Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Time to Think Differently

One of the great benefits of teaching is that the summer is available.   We can do research and writing.  Or, we can work to improve our teaching.   “How can my next class be better than my last class?” is a great question to ponder during the summer break.   You have had a couple of months of break – how often have you addressed that question?  

I am a strong proponent that everyone needs to learn to think differently about the challenges they face.   If you think like everyone else, you will wind up being average by definition.   In my book Don’t Just Dream about Success:   Stack the Odds in Your Favor, I devote an entire chapter to the challenge of learning to “Think Differently.”   Here is just one of the suggestions that I put forward in that book:

“’How could this have been improved?’ is a great question to consider throughout your daily wanderings.   It stimulates critical thinking.   Let your mind expand to consider the widest possible range of answers.   Except for the Ten Commandments, nothing in life is really carved in stone.   Almost any service, product, or arrangement can be helped by a bit of innovative questioning.   I have no proof, but I suspect that the employees at Apple, Google, and Amazon spend more time seeking out better questions and fewer hours defending the status quo.”

“Defending the status quo” – in most operations, there is too little time spent thinking differently and way too much time spent defending the status quo.   I think that is true for teaching just as it is for many other things in life.

So, recently, I was thrilled to read the book Think like a Freak by Levitt and Dubner who had previously written Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics.    I won’t try to boil down Think like a Freak into a few sentences but the authors argue (as I do in my book) that we are too quick to accept the status quo without question.   They stress asking better and better questions and then analyzing all available data to figure out the actual results and what caused them.   They write about taking traditional thinking apart—piece by piece—so that innovative alternatives can be tested.   All of that seems to be inherently obvious but it is very easy to accept “traditional wisdom” and be accepting of the status quo even when the end results are not as hoped.   Is your teaching being saddled by the traditional wisdom and the status quo?   In their book, these authors had two words that I liked especially:   “experiment endlessly.”  

When is the last time, you seriously experimented with your class organization and structure?

I liked Think Like a Freak so much that I wanted to share its wisdom with my students.   I believed they could learn something of value that might carry over into the fall semester and make them better students.   Here was the question I needed to address:    How could I encourage my students to read this book during summer break?   The writing style is lively and fun and the topics (how can a person break the world record for eating hot dogs?) are amusing and insightful.  But students are not inclined to read a serious book during their vacation time.

I wrote my junior students for the fall and told them about the book and why I had liked it.    I figured that would get their attention.   Then, I told them that I would give each person who read the book over the summer 2 ½ extra points on our first test in the fall (out of three tests and a final exam) if they had read the book by that time.   Therefore, they weren’t reading the book for fun.   They were reading the book to earn extra credit on the first test in a difficult course.   That provides motivation.   That is enough points to be helpful to their grade but not enough points to guarantee too much of an improvement.  

Since that time, I have heard from approximately 1/4 of the students who talked about reading the book and how much they were enjoying thinking about thinking.   Here’s a note I got yesterday:

I have been reading the Think Like a Freak book that you had recommended, and this has surely helped me view general problems (even personal ones) differently. I really believe that by the end of the book, I will be able to think through problems more efficiently, and hopefully use it toward the accounting problems this fall. 

Is that kind of insight worth 2 ½ points on one test?  I certainly think so.   Reading is always good for people.   I think this particular reading can be especially helpful to the students which might make them more successful (and my life somewhat easier) in the fall.  I am more than happy to give up those 2 ½ points for that potential benefit.

What are the lessons that I think can be learned from this particular experiment?

--Never stop trying to get your students to do things that improve their chances of reaching your goals for them.   Do not feel confined to the few months that make up a semester.   Many of these students are working hard for me, well before the semester even begins.

--College students need a little push.   They are human beings.   They have a lot of things that need to get done in their lives.   If you ask them to do something without a reward, it probably will never get done.   We all know that.   They are too busy or get distracted and, pretty soon, the time has passed and the opportunity is lost.   Give them a push. 

--Even a small amount of motivation can get good results.    For 2 ½ points on one test, a number of them will read a book that might change their entire way of thinking.   You do not have to give away the bank to get students to do work.   But, it is extremely helpful to have a specific reward system in order to provide a justification for doing the work requested.   It does not have to be much but it does need to be some.

