Tuesday, August 16, 2016

CLASSES ARE READY TO START—WHAT DO YOU REALLY WANT TO ACCOMPLISH?



On July 25, 2016, I posted a blog entry describing a class supplement I was building for my introductory financial accounting class.   I have spent the summer creating electronic flashcards using Power Point so that I could embed audio clips and link to videos that I had made.   My goal was to guide students through each chapter of the textbook to help them in organizing and reviewing complex material (or to serve as the preliminary coverage for a flipped classroom).  In that earlier posting, I stressed the need for careful sequencing of the individual cards.

I emailed the finished product for Chapter One to my students yesterday.   I am a big believer in the power of communications so I explained what I was trying to do and why.   I asked for their feedback.   After all, the product is for their benefit.  Students are in the best position to say what works and what doesn’t.

If you would like a copy of what I created for Chapter One and shared with my students, drop me a note at Jhoyle@richmond.edu and I will email it to you.  

Even if you don’t teach financial accounting (or even accounting at all), you might find the construction interesting.   It might stimulate your own thinking.   I believe that what I built, anyone could build for virtually any course.
**

One of the great things about teaching is that your thinking evolves as you gain more experience.   Over the past year, I have become especially focused on exactly what I am trying to teach my students (or maybe I should say:  How I want to change my students—I actually think that sounds better).   Once determined, I have worked to connect each element of my courses to that specific goal.  It seems obvious, I guess, but I wonder how many teachers can state in one sentence what they want to teach their students.  Here, at the start of a new semester, that might be a worthwhile exercise.

So, I have a couple of basic questions to stimulate your thoughts as you look forever to the first day of fall classes:
--At the very foundation level, what is it that you want to teach your students?  How do you want your students to be different at the end of the semester?
--Is everything you do in class tied to that goal?

What objective is at the core of your course and how is the class constructed around that core?  I never used to think like that but my teaching has certainly evolved in that direction.

I think the easiest way for me to explain my thinking is by sharing a note (slightly edited) that I emailed to my Intermediate Accounting II students a few days ago.  After a long summer, they are getting ready for the start of classes next Monday morning.   Not only is it important to know what you want to accomplish, I really think you should make that as clear as possible for your students.   Why leave them in the dark?

To my Intermediate Accounting students:
“Okay, if you don’t read any other question this semester read this one because it explains the whole purpose of everything we will do in this class.  Over and over and over, I will give you countless weird, odd, bizarre accounting and reporting situations and I will help you learn how to arrive at viable solutions that you can justify as being fairly presented according to U.S. GAAP.  That’s it.  That’s the course in one sentence.   I will pose these odd situations before every class for your preparation (and also after many of the classes as follow up practice).  Then, when you come to each of the tests, I will throw out new weird, odd, bizarre accounting and reporting situations so that I can see whether you have gained the ability to arrive at viable solutions that you can justify as fairly presented according to U.S. GAAP.   That’s what CPAs do all the time.   It is not about memorization.   It is about understanding and developing the ability to (using my three favorite words from class) “figure it out.”   Notice that this is also the basic premise underlying your three-part writing assignment for this semester.   This is what this course is all about.

“So, here is your first question for next Monday as a warmup:  You go to a used book store and buy a book for $20 on December 30, Year One.   You tell them that you’ll pay for the book in two months and they say okay.   However, you believe the clerk treats you rudely and when you get home you slam the book down and say ‘I do not want to be treated that way.   I’m going to keep this book and never pay for it.’  

“If you make a balance sheet on December 31, Year One, do you have to report the $20 as a liability?   Weird, odd, bizarre – how do you report this?   When you report a liability on a balance sheet, what are you reporting – what you owe or what you are going to pay?   What is a viable solution that you could justify as being fairly presented according to U.S. GAAP in case, for example, you ever wind up in court and have to explain the logic of your answer to a judge.  It's a simple question so what's your answer?  And, we will always assume that all amounts in this class are material.   Saying that something is not material is just a way to avoid making a decision”

What do I want to accomplish?   I want my students to be able to analyze unique situations.   I want my students to understand that being an accountant is not about memorizing rules.   I want my students to have a firm understanding of U.S. GAAP.   I want my students to realize that being a CPA means being able to come up with answers where obvious answers do not exist.   That requires critical thinking skills that I think can best be developed using oddball questions.  

