Sunday, October 16, 2016


Several weeks ago I was honored to lead a 2-hour teaching program for the Tennessee Society of Accounting Educators in Nashville.  I had spoken to the group a few years back and they were kind enough to invite me to return.  I tried my best not to repudiate everything I had said in my previous visit.  When you talk and write a lot, you worry that you’ll start contradicting yourself.

Whenever I give any teaching presentation, I like to include a thought or suggestion that I discover during the preceding few days.  For me, adding a new idea at the very last moment has become almost a superstition.  I enjoy doing this because it forces me to keep my eyes open for words or actions that are interesting and inspirational—something that will make me a better teacher, something that I can share with the group.  I am aware that it is easy for me to see obvious pieces of wisdom and still miss their significance.   (When the Wright Brothers were first learning to fly their new airplane in an open field near Dayton, they were pretty much ignored by the local newspapers because no one could grasp that their results might have some importance.  It is easy, I think, for all of us to have that kind of blurred vision.)

Before I left for Nashville, I was reading Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham, an interesting book that a good friend of mine (Laura Webb) had given me.  Professor Webb is a wonderfully insightful teacher in our law school here at Richmond.  I was sure that any book she recommended would be full of good advice.

Not surprisingly, I found my last-minute idea for the Tennessee conference almost immediately in that book.  I do not know if these words had any influence on the members of my audience but they certainly touched me and have influenced my teaching this semester.  When you are in your 46th year in the classroom, it is easy to believe that nothing ever needs to change.  In fact, at my age you want to put the whole process on auto-pilot.  (“I’ve done this for so long there is no reason to even consider doing something new.  Good enough is good enough.”)   But, that’s pure and total nonsense.  Improvement is a daily battle that never ends.  Every teacher can (and should) work to get better.  Consequently, I have made a number of changes in my class this semester and the quote from Why Don’t Students Like School? has been the impetus for several of them.

Okay, what the heck did I read that caught my attention and influenced my semester?

   “People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.  

   “The implications of this principle is that teachers should reconsider how they encourage their students to think, in order to maximize the likelihood that students will get the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought.” 

It was the last few words that hit home for me:  “students will get the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought.”   Wow, that is such a wonderful description of how education should work and feel.  
--It is NOT about memorization.  
--It IS about thinking.  
--It is NOT about the pain of tolerating a boring class. 
--It IS about the pleasure of learning.  
--It is NOT about some grade on a test. 
--It IS about a personal epiphany. 
--It is NOT about conveying information.
--It IS about figuring out logical solutions.

How did those few words affect my thinking and teaching?  That is easy:   I have been working on how I can help my students “get the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought.”  Not 30 percent of my students or 50 percent of my students but all of them--100 percent.

There is no way that students can be successful every day.  Regardless of the subject, students have to learn to work their way through complex material to arrive at true understanding.  Failure is a natural part of that process.  A wrong assumption is made or a step is taken without logical support.  Education is just full of failure.  We all know that.  But, at some point, there has to be success or students become discouraged and intimidated.  “I am too dumb to learn this material” is certainly not the outcome anyone wants.  If things always seem to be sliding downhill, students will fall back on what I refer to as “high school habits” – note taking, cramming, and memorization.  I don’t want that.  That leads to neither understanding nor a pleasurable rush.  

My goal is not to prove to my students that my classes are so challenging that no one can possibly learn the material.  Gosh, what good would that do them or me?  My goal is to help my students work their way through the swamp of complexity so that they can ultimately figure out the path for themselves.  I like that goal (no, actually, I love that goal).  I want 100 percent of my students to get to that point.  Making a good grade on a test is great but there needs to be a better reward than that.  Learning should not be solely a quest for grades.  There needs to be that pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought.  I have come back to those words over and over during the past few weeks.  That pleasurable rush can be additive.  It can turn a mediocre student into a fabulous student.  It can make students want to try harder, want to think more deeply.   Nothing succeeds like success.  However, you have to help make sure that true success happens—at least occasionally.

If there is so much failure in the learning process, how can a teacher introduce that pleasurable rush into class?  That’s a legitimate question for any teacher to consider.  If you have suggestions, please let me know.  I am always on a quest for more and better ideas.  

Here are a few things that I have been trying this semester.