Okay, that is one way I thought differently about the upcoming semester.   What about you?   What kind of innovations have you considered?   What kind of experiments might help your students to work harder and learn more?   That is one of the benefits of summer—you have time to come up with a great answer.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Letting My Students Know What I Want From Them

On Tuesday (July 15) at 11:00 a.m. I will be hosting a 35 minute webinar on “The Flipped Classroom.”   I am doing this program in connection with my Financial Accounting textbook (coauthored with C. J. Skender of UNC).   However, I hope to keep the textbook marketing down to a bare minimum because I really am interested in talking about the flipped classroom.

I would love for you to join me if you can.   You can register in advance at:


Below is an email that I sent out this evening to all of my students for the upcoming fall semester.   I am trying to plant a seed in their minds about what I want from them in the fall.   I always believe that a semester goes better if the students know before they ever meet you what you want from them.   They don’t have to waste important classroom time trying to figure out what you value.   As you can see, I just tell them.


To:   My Accounting Students for the Fall Semester

From:    JH

For a number of years now, I have maintained a teaching blog on the Internet where I discuss my teaching and classes and whatever else is on my mind about my students and my job.   I’ve had over 115,000 page views over the years so a lot of people have read about my teaching of accounting here at the University of Richmond.  

This evening, I was doing some work in my files and uncovered a posting that I had written for that blog on July 9, 2010—almost exactly four years ago today.   As I read the post, I immediately realized that this was an excellent idea but that I had not been following my own advice.   I sent out the note in the summer of 2010 but had not done so since that time.   (Sometimes it is easier to give advice than it is to follow it.)  

I thought it was good advice in 2010.   I think it is still good advice in 2014.   (I hope all the students in-between were not harmed too badly by my failure to send out a note like this one.)

Five Great Characteristics (blog entry, July 9, 2010)

I am not sure that any student knows what a professor really wants from them.   My guess is that if you sent a note to your students for the upcoming fall semester and simply asked—what do you think I want from the students in this class—you’d get some simplistic answers like “learn the material” or “pass the tests.”  

Is that really what you want?   It sounds so dull.   No wonder students find education boring.   No wonder they often put out less than an excellent effort.

If that is not what you want from the students in your class, why not tell them?   First, you’ll shock them by your honesty.   Second, you’ll take an immediate step toward having them think differently about your class.   You might even move them closer to what you really want.  

I had a very interesting class last spring.   Okay, I didn’t have that many A students but the class was just very lively and really got into learning about accounting.   I looked forward to working with them and I think everyone got a lot out of the class.  

I wanted to encourage my upcoming fall class to be just as lively.  Maybe it had never occurred to them.   So, I sat down a few weeks ago and tried to figure out what characteristics I really wanted from my students.    As a result, I sent the following short note to all of the students who have signed up for my fall class.

“I had a great class last semester.   It was a lot of fun.   The students were active, engaged, curious, questioning, and thoughtful.   When you have students like that, it is unbelievable the amount that can be accomplished in a class.   My wish for you and the upcoming semester is that you’ll wind up demonstrating those same five characteristics.”


If you could get a class that demonstrated those five characteristics, wouldn’t you be able to accomplish an almost unlimited amount?   Notice that I did not include “smart.”   It is nice to have smart students because it makes the job easy but if teaching is really what you want to do in this life, aren’t you better off to have active, engaged, curious, questioning, and thoughtful students than smart ones?   Smart students probably don’t really need you.

Why did I tell these five characteristics to my new students?   Simple—I wanted them to know walking in the door on the first day that I wanted to them be alive and use their brains.   I don’t want them to sit there and mindlessly take notes.   I want them to know that I have different expectations.   I want them to get excited about their own education because if they get excited, there is no end to what they can accomplish.  

I wanted them to know what I wanted even before they had ever met me.

Okay, if you can send emails to your fall students, why not think of the characteristics that you would like for them to display in your class?   Then, provide them with that list.   It should be no secret.  

You may want characteristics that are totally different from mine.   That is fine.   But, if you really want your students to demonstrate those characteristics, give them a head start.   Just tell them.  




