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?”

Friday, February 1, 2019


As anyone knows who has read this blog for long, I believe in communicating with my students.  I email them A LOT to (a) convey information, (b) provide encouragement, (c) point out things I want done better, and (d) provide hints and suggestions for success.  A good friend of mine, Steve Markoff at Montclair State, passed along an email that he had sent to his students recently.  It seemed so much like what I might have done that I asked Steve for permission to pass it along to you.  This is the kind of advice that helps students do well for you.

Notice that his suggestions do not drop in for no apparent reason.  They are not random.  He ties them to New Year’s resolutions.  I like having suggestions tied to a reason.  We are into February.  To convey this same email now, I might do so right after our first test with a note, “Here is something to think about as you review your first test.”  It is important to realize that there are really great times to convey suggestions—times when students are more likely to pay serious attention.  Figure out when your students are open to advice and pass some along to them.  Steve did it right at the start of the semester.  I might have used the first test for the same purpose.

(I must state that my favorite part of this email is Steve’s section titled “Embrace Struggle” and the comment about learning to walk.  I guarantee – I will steal that idea.  It made sense to me and it will make sense to my students.)

From Professor Markoff – an email to his students.
I have resolutions – teaching resolutions.  At the start of each year, I make a list of 3-5 things that I am committed to doing that will make me a better teacher in the semesters that follow.  I write them out, determine how I am going to measure how I am doing at them, and make a determined effort to improve in these key areas.

I’m thinking that most of you could use some resolutions – student resolutions – things that you can do to make yourself a more effective student.

So, allow me to suggest a few.  Specifically 5.  These 5 are geared toward my class, but I can tell you that if you make progress on these, not only will they help you in my class, they will help you with all of your classes and outside of class as well.  These are in no particular order.

Come out of your “learning comfort zone”

We all have preferred ways of learning, and that’s good. However, when you shut down and are closed minded to teaching that is being done in a different way, that’s not good.  Too often, after a student obtains a subpar grade in a course, they will blame it on the instructor and how that person taught.  As you move forward in your education, you will find professors with various teaching styles.  Also, some are plainly better instructors than others.  You have to deal with it either way, and your attitude will go a long way toward determining how well you adapt.  The same is true in the work world with managing or supervising styles.  You have to learn to work and be effective with all types.

In my class, ALL of you will have to adapt, as my teaching style is one which none of you have seen before, and you will not see it again here at MSU, except for me.  Your ability to achieve will be directly correlated with how well you can adapt and work with this system.  And that depends on your attitude.

Embrace struggle

Can you walk?  Yes YOU.  Do you consider yourself good at walking?  I bet you go days or even weeks without stumbling or falling.  I bet I have some of the world’s best walkers right here at MSU.  Did anyone teach you how to walk?  Did your parents show you a PowerPoint and give you a lecture?  “Here Bobby, today’s lesson is how to walk.  First, position your feet together as shown on the slide.  Then start to transfer your weight onto you left foot and then gradually toward the front of the foot as shown on the Exhibit.  Meanwhile, your right hand should start moving forward ever so slowly for balance, etc. etc.”

Have you had the chance to be around a toddler trying to learn how to walk?  Hard to watch isn’t it?  They keep falling and falling and stumbling and fumbling.  It looks like they are never going to get it.  And nobody gives them a lecture and PowerPoint.  There are no office hours.  They just carefully watch everyone around them and start to mimic.  If they fall, so what.  They start again.  And again.  And again.  Finally they get it.  That’s effective learning.  When it’s learned, it’s really learned.  It’s not forgotten.

In my class, I am going to assign problems. Some easier than others.  Some downright hard. I am going to ask questions in class.  Tough questions.  Why?  Well, first of all, if all I did was ask questions that were easy for you guys to answer, then you wouldn’t need me.  Same with the homework – we wouldn’t need the course.  It is through the struggle that you will develop the skills to tackle tough questions, just like the toddler learns to walk by falling.  When the learning does come, it is much more permanent and valuable.

