Saturday, November 10, 2018


I turn 71 years old today.   That, of course, leads to the inevitable question, “Geez, how does anyone ever get so old?”   After that conversation with myself , I decided to spend a part of my birthday doing one of my favorite things:   Thinking and writing about teaching.  For me, that is a pleasant birthday activity.
Because we are moving toward the end of this semester, my associate dean is organizing a lunch discussion among our six new faculty members to talk about their experiences and questions.  She invited another professor and me to sit in and provide (I suppose) words of wisdom. 

That made me think about what actual words of wisdom I might share with a new college teacher.  What do I believe about teaching that I feel is worthy of passing along?   After some thought, here is what I would like for a new teacher to consider.  So, for those six plus one—OA, BC, CC, BM, AP, GW, and AS who will join us next year—this essay is specifically written for you.

Here is my advice for new college teachers in a rather random list.

(1) – Go to the student evaluation form.  Look at every question carefully.  Pick the one that is most important to you.  Make it your long-term goal to have the best score of any teacher at your school on that one particular question.  That will help you focus your teaching.  That will provide an objective goal.  “I want to be a great teacher” is simply so vague as to be useless.  There has to be one question on that evaluation that really calls to you.  Do everything you can to get the best possible results on that question.  I have worked to grow as a teacher now for 47 ½ years by concentrating on one specific student evaluation question.  Trying to become great at that question has guided everything I do.  It has helped me align all of the other evaluation questions in a logical way.   (And, no, I am not going to tell you the question that I focus on unless you write and ask me at

(2) – Students walk into your class expecting to be bored.  Many have faced so much mundane education over their years in school that they anticipate nothing better.  Constantly look for ways to make the material (a) interesting to them and (b) worth learning.  Over the decades, I have developed files of discussion questions for that purpose.  In your heart, you should start every class with, “Here is why I find this material so interesting and so important.”  Without that, a robot can do the teaching.

(3) – Never forget what it feels like to be a student who has never seen this material before.  It is overwhelming and confusing.  New terms and new concepts fly at them like hummingbirds.  I have learned so much about teaching by thinking about how I would have liked to have been taught.  Just so I won't forget, I have taken a number of classes over the years to remind myself of what being the uneducated one in the room feels like.

(4) – Always have a mental picture of what you want the last class of the semester to look and sound like.  That provides you with a clear class goal.  I could write for an hour on the desired actions of my last class for this semester.   I know exactly what I want.  I design everything that I do during the semester to push the students to that final destination.  If you do not have a vision of that last class, you will lack a guiding light for the individual classes throughout the semester. 

(5) – The best classes are the ones where the students talk as much as the teacher.   If you say much more than half of the words each class, then you are turning the class into a personal monologue.  That is the quickest way to get the students to start thinking about something else.   They might look at you and smile and nod their heads but they are pondering life outside of that room.

(6) – Never use PowerPoint.  What student (what human being) wants to sit and look at your PowerPoint slides?   I want to gag just thinking about it.   One exception – PowerPoint can actually work if each slide is 15 words or less and has a question on it that you want the students to address.  Otherwise, turn it off.

(7) – The way you test is the way students will learn.  If you want brilliant students, you have to ask brilliant, thoughtful test questions.   Never use a test bank.  You are turning one of the key elements of your course over to some unknown writer sitting behind a desk hundreds or thousands of miles away who has no clue as to what your students should know.  Use of a test bank should be outlawed.   I am a big believer in open book tests (to be more specific, I allow 2-3 pages of notes) because that will force you to write questions that are not testing memorization.  Never ask a question that is simply testing memorization.

(8) – Read the book Make It Stick.  Then get your students to read Make It Stick.   Quite honestly, I had a sophomore in my office yesterday telling me how much that book had helped him this semester.   The more you and your students know about learning, the more learning you will create.

(9) – After virtually every class, almost all students suffer from what I call “Swiss Cheese Knowledge.”  Their knowledge looks and feels rather solid so they feel confident.  Unfortunately, at that point, the knowledge is usually full of holes that will only grow larger if not addressed.  The most underrated aspect of teaching (in my mind) is what you do to push/help students AFTER each class session.  If you do not offer help with their Swiss Cheese Knowledge, they are going to be upset and mystified when they do poorly on a test.   They thought they had a strong level of knowledge but it was actually full of holes.