Monday, May 19, 2014

What It Takes to Be Great

I am lucky.   At my school, students register for classes early and the professors can receive their email addresses almost immediately.   I have talked before on this blog about patterning student behavior (what do I want my students to do and how do I go about getting them to do that?).   I usually start sending emails to my students pretty quickly to set the tone that I want for the semester.   I don’t want to wait until the first day of class to start patterning their behavior.  

What tone am I trying to set in these emails:   (1) I am serious about this class so you better be as well and (2) there is a lot of challenging work to be done but the benefits are amazing.   If I can get those two points across before I meet the students in the fall, the battle is already half won.  It helps that I believe both points.

Consequently, I sent out an email to my junior level students this afternoon.   All I am asking is for them to take 10-15 minutes of their time to read a fairly interesting article.  But, I already know that if I just send them an email and suggest that they read the article, my chances of success are not high.   So, I use this as a chance to make my point:   There is a benefit here and that alone is a good reason to do the work.   I want them to approach this assignment and this class as an adult and not as a child.

Will all the students do the assignment?   I think most will.   More importantly, when they finish, I think they’ll say “Well, that was interesting and worth my time” which makes it so much more likely that they will follow up when I give them their next assignment.   I want to pattern their behavior in a positive direction.

Letter to my students:


To: Accounting 302 Students

From: JH

I realize our first class is not for more than three months but I have an assignment for you. And, I will begin by telling you several important things:

--I am not going to grade you on this assignment.
--I am not going to take anything up.
--I am not going to quiz you on it.
--I am not going to give you a few bonus points because you read it.
--I doubt that I will mention it to you ever again.

Well, why the heck should you do this assignment then?  Because I believe it will be good for you and you should long for assignments like that.

And, because you are no longer a teenage high school student who has to be bribed into doing work. You are an adult getting ready to enter the business world and compete against some very knowledgeable (and ambitious) people. When you walk into Intermediate Accounting II, it is time to stop thinking “I’m just a kid” and start thinking “I’m an adult preparing myself to compete in a challenging adult world.”

So, here is the assignment: I want you to read a Fortune magazine article that I read about 7 years ago that has impacted much of what I have done in this world since that time. The article is titled “What It Takes to Be Great.” It can be found at:

I have long argued that most students (most human beings) are entirely satisfied to be good (or at least average) but I rarely meet people who have a driving ambition to be great at anything at all. I think that’s a real shame. The world needs more bright people to push themselves to be great and then go out and change the world for the better.

I usually give about 15 percent A’s in my classes. I rarely find that much more than 15 percent of the students actually shoot to make an A. A vast majority are more than happy to shoot for a B. 100 percent of my students are capable of outstanding work. About 15 percent do outstanding work. Which group will you be in?

I think the problem is that most school courses (from kindergarten on) train students to shoot to be good but rarely push people to be great. How do you become great? That’s what this assignment talks about.

I want you to focus specifically on two sentences that come from the 4th or 5th paragraph:

“In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly and then stop developing completely. Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness.”

That last sentence describes what I want for you.

Those sentences describe two groups of people. One group that settles for good and the other group that continues to improve and push forward and finally achieves greatness. You are capable of being in that second group. It is not easy. I will be glad to help but, in the end, greatness requires work. You have a world of talent in that head of yours but greatness requires a serious investment of time and effort.

I was watching the pro basketball playoffs last week and one of the coaches was wearing a microphone. The game was close and there was a real question as to which team was going to win. The coach looked at his players and told them one thing: “At the end of the game, don’t let anyone be able to say that the other team played smarter or played harder than you did.”

I like to steal from the best so: At the end of Intermediate Accounting II in the fall of 2014, don’t let anyone say that the other students in the class worked smarter or worked harder than you did.

Now, go do your assignment: Read the article and think about what it tells you about making an A in Intermediate Accounting II.

Let me know if you have questions or thoughts (but that is not a requirement).



Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Why We Teach--Four Short Stories

There are days, especially at the end of each semester, when I wonder why I keep teaching.   I guess we all face those dark moments.   Students will be lazy and then expect you to go out of your way to do them a favor.   Or, you will ask a serious question in class and get a ridiculous answer that causes the whole class to become distracted.   Or, a heated debate will arise over a grade, an argument that seems more painful than it is worth.   Yeah, days like that happen.

Occasionally, I try to step back and remind myself of why I chose to become a teacher and why I want to continue to be a teacher.    We all need to recharge our batteries especially here at the end of a long academic year.   Never ignore that need or you will become grumpy and disillusioned and I have already met way too many teachers like that.

It is nice when something happens that helps get us pumped up and ready to go back into the classroom and do it all again.  Here are a few short stories that happened to me over the past couple of weeks that have helped me end the semester on an uptick.  


Story 1:   I posted the following message on my Facebook page a few days ago.   I don’t post often but I am quite sure that these few words got more response than anything I have previously entered on Facebook.   The thing that made me smile the most was how many of my former students hit “like” in response to this message.

“I just officially turned in my grades so that finishes up my 43rd year as a college teacher. Only 17 more left to go and I’ll hit the 60 year mark.

“And, no matter what you might hear, 99 percent of the students do work pretty darn hard and enjoy the learning process. They are good kids who want to learn and make their mark on the world. If you can keep the right attitude, teaching will help you become an optimist.”


Story 2:   I was at church a few Sundays ago.   I am not sure I was looking for spiritual guidance for my teaching or not but I managed to find some.   The first lesson for that Sunday was from the 50th chapter of the book of Isaiah and started with the fourth verse.   This translation came from the New Revised Standard Version:

"The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”

Isn’t that just so beautiful and inspiring?   I truly do not know how often (if ever) I might “sustain the weary with a word,” but merely the thought of that possibility is touching.   Maybe, in the future, I should be more alert to the needs of the weary in my classes.  

What other jobs can you get where people pay you a salary and then hand you the opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of so many others?

I fully realize that I will probably never know how (or whether) I have influenced many of my students.   But there is always the hope that I have been able to make some difference.   I often tell my students “Of course, I am here to teach you accounting and I think that is important.   But my real goal is to help make you smarter, to guide you in becoming a better thinker because that is a benefit that you can carry with you for the rest of your lives no matter what you choose to do.   That will make a difference in you become and what you accomplish.”

That is not exactly the same as sustaining the weary with a word but perhaps each of us helps to provide our students with some change that will impact their lives in a positive manner.   That is, indeed, a job worth having.


Story Three:   About two hours after I left the above church service, I was driving around listening to NPR on my car radio.   Someone was interviewing Doris Kearns Goodwin, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer, historian, and political commentator.   She has become extremely famous by authoring numerous books such as The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.

I was not paying close attention because I was driving but I believe the interviewer asked her if she had loved history as a young child and that love had then carried over into her later career.   Her answer was that she had certainly not been all that excited about history but that one of her teachers in (I think) high school had turned her on to how interesting the study of history was.   The teacher had a passion for the subject and passed that love along to her.  

She acknowledged that her career might have been entirely different except for the influence of that one teacher—one person who simply shared a passion and that made all the difference in the world.   I wondered whether the teacher was still alive or, possibly, had died without ever knowing the positive impact that came from that love of the subject.   All those wonderful books got their start with one teacher.

We cannot influence every student so greatly but we can certainly impact many of them and that is just a wonderful way to spend a life.


Story Four:   Yesterday, before I sat down to write this blog posting, I pulled out the Wall Street Journal (May 6, 2014) and flipped through it.   My eye was immediately caught by a story on page A-3 “Colleges Don’t Buy Happiness” by Douglas Belkin which talked about a Gallup survey.   I won’t quote much here but maybe enough so that you’ll get curious enough to go find and read the entire article.

“...people who feel happy and engaged in their jobs are the most productive.   That relatively small group at the top didn’t disproportionately attend the prestigious schools that Americans have long believed provided a golden ticket to success.   Instead, they forged meaningful connections with professors or mentors, and made significant investments in long-term academic projects and extracurricular activities.”  