Mindfulness & Awareness

I see a lot of students whose bodies are physically in class, but I can see that their minds are clearly somewhere else.  Maybe it’s something happening at home.  Perhaps it’s another class on your mind.  An issue with a boyfriend or girlfriend.  Whatever.  All of these things compete for your attention, but we only have 75 minutes together for a class and need to accomplish certain things. If you are going to get the benefits of class, you must be there 100%.  That means you must turn off ALL other distractions and focus.  That is one reason I do not permit laptops in the class.  When I ask someone a question and they ask me to repeat it – I know that their body might be there, but they are NOT really there.

Now some people want to pay attention when I ask THEM a question, but pay less attention when I am questioning others, which happens to be most of the time.  With my method of teaching, most of the benefit comes from you observing the exchange between myself and other students.  This is how you learn NOT just from the book, or from ME, but from OTHERS as well.

It’s only 75 minutes.  Be THERE.  You want me to be there for you when you need me?  Sure.  Be there for me when I need you.

Say goodbye to embarrassment

I play flute.  The first time I played at a recital in front of others, I went to play the first note and NOTHING CAME OUT.  Ooops.  Embarrassment city.  Guess what?  I did NOT lose my membership card to the human race.  I am still here.  I still play flute.  In fact, when I got done, everyone clapped and gave me a standing ovation.  It felt great.

I ask tough questions in class.  Some people hide along the edges and corners or in the back of the room hoping I won’t ask them any.  Some people don’t want to feel embarrassed by giving a wrong answer in front of their classmates.  Let me tell you 2 secrets.  Secret #1:  I don’t care whether you are right or wrong.  I only care that you are 100% prepared and can engage in the process.  Secret #2:  Most of the people who you are worried about probably have an even worse answer than you!  When you give an answer that shows me that you aren’t prepared, however, you are letting both myself and the team down – and THAT I don’t want or expect.

The reason I don’t mind wrong answers is related to what I mentioned above about struggling.  As a group, wrong answers allow us more opportunities to explore the steps and theory behind the correct answers.  They allow us to figure out TOGETHER why they are not correct or complete.  Some of my least effective classes have been ones where I got a high percentage of correct answers – because I wasn’t asking the right questions and forcing people to challenge themselves.

Be prepared.  Answer.  Get out of your comfort zone. Question other people’s answers.  If someone says something you don’t agree with, challenge them.  Be brave.  Really, nobody gives a darn whether you are right.

Have a sense of humor

Last but not least – relax and don’t take yourself that seriously.  Take life seriously.  Take your education seriously.  But don’t take YOURSELF that seriously.  It creates excess stress and it lessens your ability to think creatively and solve problems.

You will find that the better prepared you are for class, the less stress you will have worrying about me calling you and the more “THERE “you will be.  The more MINDFUL you will be.  The more AWARE you will be of what is going on around you.  The BETTER you will be at expressing your ideas,  The EASIER it will be to come out of your comfort zone, and the MORE SMOOTHLY you will be able to embrace challenges and struggles.

Will all of your students listen to such advice?  Of course not, they are college students.   I usually apply my rule of thirds:  1/3 of the students will pay close attention, 1/3 will pay some attention, and 1/3 will wonder why you are bothering them.  

However, over time, if you keep giving good advice (and the above is excellent advice), the words and thoughts will sneak beyond the students’ defense system and begin to slip into their brain.   By the end of the semester, most of them (maybe not all but most of them) will be considerably better students because you (yes, YOU) took the time to give them some darn good suggestions.   Communicate!!!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


Yesterday was my first class of the new semester.  After 47.5 years at this job, walking back into a classroom felt a little bit like returning home.  If you are teaching this semester, I hope you enjoyed the first day experience as much I did.  