(10) – Anyone can become a great teacher if that person gets all of the students to be well prepared when they walk into the classroom.  If the students are prepared, the rest is easy.   If they are not prepared, the rest is impossible.  There are many ways to get students to prepare.  How you do that is up to you.  I guarantee that the first day you teach where every student is well prepared, you will be absolutely stunned by the brilliance in the room.

(11) – When I first started writing about teaching many years ago, I came up with Joe’s Theorem – if it takes X amount of time to be an average teacher, then it will take 2X amount of time to be a good teacher, and 3X amount of time to be a great teacher.  I suspect the proportions are off but the idea is still correct.  It is hard to be good or great without spending some serious time.  Trust me, I wish it were not so.  But it is.  Time invested improves most things and teaching is one of those things.  If it is not going well, a bit more invested time can be helpful.

(12) – You must figure out some effective way to communicate with your students.  If your sole communications is during 150 minutes per week in class, it is going to be tough to be much more than an average teacher.  There are just lots of things you need to tell students and class does not provide much opportunity.  Most people who read this blog know that I am obsessed with communicating with students.  I use email because it works well for me.   I email them about 10 times BEFORE the semester starts.  I email them about once a day after the semester starts.   I literally emailed my class yesterday morning five minutes before the class started as I walked toward the classroom.  Have you not noticed that students all walk around with phones in their hands sending and getting messages?  They really don’t view my emails as all that odd.  My friends think I am crazy.  My students seem to think it is normal (or at least close to normal).

(13) – You have to make many decisions as a teacher.  Be transparent.  “Here is my decision and here is why I made this choice” goes a long way to helping students understand what is happening.   If a decision turns out to be wrong, then change it.   However, once again, explain what you are doing and why.  Every teacher has rules for a good reason, but that does not mean you should suspend all judgments.  I tell my students, “If you don’t like something I do, tell me about it.  I might not change my mind but I will listen to you and consider your opinions.”

(14) – Teaching requires a lot of faith because you almost never see truly positive results.  Students sit in your classroom and you push them along.  You think you might be making a difference but you really do not know.  Then, they leave and you wonder whether you affected their lives at all.   It takes faith to keep pushing so very hard.   However, occasionally something will happen that will make you smile and you will realize that teaching really is the greatest profession in the world because you do make a difference in the lives of your students.  Yesterday, I got an email from a student who was in my class 2-3 years ago.  I remember him but not that well.   I would have said that I had no real influence on his life.   Nevertheless, he took the time to write.

“I read a quote today in a book that reminded me very fondly of your teaching style and it inspired me to thank you. I work at a mid-sized accounting firm just outside of DC and do everything from accounting support, to audits/reviews/compilations, to every type of tax work available. I use fairly little of the knowledge I learned in school for my daily work, but I do use the approach to learning you teach every day.

“I have been quite successful in everything I try, in large part, because your class allowed me to learn in a manner that produces results in a real world application. There is no static process in my life, no “read, memorize, and regurgitate”.  Every day is essentially a “figure it out” moment with growing background, but close to none to start. Feel free to let your students know that they don’t have to get an A in every class, but that not cutting corners is where true value in education lies.”

That type of feedback does not happen often but in those moments when it does, you will realize that your life as a teacher does have a wonderful purpose.  

Wednesday, October 31, 2018


I want to start this essay with three assertions that I have made previously on this blog.   They are not radical.

(1) – Many students leave high school without a good understanding of how to learn.  Some are fantastic but many rely too heavily on memorization and techniques that do not necessarily work for them.  They struggle in college and do not even know why.  They become frustrated.  If you can provide help you will improve them as students in your class but also throughout their college experience.  That is why I encourage my students to read Make It Stick.

(2) – Many students have trouble determining how well they are studying.  They spend time, but their studies can be rather random and disorganized.   They seem unable to gauge how well they are doing.  They often do not know they have weaknesses until they show up at a test and cannot answer basic questions.   The old saying that, “You don’t know what you don’t know” certainly seems to apply to some students as they prepare for a class.

(3) – Students are most interested in making learning improvements around test dates.   For a few days, a teacher really can grab their attention.  The frustration that can rise after a test provides fertile ground for suggested changes in study habits.  

I gave a test to my introductory students last week.  Some walked out happy while others didn’t.  I wanted to address those students who were not happy.   Within a few hours, I composed a little 8-question quiz to help them judge how well they were working in my class.  I reminded them of every possible technique that they could use to learn the material.   I wanted to show them what excellent preparation might look like so they could measure themselves against that standard.  I provided a grading scale.  