“’It matters very little where you go; it’s how you do it’ that counts, said Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education.   Having a teacher who believes in a student makes a lifetime of difference.’”    (emphasis added)

“The strongest correlation for well-being emerged from questions delving into whether graduates felt ‘emotionally supported’ at school by a professor or mentor.   Those who did were three times as likely to report that they thrived as adults.”


Why Do We Teach?    I cannot answer that question for anyone other than me but I’d like to believe that I teach because I want to make a little difference in this world and one of the best ways to do that is to become a teacher who cares about students and their future.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Conversation with Dennis Beresford

Joe: I am delighted today to be talking with Dennis Beresford, one of the most influential accountants in the history of the profession. Just as importantly from the perspective of this blog, he has also spent quite a number of years as a teacher.

Denny, I recently read one student review of your class that said: "Excellent in stimulating student's interest in accounting matters. Very intelligent and dynamic. Good class to take for improving research, critical thinking, and communication skills."

You have certainly had a wonderfully wide and varied career. Can you furnish us with a short biography of some of your many accomplishments over the years?

Denny:   The short biography is 26 years in public accounting with what is now Ernst & Young, 10 ½ years as Chairman of the FASB, and 16 years as E&Y Executive Professor of Accounting at the University of Georgia.

I began as a staff auditor in the Los Angeles office of E&Y and worked there for about 10 years. I then spent the next 16 years in the National Accounting & Auditing Department, coming to focus mainly on financial accounting matters. During that time I served on the AICPA’s Accounting Standards Executive Committee for 6 years, including 3 as Chairman, on the Financial Accounting Standards Advisory Council (advisers to FASB) for 4 years, on the International Accounting Standards Committee for 2 years, and was one of the original members of the FASB Emerging Issues Task Force.

During my time at the FASB we dealt with any number of challenging issues, but the most controversial was accounting for stock options. In that case, Congress proposed legislation that would have effectively put the FASB out of business. We decided to make a strategic retreat and issued a final standard that required new disclosures and not new accounting. But the Board did not back down on many other demanding issues such as post-employment benefits, income taxes, and marketable securities. Perhaps the greatest achievement during my time at the Board was the beginning of the FASB’s international activities, which have now resulted in many of the most important topics being developed as “convergence” projects with the IASB.

Beyond my academic career, I have enjoyed the opportunity to serve at the same time on a number of major corporate boards. Most notably, I became a director of WorldCom and its audit committee chairman in time to help lead the special investigation of what was the world’s largest financial reporting fraud and subsequent restatement. At the same time the company was going through the world’s largest corporate bankruptcy reorganization. Shortly after that was finished and WorldCom was sold, I joined the board and became audit committee chairman of Fannie Mae, which had its own major financial reporting fiasco. I oversaw the restatement of that company’s financials over the next year and a half and was asked by the federal government to stay as a director when the company was put into conservatorship as a result of the Great Recession. These corporate governance experiences were among the most interesting, challenging, and rewarding of my entire career.

Joe:   You have certainly worked with some well-known organizations as they have gone through critical times.   As we all know, college education is under attack at present for many reasons including a perceived failure to develop critical thinking skills and, of course, the escalating cost and mounting student debt load.   You have been at the University of Georgia for nearly two decades so you have seen much of college education from the inside—up close and personal.

This is certainly not the same type of situation as WorldCom or Fannie Mae.   But it is a legitimate crisis.  I am extremely curious.   If you were hired as a consultant to advise the hierarchy of college education, what would be the first one or two pieces of advice that you would give?

Denny:  Keep in mind that my role at WorldCom and Fannie Mae was primarily to help with the accounting. So that doesn’t necessarily make me a “big picture” expert. With that stipulation, what I’d primarily suggest is devoting more resources to actual education – student instruction – and less to research and administration. In at least the major research universities such as where I’ve been for sixteen years, tenured and tenure track faculty often teach four or fewer classes a year. Similar to business practice, there should be more of a cost/benefit test applied to the research for which those faculty members are freed up – is it really worthwhile? If not, those resources should be redirected to the classroom. Further, administration headcount seems to be growing at a faster rate than faculty at many schools and in the business world this relationship between “direct and indirect labor” would probably be challenged more quickly.

