Friday, August 18, 2017

BEYOND SUBJECT MATTER



I appreciate that many professors do not feel comfortable pushing their students beyond the subject matter of a college course.  I have no problem with that decision.   I have simply made a different choice.  I want to be more involved in the growth of my students.  That is why I got into this profession.  If I read a book, see a movie, or watch a television show that I think is worthwhile, I often email my students with a quick review, “I found this interesting for the following reasons.   You might want to check it out.  No points.  No requirement.  Just a suggestion.”  I am especially likely to send that type message if the thing that caught my eye is outside the sphere of my subject matter.  As a friend of mine recently said to me, “I want my students to be successful in living their lives, not just in accounting.”  I could probably write 100 pages on that one sentence.  What is within the responsibility of a professor?

Just yesterday, I sent the following email to the 28 juniors who will start my Intermediate Accounting II class in 10 days.  I really want my students to get off to a strong start.  I find messages early in the semester get more attention than those sent after months of working together. 

I wanted to draw your attention to an article that was in the August 15, 2017, Wall Street Journal.  On page A11 is a long article titled "The Smarter Ways to Study."   Okay, many of the ideas are available with more explanation in the book I recommended earlier in the summer, Make It Stick, but this article is still interesting.  I agree with the author that many students underachieve because they rely (almost obsessively) on poor study techniques.  One section of that article in particular is worth repeating, "High-achieving students take charge of their own learning and ask for help when they're stuck, according to a 2017 study of 414 college students.  Students who performed better sought out extra study aids such as instructional videos on YouTube.  Those who asked instructors for help during office hours were more likely to get A's, but fewer than 1 in 5 students did so.”   ​I added the emphasis here because I believe this assertion is true.

This message is not going very far outside of my subject matter.  However, it does go beyond simply teaching accounting.  Notice several aspects of this note.

--I want to help students have the tools to succeed.  I am not relying on high school to have done this job.  Many of my students do know how to study well but certainly not all of them do.  I would prefer to address that problem now rather than after the first test. 

--I want this note to show the students that I am on their side.  I might be a demanding teacher but I try to make sure the message is clear that I am not the enemy.  One of my favorite sayings is, “We are all in this together.”

--Students can get more information from either the Wall Street Journal article or the book Make It Stick.  I am not doing the work for them.  I am just making a suggestion and pointing them toward the available resources.

--Students too often credit success and failure with natural talent.  “I am just not very good with numbers” is a lament that I have heard so often that it makes me want to gag.  Before the semester starts, I want my students to realize that their study habits might play a big role in their doing well.  I want them to forget about “talent,” “smarts,” “grade point average,” or “IQ.”  With the right study habits, they can all make an A. 


--From my perspective, the most controversial portion of this email is that I draw attention to the research findings that show that seeking help directly from the instructor is beneficial.  As the article indicates, a vast majority of students will accept a low (even failing) grade rather than getting assistance from the teacher.  That is nuts.  By including that sentence (and putting it in italics), I will probably get more students who come by my office for help.   That will take up my time.   For a busy professor, that statement creates a bit of a quandary.  I have chosen to include that information and even emphasize it.   However, that choice has a cost.   The assertion and the way I emphasize it might well improve the grade of several of my students this semester.  That is great.  But, it will likely take up some of my time.  Professors are very busy people.  In college teaching today, that is an extremely difficult choice.   





Friday, August 4, 2017

HERE IS MY REAL VOICE



Over the years on this blog, I have written what seems like 10 million words.   Today, I get to talk with you about teaching using my real voice—Southern accent and all.   Bonni Stachowiak has created a wonderful website titled Teaching in Higher Education.   Her podcasts are one of the most interesting aspects of this site.  She talks with a variet of teachers about what they do and what they are trying to do.  She has developed a wonderful following and is doing great work to improve education.  

