is over you may need to begin thinking of what to cut, or trying to write shorter paragraphs – often shorter simpler sentences will help you do this ;)  If the estimate is under, you may need to make each sentence of the summary (or some of them) into two paragraphs. Ideally, at this stage, you are aiming to write an essay that will be 10-20% over the word target. Don’t worry at the next step, editing, you will cut it down to size!

These paragraphs should be easy to write – you have already done the research. They will be focused – since each expands on one simple sentence. They will lead your reader sensibly through the arguments and evidence to your conclusion. Congratulations. You will be one of the few students to write a coherent essay!

Already you are on track for better grades. It would horrify you how many incoherent essays teachers have to mark. If you doubt this befriend some (ex)teachers on Facebook ;)

The final steps in writing an essay

Cutting the flab means writing a better essay.

According to the Daily Telegraph:
Mark Smithers, from Kent, recently revealed that he lost 11 stone in one year

You have two tasks left:

Edit, then edit again. Cut the waffle. In speech we need time to think. So we use words and phrases that mean nothing, or which add little to the meaning. They give us time to think. Cut them out!

We imagine descriptive words, especially superlatives, make our writing and ideas stronger. Usually they don’t – cut them. A slimmed down, taut and powerful essay will come out of this painful process!

Write a conclusion. What it will look like depends on the subject and type of essay. BUT it should say nothing new. A conclusion should merely repeat in compressed form what you have already said. It serves to remind your reader what you said. Ideally it also draws attention to how cleverly and in what a focused way you arrived there.

Researching an essay

Researching essays

Literature search

The first step to a good essay is a “literature search”. Researching essays well is vital to getting good grades. The goal of research, whether conducted with the aid of an academic library or in the wild with “merely” the Internet to help, is two-fold:

  • to get an overview of the topic. If you do not have a narrow topic set for you, also to identify a precise topic to write about (see below).
  • to begin collecting resources (researching the essay). Useful resources are of two sorts:
    • Simple overviews of a broad topic. (We called them “Noddy guides” when I was young ;-) Articles on the topic in specialised dictionaries or encyclopedias are usually good possibilities.1 A good noddy guide will help you gain a broad context of what experts have said and are saying about the topic. It will also probably help you to identify a narrower topic within the broad topic. Pick something scholars are debating. It will make a good topic to write on.2
    • Specialist works. You also need works written by specialists. Often these are journal articles, but (in theology and biblical studies at least) will also include chapters from books3 focused on your narrow topic. As you search you should not read everything. Glance through the works getting an idea what each is about. Gradually you will get a sense of which are the “best” works in the area. They are the ones other authors’ bibliographies and footnotes mention by more often. You should prioritise these for reading later. They may be the only ones you put in the final bibliography for the essay. Quality is usually better than quantity in bibliographies.

Beginning to sketch out the field

Title

The overview(s) you found should begin to give you an understanding of the topic. They will point you to the issues that scholars debate in this area. At this stage, you aim to produce a provisional title for your essay. The title should (if you have a choice) be short, and identify a narrower area within the broad topic. (If you are working with a set title, unless the rubric demands that you offer a broad overview, you should create a private title that identifies the focus – within the official title. So, you will give to your essay a sharp focus.

Draft summary and conclusion

When you have your defined area or issue to address, try to write a first draft of one paragraph summary of the relevant information, or the issues in dispute. This should suggest a provisional conclusion. (Usually in writing such a summary one side or other of the issue will seem weightier or more attractive.)

If significant things seem still really unclear you should read more. It is better to research an essay more than to write with muddy ideas.

Now revise your summary paragraph. The first sentence should define the areas or issue. The last should present a conclusion. In between the sentences should each address one thing. Together they present the arguments and sorts of evidence that lead to your conclusion.

This summary paragraph will provide the structure of your essay. It may provide also give you its opening. At this stage, indeed until the essay is finished, it is provisional and can be edited whenever you find a need.

Researching the specialised works

Now, you can begin to read the specialised works you prioritised earlier. While you may read short articles from start to finish any longer work should be read following the sort of process outlined here. Note taking will be covered in the another post.. Here it is sufficient to say that you should focus on getting relevant information, arguments, and ideas. They will help you fill out the sentences of your summary. So you are looking for material that relates to the special topics of each sentence.

Excursus: advice on Wikipedia and Internet resources in researching essays

Wikipedia is often a useful place to start, but many scholars depreciate its use. Lack of expert editorial control may allow inaccuracies or ignorant bias in some articles. If you use Wikipedia as your first read, you should still not cite it.  So, make sure that the information or ideas it gave you can be sourced from works of conventional scholarship. (This is not merely pandering to scholarly prejudice, but simple prudence, remember Wikipedia does not have expert editorial control and so is more likely to contain errors or serious bias without supporting arguments and evidence.) Because of how Wikipedia is produced its articles are NOT usually useful in providing an outline for your essay (see above).