I want to repeat one of those sentences because I think it is so important.  I wonder how often students are provided with this type of guidance. 
“I wanted to show them what excellent preparation might look like so they could measure 
  themselves against that standard.”  

I am always looking to do things that I have never seen done before.   This one counts. 

I replicated this email and the quiz that I sent to my students below.  For better or worse, this is a very personal list of techniques – they are the ones that I use and recommend for my class.   If you want to do something like this, you will have to design your own quiz questions.   But that is not too hard.  Just answer one question—what would perfect preparation look like in your class?—and you will have an outline for your quiz.  Do notice the grading scale at the bottom of the list.

To:  My Introductory Accounting Students

Students often get to the end of the semester in this class and seem puzzled.   “I wanted to make an A but I wound up making a B and I’m not sure why I didn’t make the A.   I would have liked that.”   Or, “I wanted to make a B but I finished with a C and I really don’t like having that C.  I wish I had tried harder.”  

After the semester is over, those reflections are useless.   I would really like for you to consider where your work is heading right now.  I developed a quiz to help you score yourself as a measure of what grade you are trying to make in this class.   Take it.   Compute the grade.   See where you seem to be going and whether you like that (since you still have time to improve).  Be honest.   The truth is good for you.

(1) – How many classes have you missed so far this semester?
--If your answer is zero or one, then that is GREAT.   You gain more by being in class than in any other single experience.  There is no substitute for being here, being part of the discussion.
--If your answer is two, then that is GOOD.
--If your answer is more than two, then that needs IMPROVEMENT.

(2) – On the first day of the semester, I suggested that you spend at least one hour getting ready for each upcoming class.  I think for an introductory class that meets three times each week, that is a good goal.  How often do you spend at least one hour getting ready for an upcoming class?
--If your answer is virtually every class (90 percent of the classes), then that is GREAT.   Nothing beats spending the time to get ready for class.   Many students look for short cuts but they are fooling themselves.   Whether it is sports or class, you need to invest serious time in preparation.
--If your answer is most of the time (75 to 90 percent of the classes), then that is GOOD.
--If your answer is less than 75 percent of the time, then that needs IMPROVEMENT.

(3) – On the first day of the semester, I suggested that you spend 30 minutes reviewing each class and getting the knowledge organized.  My recommendation was that you do that within 24 hours after the class.  How often do you spend 30 minutes reviewing each class within 24 hours?
--If your answer is virtually every class (90 percent of the classes), then that is GREAT.   Knowledge seeps out of the brain very quickly if not reinforced and organized.  The book Make It Stick emphasizes that over and over.
--If your answer is most of the time (75 to 90 percent of the classes), then that is GOOD.
--If your answer is less than 75 percent of the time, then that needs IMPROVEMENT.

(4) – How many times have you come to my office to ask a question or get a clarification?  
--If your answer is three times or more, then that is GREAT.  Successful students recognize when they need help and go get it right then.  The material is hard.  You are not in this battle alone.
--If your answer is one or two times, then that is GOOD.
--If your answer is none, then that needs IMPROVEMENT.

(5) – I have sent out a number of email practice problems almost immediately after our class sessions, often with answers attached.   How frequently have you worked those questions within 48 hours of receiving them?
--If your answer is virtually every time (let’s say 90 percent), then that is GREAT.   This gives you a chance for a review immediately after class to make sure you picked up the key points in class. 
--If your answer is most of the time (75 to 90 percent), then that is GOOD.
--If your answer is less than 75 percent of the time, then that needs IMPROVEMENT.

(6) – You have received PowerPoint flash cards as an organized learning tool.   Each chapter has about 90 of those cards with a whole lot of learning activities set up in a logical sequence.   Which of the following best describes your use of the PowerPoint flash cards?
--If your answer is that you went through at least half of the cards for each chapter as the material was being covered, then that is GREAT.   I developed these cards specifically for this course and they should help you learn the material in an efficient manner.  They supplement our class coverage.
--If your answer is that you went through them in the days right before the second test as a review technique, then that is GOOD.
--If your answer is that you largely ignored the Power Point flash cards, then that needs IMPROVEMENT.

