Monday, October 14, 2019


I have written about one essay on teaching per month for the past 10 years or so and I still seem to have more to say.  If you would like to receive a short email whenever I post a new essay, drop me an email at  I won't use the email for any other purpose.

A friend (Dr. Paul Clikeman) and I are leading a faculty discussion in our building next month on testing.  It is a great topic for conversation because it is such a regular and critical interaction between every student and their teacher.  More arguments surely occur over test grades than anything else in the daily teaching process.

There are many serious questions that our faculty group can discuss during this time.

--Should teachers give objective tests or subjective tests?
--Should teachers consider Bloom’s taxonomy when writing test questions?
--Should speed in completing the test be a factor in the grading?  (In other words, should slower students be penalized for working slowly and, possibly, not finishing all the questions?)
--How can the teacher prevent cheating?
--Should students be allowed to have notes or other aids during a test?
--Should grades be distributed on a predetermined curve?
--How should a teacher determine if a student really deserves an A?
--Is there really a difference between a B+ and A- (or between a C+ and a B-)?
--Should teachers make previous tests available to students?
--Should teachers reuse tests?
--Should teachers use questions from a test bank produced by a textbook publisher?
--How can teachers grade written essay answers fairly and consistently?
--Should teachers pass out an answer sheet?
--How can teachers be sure questions do not have inherent flaws?
--Is it better to give a lot of good grades or a lot of bad grades?  Some people have high means whereas others have low means.  Is one preferable?  
--Is testing even necessary?  Should teachers stick to papers and presentations for grading purposes and avoid tests completely?

Those are all great questions but there is one question that I think must come before all of these questions and it is the point of this essay.  Why do you give tests in the first place?  The answer might seem obvious but your response will affect the answers to almost all of the above questions.

You really need to be comfortable with why you give examinations before you attempt to write any exam questions.  

I tried to come up with several reasons for giving an exam.  I am going to list these randomly.  I would like for you to pick the top one for you because I think that will help as you consider how to write better exam questions in the future.

Here are possible answers to my basic question in no particular order.

A –Tests provide evidence for grades.  A teacher has to give grades.  They really do not need to serve any other purpose.  They can be used to show the student why a certain grade was given.

B – Tests can be used to motivate students.  Almost every teacher, at some point, has threatened, “This will be on the next test,” just to get the students to wake up and pay more attention.  It provides a bit of urgency for the students.

C – Tests are good challenges.  Without tests, many students would tend to be mediocre.  Students are human and human beings need the challenge provided by a test in order to do their best work.  If a test is not appropriately challenging, the best students will feel betrayed – they worked hard for nothing (and they won’t make that mistake a second time).  

D – Tests help guide students by showing them what you want them to learn.  If you want them to memorize, then you test them on memorization.  If you want them to develop critical thinking skills, then you must test them on their development of critical thinking skills.  Students pay attention to test questions and catch on to what you are trying to accomplish.  

E – Tests provide the teacher with a good means of self-evaluation.  Student answers show the teacher what has been learned to date so the teacher can judge whether that is sufficient and take corrective actions if the results are not as hoped.  For example, if many students miss the same question, either the question was written poorly or the students were not properly prepared for it.  

F - Tests help students to determine how they are doing in relation to the others in the class.  For example, a low grade on a test can indicate that the student needs to try different study habits or invest more hours to catch up with the other students.

Okay, my guess is that you are saying to yourself, “Well, 3 or 4 of those answers apply to me to some extent.  I have several important reasons for testing.”  

Be that as it may, I think every teacher should take the plunge and have one primary reason clearly in mind for every test.  It is hard to write questions properly if you do not have a definite reason for the test in mind.

Speaking strictly for me, I do have one goal for every test and that is (D) – I mean for my tests to help guide the students by showing them what I want them to learn.  I don't want their to be any ambiguity.  I have long had the motto, “The way you test is the way the students will learn.”  Consequently, I attempt to tie every test question to my overall goal for the semester.

On the first day of class (and often thereafter), I tell my students that my class has only one purpose, “I am going to present you with weird, odd, and unusual situations and then help you figure out how to resolve those logically according to accepted accounting principles.”  We do that every day.  Then, in every question on every test, I try to present my students with weird, odd, and unusual situations and see if they can now logically figure out on their own how to resolve those according to accepted accounting principles.  