Probably the second piece of advice would be for colleges and universities to engage even more directly with the business community. After all, a college is a business, albeit a not-for-profit one. Thus, ideas and assistance can be gained from many in the business community and grads, local companies, and many others are almost always willing to help. Unfortunately, there is still a very cynical attitude toward business on many campuses and many professors and even students are wary about corporate motives. The reality, of course, is that businesses do much to help already, but engaging further could help break down some of these communication barriers and lead to an even more productive partnership.

Joe: What courses did you teach during your time at the University of Georgia? Most teachers that I have met have days in class that seem to go just perfectly. There are never enough of those days but there are some. However, those days help us understand what the class environment is supposed to look and feel like. Can you describe what a perfect classroom day felt like when you were teaching? I am interested in getting a vision of your style of teaching.

Denny:   I was fortunate to be able to limit my teaching to two classes: the financial accounting class for MBA students and “Accounting Policy & Research” for MAcc students. I taught the former for full-time, on-line, and executive MBA classes and for the latter two categories I developed the materials the first time the classes were taught at Georgia. I tried to fill those basic accounting classes with lots of practical experiences from the business world so that students could see how accounting is used to make decisions that will determine the success or failure of an enterprise.

While I enjoyed those MBA classes, I felt the MAcc classes were where I could really contribute more. The objective of the Policy class was to have the students develop an understanding of how the specific rules on leases, etc. that they learned in undergrad classes were applied in real world situations. For example, the students had to research and prepare case reports on such matters as the accounting for LeBron James’ first shoe endorsement contract with Nike. But the most important part of the class was the nearly daily assigned readings and directed discussions on many of the accounting theory issues that had challenged the FASB, SEC and others over the years and were continuing to do so.

I would begin by introducing one of the discussion questions I had developed based on the assigned readings and ask for a volunteer to give his/her opinion. To be clear, students understood this part of the class was designed to help develop their critical thinking skills and to make them less nervous about offering an opinion on a technical matter. And they knew that participation was an important part of their grade! On a perfect day, a high percentage of the class would eagerly volunteer and I would only have to call on a few students to ensure near 100% participation. Some of them would get frustrated because they’d say, “But we just want to know what you think!” I’d add a bit of my wisdom along the way but I always felt that my main responsibility was to have the students do their own thinking.

Joe:   It sounds like you and I teach in much the same manner.   Students always like for us to give them answers but I’d prefer for them to figure the answers out for themselves.  

Okay, I have one final question.   Earlier in this conversation, you mentioned that you felt that the greatest achievement during your time at the Board “was the beginning of the FASB’s international activities, which have now resulted in many of the most important topics being developed as ‘convergence’ projects with the IASB.”

Over the last few years, opinions as to the long-term viability of both international accounting standards and US GAAP have moved up and down on almost a daily basis.   What do you think will eventually happen in regard to the differences that continue to exist between IFRS and US GAAP?

Denny:   The FASB and IASB are wrapping up work on four major convergence projects and on only one of them – revenue recognition – have they been able to reach similar conclusions. For financial instruments, insurance and probably even leases it appears U.S. GAAP and IFRS will continue to diverge. But these joint efforts over the past twenty years or so have substantially increased the quality of accounting standards around the world due in large part to the FASB’s willingness to take a bit of a “servant leadership” role during this period. In other words, while there has continually been insistence on the highest possible financial reporting standards, there’s also been recognition that all good ideas aren’t necessarily invented in America.

The end game has always been whether the SEC would eventually accept the IASB as the standard setter for GAAP as it applies to all U.S. public companies. While the Commission did make an important concession several years ago to permit foreign companies to follow IFRS in their SEC registrations, I’ve always felt that for legal reasons the SEC would be unwilling to cede accounting standard setting authority to a foreign entity over which it had no direct control. The SEC has continued to hold out some hope that it could still recognize the IASB if a number of specific conditions were met, but I think the chances of that happening are between slim and none.

