Oct 292015

I am in year two of my PhD program, and am enjoying the process, learning, and exploration so far. Yes, I am only a little over half way with the coursework, but that is a great place. I was thinking, however, about what advice I would give to someone just starting his / her PhD. What books/resources would I recommend?

I came the realization that I would not recommend any books of content at this point, but two books on process. The first book is one that I have used heavily and it has saved me hours (literally, not figuratively) on formatting APA papers. The book is, “Doing your dissertation with Microsoft Word.


Why do I recommend this book to anyone starting a PhD? Because it walks you through step by step on how to create a template in Word that will contain every single element of APA formatting. Have a Header 1? Write the text and click the style for Header 1. It is that easy. It took me several hours and much tweaking to get it finally right, but when I go to write a paper now, I load the template, and BOOM! I am ready to write. I have all the APA formatting done in Styles, I have a page (that I delete before printing) that has definitions of the Styles, and all settings are done. All I worry about is text. This book has saved me so much time over the last three semesters.

The next book I would recommend is “Stylish academic writing” by Helen Sword.


This is a quantitative and qualitative (a mixed methods design) study of good and very bad academic writing made me take a hard look at my own writing, but also not fall into the trap of jargon and technical writing. Write with style, write with intent, and write so other people will want to read your writing.

Finally, I offer one piece of software to use: Zotero.


You can use Mendeley, or Endnote, or any one of the other packages, but use a citation manager ASAP in your studies. I started using Zotero right away, and it has made such a difference in the ease of writing, the ease of citations, and the management of my PDF’s and notes. Best of all, installing and using Zotero is free (unless you use the online storage option and exceed 300 megs of storage. More on that below.)

You can have folders and subfolders for your citations and PDF’s, and a citation can be in many folders at once, or in no folder. It can be tagged, categorized, searched, and using the Word add-in inserted into the inline and bibliographic citation with one click.

zotero2 (click to see full size)

The PDF’s are attached, notes are kept together with the citation (and the notes are searchable as well) and it takes one click to add most citations to the database.

This little piece of software has saved me hours as well. It is not perfect, you have to double check to make sure the Sentence case vs. Title case was done correctly. You have to double check to make sure the PDF was downloaded (sometimes it doesn’t download and you need to save and drag and drop it to be included.)

I ended up paying for the the 2 gig option. This was $20 for 1 year. 6 gigs is $60 and unlimited storage is $120. To give you some idea, I had 330ish citations in my database, probably 300 of them with PDF’s attached when I ran out of room on the free account. I end up hoarding the PDF’s and the citations, so if you are not a digital hoarder, you could probably go longer before needing to pay.

These three items have made being a PhD student enjoyable, fun, and much less work than the first or second time I was a grad student. I don’t stress over citations, I just double check them. I don’t stress over formatting, because I know the Styles I created are correct to the APA version I need.

I DO stress over writing. But isn’t that what I am supposed to stress over?

Jun 082015

My learners have been using Plot.ly for a week, and have asked me a ton of questions on how to do certain things with their data. I wanted to add details to my last post on Plot.ly v. JMP and tell you the decision I made regarding the issue. All of the questions I have below are actual questions / issues  my learners ran into using Plot.ly.

Issue 1. How to add % totals to the columns of data in a graph?

One group of learners had a beautiful graph made in Plot.ly. It was nice, communicated well, but had lots of information in it. They wanted to put the % of each column in the graph to make it more informative.

In other words, they had this ……….and wanted this. (the reason for the arrow in a sec)

graph1 graph2

Yes, these are JMP graphs. Why? Because after an hour of looking, I could not find a way to have Plot.ly do it. Their help is silent on this issue, and I looked through a whole bunch of graphs shared on their website and found not a single one to do that.

As far as JMP, it took two clicks. I can’t show the menu because it is a drop down and as I tried to screen cap, it went away. You click the red triangle I pointed to, hover over to “Histogram Options,” and click on “Show percents.” If you want to “Show counts,” you can do that too. One or both! Two clicks. This was incredibly simple to do in JMP, incredibly difficult in Plot.ly.

Issue 2: Chi-Square test

I already dealt with the fact that Plot.ly calls graphs that use categorical information histograms in my last post. This has caused so. much. confusion.

But now my learners are trying to do the statistics for their data and see if there are significant differences in their samples. They are trying to DO statistical inferences. If their data is quantitative, they can do a t-test easily. Well, they can do a two sample t-test easily. They cannot do a one sample t-test or a matched pair t-test. They cannot do a z-test in Plot.ly, and as it turns out, you cannot do a Chi-Square test in Plot.ly unless you already have the summary counts.