1 – Openly acknowledge when a student makes a mental leap.  That’s when the critical thinking is happening.   “See – you took what we discussed in our previous class and you adapted it to solve this new problem.  That’s excellent.  Good job.”  You don’t need to make such comments every day but now and then can be a real boost for a student’s morale.  And, you cannot just deliver that message to the top 10 percent of the class.  Anyone can teach those people.  They are already familiar with the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought.   Figure out how to say something positive to every student as often as possible.

2 – When you see a student outside of class, mention something they have done well.  Be as specific as possible.  “Good work” just sounds like you are being a cheerleader.  “Your answer on that third question today was excellent.  I loved how you methodically walked your way through the facts and the assumptions to come up with a great answer.  That shows what you are capable of.” 

3 – If a student stumbles on a test, they immediately face a crisis of confidence.  Before they lose faith in themselves, send them an email “Listen, I know you could not possibly be happy with that grade.  Believe me, you are capable of doing much better work in this class.  Come by and see me ASAP and let’s talk about how you can perform better in my class.  There are things that you can do that will help.  I think some adjustments will lead to better results on the next test.”  Successful thought has to be a viable outcome or no student is ever going to work very hard.

4 – Rethink how you are discussing material in class.  If you are simply presenting material so that it is copied and regurgitated, there is never going to be a pleasurable rush from that.  That is education at its dullest.  Over the years on this blog, I have repeated one quote several times from What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain because I think it is relevant to better teaching.  “One teacher explained it this way:  ‘It’s sort of Socratic  . . .  You begin with a puzzle—you get somebody puzzled, and tied in knots, and mixed up.’  Those puzzles and knots generate questions for students, he went on to say, and then you begin to help them untie the knots.”

“And then you begin to help them untie the knots.”

I never read those words that I don’t say to myself “Yep, that’s exactly why I am here teaching these students.  To puzzle them and then help them untie the knots.”

Could there be a better way to introduce your students to “the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought.” 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Helping to Make Business Come Alive for Your Students

I have always thought that if I taught theater I would take my students to see plays.  Theater has to be live to be fully appreciated.   And, if I taught art, I would lead my students through art museums.   Monet and Picasso can only be really understood when you are looking at the real thing.   No book is ever going to be so alive as the paint on those canvases.  

Well, I teach accounting.   How do you open up the world of business to accounting students?   Nothing in this world could be more alive than what happens each day in business.   Decisions and innovations and advertising campaigns and take overs occur every day in full view of the public.  Think Wells Fargo right now.   The CEO is having to explain the company’s action to Congress.   To a true business person, this stuff is better than great fiction.   It is alive all around us.  The good, the bad, and the ugly.  

I want my students to feel that excitement as they walk into class each day.   When business feels alive, the relevance of accounting becomes a lot more obvious.  

For years, I suggested to my students that they read the Wall Street Journal each day.   That continues to be a great idea but, for a college student, that can come close to overkill.   The WSJ has hundreds of stories, many of which only appeal to people highly experienced in the world of business.   My students are 20 years old and not 30 years old and there is a big difference in many ways.   For college students, reading the WSJ can become a daily game of hide and seek—trying to find something they can understand and find relevant.

About 3 semesters ago, I switched my student recommendation to Morning Brew, a morning email synopsis of the business news of the day that winds up in my email at 6 each morning.   I can read for 15 minutes and be ready for a new day in the world of business.   I don’t remember how I first heard about it but there are several things I like about Morning Brew as it pertains to my students.

--It only hits the top stories in a quick fashion but gives links if students want to read more.
--I love the fresh and friendly writing style.   This is not stuffy business statistics.  They make business feel exciting.  And, that is something very few business publications manage to capture.  But, that style appeals to younger generation of business students.
--It was created by a couple of guys while they were still in college.  I love the entrepreneurial spirit of young people.   Plus, they have a great feel for what will interest business students.

If you are interested in subscribing or having your students subscribe, the website is:

As a quick example, here is the first story from this morning’s edition:

“End of an Era for BlackBerry
...As it pulls the plug on its ailing smartphone business. Time to get nostalgic. Not too long ago (think 2011), BlackBerry, once dubbed "CrackBerry," reigned supreme in the global smartphone market. The BlackBerry became a status symbol and sales climbed rapidly, peaking at 52.3 million handsets sold in 2011.