To me, this is accounting education at its most exciting.   Even after 45 years in the classroom, I cannot tell you how excited I am to get back to work.   I am sure the class will not be perfect but, at least, I do know what I want my students to accomplish. 


Let me leave you with one suggestion.   Write down, in one sentence, how you want your students to be different by the end of the semester and then email it to them.   Go on record.  “This is the goal.”   It’s a good exercise for you and the students will appreciate the clarity and frankness.     



Wednesday, August 3, 2016

TEACHING FIDO TO ROLL OVER (or COMMON SENSE TEACHING)


If I offered you $1,000 to teach my dog (Fido) to roll over, how would you go about doing it?   Even if you have never taught an animal to do anything, do you think you could come up with logical and reasonable steps?  Sure you could.  For that kind of incentive, my guess is that we would all probably do a pretty decent job.  It might take awhile but we could do it.

I have written well over 200 blog postings about teaching during the last 6-7 years.   One particular entry from early in 2010 has really been on my mind recently—probably because a new school year is starting and I’m thinking deeply about teaching my 56 students.   In that original blog, I talked about teaching Fido to roll over.  Earlier today, I went back and reread this old post.   I loved the idea but I did not seem to develop my thoughts particularly well.  I am not sure I knew what I wanted to say.  Heck, I was only 62 at the time.  Maybe I have matured a bit since then (well, maybe).   I decided to try again based on my current ideas about teaching.  This is not a rewriting of that earlier blog entry.  It is a reconsideration of the idea based on how I feel about teaching today (as I get ready to begin my 46th year in the classroom).

Sometimes, as we discuss the challenges of teaching, I think we make the whole process too complicated.  Yes, it is quite difficult to teach but I am not sure we don’t get ourselves all twisted up in our own complications.  Vince Lombardi, the legendary football coach, is famous for making the most success out of the obvious:   “Some people try to find things in this game that don't exist but football is only two things - blocking and tackling.”

So, as I wrote this blog today, I wanted to get back to the same type of basic teaching steps.   At its foundation, what is teaching?  Interesting question to ponder.

A few years ago, I read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. The novel was well written and very popular at the time.  Believe it or not, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a retelling of Hamlet set on a small farm in northern Wisconsin where a family breeds and trains dogs.

And, they are truly great at that job.   People come from hundreds of miles to buy the dogs they have trained.  Wroblewski must have known a lot about such training because he spends many pages describing in detail how the members of this family teach their dogs to perform so well.  Frequently, as I read, I felt as if I were studying an education manual.  Absolutely everything he writes about training dogs was so clear and logical that I started applying it to the teaching of people.  And it all worked.   What truly impressed me was that most of the process was nothing but common sense.   There were no complicated theories of learning.  Everything was about teaching the dogs.  I learned so much about teaching people by just reading about how this family taught their dogs.  

Often as we talk about improving education, we dwell on the characteristics of a good teacher (energetic, caring, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, etc.).   However, as I read Edgar Sawtelle, no mention was made of the teacher.   It was all about the process of teaching.   That is a seemingly slight change of focus but an essential one.

I believe (especially in these days of wonderful technological innovations) that we sometimes hold great teaching out as some type of dark mystery.   Perhaps we should start our thinking of great education with teaching and not with the teacher.   There are a lot of things about teaching that are both essential and basic to successful learning.  

So, I want you to try an experiment.   Before you read further, answer the question I laid out at the start of this essay.   Assume you have been hired by a rich person to train his dog (Fido) to roll over.   The dog is bright and alert but has never been trained.  The owner offers you $1,000 (might as well have a good financial reward) if you can train Fido to roll over.  

How would you go about teaching a dog to roll over?   Take a few minutes and write down the steps that you would likely follow.   I doubt there is any technology that can be much help.  There is not an app for this.   You have to depend on your teaching skills at their most basic level.   

I would bet that every person reading this blog can come up with several essentials steps needed to teach Fido.  Here’s my list.  Your list might be different but I would be surprised if the basics are not fairly close to the same. 

1 – Have a firm understanding of what you want the dog to accomplish.   You are the teacher.   There is absolutely no reason to even start a lesson until you truly understand what you are guiding Fido to do.  If your goal is vague to you, Fido has no chance of making it more concrete.  In my mind, no other step is more important.  Education is a random, ineffective act until you know exactly what you want to accomplish.