Really? I can do the “histogram” to get the counts, but I cannot import those counts into the table to do the Chi-square? It won’t count the instances of words to count them for the test?

For example, if the learners data looks like this:

data1  Plot.ly will do a histogram for it and tell me what percent or what counts there are for Gender and AP/Honors.

If I want a Chi-Square test for these two columns, the only way I could make it work was to look at the graph of counts, write down the information into a two-way table, and enter the counts as a matrix in the graphing calculator.

To do the same thing in JMP, we do the following steps:

1.  Go to Analyze, Fit y by x JMP1


2. Click on OK. That’s it. The output contains the following:

JMP2  A mosaic plot of the graph which is nothing more than a stacked bar chart, except the width of each column is proportional to the total number of things in the column.

Next, we get the contingency table. If I click the red triangle, I can choose other values to include or exclude from the table.

Finally, the Chi-Square test p-value.

That was around 6 clicks, instead of making the graph, counting from the graph and writing a table, and then inputting the table to the calculator.

Issue 3: separating data by a response

The group who was doing the AP/Honors and work in Issue 2 had another problem. They asked for GPA and the number of hours you worked. But they needed the mean GPA of only those in AP/Honors and those not in AP/Honors, as well as the number of hours worked.

Plot.ly will give us the total 1 variable stats for the column of hours worked, but it will not give it to us in two groups of Y/N based on type of classes taken. It will not do it.

Enter JMP. 6 clicks. Analyze, Distribution, put the variable where you want them, OK.


That’s it. You get a 1 variable stats for those who are in AP/Honors, and a separate 1 variable stats for those not in AP/Honors. Doing a two sample t-test is simple and easy once this information is obtained. This is not information Plot.ly can give us.

Issue 4: Linear Regression t-test

Last issue, and then I will stop. I have several learners doing quantitative projects that lend themselves to linear regressions and linear regression t-tests.

Plot.ly makes beautiful scatterplots. You can adjust the axis, overlay the regression line, insert the equation into the graph, etc. They are pretty.

But, if you want a residual plot. No go. If you want to reinforce the statistics of y=a + bx. No go.

This is what it looks like in Plot.ly.

plotly1 You have y=mx + b from algebra, you cannot do residuals, and you CANNOT do a linreg t-test.

In JMP, it looks like this:

JMP4 5 clicks, Analyze, Fit Y by X, put the variables in the correct spots, and hit OK. Notice this is the exact same dialogue box you use for categorical data. JMP uses the same path for different types of data, but tells you in the bottom left corner HOW it will act on your data.

You get output that looks like this:

JMP3 If you want the residual plot, hit the red triangle next to “Linear Fit” and show residual plot. That easy.

Bottom line

Although I fully understand that every single complaint I have had with Plot.ly can be solved by learning the programming language and learning to program the software, I don’t think I can ask high school learners, in the last 4 weeks of class, to learn it so they can do a project on statistics. Honestly, I don’t want to take the time to learn the programming language of Plot.ly so that I can do it for them, either.

Plot.ly makes BEAUTIFUL graphs. It is a powerful platform to show connections between quantitative data sets. But, it does a so-so to bad job on statistics.

JMP makes graphs that may not be beautiful, but the statistics is primary to the operation of the program and makes doing the statistics easy. I think without some major changes to Plot.ly to work towards the statistics side instead of the data representation side I will go back to using JMP next year.

It was just too difficult to teach the way Plot.ly handles or mishandles the stats.


Jun 052015


I pushed my AP Stats learners to use Plot.ly this year for their projects instead of JMP as I have in previous years. I am not sure if I like it better or worse, but I definitely have some frustrations.

Let’s go through the good points first.

1. After the learners had their data in Excel, it was very easy to import the .xlsx file into plot.ly. The learners had to make some changes to the first row, but that is to be expected.

2. As long as the learners hit “save” then they did not have to worry about losing their project. I have had previous years where learners lost flash drives or computer files the week before the project is due and had to start from scratch with their hard copy. I appreciate the fact that plot.ly saves the data IF the learners hit save.

3. Once the plots are present, downloading or screen capturing the plots are easy and quick. My learners liked the ability to  quickly make many different plots and then examine them and decide what they plots were really meaning. Changing colors, counts to percents, and other elements of the graphs was easy, fast and very user friendly.

All in all, not too many downsides from the learner’s perspective.

Here are my frustrations with the program as we have been using Plot.ly.