Other Internet material.You should treat Internet sources with greater suspicion than material found in an academic library. Articles from online scholarly journals, databases and books may be exceptions. However, librarians act as filters removing works that lack scholarly quality. (Nb. this is more true of academic libraries and less true of public libraries.) The Internet has no such selectivity. You can access any and all sorts of rubbish as well as works of real quality. If you use the Internet (including Google Books as it has little such filtering) you must assume responsibility for this selectivity yourself. Look for works with a scholarly air. Signs to look for include:

  • authors associated with reputable institutions (and who work in the field of study they write about)4 or who have a solid CV
  • referencing – Works that are referenced are more likely to be of solid worth.
  • arguments and evidence – Works that simply state conclusions are of little value. Real scholarship NEVER rests on assertions of authority, but always on arguments and evidence.
  • balanced tone and relative avoiding evaluative language – The more a site expresses clear and strong opinions, the less likely it is to be scholarly. (There are exceptions, but unless other more reputable sources agree do not assume you have found one – however much you agree with the author’s opinions).
  1. Encyclopedia articles are often too long to really serve. However, they may have introductions that set the scene or conclusions that will work well. []
  2. By and large the narrower a title you choose the better your essay. However you need sufficient material to give you the ideas, information, and arguments that you need. []
  3. Sometimes indeed whole books. []
  4. Many scholars in other disciplines have websites on institutional servers (with .edu or .ac domains) that discuss theological topics. Treat these as you would contributions from the general public, a research nuclear physicist is no more likely to be a good theologian than an equally intelligent bricklayer! []

Sensible Sentencing

Writing is dangerous. Readers often misunderstand. Sensible Sentencing can help. Short simple sentences are easier to understand. To write a good essay starts with writing good sentences.

I have been marking. Some student essays are a joy to read. Some are full of long complicated sentences and I am left guessing what the writer intended to say. I cannot fairly give marks based on guesswork. Not just beginners, but experienced writers too, can write sentences that are misunderstood. Complex sentences are more likely to be misunderstood than simple ones.

The trick to writing that can easily be understood is easy. The trick to writing that is unlikely to be misunderstood is easy. Write simple sentences. Each sentence should say ONE thing.

[Like most “rules”, experienced writers can break this one effectively. PG Wodehouse wrote many long elegant sentences. Often they had a “twist” that added spice to his humour. However, when beginners try to copy such sentences often something goes wrong. The result is puzzled or angry readers. If you are an experienced writer you should still be wary of long sentences. They are dangerous. Check them twice.]1

If each sentence is short and says one thing, then it is almost guaranteed to be clear and comprehensible. Sometimes we need to coordinate two ideas together. In that case use a conjunction. If the ideas are simply placed side by side use “and”. If you intend a contrast use “but”.2

However, beginners should be wary of sentences that use more complicated tricks than this.

Short simple sentences are easy to understand. They contribute to a good essay. Writing sentences well is better essay writing. Once more doing the right thing gets you better grades!

  1. This is good advice. I have been writing for public consumption for over forty years, usually more often than weekly, still most of my bad writing is due to long sentences – like this one? []
  2. You can do this as two sentences, using however, but this can lead to other problems. Not least lots of “howevers”. If you start a sentence with “however” put a comma after it.

    Actually, it is more complicated than this, If “however” means “no matter how” it is not followed by a comma. For example: “However Squiggly tried, he couldn’t get his mind off chocolate.” More here. If “however” means “but” then a comma is needed: in Star Trek (2009) Spock says, “I intend to assist in the effort to reestablish communication with Starfleet. However, if crew morale is better served by my roaming the halls weeping, I will gladly defer to your medical expertise.” – More here. []

Referencing (citing) for beginners

One of the biggest hurdles new students face is learning to reference their work “properly”. Schools seldom teach this skill but increasingly Universities and colleges are demanding it. Life is not made easier by the fact that, to all except for OCD suffers getting proper citations is no fun :(

That’s the bad news. However the good news is that “proper” citation has never been easier.

This is a short guide how to cite. It explains the principles of citing, and also points you to a free tool that makes the job easy!