Bonni was kind enough last June to invite me to appear on a podcast to talk about getting students ready for success.   That, of course, is one of my favorite teaching topics.   You have to prepare students if you are going to maximize what they can learn.  The podcast was posted yesterday as colleges now get close to the beginning of the fall semester.

Below is the link to that podcast.   For 41 minutes, Bonni and I chat about getting students ready to walk into class and be successful.  Nothing to read.  You can just sit back and listen to us discuss college teaching.  As you probably know by now, when it comes to teaching, I am a person with lots of opinions.





Tuesday, August 1, 2017

LET'S START AT THE END


If you have followed this blog for a while, you know that I try to use the summer to get the students ready for the fall semester.   I want everyone to be ready on the first day to take off and fly.  Time is short.  I want to use it all and use it effectively.  Consequently, I send periodic emails to my new students from May through August although I am never sure whether they pay close attention or not.  However, one email does seem to catch their attention.   

Last week, I cut and pasted one of the questions included on the final exam last spring into an email.   I then sent it to the new students to give them a feel for what they are going to learn this fall.  Most students do not understand in advance the purpose of a course.  A final exam problem gives them an illustration of what they will be able to do after we spend the semester working together.   The reality of seeing a question that the previous class had to work draws the students’ attention.  It is more real to them than almost anything else I can say.

In sending this email, I have several things I want to accomplish.

--I want it to be a question that they have a good chance of understanding.   If the question covers topics they have never heard of, it will sound like gibberish.  I do not want them to believe the course is about gibberish.    

--I want the question to be broad enough to illustrate the overall purpose of the course.  Why is the question relevant to the goals of this particular course?   

--I want the question to sound interesting.   “What the heck should we do in this situation?” is always a question that makes students think.   Test questions can be boring or interesting.   Interesting is better for learning and for the students' attitude.  

--I am not trying to scare them.   The question can not seem impossible.   I am trying to create a sense of wonder and excitement about the learning they will do.

--Where possible, I assure them that a vast majority of students last semester got the question correct.  “You can never do this” is not helpful.   “I am going to show you how this problem works so that you will be able to do it well and make a good grade” is very encouraging.

--Somewhere in the email, I always include two sentences:  “You are not in this alone.   I am here to help.”  No matter how I pitch the course, I want that message clearly conveyed.  Although I am demanding, I want the students to know that I am on their side and we will be working together.  I am not the enemy.  I am on their side.  

--I try to start the teaching process by drawing their attention to specific elements of the question.   Why did I include this information?   What is the point of that fact?  How do these two factors fit together?   I want them to start deconstructing the question to see what is involved and what is being asked.

--I do not include any answers.   At this point, my purpose is to show interesting questions.  The purpose of the semester is to arrive at logical answers.

There is something real about an actual final exam question that seems to awaken each new group of students to the possibilities of the semester.   For the teacher, it provides an opportunity to show a complicated and challenging goal (“you will see this”) while reassuring the students they will be able to answer this question by the time of their final exam ("you will learn this").   It is a positive and engaging way to introduce the new semester.

The learning process is much more effective if you can make points to the students over the summer.   A good question from the previous final exam is one way to begin getting them ready for the new adventure.


Monday, July 17, 2017

WHAT DO YOU REALLY WANT TO HAPPEN? MY DESIRED REALITY.



During a semester, teachers do not always have enough free time available to make radical class improvements.  Consequently, as I have said often in these blog postings over the years, the summer is a fabulous time to work on the upcoming learning process.  Frequently, this advice has focused on the students.  How can you get them especially well motivated for an outstanding class in the fall?  Today, however, I want to address you as the teacher.   I want to make a suggestion for a simple experiment that I hope you will try between now and the first week of class.

Creating a great educational experience is impossible unless you have a clear idea as to what success should look like.  What do you really want to happen?   “By the last day of the fall semester, I want to have a great class but I really do not know what that will look like,” is a ludicrous statement.  However, many teachers really do not know what that great class would look like.  They have just never considered it.  