Of course, I don't teach history, English, or biology, but I think I could adapt that goal if I did teach other subjects.

I must admit that I really like establishing a tie between my class goal and my tests.  

Yes, I have other reasons to give tests.  For example, I like that they can motivate and challenge the students.  However, the primary reason, by far, that I give exam questions is to guide the students toward what I want them to learn.

Why do you give tests?  Have a clear answer in mind and you might find that the testing process becomes a more beneficial component of your teaching.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019


Last week, Dr Paul Clikeman and I were installed as Robins Teaching Fellows here at the University of Richmond.  We had a nice ceremony where we each got to speak for 15 minutes or so.  I will include the URL for the video at the bottom of this essay in case you want to watch. 

We were asked to speak about our teaching philosophies.  As anyone who has followed this blog for long knows, I have dozens if not hundreds of teaching philosophies.  I could probably have talked for 15 hours instead of just 15 minutes. 

Over the summer, I had the pleasure of hearing Professor Bill McCarthy at Michigan State speak at a conference.  He said that he wanted his classes to be transformative experiences.  I liked the sound of that and it has become a theme of mine during the fall of 2019.  As I tell my students, “If this class isn’t going to make you different, I am not sure why you would ever do the work or even show up.” 

In developing my 15 minutes talk, I decided to focus on three teaching philosophies that have been transformative for me.  I figured if they had changed me maybe they could change others as well. 


In late August, I came to campus one morning and found that a student from the class of 1987 had left me a note on a 3 x 5 card that she had slid under my office door.  It said, “I wanted to thank you for giving me the kick in the rear that I needed as a college student.  My career would not have been the same without it.”  I smiled.  I had not seen this student in 32 years and this was her primary memory of the experience.

Two days later, I received a six-page hand written letter from a student in the class of 2013.  I had not seen her in six years.  The entire first page talked about how stressful my class was to her.  As I read, I feared that she had gone into therapy because of my teaching style.  However, at the end of the first page she wrote, “Your, albeit, stressful class prepared me for the real world, and for that, all I can say is Thank You.”  Again, I was pleased.

If this were an English literature class, I would probably comment that I am beginning to see a theme here.  It is that theme that leads me to my first teaching philosophy.  Approximately 50 years ago, I was watching television and a pro football coach was being interviewed.  I think it was Vince Lombardi but I am not sure.  He said, “There is something in every person that wants to be pushed to be great.”  I believed that completely 50 years.  I believe it just as absolutely today.  Those few words have formed the very foundation of my teaching.  From working with thousands of students, I do believe that there is something in every person that wants to be pushed to be great.  Sometimes it might be buried quite deep but it is there.

When I talk about my former students and provide you with this quote, you probably view my class as me leading a bunch of oxen out into a field where I whip them unmercifully to get them to do the work.  Well, that is not how I view my teaching at all. 

I tell my students that education should be like a beautiful dance where two parties come together and push each other to be great.  One party does half the work and the other does half the work and when it all clicks something absolutely marvelous is created.  When it goes right, there are days in class that are simply beautiful.  But it doesn’t happen by accident.  I have to push the students to be great and they have to push me to be great.  If either fails, then we both fail.  Go to Youtube and search for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and you will see what I mean. 

People often ask me if I have had favorite classes over the years and the answer is, “Certainly.  My favorite classes have always been those students that pushed me the hardest to be great.” 

My philosophy is simple – if you push your students as hard as humanly possible and convince them to push you back with equal vigor and excitement, you will be amazed by how great the learning can become. 


I came to campus 13 years ago and one of the members of our faculty had put a magazine article in my mail box with the simple words, “I think you will like this.”  It was from the October 19, 2006, issue of Fortune magazine.  The article was “What It Takes to be Great” by Geoffrey Colvin.  As the title implies, the article describes research on how people become great singers, chess masters, violists, and the like.  The article was interesting to me but there were two assertions near the beginning that really caught my attention.  “In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly and then stop developing completely. Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness.”

These sentences seem so obvious that they are hardly worth noting.  If I take up playing the piano, I will gradually improve for a time but will eventually plateau and improvement will cease.  That happens all the time.  Nevertheless, it is the second sentence that caught my attention.  “Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness.”  That has stayed with me almost daily for 13 years.

I love that concept – if I can continue to improve year after year, then eventually, I will become great.  Okay, it might take 135 years but it is inevitable if I just work to improve.