So, to respond more directly to your question, I see the current situation as pretty much the environment in which accounting standards will remain for the foreseeable future. The FASB will continue to participate in the IASB’s Accounting Standards Advisory Forum, which will allow the two Boards to communicate on projects for which they have joint interest. And I am sure they will share research findings and look to each other’s conclusions when working on similar projects. But from this point on I don’t think that either body will put eliminating differences with the other at the top of its priorities.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Is This Really Part of an Accounting Education -- Well, I Certainly Think So

I am a big believer that one of the problems with an accounting education is that it is made up of way too much accounting. If our sole job as college educators is to get our students ready for the first five years after graduation, then the amount of accounting we cover is probably about right. However, an awful lot of accounting graduates leave the accounting profession within the first few years after finishing college. At what point do all those accounting courses become a waste of time if a person is not still doing accounting within a few years? But, I could argue exactly the same thing about the study of History, English, Philosophy, or the like.

My belief has long been (well, for 43 years now) that a college education has to help each person have a well-lived and fulfilled life. If a college education is not still having a positive impact on a person decades and decades after graduation, I wonder whether it wasn’t a failure. I believe that we too often abdicate any education outside of the major (accounting, history, whatever) to general education requirements which are often rushed through during the freshman year.

I prefer to insert some life-long learning into every course. I try to do that in many ways. One method I have used for decades to try to take my students beyond just the knowledge of FASB rules is to give them extra points on my Intermediate Accounting II final exam for visiting specific locations in the Richmond area. Students often live in our city for four years without fully appreciating the many wonderful attributes that it has to offer. Yes, I can teach them all the accounting in the world (capital leases, for example) but shouldn’t an accounting course open their eyes to more than that if I want to impact their lives for a longer period of time.

Is that possibly one of the reasons that college education is under such heavy attack these days?

Maybe, we do such a good job of teaching our major courses that we miss teaching them about the world beyond the major. In truth, teaching accounting is probably easier than helping young students learn how to live a fulfilled and thoughtful life.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I received the following email from one of my current students who had to spend his Spring Break on campus as a member of a sports team. He will get a few points on a final exam but I would argue that he got a whole lot more than that from his experience—a benefit that will stay with him far beyond a few years. I would love to be able to share with you some of the many photos that he sent to me about his day learning about Richmond.

Here is his email:

“I am here on campus during break because of sports, and we had today off so I decided to go out and venture to some of the places you had mentioned to us. I decided to make this a full day event, and since no one is here, and my teammates were all sleeping in I went by myself. I had fun with it though! I took some pictures, and in a sort of Ellen Degeneres Oscar moment I took 'selfies' at each of my stops. I hope you get a kick out of it! I honestly didn't think I was going to have this much fun! I tried to attach my photos in order, and I hope they all go through.

“First stop: Pony Pasture Rapids (overlooking the James River) - Climbed out on the rocks as far as I could, current was extremely fast, but made for a peaceful scene.

“Second Stop: Virginia Historical Society - Unfortunately their main exhibit halls were closed for renovations, but I still wandered around the lobby, and even got up to the Library area.

“Third Stop: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts - As you will probably see from the photos I had some fun at this place. Lots of cool things. Best thing I saw was a replica of the Worsham-Rockefeller Bedroom.

“Fourth Stop: Maymont Park - By far the best stop on my tour. The fountains weren't on, bummer, but still cool. The bear was great to see, and I even saw some bison!

“Fifth Stop: Dinner at Chick-Fil-A - Okay not on your recommended list, but I absolutely love this place, and Monday nights are college nights where students get a free sandwich.

“Sixth Stop: Westhampton Theatre – to watch the movie: Dallas Buyers Club -Keeping along with the Oscar theme, I went to see this Oscar-nominated film, and it didn't disappoint. But here is the best part, I was the only one in the theatre, and my admission was free! The ticket machine was broken, so it was my lucky day. Maybe they need to look into leasing a new machine? (operating or capital hmmmm??)

“Final Stop: Bev's Homemade Ice Cream Shop - Another one that was not on the list, but this is a suggestion for you to try. Whenever my parents are in town we go to this ice cream place in Carytown, and it never lets us down! I went with M&M's and sprinkles.

“Well that’s all I have, sorry for the long email, but it was quite the day! Hopefully this is something unique that a student had not previously done, if not, oh well, it was a blast, thanks for all the great places!”