But then it fell…precipitously. Bested by Apple (shoutout to the OG iPhone in 2007) and other smartphone giants, BlackBerry hit rock bottom —and boy was it a long way down. Yesterday, after the company reported a measly 3.2 million handset sales last quarter, CEO John Chen announced that the Canadian company will stop making phones altogether, solely focusing on software and security services. BlackBerry’s game plan is now focused on emphasizing its lower cost, higher margin businesses, and investors took a liking to it: shares finished up 5% yesterday.”

That’s the kind of news that I want my students to think about as they walk into our Business School.   I enjoy it when one of my students will ask me something like “Were you surprised that Blackberry gave up on smart phones?”   The education feels alive.  We are talking about today and not 20 years ago.

After I had recommended Morning Brew for a couple of semesters, I actually met the two guys who started and operate the company.  They are only a few months older than my own students.   (In the “small world” category, I discovered that one of my students this semester is good friends with the sister of one of the founders and that's how I made the connection.)   I was in New York City and the founders and I chatted for about 90 minutes in a hotel lobby.   What college professor wouldn’t enjoy talking with two young and ambitious entrepreneurs about their goal of changing the way people learn about the business world each day?

I read it.  I love it.
Many of my students read it and seem to enjoy it.

Check it out.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016


A few years ago, I wrote a short book on Success, a topic that has always fascinated me.   In Chapter Five of that book, I relay the following story.   I tend to read a lot of books but no single quote has meant more to me over the last few years than the one I discuss in this little section of that book (slightly edited):

“This past summer I listened to a fascinating audiobook in my car:  Wild by Cheryl Strayed.   It was long and complex so I will not include a detailed synopsis here.  However, at the beginning of this autobiographical work, the author believes that she has lost control over her life (at least in part because of the death of her mother).  She decides to focus on a genuine challenge in hopes of regaining inner peace and balance.  In that circumstance, I might have taken up a hobby like pottery.  With virtually no experience to guide her, Strayed chose to walk 1,100 miles alone through the mountains of California and Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail.  Even now, the level of that challenge seems absurd, beyond belief.  Although she faced horribly frightening experiences during those months, she ultimately succeeded.  She was not the fastest hiker, actually one of the slowest, but she made it.  Along the way, she faced enormous challenges, but figured out ways – often by herself – to get through them all.

“One day, I was listening to Wild as I drove to campus.  The author was getting ready to begin her incredibly long, difficult journey.  Not surprisingly, she lost her nerve and almost quit before marching off resolutely to the starting point.  In describing her emotions, she wrote a line that is so insightful that I pulled over to the side of the road so I could write it down.  

’Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story.’

“Shakespeare could not have said it better.  ‘Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story.’  For me, this was the most brilliant sentence I read this past year.  The words have stuck with me like an arrow for months.  And, the sentence is even more relevant if you begin to swap out the word ‘Fear’ for other words such as ‘Joy,’ ‘Excitement,’ ‘Hate,’ ‘Love,’ and, of course, ‘Success.’  

“We all tell ourselves stories each day that hold us back.  Look around and you will find dozens.” 

I work with 50-100 students every semester and have done so now for over 45 years.   I am always amazed by how many tell me negative stories about themselves—stories that serve no possible benefit except to hold them back from reaching their potential.  Students often seem to be searching for an excuse to fail.  If you have taught for long, I’ll bet you have heard many of these same student stories.  They sound like confessions of dark sins rather than self-doubts.
--I am not good with numbers.
--I do not take tests well.
--I am not as smart as the other students.
--I tend to over-analyze things.
--I work slower than most students.
--I get so nervous during tests that I never do well.
--Everyone else in class seems to understand the material better than I do.
--I work all the time but I never seem to do well.

These stories hang like chains around those students—dragging them down.   They are doing it to themselves—creating barriers that make success so much harder (if not impossible).  They are building a wall between themselves and success.   And, because they have come to believe these negative stories, they often won’t even put up a fight.  That’s the part that bothers me.  They accept poor performance as inevitable.   Yesterday was bad so tomorrow is bound to be worse.