(7) – On virtually every page of the textbook, there is a Test Yourself question to help you make sure you comprehended what you had just read.   What percent of those Test Yourself questions did you work as you read the chapter?
--If your answer is that you did 2/3 or more of the Test Yourself questions as you read the chapter, then that is GREAT.   Again, as Make It Stick talks about, reading and then immediately practicing is a great learning technique.
--If your answer is that you did not pay much attention to them while reading but looked at 50 percent or more as a review for the second test, then that is GOOD.
--If your answer is that you did not pay much attention to the Test Yourself question, then that needs IMPROVEMENT.

(8) – I sent out answers to the multiple-choice problems and true-false questions at the end of each textbook chapter.   How much time did you spend answering these questions and checking your answers?
--If your answer is that you worked half or more of those multiple-choice and true-false questions by the time we finished the chapter or shortly thereafter, that is GREAT.   Again, this work gives you another way to check the knowledge you are learning as well as a practice technique.
--If your answer is that you worked half or more of those questions right before the second test, then that is GOOD.
--If you pretty much ignored the end of chapter problems and questions, then that needs IMPROVEMENT.

Give yourself 2 points for every GREAT answer.
Give yourself 1 point for every GOOD answer.
Give yourself 0 points for every needs IMPROVEMENT answer.

Sum up the points.

If you scored 13 or more points, then I would assume that you are working to make an A.   You might not make it but you are doing the right things.  I am not at all unhappy with your preparation.

If you scored 7 to 12 points on this little quiz, then I would assume that you are working to make a B.   You are definitely working but you are not pushing yourself to an “Outstanding” level.  There is more you can and probably should do.

If you scored 0 to 6 points, you are probably praying that you will make a C.   There is nothing wrong with that but you should be honest with yourself about your goals.

Obviously, this is just guesswork on my part but it does give you a way to measure your effort and your ambition to do well in this course. 

If you want to do better on the third test, move your quiz grade up as quickly as possible.  Shoot to get 13 points.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Communications, Evolution, and Motivation

I think three essential keys to having a successful class are:

--Communications – Your students cannot read your mind.   If you want to direct them or influence them, you have to have a way to communicate with them.  In my opinion, teaching in college at a high level becomes almost impossible if you do not have some effective method of communication.

--Evolution – I want my students to get better as students as the semester progresses   It is not just that I want them to learn more material.   I literally want them to become better, more effective students.  I want them to grow as thinkers--over and above the subject matter that I teach.

--Motivation – Students are human beings.   They become tired.  They become discouraged and frustrated.   I am not a cheerleader, but I do believe my students will improve if I both push them and entice them to work harder and think more deeply.  A litte push can be helpful.

When I tell the above to any group, someone will invariable ask me for an example.   Okay, here is one from my classes today.

My students have a few days off for our fall break.   I want them to rest and relax, but I also want them to come back with a renewed vigor about my class.   I do not want the semester to be a slow slide into mediocrity.   Right before they left, I emailed them the following note.

Will they all read it and make some changes?   No, of course not – that is silly.   Nevertheless, I suspect a few students will read it and think about it and, perhaps, come back ready to do better.  I very much want them to avoid giving up and accepting an average grade.  Instead of coasting out the semester, I want them to try harder and try smarter.   For me, and hopefully a few of my students, this email combines communication, evolution, and motivation.  

At half time, what message do you want to send to your students?

Email to my students:

I have an assignment for you for fall break.   It is not the typical type of assignment where I ask you to write a paper or do some practice problems.

Our course is not yet half-complete but it is getting there.   You have approximately 20 percent of your grade finalized.  We have been together now for enough weeks that I am no longer a mystery to you.   I guarantee that you now know what I want.   If I asked each of you to write a paragraph titled, “What does the professor really want from me?” you would all get the grade of A, maybe A+.

I always talk a lot about half-time adjustments.   A football or basketball team is behind at half time and looks destined for defeat.   At half time, the coach and players make necessary adjustments and suddenly look like an entirely new team in the second half.   They turn things around and march on to victory.   It is not a rare event.   It happens every weekend.   Half-time adjustments are just a necessary part of a long game. 

I read yesterday a quote from Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric back in its better days (1981-2001).    Few CEOs have ever achieved the status of Welch.   The quote was a simple one, “Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.”   I think if you are looking for a guide to success, those words are pretty darn powerful. 