2 – Get Fido’s undivided attention.   If Fido is watching the local squirrels or the neighbor’s cat, you have no chance to teach Fido anything.   You have to place Fido in a situation where distractions are reduced to zero if possible.   Fido has to be focused on the lesson.

3 – All communications have to be clear.   The teacher has to communicate to Fido what needs to be done.   Fido cannot read your mind.   If the communication is not clear, the poor dog cannot even raise his paw and ask for a repeat.   Demonstrate to Fido exactly what he is supposed to do.   Very few things in teaching are more important than communications.   Get that right and the learning is much easier.  Get that wrong and you are probably out of luck.

4 – Consistent treatment.  If you are harsh one moment and laughing the next, Fido will have no idea how to react.   Fido will be an emotional wreck.   The dog does not have the experience needed to grasp the meaning of changes in treatment.   Decide who you are as a teacher and how you are going to treat Fido and then stick with the process unless it simply is not going to work.   Too many teachers are Dr. Jekyll for a while and then morph into Mr. Hyde.  Fido will work best when he is comfortable with you and the process.

5 – Build sequentially; build incrementally.  As I said in my previous blog posting, most learning occurs sequentially.   Learning takes place in small jumps of understanding.  You already know how to roll over.  It is no challenge for you.  You have to avoid jumping right to the big finish.  Fido only has the ability to make small jumps of understanding.   Set up the learning steps as sequentially as possible and keep them close enough together so that Fido can be successful in moving from one to the next.  

6 – Acknowledge proper responses.   I am a big believer that the world would function better if all the people in charge would give more pats on the back.   They are easy and free and everyone wants positive reinforcement.  Fido wants to be a good dog and is thrilled with a kind word (and a dog biscuit).   I think positive reinforcement is one of the things we all fail to do in so many aspects of life.

7 – Correct incorrect action immediately.   If Fido acts incorrectly and you don’t say anything about it being wrong, Fido thinks he has done it right and will continue to do it that way forever (and will believe that you are thrilled that he is doing so well).   No one likes to fuss but if Fido does it wrong, you have to stop the incorrect action right then or you just make it worse.   Fido will always interpret silence as “that’s exactly what I want.”

8 – Repetition Repetition Repetition.   It is easy for you.  It is not easy for Fido.   No matter how many times you think you have to demonstrate what you are trying to get across, it will probably take twice as many times.   I know that drives some teachers crazy but repetition is necessary if you really want Fido to learn.  Almost no one ever hears or sees something once and has it down perfectly.

9 – Time and Patience.   Learning is not a race (although our education system seems to favor speed).   My younger daughter has CP and some mild memory problems.   But she will be a senior in college next year.   She has taught me so much about having patience—not everyone learns at the same speed.   It is the learning that is important, not the speed.   If you want successful learning, give Fido the time he needs and stop looking at the clock.

Okay, go back to each of these nine and merely change the words “Fido” and “dog” to “students” and I believe it will read just as well.   This is not about the teacher.   This is about teaching.   (1) Understand your goal, (2) Make sure you have the students undivided attention, (3) Communications with the students should be frequent and clear, (4) Be consistent in the way you approach the class and the students, (5) Build the lessons sequentially and incrementally, (6) Use positive reinforcement, (7) Correct incorrect actions immediately, (8) Expect some amount of repetition to be necessary, (9) – Be patient and do not ruin the learning by being in a big hurry.  

Could you follow those nine teaching steps and train Fido to roll over?  Well, nothing is guaranteed but I think Fido would probably learn fairly well.  If you follow these nine steps could you be successful teaching accounting or English or biology or political science or whatever.   I think that is the essence of this post.   No matter what you are teaching, it is hard to get away from the importance of the basic steps.   There are lots of ways to be a great teacher.  We have all seen successful teachers who have radically different styles ranging from mean to kind.   But I believe, at the very basics, teaching has a set foundation. 


As you get ready to begin a new school year, think about each of these nine carefully and ask yourself how you could improve your efforts in each one during 2016-2017.   That is not a bad way to start off a bright new academic year.