As I get older, I become ever more convinced that teachers need to guide each student on how to approach their particular style of teaching.  My students here at the University of Richmond have probably had 30-40 teachers since they entered kindergarten, each with a unique approach to education.  It is unfair of me to expect new students to immediately catch on to what I want from them and why.  Therefore, this semester I am focusing more on introducing my students to the learning strategies that I believe work best in my class.  So, even after 47.5 years on the job, I did two things relatively new in hopes of showing my students how to be successful.

If you have followed this blog for long, you know that I put a lot of stress on (a) what students should do to prepare before each new class session and (b) what students should do soon after class to get the material organized in their brains.  Here is advice I gave (by email) three days prior to the first class and additional advice that I gave (by email) three hours after our first class.  I want every student to get off to a great start.  If a student falls behind at the beginning, it often becomes a semester of playing “catch up.”


As many of you likely know, I teach using a rather intense version of the Socratic Method based on presenting odd and unusual puzzles to the students that I then help them solve.  It is a method that I enjoy and seems to work well for my style of teaching.  However, that approach is different from what many of my students have previously encountered.  They occasionally experience problems learning how to prepare for my class.  When I begin to question them in class, I am frequently amazed by how poorly they are ready to answer questions they have had for 48 hours. 

In my email (which went out 72 hours before they even met me for the first time), I explained, “Let me help you get ready in an efficient manner.  For each question, you should consider following four basic steps.

“(1) – Go through the problem/puzzle and write down the actual facts.  Most class puzzles have 4-5 basic facts and then a lot of fluff.   For example, a puzzle might provide a cost, an expected life, some time periods, and the like.  Don’t circle those.  Physically write them down.  Writing down the facts of a question will not take long and the act of writing helps them stay in your mind. 

“(2) – Identify the basic question.  What are we trying to address?  Ultimately, in even the most complex puzzle, there has to be a question that we must answer.  You need to know that.  Write down the question just to make sure you are clear on what is being asked.

“(3) – Assume that I am going to look you in the eye and ask you to start answering the question.  Write down the first sentence of your response.  Do not abbreviate it or use short hand.  You do not have to write down the entire answer but I think writing down the first sentence will force you to think about the facts and think about the direction of your answer.  The first sentence establishes where you are going with an answer.  I actually believe writing down the first sentence of your answer might be the most important thing you can do to be well prepared for my class.  For one thing, having that sentence in front of you will give you confidence in class.  I don’t want you sitting there in fear.

“(4) – Outline the rest of your answer.  I don’t need for you to write out a long answer.  By writing out the opening sentence and then outlining the rest of your answer, I think you will be prepared for our conversation and ready to learn.

“I think that is a reasonable amount of work.
---Write down the facts.
---Write out the question.
---Write out the first sentence of your answer.
---Outline the rest of the answer.

“In my class, I think that is good guidance for being ready to be engaged in a genuine Socratic method conversation.”


I have written often about Swiss cheese knowledge.  Students leave the classroom thinking their understanding is solid when it is actually full of holes.  Their knowledge is weak at places, disorganized at others.  Students need to take almost immediate action to organize and solidify what they have learned.  

Students often have developed no learning tactics at that point other than recopying their notes.  That is nice but it is hardly an essential key to in-depth learning.  From my experience, immediately after class is a point when students need some serious guidance before the knowledge seems to seep away.

In my mind, students often look at learning new material as if they are attacking a gigantic block of concrete.  Because the material is new to them, it initially looks huge.  Getting their brains wrapped around that new block of concrete knowledge must seem overwhelming and, thus, impossible.  Many lack any type of strategy for filling in the holes in their Swiss cheese knowledge so they can get a handle on complex, new material.

I prefer to look at new material as a vast bowl of marbles.  Each marble represents a tiny piece of information that is relatively easy to absorb.   Once students start to grasp a sufficient number of those marbles, they begin to develop a logical understanding of even the most esoteric subject.

For that reason, three hours after my first class yesterday, I emailed them the following suggestion.