Sunday, February 23, 2014



Professional photographers sometimes talk about the “decisive moment.”   It is that one essential point in time when the photo needs to be taken to capture the true essence of the events that are taking place and the people that are involved.   

I strongly believe that there are decisive moments in teaching and learning.   If you make the most of those decisive moments, the students can learn much and learn deeply.   If you miss those moments, learning becomes more of a superficial affair.

One such moment is immediately after the first test of the semester.   It is still early.   There is still plenty of time to make great things happen.   However, the students are all unsure as to whether they are doing enough to satisfy the teacher’s expectations. 

If the first test is complex without being unfair, the teacher will have caught the students’ attention.   “This is the kind of learning that I want from you.”   Making that clear is so very important.   Make sure the students know what you are looking for from them.

Students, though, are often confused.   They have had dozens of teachers over the years who taught in a variety of ways and with a wide range of expectations.   They will not necessarily respond to the first test as you want.   Some, for example, might be overwhelmed and have the tendency to simply give up.   Others may cast around aimlessly trying to figure out what they should be doing differently.   They need GUIDANCE.   That is where a teacher can create miracles.   Provide that guidance.

In my Financial Accounting class, I gave my first test last week.   Roughly half the students made an A or B with the rest making lower grades.   Obviously, it was the lower half that I wanted to address.   I didn’t want to lose them or discourage them.   I just wanted to guide them so they could do better.

I wrote them the following email.


To: Accounting 201 Students

From: JH

You will get your first test back today. As is always the case, some people will be happy/thrilled/excited. Some people will be less than happy.

If you are unhappy, the question you should ask of yourself is “what should I do differently?”

I’m not sure what happens to smart students in high school but they often arrive in my class believing there are short cuts to learning, tricks that enable good grades to be made with less effort. Nah, I think that is a fairy story.

Here are some things that you might consider. I know these will not all apply to everyone but a few of these might apply to you.

1 – Procrastination is the biggest enemy you have. Students (humans) put off work until the last possible moment and then hurry through the work in a rushed manner. Then, the work is not high quality. Don’t procrastinate on your class preparation. Do it as early as possible and take the time to do it right. This would be my number one recommendation (and probably my number two and three recommendation also). I occasionally walk around the room before class and notice your notes. It is surprising how often a student will have a list of our questions sitting there followed by one or two words. To myself I think, this is a student who is preparing like he really wants to make a D. Jotting down a couple of words is not preparation. Make a conscious decision to become the best prepared student in class.

2 – Read the book. Few students actually read the book. They might skim the book looking for answers to a question but they never sit down and read the book so they miss the entire thought process. Each chapter will take 60-90 minutes. The chapters are written to open the world of business to you. You should find a comfortable chair each week and actually have the self-discipline to read the chapter. You are not looking for random answers. You are looking to understand the material. That comes from actual reading and not just random skimming.

3 – Watch the opening video for the chapter and the closing video. I made those to point you toward what is really important. That will save you time and help you focus on the big stuff.

4 – I send out problems on a regular basis and put answers on my door (and occasionally make a video). You should work those immediately and, if you don’t understand the answer, come see me as soon as possible. Missing a question and then not seeking a better understanding is the kiss of death at test time.

5 – One of my top junior students comes to my office three times each week with a list of questions. Those questions come from class, from the reading, from the homework. She never leaves the office until she is comfortable that she understands. She is a tenacious student which is my favorite kind. Is it a coincidence that she is also one of the top students? Of course not. She should be your role model.

6 – I have suggested that you study together, especially in the 30 minutes or so before class. I occasionally watch those dynamics. Often, it is one student talking and the other 8 students writing down what that student says. That is not studying together. That is a waste of time (except for the one student talking). Studying is when everyone exchanges ideas and thoughts. Be very careful. It is easy to think “I sat with those other students for 30 minutes studying.” Were you really studying or just taking notes of what someone else said?

7 – I am a big believer that life is simply a game of trial and error. You’ve had a test. A pretty good percentage of the class did quite well. If you did not do so well, what did they do that you did not? You are not a robot. You can change. Make adjustments. You have plenty of time to make an A in this course but you have to learn from this first test.

Just a final note. Reading this list and doing these things are two different things. Pick a few and do them.