Monday, July 25, 2016

MAKING USE OF THE SUMMER


I hope that many of the folks who read this blog will be attending both the Conference on Teaching and Learning in Accounting (CTLA) on August 6 and 7 and the American Accounting Association (AAA) annual meeting on August 8 through 10.   These conferences will be held in New York City near Times Square.   I am speaking twice at the CTLA on teaching and will serve on two panels during the AAA annual meeting.   Would love to see as many people as possible.   If you are there, grab me and let’s talk.   Tell me where you are from and what you teach and what goes well and what challenges you face.    I am always glad to chat.   On Saturday morning (August 6), I am giving the opening keynote address at the CTLA and will be talking on the topic “Recharging Your Batteries:   The Joys and Importance of Teaching.”   I have decided to subtitle this talk: “Seven Quotes that Changed My Life or, at least, My Teaching.”  
**

In this blog posting, I am going to describe one project that I have been working on this summer.   Before I start, I want to mention two things:

  1. When I finish this project, I will be glad to share it with anyone who thinks it might be helpful.  I have high hopes that it will be very beneficial to my introductory students but, in the teaching business, there are never any guarantees.   However, I am happy to pass along the final version if you are interested.
  2. There is still a month left in the summer.   I would urge every reader to think of a project that you can accomplish in the remaining weeks that might help your students be great this fall.  Such projects can be big or small.  The real purpose of this blog posting today is to stimulate your thinking.   I guess you would say it is a call to action.

**

I have long believed that a big problem with education is the material that we use when teaching our students.   Textbooks, journal articles, and the like are fine in a limited way.   They do a reasonably good job of conveying content.  But, we need to supplement those resources to help achieve some carefully considered educational objectives.   Teaching is more than the mere conveyance of subject matter.  For that reason, I have spent a good part of my summer creating a supplement that I believe will help my financial accounting students this fall.    

To me, educational supplements should demonstrate some or all of the following six characteristics:
  • They need to be sequential.   Most students don’t learn in a random fashion.   They learn in a tightly structured step-by-step order.   Once material has been learned, sequencing becomes less important.  But, initially, a carefully crafted sequence is essential when showing the core of complicated topics to students.  On their own, students often fail to see the logical sequencing and then struggle to gain understanding of material that is really not that difficult when shown step by step.
  • Those sequential steps need to build layers of knowledge very gradually.   Students rarely have the ability to make giant leaps from one level of knowledge to the next.  Growth in understanding should be at a realistic and sustainable pace.  It is easy to lose students—leave them far behind—if complications build too quickly whenever new material is presented.   I remember sitting in college classrooms, totally lost and confused, as I wondered to myself “How did the teacher just get from Point A to Point B?  It looked like magic to me.”   The transition was clear to the teacher but it certainly was not to me.
  • Supplements need to help students realize that not all material is equal.   Some information is simply more important than others.   At first glance, students see all knowledge as having equal value.   They have trouble identifying the critical areas and, therefore, can wind up bogged down by trivial topics.  A good supplement should help point students in the right direction.  “This is really important so pay close attention.”
  • Material needs to be broken down into chunks that are small enough for a student to absorb.  Students become overwhelmed very quickly by too much material.  When considering a supplement, envision the sequence: “here’s a manageable piece of knowledge and, now, here’s another manageable piece of knowledge that builds on the first piece of knowledge.” 
  • The presentation of additional information must be interspersed with practice.   A teacher cannot simply make a “check off” list of things for a student to learn.  A reasonable amount of material is first presented and then that material is practiced before more material is added.  I have long stressed to my students: “Some amount of study time needs to be spent in learning activities.   The remainder of the study time should be used for practice activities.   Both are essential.”
  • It is important to use both auditory and visual learning.   I believe that some students learn better by hearing material and some students learn better by seeing material.   Some combination is probably ideal.   To me, too much of our educational material focuses on visual learning.

By looking at the above six characteristics, you can easily see why I believe good supplements are so important.   Textbooks and the like often struggle with my list of essential characteristics.   For the most part, textbooks are more content providers and less educational aids.  Content is essential but so are materials that guide student education in a logical fashion.

So, this summer I have been considering those six characteristics as I build a new supplement for my financial accounting course here at the University of Richmond.   I am doing this project in three stages (that I have cleverly named Stage One, Stage Two, and Stage Three).   I am nearly finished with Stage One.   I hope to be entirely finished with the project by the middle of October.

