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?”

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.