“We covered a lot of material today that you need to absorb.  Here is a hint.  Take your notes and break the coverage down into what I call, ‘Three-second questions.’  These are questions that you should already know so well that if I asked you in class, you could quietly count to three and then rattle off the answer without further thinking.  For a 50-minute class, you can probably write out 20-50 questions.  Break the subject down into very small parts.  If you can learn enough three-second questions for each class, you can make a triple A plus in this class.”  

If students break down the material into small enough pieces, they will come up with a string of questions that they know or can learn.  Holes in their knowledge are spotlighted.  I want them to be able to read those questions, count to three, and then give the answer.  The questions organize the material and provide a method for review.

Writing the questions takes a bit of practice so I wrote them for yesterday’s class.  I just took the class notes and wrote out a simple question for each small “marble” of information.  I do it sequentially so that one question will almost always lead to the next question.  In most subjects, learning seems to improve if the material can be arranged sequentially.

Once the student has a list of three-second questions for a class, review and practice becomes simple.  Heck, they can carry the questions around with them and review them as they eat their lunch.


My point is that I am starting the semester giving my students two techniques that I think work well in my class.  I do not know if they would work in any other class but I believe they work for my students.  Why hide that knowledge?  Why wait until they are lost before offering advice.   I want them to learn how to do well for me right from the very beginning.

For my students, before class, I think they should
---Write out the facts
---Write out the question
---Write out the first sentence of the answer
---Write out an outline of the rest of the answer

For my students, after class, I think they should
---Go through their notes and write out a sequential series of three-second questions to cover every piece of information that we covered.  The three-second questions mean that they can read each question, count slowly to three, and then provide the answer.  If they have that level of knowledge, the understanding of even the most complex material will start to develop rather quickly.

Friday, December 21, 2018


Before I get started today, here is a short 3 minute video that my university produced where I talk about great teaching.  I was allowed to write the questions so it was interesting to consider what questions I wanted to address.


Since I first began writing this blog, I have virtually never repeated an essay.  One of the primary reasons that I created this site is that it forces me to think of new things to say and do.  It helps my teaching stay fresh.  However, I loosely based the following essay on a posting I published back in 2012.  I updated my earlier posting for two reasons:

(1) – Over the years, I have had more professors tell me that they adopted this specific idea than any other idea I have ever circulated (without a doubt).  Teachers quickly recognize the benefit and like how it rewards good work and helps get new students ready for the upcoming semester.

(2) – It is a topic that is on my mind at the moment.  I just sent out these emails a day or two ago.  Very little I do as a teacher is more likely to make me smile.  I hope you will get the same enjoyment from this as I do.

Over the past weekend, I graded final exams, read term papers, and computed averages and awarded course grades.  In one course, 23.8 percent of the students made an A and in my other course, 21.4 percent made an A.  I always want more outstanding work but these percentages were fairly typical.

After determining the grades but before I post them officially, I always email every student who made an A to let them know of their accomplishment.  I have two goals for this email, two very specific goals.  (I like to tell people that when it comes to teaching, I never do anything randomly.)

Each of my two courses was challenging.  I pushed the students to be prepared for every class.  I called on them in class every day and questioned them—often intensely—about the material at hand.  The tests were hard.  The semester was long.  This was no picnic.  

At the end, the A students had shown consistently excellent work.  I had no doubt that they deserved the grade of A.  Consequently, I really wanted them to know how proud I was of their work.  I wanted them to hear it directly from me.  I know they will get a formal report from the university that will show the grade of A but that seems so impersonal.  Somehow that just does not seem to be an adequate amount of recognition.  I want each of those students to feel very special.

I often think that the reason we do not get as much outstanding work as we want from our students is that we do not acknowledge personally those people who actually do outstanding work.  Why work so hard if no one is going to notice?  I think that is a sentiment that every person in authority should ponder.