For each of the 17 chapters in the Financial Accounting textbook that I use in class, I am creating my own set of flash cards.   I wanted to develop a supplement that students could easily use with no cost.   So, I am building the flash cards as PowerPoint slides.   Slide One is a question, Slide Two is the answer, Slide Three is the next logically sequential question, and so on.   When the project is finished, I might switch to a more elaborate system of technology but this will work for my fall testing.  I want to keep this simple until I see how it is working.

In Stage One, for each of 17 chapters, I am creating about 30-40 flash cards:  15-20 questions and then the corresponding answers.   I have worked hard to think through each topic and establish a logical sequence of bite-sized information.  

In Stage Two, I plan to go back though each of the 17 sets of flash cards and add audio clips.   So, for a topic that is particularly difficult, I can record a 15-20 second clip to make a suggestion or give encouragement.   I love the idea of talking directly to the student.   I plan to scatter these audio clips all through the flash cards.   If students are not confused, they can choose to ignore each audio clip.   That will be up to them.  But, if things are not clear, they have additional auditory information easily available.  Visual and auditory assistance is available.   

Finally, in Stage Three, I hope to add links to Explain Everything videos that I hope to make (these are the kinds of videos that the Khan Academy has made famous).   As an example, here is a short video that I created a few years ago to help my students understand FIFO and LIFO.  Would 20 or 30 of these help my financial accounting students better understand the textbook material?   I certainly think so.


Notice that I am not eliminating the textbook.  It will still play a central role in my class.  Instead, I’m trying to take information from the textbook and make it easier for students to understand and absorb.   And, I am doing this by (a) sequencing the material in a logical fashion, (b) very gradually making the coverage more challenging, (c) pointing out the most significant material to the students, (d) presenting the material in chunks that are of manageable size, (e) mixing material coverage and practice so the students have an immediate way of learning the material and working with it, and (f) using both auditory learning and visual learning.   

Can you build a supplement like that?   Sure you can!   In fact, it has been kind of a fun experiment for this summer.   But, you need to start by answering an essential question – what are the characteristics that you want to add to your course by means of this supplement?   I started with my six characteristics and the work has flowed from them.   But that was me.   Figure out what characteristics you want and I bet that you will be surprised by how quickly you start coming up with some great ideas.  


Monday, June 6, 2016

SOMETHING I WANT TO TRY IN THE FALL



I just checked the statistics for this teaching blog.   Sometime over the next day or so, it will likely reach a total of 200,000 page views.   I am always amazed and pleased that so many teachers read these essays.   Since there is no publicity, the word only spreads because readers like you pass along the URL.   Thanks for doing that!!  Whenever you read an idea that you like, I hope you will share it with your colleagues, friends, neighbors, and even your enemies.   I love it when people send me teaching ideas.  Likewise, I appreciate your sharing my thoughts with others.  Teaching ideas should be shared and not hoarded.
**

If you have read this blog for long, you know that I am always thinking of possible ways that I can improve my teaching.   I am a big believer that the more ideas you have then the more ideas you will have.  If you have one idea, a second idea may be difficult to produce.   But if you already have 10 or 20 ideas, the next bunch is likely to flow out of your brain at record speed.   Okay, some of those ideas might not be feasible but I guarantee that 10 ideas will produce more good ideas than one idea will.   I really believe that producing innovative ideas is a habit that teachers can stimulate within themselves.

I know that there are a lot of people who have just read the previous paragraph and are already shaking their heads and muttering, “No, Joe, you are wrong.  I never have any ideas.  I am always trying to borrow ideas from others.  If I don’t do that, I will continue to teach the way I have always taught.  I don’t have faith that my ideas are any good.”   Well, that is certainly a self-fulfilling prophesy if I have ever heard one.   Don’t be so down on yourself.   Don’t be so timid.   Break out of the rut a little bit.  

Here’s an experiment that you ought to try.   For the next 30 days, write down one teaching idea every day that you might be able to use during the upcoming fall semester.   Don’t try to judge whether any of the ideas are good or bad – just get them down on paper.   One idea a day for 30 days.

I think you will discover that two things will happen:

--First, as you eventually look back over your 30 ideas, you will realize that at least 2-5 of them are really good.   They are worth trying.   They can make your fall semester go better.   A lot of time it takes 30 ideas in order to produce 2-5 good ones.   So, you’ve got to get in the practice of producing those 30 ideas.  No one has 30 great ideas but everyone should be able to hit 10 to 20 percent batting average.