As far as I am concerned, you are in the business of being a college student.   Yes, you have many other responsibilities and interests but if you are a full-time college student trying to attain an education, then you are in the business of being a college student.  After four (or so) years, this college student business might prove successful or it might not.  I believe you need a vision of your approach to that business, one that you can passionately own and relentlessly drive to completion.  That vision, I think, will help make those years more likely to be ones that you look back on with pride.

Here is my assignment for you over our fall break.   Even if it is not quite half time of this semester, I want you to consider what adjustments you need to try in your approach to this course.   For some, these changes might be slight, for others more dramatic.  You know what I want from you.  You have to decide (sooner rather than later) how you need to improve your approach and then you need to do it.  It is a two-step approach.  It is up to you.   I just want you to consider the possibilities.

However, I want you to take on this assignment with Jack Welch’s words in mind.  Take some time to do some serious thinking about your vision of YOU as a college student, create and articulate the vision you really want.  I think Jack Welch delivered some great business advice but also some great personal advice.  I feel that everyone needs a vision of their business that is so right for them that they feel led to drive relentlessly toward its completion.  

I realize you are mostly 18-20 year olds, but it does not take much of a view of the world to realize that a whole lot of people do not have much of a vision for their business or for themselves.   Mediocrity is not hard to find.   I think colleges should push the idea of a personal vision more.  Your vision of yourself will undoubtedly change over time but now is the perfect time (here at fall break) to start developing a vision of YOU in your business of being a college student.

Assignment:   Figure out your vision for your business and then consider any half-time adjustments that will drive you toward that vision.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018


Quick note:   If you are in need of a little inspiration as you begin a new school year, at the video link below, I tell four stories about teaching that I hope will get every teacher excited about another year in the classroom.  On good days, it is a truly marvelous and wonderful profession.  And, even on bad days, it can still be extremely rewarding.  I hope the video reminds you of that fact.

Thoughts on Testing:  I am currently writing tests for my students so testing is on my mind.  Our first examination of the semester is tomorrow.  As I enter my 48th year in the classroom, I am convinced that the writing and grading of tests is a true pain in the neck.  In fact, testing stopped being fun for me while Richard Nixon was president of the United States.

However, I am even more certain that testing can be (and should be) an extremely positive influence on student learning.  For that reason, I still invest an enormous amount of time in thinking and constructing examinations.  

In one of the first speeches I ever delivered about teaching years ago, I made the observation that,

                   “The way you test is the way your students will learn.” 

If you test students on memorization, they will work diligently to memorize every word you utter no matter how you teach them.  However, if you test their critical thinking skills, your students will quickly realize that memorization is not helpful and begin to focus their attention on critical thinking. 

If that is true (and I believe it is), then you cannot simply rely on a publisher’s test bank for your test questions.  For years, I have argued vehemently against the use of test banks.  I think they have done more harm to college learning than virtually anything else I know.  

Consequently, I want to provide you with three testing tips from my own experience as a teacher.   All of them have helped me over the years in the teaching of my students.  Perhaps, you will find one or two that are helpful to you. 

(1) – Notes – I always allow my students to bring two sheets of notes to every test.  They have to be hand-written because I want each student to do their own thinking about what is important, what material I am likely to cover and what questions I might ask.  I believe students need to learn to assess the relative importance of what we discuss in class.  By limiting the quantity of notes, students cannot simply judge all the material as equally important and just write down everything.  They must decide what is essential.

For me, that assessment is helpful for student learning.  However, that is not the primary reason for allowing notes.  I let students bring in notes because it sends a clear message (to the students AND to me) that I am not going to test them on memorization.  How can I test memorization if they have notes?  This puts an obvious burden on me to come up with reasonable questions that go beyond memorization.  I have often said that I never learned how to write good test questions until I began to allow students to have notes.  That step forced me to come up with better questions, ones requiring student understanding that went deeper than memorization.  When I look back on my evolution as a teacher, this decision to allow notes was a hugely important step.  Student learning improved because I began to challenge them with better questions. 

Try it once – see if it works for you.

(2) – Testing Circle – Every semester, during the last class before our first test, I spend 5 minutes talking with my students about my “testing circle.”  I draw a big circle on the board and tell them, “This represents everything we have discussed this semester to date.  I keep good records.  I know the topics our class has examined.  I will write about 1/3 of the test questions directly from this material because it covers what we talked about in class.  I want to see if you were here and awake, that you paid attention and understood.   If you get these questions correct, then you must have followed the daily conversation with a basic degree of understanding.  That strikes me as approaching average work which is evidence that you are getting close to a C.”