If we evaluate each of our endeavors, then we all fall into one of two groups.  For most activities that we undertake, we are probably in the plateau group.  We reach a level where additional improvement does not seem worth the effort and we become stuck.  In all honesty, many of the teachers I have observed over the decades are in this plateau group.  A few, though, continue to improve year after year and will eventually become great.

So, my question for you is simple.  Which group are you in?  Are you in the plateau group – stuck in place?  Or, are you in the improving group, still moving forward toward greatness?

My philosophy again is simple – to have a vibrant, active life, you need to find a few activities where you dearly want to remain in the improving group so that you continue to take the actions necessary to make that happen.  For me, that is teaching.  In 48 years, I have never once walked into my classroom when I didn’t want to be a better teacher.  I hope you have the same opinion.  For those things that are truly meaningful to you, stay out of the plateau group and reside in the improving group.


Paul Clikeman and I go to Taco Bell for lunch once each week and we have been doing that for about 15 years.  We talk about a lot of things over those tacos but the one consistent theme over the years has been teaching. 

If you want to remain in the improving group, find someone who has a similar philosophy as yours, a similar attitude, similar goals.  Find a person who thinks deeply about the same things that you think are important.  Then, meet on a regular basis and talk.  Don’t have an agenda or a check list.  Just talk.  The conversation will always come back around to topics that you both think are important.

--It is incredibly difficult to improve year after year if all the ideas must come from inside your own head. 

--It is hard to do the work necessary if you don’t have a foundation of support.

My third teaching philosophy is a bit more direct – make conversation a scheduled part of your work week.  Don’t wait for a formal presentation.  Don’t share an occasional glass of wine or beer.  Find someone who cares as much as you do and make sure that you have those discussions on a regular basis and not just when there is nothing else better to do.


These three teaching philosophies have been transformative for me.  Hopefully, one or two of them might touch you as well.

--There is something in every person that wants to be pushed to be great.  View class as a dance where two parties come together and push each other to create something marvelous.

--Most people improve until they plateau but a few continue to improve year after year and go on to greatness.  Decide where you want be great and for those things (like teaching) stay out of the plateau group and reside in the improving group.

--Find other people who have the same goals and ambitions that you have and then have very regular conversations with them so you can inspire and push each other to stay in the improving group.

Here is the URL for the actual installation ceremony:

Sunday, August 18, 2019


Last week, I posted an essay about an email that I sent to my students 17 days before the start of the fall semester.  I wanted to convince my students that the class was going to be worth the effort.  I just believe having students believe that there is a benefit to be gained is a great way to get them started.  And, I want to begin that “convincing” process before I meet them rather after we are into the semester.

Today, I wrote my students again but for an entirely different purpose.  I am a big believer in class transparency.  I want them to understand what I am trying to do by how I structure the class and why.  I do this by explaining one thing – how they should get ready for the first class.  I am not focusing on the semester.  I am focusing on that one class.  If that goes well, we are off to a great start.

I want that first class to be a real winner.  I want them to walk out at the end and say, “I expected this stuff to be boring but I was ready to learn and it was interesting because I was engaged in the class conversation.”

I know exactly what I want.  Therefore, I need to explain what I want to my students and convince them that it is purely for their benefit.  In 8 days, when they walk in and class starts, we will see how well I have done getting them ready to succeed.

Email to My Students:
Class starts in 8 days.  I hope you are as excited by that prospect as I am. 

Yesterday, I took a couple of my grandchildren to the Richmond Science Museum.  Inscribed on one of the walls was a thought from Benjamin Franklin, “Tell me and I forget.  Teach me and I may remember.  Involve me and I learn.”  I realize that Franklin was a truly brilliant person but I cannot believe he ever wrote anything that was wiser than those words.

You have been in school a long time.  You probably have had a number of “tell me” teachers and some “teach me” teachers.  And, unless you have been unlucky, you have had some “involve me” teachers.  Which would you prefer?  You are an adult now.  Which type of teacher will have the most positive effect on you? 

I heard a great teacher speak last Tuesday and he talked about education as a transformative experience.  That is what I want for you. 

The problem with “tell me” professors and “teach me” professors is that the responsibility is 100 percent on the professor.  Students show up and sit and take notes or daydream or try to sneak peaks at their phone.   That is not in-depth learning.  Unmotivated students will always pray for a “tell me” teacher. 