--Second, I think you will find that your ideas become easier to generate after the first couple of weeks.   Yes, for the initial 10-14 days, ideas will be difficult but you will get into the swing of it.   The brain cells begin to loosen up.   Eventually, your mind will simply be looking for more ideas throughout the day even when you are not trying.   It is like physical exercise.   It becomes easier with practice.

Try it – what do you have to lose?   30 ideas in 30 days.

So, what is my idea for today?   Here is one that I was pondering this afternoon.   In every class, it seems to me that students spend time doing two things.   One is thinking – trying to figure out how things work or why things work as they do.   They are trying to develop an understanding that will help them in solving future problems.   The rest of the time they are doing something other than thinking.   They are copying notes that they will later memorize.   Or, they are daydreaming or contemplating something that is not class related.  

No one can think about subject matter 100 percent of them time but I wonder how close students can get.

Next fall, as I leave each class, I am going to try to estimate what percentage of class time was spent in actual thinking.   Obviously, it will be a guess but I am betting that I can figure out which activities lead to thinking and which activities lead to note taking or some other type of nonthinking.  If I say, for example, that Boston is the capital of Massachusetts, then that is note taking.   No matter how interesting that might be, no thinking is required.  On the other hand, if I ask a student why Boston became the capital of Massachusetts, then—assuming they have some way of figuring out the answer—that should lead to thinking.   It is not thinking if the answer is a known fact.   It is thinking if the student must, in some way, try to figure out the answer based on the information they have.

I have never done this kind of measurement exercise before.   Can I get to 50 percent of class as thinking time or maybe even 75 percent of time?   That might well be a legitimate goal.   Or, will I be stuck at 10 percent?   That is certainly possible.    Just to make things more interesting, perhaps I could explain my definitions to the students and occasionally ask them to judge:   In class today, what percentage of our time was thinking time and what percentage of our time was something else?

Maybe I am wrong (I’ve not read any research on this) but I would suspect that the more time during class that is spent thinking, the better the learning results are for the students.   If that is true, then I should be able to improve the education level of my students by forcing/encouraging them to think more during class.   Not necessarily thinking deeper, merely thinking more.  That strikes me as an interesting possibility.  Maybe we worry about thinking deeper when we should be worrying about thinking more.

That’s my idea for today and one that I do plan to try out in the fall.


What’s your idea for today?

Saturday, April 23, 2016

One Last Thing


I finished my last class of the semester about 18 hours ago.   It was my 45th year in the classroom.   I believe that I taught most of my students a lot of accounting.   I would hope, though, that I helped them see more about life than just my subject matter.   Maybe I am wrong but I think 50 years ago college teachers were interested in more than the pure conveyance of subject matter.   As I look at the weirdness of the current presidential race, I wonder whether we have come to focus too exclusively on subject matter.

So, I got up this Saturday morning and sent a final message to my students.   Not sure if it will make them any different but, maybe, in a few cases, they will think about their future lives a bit differently.



To:   My Accounting Students

Saturday, April 2, 2016

HELP YOUR STUDENTS FOCUS ON THE QUESTIONS



On Friday morning, April 8, 2016, I will be speaking at the Ohio region meeting of the American Accounting Association on the topic of “Perspectives of High-Quality Teaching.”   If you are in the Cleveland area, I hope you will show up.  I would love to meet you and chat about teaching.   Here’s the URL.


**

I am teaching three classes this semester—two Intermediate Accounting II classes and one Financial Accounting class.  I have 78 students.   I realize that some of you teach hundreds but, for me, 78 is a fairly large number.  That provides some challenges when trying to get each student to do outstanding work.

I always give three tests every semester and a final exam.   I believe that gives the students a chance to show me what they have really learned.   After the first two tests, I usually have a good group (50-60 percent) who are doing well and have an excellent chance of getting an A or a B (hopefully).   They are strong and talented students who put in the work consistently for every class.

But I have another group (40-50 percent) who do not seem able to break through.  In some cases, the students are simply not working.   In other cases, accounting does not come easily to them.   We all have different talents.   In truth, though, a vast majority of my students are working relatively hard and seem more than capable of making an A or B.   Well, then, what assistance can I offer this second group of students to help them move from C’s and D’s to A’s and B’s?  