1. Many of my learners did surveys that had categorical Yes, No or Freshmen, Sophomore, Junior Senior responses. After compiling their survey responses, their data looked similar to this:


What kind of graph would you make with this type of data? You are correct a bar chart. Bar charts are for categorical data, histograms are for quantitative. So, I do that.

badgraph Not it.  I struggle with this for three days, tweet them for help, more than 4 times, and nada. Zilch. Don’t hear anything back, and am ready to give up on Plot.ly. However, I notice they have a “contact us” in the lower right of the screen. I email them, and a very nice person responds the next day and with instructions on how to make a Histogram.

What. The. Hell. A histogram? I follow her instructions.

data2 (you get the “choose as G” by the “Group by” button) and get this:

goodgraph The y axis is in percent (which takes an extra step to get), clearly what I wanted, but it is not a histogram. I do have a problem with a “Statistics” program that calls a bar graph a histogram. The instructions to make it a stacked bar chart are easy to follow and find, I chose not to do it for this comparison.

2. Ordering the x-axis is a pain. Many of the questions my learners had dealt with the difference between freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. Plot.ly ordered the x-axis based on the order of the data in the spreadsheet. Which means to reorder the x-axis we had to sort the data in excel, (but we don’t want them in alphabetical order?) and reupload.

Really Plot.ly? You don’t have a way to specify the order of the axis? I searched. Trust me I searched long and hard. I ended up just telling my learners to not worry about it.

As a comparison, this is what it looks like in JMP (version 8 is what I have).

jmpdata graphing a “fit y by x”

jmpgraph After hitting “OK”, look at all the stats automatically generated! Also, in the contingency plot (made by default btw) the width is proportional to how many in that column, so the widths AND heights are informative unlike Plot.ly. JMP also automatically generates axis by percent, not counts.

jmpsort Ordering the data is as simple as clicking on Value Ordering under column properties.

I guess what I am saying is that clearly Plot.ly is not meant to be used as I am using it in class. There are easier, faster, and more statistically correct software to use. I will have to figure out what to use for next year because I am not completely sold on Plot.ly, but JMP has to be installed on computers. There are always gives and takes to every decision.


And right after I posted this, one of my learners walks in tearing her hair out. She has a mixture of categorical and quantitative data, and Plot.ly will not graph the categorical data at all for her. The menu options work completely different for her than for everyone else. She is installing JMP and getting it done that way. Sigh.

Sep 212012

It has been a while since I did a #MyFavFriday post, but I have to share this because it has been making my life so much easier this school year.

Dropbox.  Yes, that service. I know, so many other people have written about it in the past, and so have I, but this year I made the move to put 100% of my teaching files* into dropbox and I haven’t looked back.

All dropbox is, is a small program on your machine that monitors a particular folder, named “Dropbox”. Anything in that folder is synced with the web portal and any other computer that is signed in. It is a folder, nothing more. If you can save a file in “My Documents” you can use dropbox. Just save it to “Dropbox/Algebra 1” instead of “My Documents/Algebra 1”.

These are some of the things I no longer have to carry around with me when I leave and return to school because of dropbox.

  1. Laptop
  2. power cords
  3. flashdrives

That just removed 7 lbs from my backpack, and turned my motorcycle commute into a much more pleasant experience. In fact, I only take my backpack home when I have to take dead tree materials home or to school.

But that is not all I use it for. I have dropbox installed on 6 different computers. 2 at school, 4 at home. Dropbox allows me to streamline my workflow and be more efficient. Let me explain.

At school, one computer is in the front of the room attached to an LCD projector and a smartpanel, the second computer is at the back of the room at my desk.  I will work on a document for class at my desk, and immediately upon saving it will be updated on the front computer. This means I can pull something out of my email at the back of the room, walk to the front, and show it to the class. I can have software installed on the back computer, do a screen shot and save, then show. No flash drives, no futzing with anything.

At home, I have it on all my computers. When I am working on a project at school, I can save the document and go home. When I arrive home, boot my computer, and my full project is sitting there ready for me. It is on all my computers, even the old clunker that I boot once a week. That old clunker downloads and syncs all the files, so I have a weekly backup of everything.

My wife also has dropbox, and we have a shared folder between us. That allows us to connect our dropboxes and have files shared between our computers. We now have 1 shared, encrypted password file instead of 2.

If you want dropbox and don’t have it yet, you get 2 Gigs of storage for free. If you sign up with this link you get and extra 500 megs and I get an extra 500 megs for free. Because of that I have 13.4 Gigs of free storage right now.