The challenge in creating an “involve me” class is that the professor only has half of the responsibility while the students have the other half.  If the students prefer to stay uneducated, they can shut down the process.  I will teach you using an “involve me” type class.  That means that you must do two things.  First, you must be willing to prepare adequately for EACH class.  You cannot be involved if you have not done the work needed in advance.  You cannot just make it up on the spot (I’m sure you know students who try that).  You cannot talk about nuclear fusion unless you have spent some time getting ready for the conversation.  That is the problem that makes a lot of education so darn poor.

Second, you must be willing to try.  I am not seeking perfection or brilliance.  I just want to have a conversation with you.   You must be willing to try.

The key to this class being one where you will learn (one that will be a truly great class):  a willingness to prepare and a willingness to try.  Bingo. 

A day or so ago I emailed you the handout that we will begin covering on Monday, August 26, after we run through the course outline.  You will receive a handout like this for all classes.  There are many types of questions we will explore this semester but ones on the Day One handout are pretty good examples.

Here are four important suggestions as you look at each of the problems on that first sheet.  The better you "prepare" the more likely it is that you will "try" in class and then you will be able to "learn" the material. 

(1) – Read each question and write down the facts provided.  Don’t underline or highlight because that just allows you to turn off your brain.   Problems typically have several key facts presented – a time period, a cost or sacrifice, a method, a theory, a goal, and the like.  Write them down to ensure you know the basic facts before you get too far into the maze.  I always want to bang my head on a wall when a student tries to work a question without even knowing the facts.  That simply will not work.  This is how I often start each question, “Give me the facts.”  Be ready for that.

(2) – Write down what the question is asking you to do.  Most questions have a fairly specific “Ask.”   For example, is this a theoretical or a practical question?   Is the question talking about a past action or a future possibility?  What exactly is the teacher asking for you to answer?  Again, it is almost guaranteed that you will struggle unless you have a good handle on what the “Ask” is.  What are the facts?  What is the ask?

(2a) – Have I asked you to do anything in (1) or (2) that you are not capable of doing?  Heck, no.

(3) – Visualize the following scenario.  I look you in the eye and say, in a calm and friendly voice, “Student A has given us the facts.  Student B has identified the question we are being asked to resolve.  Now, how do we go about sorting through that information to arrive at a logical, reasonable answer?”  What are you going to say?  This is not a dream.  This is going to happen to you.  You need to have an answer ready, not vague mumbling.  My recommendation is that you write down the first two sentences that you will give me if I ask you that question.  Not three words but two complete sentences.  You can write out the whole answer if you want but I will be satisfied if you just write down the first two sentences because that does three things. 
---First, it forces you to think about the answer in real and not vague terms.  It makes the idea of your having an answer a reality which I think is good.  The answer is not simply going to be baloney made up on the spot. 
---Second, by having the first two sentences written down, you are pushing your thinking in a logical direction.  That is a great first step in the solution process.  You are heading off toward an answer. 
---Third, rather than panic, you can read the sentences to me, which will get your brain moving and show that you have thought about the question.  There is a great security in having that first two sentences written down.  With two sentences written down, this is a fun class.

After writing down the first two sentences, just outline the rest of your answer.  Where will you go from the first two sentences?  What is important?  What leads you to a resolution?  The first two sentences and a brief outline for the rest of the answer should get you ready for each question in class.

In my thinking, that clears our two hurdles:  You have prepared and you are ready to try.  That will get us into what I like to call “involved education.”  After that, we will just be solving puzzles and that is always fun.

(4) – Within 8 hours of class being over, organize your notes.  Do it quickly or you will start to lose track of things.  Take each question that we covered in class and write out or outline how to get to a logical answer.  If we covered a question in class and you cannot write out an answer within 8 hours after that, then either you or I (or both of us) have failed.  Again, visualize my asking you to solve the problem and think about how you would respond.  I’m a big believer in the benefit of that type of “visualization.”  Way too many students just say, “Oh, I saw how that was done so I am okay now.  There is no reason to do any further work.”  That is a path that will lead to a C or D.  After class, you should be able to visualize getting to the correct answer or you really have not learned the material yet and probably need to come chat with me. 