In many ways, isn’t that one of our most important jobs—helping students who are struggling to figure out how to become outstanding?   And, isn’t that where the victories are the most satisfying?   Getting a bright, hard-working student to make an A feels good but I always realize that they could have probably done it without me.  I don’t deserve too much credit.   Getting a student who has a C or a D with only 3-4 weeks left in the semester to make an A or a B seems like teaching at its best.

So, I take it as a personal challenge to get my “under B” group to do better.  First, you have to get them out of a “C” mentality.   After two low test grades, it is easy to become discouraged and start to think of yourself as no better than an average student.   That’s nonsense.   That’s absolute baloney.    Everyone can do better.   I am convinced of that.   I like to remind them that they still have well over half of their grade to be determined.   In my classes, the last regular test and the final exam make up approximately 57 percent of their overall grade.   Although the semester seems to be drawing to a close, they are not even at half time yet as far as their grade is concerned.   They still have plenty of time left to make an A or B but they do need to make some adjustments and they need to make them immediately.  I need to impress on them that they can do better but there is some urgency.  Without urgency, change is tough.

As probably everyone who reads this blog knows, I use the Socratic Method.   My class is filled with questions that the students work to answer.   I am training them (I hope) to learn how to “figure out” answers for themselves.  My giving them answers and information is not nearly as beneficial as them getting the information and figuring out the answers for themselves.

When a student comes by to ask for help here in this last month, I like to ask that person to start writing one test problem after each class.  I want to see one problem that they think I might ask on a test based on the material we covered.   I want them to start focusing on how the material can be turned into questions.   In the book Make It Stick, the authors assert that students often over-estimate what they have learned.   I think that is probably true.   I also think it is true that students focus on answering the questions they have already seen and not on the questions they are going to see. 

What I find fascinating is that, even after having two of my tests, students often write poor questions.   For the most part, they simply take the questions that I ask in class and change a few words or numbers.   I think that is how many of them have been trained in high school.   The teacher says something.   The student writes it down.   The student hands it back on the test.   The student gets an A.   That does not work in my class.   I ask them to take material and do something different with it.   I sometimes think that the reason they are not making an A or B is that they don’t truly understand how they are going to be tested.

When they send me their questions, I often point out “that sounds like what I asked in class.  I’m probably not going to ask that same question again.   What would that prove?   How could I twist the question to make it different and see what you really understand?”   Usually, on a second (or maybe third) attempt, the questions start looking like one of my test questions.   The student starts making a break through—not on the answer side but on the question side.

At that point, when they start to understand the nature of the questions they are going to see, then coming up with legitimate answers becomes a more realistic goal. 

If you are having students who do not seem to be able to “break through” into the A and B range, you might try that.   After every class, ask them to write a question that you might ask on a test.   Then, if they do not do a very good job of that, help them see what more you might be expecting from them.   Get them to focus on the questions before they worry too much about the answers.  

I sent my Financial Accounting students a practice problem this morning.   Sure enough, I took what we had done in class and added something a bit different.   I challenged them to “figure it out.”   And then I tried to make the point more clearly:   “And, as you are getting ready for the third test start asking yourself two questions:  (1) Can I do the standard problem?  (2) How can the problem be extended to make it more challenging?   That's when education gets exciting.”


Maybe focusing on the questions will help your C and D students move up to A’s and B’s here in the last few weeks of the semester.  That’s a victory for everyone.


Tuesday, February 23, 2016

MY CURRENT EXPERIMENT



If you have read this blog for long, you know that I have two interconnected goals.  

--The first is that every teacher should strive to become 5 percent better each and every year.   Never stand still.  Always push yourself to find some area of improvement.  

--The second goal is to Experiment-Evaluate-Evolve.   It is that active level of experimentation that leads to improvement.   No improvement is possible without making some change.   You should always be able to look at your current situation and point to specific changes that you are trying and evaluating.

If I stopped right now and asked you “what experiments are you trying this semester that might make you 5 percent better,” could you identify one or more? 

Experiments work better if they are directed at identified problems.  

