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.  

Wednesday, October 31, 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To:  My Introductory Accounting Students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sum up the points.

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

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

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

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

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