If I can get you to do those four steps for every class, I think YOU will be amazed by your own brilliance.  One of my favorite parts of this course comes about halfway through the semester when students start realizing that they really can learn very complicated stuff and do well.  Once that happens then nothing can stop those students.  That feeling is what I want for you.   True learning is wonderfully exhilarating. 

Friday, August 9, 2019



As anyone who reads this blog knows, I email my students obsessively.  I cannot over stress how important I believe communications are with college students.   Since early May, I have written my junior level students about 15 times and talked about all kinds of things. 

Nevertheless, the email that I sent to them today might have been the most important email that I will send them.  Our class starts in 17 days and I wanted to start “selling” them on the benefit of the work.  I truly believe students will work amazingly hard if you can convince them that the results are worth the effort.  Underline that sentence because it is essential.  They will leap tall buildings in a single bound if they trust that you can provide an adequate amount of benefit. 

So, I wrote them the following email for that one purpose – to let them know that there was work to be done, I understood that, but the change they would undergo would be worth it.   That message is beyond important.  Most students do work basically to get a grade.  If you want greatness, you must break through that barrier and convince them this material (this learning, this understanding) is more important than that. 

Here is what I wrote today:

We start class in about 17 days if my counting is correct.  I realize for the students in this particular class there is always a bit of trepidation.  I always want to hold your hand for a moment and say, "Don't worry.  It will be fine.  No one ever gets hurt."   But, you probably wouldn't believe me.   

I received a long hand-written letter two days ago from a student who graduated six years ago.  She was (as best I remember) an average student.  She wrote to tell me the following, "I am not going to pretend that your class wasn't stressful - I was shy, didn't have many friends in the B-school, & hated being wrong (especially in front of everyone) -- but, six years later, I can say without a doubt that your class prepared me for the real world.  The comptroller at work doesn't look at my team and ask if anyone knows X; he demands an answer on the spot.  Your, albeit, stressful class prepared me for the real world, & for that all I can say is thank you."

I suspect in the coming semester there will be days when you like me and also days when you dislike me (maybe hate me).  That's the nature of my job.  But, if you write back in six years and say, "You prepared me for the real world," then I will feel like you and I were tremendously successful.  That, my students, is what I really want for you.

I say "you and I" because this is not my class.  This is our class.  Half of the responsibility is mine.  Half of the responsibility is yours.  I will work very hard to do my half.   But we will NEVER succeed unless you put in a strong effort.  You must do your half.  If you do that, then I firmly believe that in six years, we will look back and we will both be thrilled by how successful that work turned out to be. 

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Thoughts on Making Testing a Better Process – Part Two – The Final Examination

Before Beginning.  I attempt to read an hour each day.  I believe it is good for the mind to see and hear words formed into interesting sentences and insightful paragraphs.  In addition, I collect words that I read if I am not certain of the meaning.  I have 110 on that list so far in 2019.  My favorite new word for 2019 is “rodomontade” which means boastful or inflated talk or behavior.

Occasionally, as I read, something will strike me as pertaining to teaching, often in some indirect manner.  That happened this morning as I listened to, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, by Kate Morton.  A renowned cellist recalls her emotions as she walked on stage to play.

     “Live performance is the precipice on which fear, anticipation, and joy met.  A unique     experience 
       shared between audience and performer.”

To me, that sounds similar to how I feel each day as I walk the 50 paces or so from my office to my classroom.  Even after 48 years, it remains the precipice on which my fear, anticipation, and joy all meet.  Next time you walk to your classroom, search your own head to see if you have those three emotions in relatively equal proportions.  If not, maybe that is one place you can start your expedition toward becoming a better teacher.  Perhaps, the first step to improvement is in your head.


Blog Posting.  I have written almost obsessively over the years about the need to experiment as a required step for improved teaching.  Because your semester probably ended in the last few weeks, take a moment to count how many teaching experiments you tried and then judge how they worked.  Will you do some of them again in the fall?  How will you modify them before you try again?

In designing experiments, I like to focus on aspects of my course that are not going as well as I would like.  This semester, I decided to play around with the final examination—how could I use it to help my students better learn and understand.  It should not be just a torture device.

In my classes, we cover a lot of material over several months and then I give a four-hour final exam.  My complaint has always been that the students try to cover everything during their review sessions and often wind up at the mercy of studying the right topic.  They prepare so randomly that they often scramble up the knowledge in their heads rather than organize it.  For years, I have allowed them to bring in 4-6 sheets of notes to the final exam.  In that way, they do not need to attempt to cram all that material into their memory.  They read the questions and then consult their notes before working to solve the problem.