After nearly 45 years in the classroom, one thing continues to irritate me.   I have many bright young people in my classes who have never learned how to become great students.  They are good at note-taking and they are good at memorization but they struggle when the learning goes beyond that level.   They don’t know how to respond.   How can a 20 year old who has been in school for 15 of those 20 years not know more about efficient learning?   That is an issue that seems to hold back many, if not most, students in college.   I don’t understand why we don’t exert more energy to help students learn how to become better learners.

There are a number of excellent books on the market that tell teachers what their students need to do to be better students.   Go to Amazon right now and you’ll probably find dozens.   But they all seem to be targeted at the wrong audience.   It should be the students who read and study such books rather than the teachers.  

So, last semester, around December 10, I emailed the 55 students who were going to be taking my Intermediate Accounting II class this spring.   This class is known for being particularly challenging.   Most students enter wanting a good grade but with a great amount of trepidation.  

In my email, I explained to the 55 students that I wanted them to become better students so they could be more successful in my class.  That seemed reasonable.   I also pointed out that they would probably have some spare time over the winter break.   I then offered to give them up to three bonus points on the first test of the spring semester if they would read the book Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel.  Read the book -- get three points.

On the inside cover of "Make It Stick" is the following description:   “Drawing on recent discoveries in cognitive psychology and other disciplines, the authors offer concrete techniques for becoming more productive learners.”   Wow, that’s exactly what I want for my students.   The description goes on to say “many common study habits and practice routines turn out to be counterproductive.  Underlining and highlighting, rereading, cramming, and single-minded repetition of new skills create the illusion of mastery, but gains fade quickly.   More complex and durable learning comes from self-testing, introducing certain difficulties in practice, waiting to re-study new material until a little forgetting has set in, and interleaving the practice of one skill or topic with another.”  

I think that is an understanding of learning that every college student should consider.   I was willing to offer bonus points just to see how many students would read the book and what the impact might be.   It was an experiment.

Fast forward three months.    Our first test was last week.   Of my 55 students, 20 said they had read less than 20 percent, one said he had read 20 to 50 percent, 7 said they had read 50 to 80 percent, and 27 said they had read 80 percent or more.   Roughly half the class claimed to have read roughly the entire book.   Interestingly, 63 percent of the top 16 students on the test (before the bonus points were added) said they had read at least 80 percent of the book.   Only 22 percent of the bottom 9 students claimed to have read that much.  

Of course, it helped that I gave them the assignment over a long holiday and offered points for a course that already begun to scare them.  It is hard to motivate students by being too easy.

Did the students tell the truth in their self-assessment?   It was only a couple of points; I accepted their word.  They are adults.   They know the rules.   I suspect that 80 percent or more told the truth.  To me, the potential benefit of the experiment far outweighed the risk that some student would falsely get 3 extra points on a single test.

More importantly, did the reading help them?   Has the book changed their behavior?   Do they now understand more about the science of learning?   I’ll wait until the end of the semester to ask them about those questions.   Unfortunately, we have lost several days to snow so it is hard to compare the test results so far this semester with that of previous semesters.

Here’s what I want to happen:
--I hope that the very assignment of this book helps to open the students' eyes to possible improvements in how they study.   Most students never seem to question how they go about learning.   It is like breathing—they just seem to do it without thought.   I wanted to raise the question:   What works in learning complex material?   I do wish that effective and efficient learning was a topic more stressed in middle school and high school.
--I hope the students threw out some of the study habits they have relied on in the past.   Cramming over the 48 hours just before a test is one “study” habit that I would love to outlaw.  Why spend time doing something that does not help?
--I hope the students considered some new study techniques that they might never have considered previously.   In that way, this voluntary assignment might well have a long lasting benefit.

I don’t want my students to learn just accounting.  That has never been my goal.   College education should be more than that.  I want them to become more successful students.   In the world after graduation, when a teacher is no longer around to provide guidance, that efficiency in learning might well be more important to them than anything else I can teach them.

Will I do this same experiment again next fall?   I am still evaluating.  I like the idea.   I would like to figure out how I could make better use of it.   I guess it is still in the planning process.  

I will leave you with a line from page 226 of Make It Stick:   “Students generally are not taught how to study, and when they are, often get the wrong advice.  As a result, they gravitate to activities that are far from optimal, like rereading, massed practice, and cramming.”  


Yeah, I agree.  Let’s start introducing the students to better practices so that they can become the capable students who will make our jobs much more interesting and easier.   Sometimes all it takes is three bonus points.