I believe college teachers should merge their class goals and their basic teaching philosophy to form a mental model of the type of learning environment they hope to create over the course of a semester.  I refer to this as “my desired reality,” what I want to see happen on the final day of class next fall.  In sports, athletes often talk about the importance of mentally visualizing an upcoming competition.  Prior to a tennis match or football game, the athlete will sit quietly and envision exactly what he or she hopes to have occur.  The athlete makes this mental picture as vivid as possible by “walking” sequentially through each desired step of the coming contest.  The athlete wants to have a sense of how the actions will feel when everything goes just perfectly as planned.  In your class, what does designed perfection look like?  Decades ago, a popular book titled Psycho-Cybernetics (by Maxwell Maltz) described the potential benefits of this type of visualization. 

For me, creating an organized structure for my class is difficult without a clear picture of my desired reality.   How do I envision that last day of class each semester?  Everyone has their own dream ending but here is mine.

I see myself walking into the classroom on the last day of the semester.  The students are in their seats, attentive and ready to go to work.   I select a student at random and ask that person to address a particular question about the topic assigned for that day.  There is no hesitation.  The student gives a reasonable, thought-out response to my query.   The student has obviously read the assignment and, moreover, has given the issues being raised serious consideration.  The answer is not superficial.   The student has thought about the topic.  The student is not afraid to be incorrect.  The student is not worried about being the subject of laughter or ridicule.  In that room, a feeling of mutual respect exists between the teacher and the students as a group as well as among the individual students.  This is a team effort.  I ask a second student to comment on the answer presented by the first student.  The second student has listened carefully to the previous response and begins to discuss, question, and elaborate on specific points that were covered.  The student compliments the first student for answers that were well conceived but is also willing to criticize the validity of specific points as long as the first student is not personally degraded.  A third student raises a hand to defend an assertion made by the first student.  A fourth student raises a hand to pose a question in hopes of clarifying an answer that was offered.  A fifth student raises a hand to compare the current issue to ones we have discussed earlier in the semester.  And, so it goes.  Every student in the room is engaged in the conversation and the exploration of the topic.  No one asks "will this be on the test?"   Understanding is the goal and not memorization.

In my desired reality, the classroom experience is a guided conversation in which we, as a group, explore a particular topic.  The students are asked to prepare in advance and they do so.  They are asked to think and they do so.   They are asked to listen and they do so.   They are asked to respond and question and they do so.  They are asked to get involved and they do so. 

The teacher is asked to guide, prod, and encourage and does so.   Both groups are expected to enjoy the give and take process that leads to thinking and learning.  The daily class experience is an intriguing exploration and not dreary torture.  Speaking strictly for me, this is an educational experience worth having (if it can be created).

Of course, this is just what I want.   What you want for your classes can be entirely different and even more valid.  The decision is up to you.  However, no one reaches the goal if it has not been envisioned in advance.

Can any desired reality come true?   Two things are absolutely necessary.   First, I have to know what I want to accomplish.  Any teacher who does not have a firm grip on what that last class session is supposed to look like will never get there.  Second, from the time I start communicating with my students, everything I do has to help achieve this reality.   Students will never conform to the reality you seek without clear guidance.   This vision is just a daydream if you are not willing to “guide, prod, and encourage” your students in that direction.

It all starts with a clear understanding of your desired reality.

So, here is your (obvious) assignment.   Take some time and think deeply about the last day of your fall classes.   What reality would you like to see on that day?   When you walk into the last class in November or December, what would be the best outcome that you could possibly want?  Take some time and write it down.   That helps to make the goals more concrete.   

If you can dream it, you can create it.

Once you know the reality you seek, start asking yourself how can you start moving your students to that point by the end of the fall.   Make good use of your summer.    