Nevertheless, there is still a “surprise” element in this approach.  In their note taking, students must anticipate what I will cover.  The grade difference between a student who guesses correctly and one who does not can be staggering.  That bothers me a bit.  I want them to use their study time to increase their understanding and then show that understanding to me.  Their grade should not be based on the luck of guessing my topical coverage.

This semester I tried something new.  I am not sure this would work in every course but some variation could work in many classes.  I walked in to class one week before the final examination and gave out 27 questions that I believed should be the foundation for our entire semester.  I felt these questions should each take between 3 minutes and 8-10 minutes to work.  I told the students that I was going to give them those questions as their final examination.  However, for each question, I would change one or more of the included variables.

--A monetary cost might be higher or lower.
--An interest rate might be changed.
--Expected revenue could be altered.
 --The number of years involved could be different.

The final exam would be those 27 basic questions but they would each have different variables.  The students did not believe me at first.  It seemed too easy.  They quickly came to see that the questions were all complicated.  But they had a week to work them and consider what I might change.  I eliminated the topical surprise element.  My parting words to them were key, “If you truly understand how to work these 27 questions, then you should get them all correct and will deserve to make 100.”

What happened?   I actually wrote 31 problems because I changed the variables in four questions twice.  Most of the students stayed for at least 3 ½ hours.  23 of my students made roughly the same on the final exam as they did in the course as a whole (a difference of 3 points are less).  Only 11 of the students made a lot less on the final exam than their grades for the course (the final exam was more than 3 points less than their overall averages).  For whatever reason, they did not enough benefit from having the questions in advance.  Only 13 of the students made a grade on the final exam that was much higher than their course grade (the final exam was more than 3 points higher than their overall averages.)   In truth, grades were affected less than I had expected.  Good students seemed to get good grades and struggling students seemed to get poorer grades.  Nevertheless, I felt the purpose of the final exam had been changed for me.  I believe most of the students used their time to really try to learn the material because they had a version of the actual questions.  I boiled the entire final exam experience for them down to two challenges:

“(1) – Can you work this question?
 “(2) – Can you still work this question if I change a few of the variables?

“Don’t try to relearn the entire semester.  Make sure you can work and understand these 27 questions.”

Added Benefit.  I told the students that they could work together before the final exam.  Because they had the questions in hand, they immediately began to create group sessions for the class where they studied together for hours to work those 27 questions.  Several students told me personally how much they had enjoyed studying with their fellow students to get ready for the final exam.  One wrote to me, “I have truly enjoyed being in your class, and while it was often intimidating, I know that I grew as both a student and a person this past semester. Also, I met a ton of people in the class and made more friends than I could have ever expected; the dynamic of the class truly encourages people to work together and collaborate, which is oftentimes hard to find."  I had never gotten messages like these before after a final exam.  “…made more friends than I could have ever expected.”  That alone makes me interested in trying it again next fall.

If you want to improve, you have to experiment.  Focus on something in your class that you think could use some work.  Try to do it differently.  Observe how it goes.

Offer.  I realize that most of my readers do not teach accounting but I will make this offer anyway.  If you will send a note to, I will send you the 27 questions that I presented to the students in advance of the final exam and the 31 questions that I actually used on the final exam.  It might help you think about how you could do something similar.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Thoughts on Making Testing A Better Process – Part One –The Five C’s of Good Test Taking

This is the 278th essay on teaching that I have posted on this blog.  A few minutes ago, I checked and the previous 277 essays (all written by me except for one or two) have had an average readership equal to 1,755 page views.  For me, that is a thrilling number.  When I first started, the mere possibility of amassing 1,755 readers on all blog postings combined would have amazed me beyond words.  I do hope these 277 ideas, discussions, and suggestions have improved education a bit here and there, now and then.

I am a well aware that I would have had almost no page views if it were not for the many people who forward the URL for this site to friends, relatives, enemies, strangers, colleagues, and the like.  I do not always say it but please do know that I always think it:  THANKS A MILLION!!!   The sole idea for this blog from the first day until now is that each teacher can (and should) keep improving and it really helps if teachers exchange ideas.  So, again, THANKS for making this possible by passing along the message when it seems worthy.