When I hear such stories from my students, I always have the same response:   “Don’t tell me negative things about yourself.   I can find out the negative things by myself.   I want to hear the positive things that I might otherwise miss.”  Student often fall into complete silence as if positive self-assessment was simply beyond them.   Maybe tearing yourself down is more socially accepted than building yourself up. 

I am convinced that most students (not all but most) make the grade they expect to make when they walk into class on the first day.   “I’m going to do the work necessary in this class to make a good grade” usually leads to an A or B.   “I’m going to do enough work to get by” usually winds up with a C or D.

Students should tell themselves the right stories.   As a teacher, I need to encourage them to have the right stories.

I work to figure out how I can get my students to choose to tell themselves better stories about their connection to school and especially to my class.   Like Cheryl Strayed, students have a choice in the stories they tell themselves.   I like these:
--I will simply work harder than other students.
--I will schedule out each day so I can make efficient use of my time.
--I will find another student and we will work together and help each other.
--I will do my school work first and go to the party second.
--I will not procrastinate.   I will not wait till the night before the test to try to learn all the material.
--I will not get involved in so many extracurricular activities that I have no time left for education.
--I will write down questions and concepts I don’t understand so the teacher can give me some specific guidance.
--I will sit up front and away from my friends so I am not distracted and don’t miss anything.
--I will organize my notes right after class before I have time to forget anything.
--I will set aside some extra time so I can do additional practice.
--I will walk into class each day as the best prepared student.
--I will learn to anticipate what the teacher wants from me.

If you can get students to change the stories they tell themselves, you will have made a wonderful stride toward having a great class.   If students constantly doubt themselves, every teacher is going to have a real challenge.   Push your students to come up with better stories and, thus, a better self-image.

Okay, I could stop this blog posting right there.  But, let’s take this idea one step further.   What stories are YOU telling yourself that are holding YOU back?   This is not just a habit that students have.  This is a human being problem.  I talk with teachers from across the country and many open up with their own self-doubts.  Negative stories just abound when you talk with teachers.
--I cannot get the students excited.
--I cannot write good test questions.
--I cannot explain the material very well.
--I am not as interesting as some of the other teachers.
--I am stuck trying to teach boring material.
--My boss will not support me if I give any bad grades.
--I will get bad student evaluations if I push the students to work hard.
--I cannot get the students to do what I want.
--I always seem so unorganized.  
--I do not have much experience so the students don’t respect me.

Gosh, that is depressing.   I am sure that some element of each story is true but that does not mean that we cannot make improvements.   Don’t let such negative stories hold you back.  There’s a famous Michael Jordan quote:

“Obstacles don't have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don't turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”   Okay, that is a better story.

Unfortunately, I hear as many negative stories from teachers as I do from students.  If you have negative stories in your head, you are never going to be a great teacher.   So Begin to Change Your Story!!!   As with your students, those negative stories are not doing you any good.   There are better stories that every teacher can tell themselves.
--I am going to teach better tomorrow than I did yesterday.
--I am going to do a better job of writing out my teaching notes so the class time is better used.
--I am going to read a good book (such as What the Best College Teachers Do or Make It Stick) so I can come up with some fresh ideas.
--I am going to try something new each week and see what the impact is.
--I am going to think about my own student days and what I wanted to see in my teachers and think about how I might apply some of that to my own teaching.
--I am going to identify great teachers at my school and observe their classes or just buy them coffee and pick their brains.
--I am going to more actively engage my students in class conversation.
--I am going to spend more time in preparation so my class coverage is more efficient.
--I will provide my students with extra materials to help them organize and review important concepts.
--I am going to read all 200+ essays in Joe Hoyle’s teaching blog and see what ideas I can discover.  :)

We all tell ourselves stories that do us harm.  If yesterday was bad, tomorrow can be better.  Trust me on that.  If you have been a good teacher in the past, you can become a great teacher in the future.  There is absolutely no reason why your best days as a teacher are not right out in front of you.

We can change our future but first we have to change our stories.

Whether you are a student or a teacher, pay attention to your stories.   Are there negative stories that you repeat over and over like a mantra that are holding you back from reaching your potential?   As you get started in this new semester, if you don’t like the stories you are telling yourself, then make a concerted effort to change them.  That is often the first step to success in teaching (and in life).

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


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 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


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


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


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?