Software that cites

You can use a program that keeps track of all your references and even formats them differently for different teachers at the click of a button. The two commonest ways to do this (at least in NZ) are:

  • EndNote: an expensive program for which many institutions have bought site licences. These allow students to install a copy. Its greatest advantage is that it may come with institutional support (e.g. free classes on how to use it). Its greatest disadvantage is that it is a big heavyweight that has a history of slowing your wordprocessor to a crawl and crashing machines. (I’m told it is better behaved now, but have no recent experience to confirm this.) It will do everything you need and 16,000 other things as well. You won’t be able to use it when you leave study without paying a whopping fee.
  • Zotero: a free program that works as a standalone or integrates with your browser.1 Zotero also integrates with both MS Word and the main free Wordprocessors. This free program does everything you need and a score or more of things you should use but probably won’t. It has been known to crash, but in my experience less than Endnote.

The choice is probably really simple :)

  1. If your institution offers Endnote and supports it, choose it.
  2. If not choose Zotero.
  3. Unless you like using free software and hate your computer running slowly in which case use Zotero anyway.
  4. Not using either is plain stupid, and if you were stupid you would not be looking at this ;)

Learn to use it. (If there is demand I might do updated Zotero tutorials but I think the ones on the site are good.)

Getting the data to cite

Unless you are a fossil from the dark ages, do not try to enter the data (author’s name, title, etc.) by hand. There are easier ways :)

For books and e-journals your institution’s system should integrate with your bibliography software, on the catalogue page just click the link to “add citation to Endnote” (or however it is phrased).

NB: this data is prepared by librarians so is usually good, but occasionally even librarians have brainstorms or bad hair days. If the author’s name appears in capitals, or the Title includes a description or something, then you may need to “clean up” the data. This is rare, and if you do it in the bibliography software itself you will only have to do it once for any item. One piece of “tidying” I often have to do is add the place of publication.

Citing right

Add your citations in your wordprocessor.

Make sure you have chosen the “correct” format. Hint: the “correct” format is the one your teacher told you to use, even if you think a different one is better :(

There are more possible formats than there are days in a leap year, but there are a few in common use:

MLA 7th Ed Bulkeley, Tim. Not Only a Father: Talk of God As Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition. Auckland, N.Z: Archer Press, 2011. Print.
APA 6th Ed Bulkeley, T. (2011). Not only a father: Talk of God as mother in the Bible & Christian tradition. Auckland, N.Z: Archer Press.
Turabian Bulkeley, Tim. Not Only a Father: Talk of God As Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition. Auckland, N.Z.: Archer Press, 2011.
Chicago Bulkeley, Tim. 2011. Not only a father: talk of God as mother in the Bible & Christian tradition. Auckland, N.Z.: Archer Press.

Learn what the ones used at your place look like, so you’ll notice if somehow your document is set to the “wrong” one ;)

What about citing interesting things like videos, blogs etc.?

Ths is the most frequently asked question. The first answer is this: “Don’t panic”2 The second answer is go to Son of Citation Machine, click the appropriate link, and enter the data (or at least those that you can easily discover, how much effort you make probably depends on how IT savvy your lecturer seems ;)  Though nowadays Zotero or Endnote are probably up to the job without Son of Citation Machine once you have done a few and got the feel of things :)

It should look something like this:

Bulkeley, Tim. Not Only a Father: Talk of God As Mother in the Bible & Christian Tradition. Archer Press, n.d. Web. 7 Apr 2013. <http://bigbible.org/mothergod/>.

  1. On PCs, Macs, iPhone/iPad, Chrome for Android, Android Browser, Firefox Mobile Browser or Opera Mobile/Mini []
  2.  Douglas Adams (1992). The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Four Parts. Pan, 537. []

A massive library is available to distant students

I’m marking again. Every time I mark an assignment some distant students could have got better marks. If only they had used a decent scholarly commentary or two. Instead, they only use whatever they, their aunt Jemima (who did a course at Capenwray in the 1960s) or their pastor happen to have. Time and again I tell them. So now I’m telling you. A massive free theological library is available for writing your essay . It offers (at least) several good solid recent commentaries on every Bible book. (They are even in stock when you go to look for them!)1 And, to make a good story better, this huge resource is available in your own home :)

Free Library for Essay Writing

Yes, if you use Google Books you have a huge free library just a few clicks away. Follow the advice here and get to scholarly Bible commentaries in this free library. From anywhere, any time. It is a free library for essay writing. You should be getting better grades! As I said above, the video shows how to get Bible commentaries. But the same approach will help you find other books you need for your essay. At no cost.

  1. And with your local theological library this isn’t always the case. Often the best commentaries on the book you are interested in have been borrowed by a PhD student or a class of hungry students with an assignment due? []

70% of students could learn from this

Yes, here :)

Click for full graphic

Sadly the students who need this advice most probably don’t read my blog ;)

However, for students and others who do here  is some good sensible advice and a quick revision of some of the more useful operators one can use in searching Google.

HT: Lifehacker from HackCollege.com

PS more than 70% of students in NZ do not use Macs, they still cost too much for most students.