Here at the end of the semester, it is not surprising that I am thinking about the purpose of testing.  How can I make the process more beneficial for my students?   This is the first of a two-part series on testing.

Teachers must assess grades.  I have often pondered why I need to give each student a grade.  What does it accomplish?   I think it is helpful to consider why the process is necessary so you can make it as efficient as possible.  This is not rocket science but I assume there are two reasons for grades.

(1) – The teacher wants the student (and any future readers of the student’s transcript) to know an approximation of the student’s understanding of the course material.  If I take a course in the American Civil War and earn a B, then I can assume that I have achieved a good level of knowledge but not an excellent one.  After a semester of work, that is helpful feedback even if it is only a rough assessment.

(2) – The teacher uses grades to motivate students to do work.  We are not always willing to discuss that reality openly but it clearly is the truth.  Anyone who has ever taught a pass-fail course likely knows that the work rarely rises above average.  We do not live in a Utopian society where students work for the sheer love of learning.  Consequently, the hope of an A or a B is a carrot that drives some students to excel.  The threat of a D or an F serves as a stick that pushes other students to do work even when they have little interest or enthusiasm.

Whatever the reason, we want those grades to be fair and reasonable.

A teacher can determine grades in multiple ways using various combinations of testing, papers, presentations, quizzes, and other assessments.  I have tried them all over the past 48 years and they each have their drawbacks.  Presentations take significant class time and often interest a few students while the rest struggle to stay awake.  Papers provide a deep education on a narrow topic but do not address the broad coverage that is necessary in most courses.  Quizzes have a “Surprise!” theme that I do not like and can reward students for the luck of having prepared on the right topic on the right day.  Tests do allow for a much broader coverage of topics but can be terribly stressful.  They can lead students to “cram and memorize” – hardly the goal of a modern-day college education.

Probably because of the subject matter that I teach, I award grades primarily through testing.  I realize the shortcomings of that approach so I do try to work around that.  For example, I allow my students to bring in notes with them.  I believe that limits the tendency to “cram and memorize.”  Why memorize if you can write something down and bring it with you to the test?

More importantly, I work almost every day to connect our daily learning to an eventual test.  “We will work odd and unusual problems in class each day so you can eventually work them on a test” is kind of our class mantra.  “We will do this together until you can do this alone” provides a positive statement about learning.  I love the idea that if students work hard in each class, then they will be ready to excel on each test.  That connection should be obvious, I think.  Do your students have that belief?

However, students are human and they have often suffered through a lot of “interesting” education over the years.  As each test draws near, they often become stressed out and fall back on bad study habits.  Therefore, before the last hourly test of the spring semester, I sent them the following email.  I call this my Five C’s for Testing.  I want them to focus on certain positive attributes of the testing process and how they should react.  If they have done the work during class, then they should be able to do well on the test.  In testing, my goal is to help them show me what they have truly learned.  Ultimately, I would love for each student to be able to say, “I learned the material during our class sessions so I was able to demonstrate that on the test.”  That, for me, is a worthy goal.   And, I think the Five C’s for Testing helps get the students to that goal.

Helping students to be successful is clearly a worthy goal for every teacher.

Email to my students four days before their last hourly exam of the semester.

Now, just a word of two of advice.  As I have said before, I am a believer in the five C's for testing (and for life in general).

Calm -- getting nervous does not do you any good.  Take a walk and let your muscles and your brain relax to help get yourself calm.   Don't skip sleep because lack of sleep will kill your calmness.

Careful -- read the questions carefully and don't make silly mistakes.  2 + 2 is not 5.   I try to write each question so that the words tell you what to do.  Read them carefully.  Use your hand or a straight-edge to focus your attention on each individual line.

Connect -- regardless of what you might think, the questions do not come from outer space.  In my mind, there is always a direct connection between each question and something we have done in class.   You were here.   You paid attention.  When you face a question, ask yourself how we did something similar in class.  Nothing is more important on this test than these three words, “Make The Connection.”

Concentrate -- students always seem to be worrying about 1,000 things -- the room temperature, someone coughing, a bug walking across a table.   When you get to this test, only one thing should be on your mind -- what do the words to the first question tell you.  Then the second question and so on.  For those 80 minutes, nothing should be on your mind except the specific question you are working on and how it ties in with what we have learned in class.