I then draw an X roughly 3 inches outside of the circle and explain, “This X represents test questions that are connected to our class coverage but go beyond what we analyzed in class.  I want to see if you can take your class knowledge and extend it to solve something new, something a bit more complex.  It will take analysis and thinking but you can do it.  If you understand the class material well enough, you can use that fundamental knowledge to figure out legitimate answers for this second group of questions.  To me, success at this level starts to look like Good work and begins to show me that you might deserve a B (or, at least, you are heading that way).  It indicates that you can make use of your knowledge and that is important to me.”

I then draw an X roughly 12 inches outside the circle.  “This final X again represents test questions that are connected to our class coverage, but they are more complex.  They will require an excellent understanding and thinking to determine the key elements of that connection so that you can come up with a solution.  I do not know that anyone can get them all correct, but I want to see if you can solve some of these questions because that starts to feel like Excellent and Outstanding work.  That level of understanding begins to show me that you are capable of earning an A.  Virtually every practice question I have sent to you by email this semester was either a B level or an A level question.  I took what we had done in class and tried to show you how that basic knowledge could be extended to solve more complicated issues.”

Once again, I am stressing that I have little interest in memorization.  I am also doing something that I am not sure enough teachers do.  I am showing the students visually what critical thinking is and why it is important.  We talk a lot about critical thinking in education but few students seem to have any clue what it is and why it is important.  That to me is a serious weakness of much of college education.  We say we are doing it but we do not even explain what it is.  For me, critical thinking is developing a level of understanding that is so solid that the student can use it as the foundation to solve questions and issues that are ever more complicated.  

I often tell my students that the course will never be finished until they can solve all the possible problems based on their own knowledge and, therefore, have no further need of me. 

(3) - Answer Sheets – For me, every test has two purposes:  (1) to help assess the students’ knowledge for grading purposes and (2) to improve the students’ understanding so they will do better in coming classes and on the next examination.   I believe students should show improvement on every subsequent examination. 

Consequently, I email my students an answer sheet within a few hours of every exam.   Not surprisingly, that is the time they are most interested in (a) the knowledge they needed to know and (b) how I wanted them to attack and answer each question.   Students will often pour over answer sheets with more intensity than they ever invest in the class.  They focus their attention like a laser on any questions they miss.  For me, that has always seemed like the perfect moment for improving student knowledge and that is what an answer sheet encourages.  I often have more interesting conversations about the answer sheets than I do about class material.  

For each test, I type up an answer sheet that starts with, “Here is how I would have looked at each question.  Here is how I would have started building an answer.   Here is the answer that I hope you were able to derive.”   No matter how complicated the question, I want the answers to seem logical and sequential.  Education is often the taking of a seemingly random and confused bunch of information and organizing it into knowledge that is logical and sequential.

Of course, there is a troubling disadvantage with distributing answer sheets—you cannot reuse test questions semester after semester.  The questions and answers are “out there” in the student world.   I know this is probably sacrilegious to say but I think teachers should write new questions for each semester.  The old questions become stale and dated.  New questions help keep you focused on what you want your students to know.  Like exercise, the writing of test questions is not fun but it is good for you.     

Answer sheets can help the students.   Again, try it once and see if it works.

Fourth Tip:   And, here is a fourth tip absolutely free of charge.  Send the answer sheets you use one semester to your students the next semester.  Once again, that will help them see that you are not asking for any memorization.  The answer sheets will show them what you mean when you say,  "I want to see if you can take your class knowledge and extend it to solve something new, something a bit more complex."  Students often believe a teacher is bluffing until they see evidence.   At that point, they will forget about memorization and start looking for ways to use the knowledge they have attained.

None of these ideas is perfect.  I can see potential flaws easily enough.  Nevertheless, in my own personal experience, they have each helped my students develop stronger and deeper learning.  If you are looking to experiment in your teaching, testing is an excellent place to start.  I think you will find opportunities for quick improvement.

When done well, your questions and answers can have a positive effect on the knowledge and understanding of your students.  Better testing can make for better learning.    

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


(NOTE:   This is my 269th posting on this blog.   Over the years, the writings have never really varied.  They have always been about my observations on teaching in college, which is, I truly believe, one of the most important professions in the world--maybe the most important.  We should all approach this job as if the fate of our planet depends on us.