No one knows more about how to earn an A than the students who just did it.  Therefore, I want them to convey that message to my next group of students.  Students do not necessarily take advice from professors but are often inclined to listen carefully to advice from their peers.  Notice in my email that I ask them to tell me how they made an A.  Be serious and be honest.  Rell me exactly how you went about earning the grade of A in my class.   I accumulate all that advice into a Word document that I forward to my next class of students.  “Read this – it comes from my current A students.   They will tell you how to make an A.  Learn from them what you need to do to excel.”  

Below is what I wrote and emailed a few days ago to my A students.  I really would urge you to consider doing something similar.  It might seem corny to you but I bet that it will not seem corny to the students.  (I cannot tell you how many students have written back to me over the years to tell me how much they cried when they got my note about them making an A.  I obviously never set out to make anyone cry but it does indicate how special the recognition of hard work can be to a young student. I often say that the world would be a much more efficient and effective place if we all gave out a lot more pats on the back.)

I get back some genuinely nice responses.   Here is one that I got this morning.   “Thank you so much for this kind e-mail. I have worked harder for your class than I have for any other class in my academic career, and it is so rewarding knowing that my hard work has paid off.  Since September, I have had a small piece of paper taped onto my laptop with the goal “Get an A in Accounting” written on it.  Taking it off in the coming weeks will be satisfying knowing that I met my goal but also bittersweet with the class being over.”

December 18, 2018


I am sending this note to you as one of the students who earned the grade of A this semester in our accounting course.  Although 28 students took the course, only 6 (21.4 percent) managed to earn the grade of A.  And, you did it – Congratulations!!   On the first day of the semester, I told the class that it would take truly outstanding work to earn an A.  And, you did outstanding work.  That is never easy.  You should be proud of yourself and your effort.

I very much appreciate the work that it took to excel in such a challenging class.  Few classes on any college campus are as demanding as our Intermediate Accounting II course.  From the first day of the semester to the last, we pushed through some complicated material:  gift cards, bundling, callable debt, frequent flyer miles, bonds, leases, deferred taxes, pension plans, comprehensive income, earnings per share, statement of cash flows, stock options, and much more.  It is quite a list but it takes a deep knowledge of such topics to truly understand how accounting works. 

Even before the semester began, I said that I would throw out odd and complex problems and then help you figure out how to report them so that they would be fairly presented in conformity with accounting rules.  You did the work that was necessary to achieve that goal.  You didn’t let the challenge overwhelm you.  I am proud of you and pleased for you.  I sincerely believe that all 28 students who started the course back in August had the ability to make an A.  But you were one of the few who managed to achieve the goal.  In life, success comes from a lot more than just ability.  It comes from taking on challenges and investing the time necessary to be outstanding.  I occasionally get frustrated that more students don’t set out to excel.  However, I cannot say that about you.

Go out and celebrate your accomplishment!  Not many people can say they made an A in this course.  It is always fun for me to have students who want to do well and then do the work necessary to make it happen.

As you will likely remember, I always ask students who make an A in my class to write a short paragraph or two directed to next semester’s students to explain exactly how you did it.  I really believe this provides important guidance that can help the next batch of students do their best.  You figured out what I wanted and then you did it.  Many students never seem to catch on to my goals.  It is always helpful when the A students at the end of one semester explain success to the next group of students: “Everyone can make an A in this class but you really have to do certain things.” Okay, what are those things?

I only ask two things as you write this paragraph:  be serious and tell the truth.  There is really nothing more I can ask of you than that.

Have a great holiday break.  Spend time doing stuff that will expand your horizons and make you think more deeply.  Read a good book, see a thoughtful movie, check out a museum.  Those are the type of experiences that can change the rest of your life (for the better).  Never let life fall into a rut.  Open your mind and pour as much interesting stuff into it as you can.  Hopefully, that is one of the lessons that you will take with you from our class.

Congratulations again. It has been a genuine pleasure having the opportunity to work with you. 

Saturday, November 10, 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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