Confidence -- you are all bright people.   Never doubt that.  Don't play scared.   You have earned good grades before.   You have taken hundreds if not thousands of tests.  You got accepted to this university because the admissions experts thought you should do well.  Whether you are hitting a golf ball or shooting a free throw or taking a college-level test, it is hard to win if you don't believe in yourself.  I believe in you.   Don't ever forget that.

A test is necessary for grading, but if you can help your students become successful, it will be amazing how much more important the entire learning process will become to them.  It should be just one more essential element in that learning.

Friday, May 3, 2019


Last week a friend told me that he was interested in reading my teaching blog.  However, he did not want to slog his way through 276 essays to find the most relevant stuff so could I point out a few “best of Joe” essays.  I told him the truth – whether a particular essay was meaningful to a person depended on what issues that teacher was facing at the moment.  Nevertheless, I picked five for him that I had written recently that I thought captured much of the essence of my teaching philosophy.  I like all 276 essays but here are five that sound like what I am trying to accomplish in my own classes.  I like the idea that a teacher can develop a stated philosophy about his or her role in the learning process.  These reflect mine.

Advice for New College Teachers – November 10, 2018

The One Characteristic of All Great Teachers – August 15, 2018

Better Stories Make for Better Students – March 31, 2018

Closing the Holes of Swiss Cheese Knowledge – January 23, 2018

Teaching Fido to Roll Over – August 3, 2016


A few weeks ago I was reading a novel and the author described one of the characters in an insightful way, “Her default attitude was one of anger.  Whenever something happened, her first instinct was to find some reason to become angry about it.  Unless stopped, she tended to move straight to anger.”

I found that observation interesting because I know many people who clearly have default attitudes or personalities.  They are either prone to laugh or seem puzzled or curious or, indeed, become angry or moody.  That is the personality they seem to gravitate towards when something unexpected happens.  I'll bet you have friends that have distinct and obvious default attitudes.

I immediately began to wonder what attitude I move toward with my students.   Do I seem welcoming?  Do I seem overworked?   Do I seem interested?  In the fall of 1967, I was a sophomore in college and was taking a computer science class.  I was struggling with a problem.  The professor had office hours and had said to come by if we had a problem.  I decided to take him up on his offer.  I knocked and was told to enter.  He was deep in conversation with a colleague and within one second it was obvious by his demeanor that he was busy and did not want me in his office, no matter what my problem was.  I am sure he was working on an important project and was facing deadlines or some other impending crisis.  I exited his office as quickly as I could and never returned.  I do not  know whether I had just come at a bad time or whether his default attitude toward students was somewhere between exasperation and annoyance.  I felt guilty for intruding.

We are all busy.  It is easy to be annoyed when a student looks in and asks, “Professor, may I ask you a couple of questions?”  What message is my attitude sending to this student?  In 52 years, will he still feel that his presence had annoyed me?

I only stay in my office approximately seven hours each week.  I suspect some readers will think that is a lot whereas others will think it is minuscule.  It is the time I choose to make myself available to my students (although I do take other questions by email).  Nevertheless, during those seven hours, I make every attempt to avoid seeming annoyed or frustrated.  I have read that whenever people talked with Mother Teresa, they always felt that they had her undivided attention, that they were the only people in her life at that moment.  I don’t pretend to be on the level of Mother Teresa, but I do try my best to focus on the student sitting in front of me – what they are telling me and what can I do about it?

I guess the default attitude that I try to project to my students is that, “I am here.  I am listening.  I am ready to help if I can.”  I am not trying to coddle my students or do the work for them.  Last week, for about the 20th straight year, I was named the most challenging professor at the Robins School of Business.  So being a listener and a helper does NOT necessarily mean that you do not challenge your students.  It simply means that I try to listen and help where I can.  For those seven hours each week, I want to be able to help students figure out how they can do better.  The first step in that process is adopting an attitude that does not make them feel like they need to exit the office as quickly as possible.

But, as I have often said on this blog, that is me.  Everyone has to develop their own personal attitude toward students and teaching.   If you asked your students today, “What seems to be my default attitude toward students?” then (1) what would you want them to say and (2) what do you think they would actually say?  How close or far apart are (1) and (2)?  Nothing in teaching should ever be random.  What default attitude do you want to have when a student comes to your door and says, “Professor, may I come in and ask a couple of questions?”