When you include picture uploading automatically (through the smartphone app) which saves you from needing to connect your phone to your computer or emailing the pics, the accessibility of dropbox on the internet through the web portal, and the seamless syncing of the docs, it is a win win win for teachers.

If you are on the fence, do it. It takes the process of managing your files and turns it into a non-entity.

May 302011

I am very much a fan of repurposing objects and creating my own solutions to tech problems. Often times, you can do for your self much cheaper and get better quality if you think outside the box and create your own solutions instead of buying a premade solution.

A long time ago, I wrote about how I used a KVM switch to connect multiple sources to my projector. After two years, I am very happy with it. I use it daily to connect my Elmo to my projector, along with my laptop and 2 empty ports all through a single wire. It makes me very flexible with my tech usage.

When my Elmo finally dies (it is a fairly old model, the precursor to the HV-110u Digital Visual Presenter that I bought on eBay for around $80) I think I will make my own instead of buying another. Don’t get me wrong, I love my Elmo. I use it often. I also won’t spend a couple of hundred dollars to buy what essentially is a webcam on a stick.

Speaking of webcam on a stick, guess what! Another math teacher figured out how to mount a web cam inside of an old light mount and accomplish the same thing the Elmo does!

Now that is awesome. When it comes time to replace my old trusty Elmo, I will be using a web cam, purchased on sale, some inexpensive LED lights from Target or Walmart, and a light arm scrounged from a garage sale. At that point, I have a $200 Elmo for a quarter of the cost. Even better, because I can upgrade the webcam and modify it as needed. It is more flexible and useful than the Elmo ever could be.

We are only limited by our imagination, once we give up the idea that things have to be made for us.

Feb 192011

The other day, this article popped up in my reader (really! I think they were recycling their content). It is from August 2009, and it is a list of 100 iPhone apps for education. It got me thinking, because I don’t use an iPhone. I really have nothing for or against iPhones. I use Verizon and when I bought the Android phone I have, it was the only smartphone for Verizon.

In the end, I love my Android (a moto-droid currently) and have no desire to purchase an iPhone now that it is available. But I still want some educational apps. In fact, a year and a half later,I wonder how good the list will be for Android apps? Without further ado, here is my attempt to create a list for the Droid. Why 53 do you ask? Because 53 is a prime number, and I like prime numbers. Here are my criteria for selection.

1. Must be free. Yes, I know that will immediately kick out a ton of VERY good apps. But I want a list I can give my learners, and I will never ask them to pay for something.

2. If I don’t use it myself, it must be highly rated (3.5 stars at least) by over 500 people. This will shove out the new apps that have 35 pp who rated it a 5 star, I know. But it is the only way to ensure a representative sample of ratings. [I break this twice with good reasons below]

The list is after the break.

Continue reading »

Feb 062011

This week I downloaded a free piece of software from Microsoft. Actually, 2 new free pieces of software. The first piece was the new Microsoft Mathematics “calculator”. I put calculator in quotes because it is so much more than just a calculator.

For instance, it is a calculator and a grapher.


If you click on the “Worksheet” tab, you get a calculator with a ton of functions.

image Notice all the different statistics options available! As an AP Stats teacher, I am kind of liking that. It has a backspace key obviously placed, so correcting errors is easy, and to the right of the screen is a large white space where all the math shows up. Very nice.

The Grapher does 2D or 3D, and will pop up a box to enter the equation into with a little bit of help at the bottom. For instance, here I am typing in an interesting polar graph.

image The second I hit the spacebar, the theta I am typing turns into the symbol. The only downside I see to this graphing module is it takes two more clicks to see the graph. You hit “Enter” on the pop-up, and then hit the “Graph” button below.

image Ah, a pretty butterfly. The Graph controls has a nice animated trace function.

This is nice and all. It is a terrific way to get a free graphing calculator into the hands of learners at home, but the really neat part is the solver.

image Hit the Worksheet tab, and solver, and it will solve just about any equation step by step. That’s right, STEP by STEP. A learner can now see HOW to do a problem, instead of just and answer. Will that help the unmotivated learner? No. Will it help the learner who is trying to figure out how to do the problem and will take what the machine says and apply it to the next problem? Yes.

There is a lot more to the program, but this is enough for me to dedicate space on my website to it. Very worthwhile.

Oh, and the second piece of software? That is the Microsoft Mathematics module for Word and OneNote. It lets me insert graphs directly into my word document, so I don’t have to mess with copying and pasting graphs any more. I like it.

Links here:

Microsoft Mathematics 4.0  advertising page. Direct download page here.

Microsoft Mathematics Add-in for Word & OneNote