I tend to author 5 to 15 new essays each year.  If you would like to receive a short notification from me whenever I post a new essay, send me an email at   I will not email you for other reasons – I respect your privacy.  I will just let you know when I have posted a new entry to the blog.   

And, as a wonderful new school year begins, THANKS to everyone who reads these blog essays and spends some serious time thinking about teaching!!!)

In 12 days, I begin my 48th year in the classroom.   As always, I am looking forward to the challenge, to the fun of going into class and trying to help all my students learn, think, and understand.  I hope you are at least half as excited as I am about the possibilities that come from the beginning of a new academic year.   It is a great time to be enthusiastic.

I have two classes of juniors and one class of sophomores.  Over the summer, I have emailed the sophomores about six times and the juniors eleven.   Seems like overkill doesn’t it?  

Why have I written to the students so often?  Am I trying to drive them crazy or scare them to death???   Well, I will come back to my rationale, but first a story.

Yesterday, I was sitting at a coffee shop near our campus talking with a dear friend about teaching.   I posed a question to her that I want to ask you.   “I believe if you take all the great teachers you’ve ever known and think about how they taught, you’ll discover they have at least one thing in common.   They all demonstrate this one thing.   I don’t think it alone makes anyone a great teacher but, without it, I don’t think you have any chance at all of being great.  What do you think that one thing is?  Think about the great teachers you have known.  How were they alike?” 
Okay, obviously, I want each of my readers to stop right here and consider the question.   What characteristic do all great teachers have?   I think this is truly important because it forces you to consider the question for yourself.   Don’t just listen to what I have to say.  I might be full of nonsense.  What do you think? 
My friend and I discussed the question generally for a while until she turned to me and said, “Okay, I’m ready to hear what you think.   You clearly have an answer that you like so convince me that you are correct.”  

My answer is this.   And, this is the basic reason for sending so many emails to my students before I even meet them.   I believe no teacher can be great unless the students have a deeply held faith in the teacher and the teacher’s abilities.  Few students are ever going to do their best work unless they have faith that they are not wasting their time.  Think of the great teachers you have had and ask yourself whether they were able to establish a high degree of student faith.  I am betting the answer is Yes.  “This person really can teach me something worth knowing.”  Here at the beginning of the semester, if you can begin to establish student faith, you open up the potential for a truly great semester.  This is the perfect moment to consider the issue.

Well, this raises a more complex question, what do I mean by “student faith?”   This is not a religious experience where you walk in and simply ask the students to have faith in you.   What is it?

Here’s how I view the creation of a student’s faith in a teacher.

First, students have to have some understanding of what you are trying to accomplish.  How is the course organized and what are your goals?   Without that, you are just asking for blind faith.  “Trust me because I am the teacher” is going to get you few converts in 2018.  Students don’t want to see a day-by-day outline of the course but they need a general idea of how you work and what you are trying to achieve.  Confusion does not inspire faith.

Second, and this relates directly to the first requirement, students have to believe that you have the ability to achieve your goals.   When I was in college, I had a number of teachers who started the first day telling us about the wonderful things that were going to happen during the semester.  However, within a week or so, it became obvious that the teacher simply did not know how to attain those objectives.  If you promise the moon, you better be able to show them how you are going to get them together to make the voyage.  Promises alone mean nothing.  In fact, promises alone are just irritating.

Third, students must be shown why the goals you have established are important and attainable.  Why should my students want to learn this stuff?  Students are human beings.   If you can show them that work has value, they will likely do the work.   If you cannot show them that work has value, why would many of them ever do anything?   This is common sense.  

Fourth, the students must believe that you will be fair in everything you do with the students, especially the grading.   Teachers can be easy and students will adapt.   Teachers can be hard and students will adapt.   But, if students come to believe you are not fair, they will never adapt to you and what you are trying to do.

Why all the emails to my students over the summer?   In my never subtle way, I am trying to answer four questions for them.

(1) – What are my goals?   What am I trying to accomplish? 
(2) – How am I going to get every member of the class to reach those goals?
(3) – Why is the work worth the effort?
(4) – How am I going to treat them so that I am absolutely fair to everyone?

If I can come up with satisfactory answers to those questions before I meet them, I have a chance to establish student faith in me and what I hope to accomplish.   I believe that creates the foundation for the construction of a great class.  Without that faith, it is going to be a long, tough semester.

A new semester is beginning.   It’s a good time to address these four questions with your students.  Build their faith.