Friday, June 2, 2017

FOLLOW UP EMAIL

Last week, I sent an email to my students about making good use of their summer.  I suggested that they read a book that Bill Gates had recommended in Time magazine, Business Adventures by John Brooks.  I was clearly trying to serve in a mentoring capacity by recommending an activity that was never going to be on the students' test.  I hope some of them take me up on the assignment.

I liked that idea so I posted a short discussion of it on this blog (May 28, 2017).   We seem to have difficulty in getting everything covered in a four-year education.  We need to find ways to increase what a student can learn during the college experience.  Making good use of summer is one place to start.

My friend Bob Jensen (retired teaching legend from Trinity University) sent me a note about his own version of this summer assignment.   In all honesty, I liked his idea better than I liked my idea.   We live in a time when things evolve so rapidly that our students need to be ready for a changing world.   Bob's suggestion recognizes that challenge and how to address it.

I passed it along to my students as a follow up email.   I really hope some of them will take me on this idea also.   It really could make a difference in their lives.  Here is how I introduced his suggestion to my students.

To:   Accounting 302 Students

From:   JH

Last week, I sent out an email suggesting that you follow the advice of Bill Gates and read Business Adventures by John Brooks over the summer.  I am a big believer that the main problem that college students suffer from is procrastination so I hope you didn’t put that suggestion in the “think about it later” file.  Do it or don’t do it but don’t defer it to death.

As some of you might know, I have long maintained a teaching blog where I discuss how I teach my classes.  So, I posted a discussion of that particular book recommendation.  The posting has already been read by several hundred followers. 

A friend of mine named Bob Jensen responded with what I thought was a fabulous idea.   Dr. Jensen is retired from Trinity University and is a genuine legend in education.  I always pay attention to what he has to say but I thought this was an especially good idea.   I’m going to pass it along directly to you.   I have not tried any of the links he lists but I am sure Google can get you there if need be.  I just thought this was a genius idea for how to spend some of your free hours over the summer.  Talk about making yourself more marketable.  

​From Bob Jensen
“That is a good post. However, my number one recommendation would be for students to take advantage of summer months to learn how to code.  Coding is not something we stress in accounting curricula, but I read recently that ‘if you know how to code you will never be unemployed.’  That is generally true even if you must work at home.

“Coding is becoming a skill increasingly important in virtually all disciplines, even accounting.

“Here are some of the free services for learning how to code (just a sampling of the many alternatives)

Free Code Camp --- http://www.freecodecamp.com/

Bob Jensen's World Library Links at
http://faculty.trinity.edu/rjensen/Bookbob2.htm#---ComputerNetworking-IncludingInternet
​ 
Khan Academy Computer Programming --- https://www.khanacademy.org/computing/computer-programming

DevArt: Art made with code --- https://devart.withgoogle.com/

Learn How to Code for Free: A DIY Guide for Learning HTML, Python, Javascript & More  ---
http://www.openculture.com/2016/03/learn-how-to-code-for-free-a-diy-guide-for-learning-html-python-javascript-more.html

Python Programming Language --- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Python_(programming_language)

Learn Python Programming Language with a Free Online Course from MIT ---
http://www.openculture.com/2017/05/learn-python-with-a-free-online-course-from-mit.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+OpenCulture+%28Open+Culture%29

Free eBooks on Computer Programming from O’Reilly Media ---
http://www.openculture.com/2017/05/36-ebooks-on-computer-programming-from-oreilly-media-free-to-download-and-read.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+OpenCulture+%28Open+Culture%29

CS For All: Introduction to Computer Science and Python Programming ---
https://www.edx.org/course/cs-all-introduction-computer-science-harveymuddx-cs005x

“I used to teach Fortran (loved it) and Cobol (hated it) but times have changed and left me in my retirement dust.  Recommend that virtually all young folks learn how to code in the newer coding ‘languages.’"



Sunday, May 28, 2017

MAKING GOOD USE OF THE SUMMER



When it comes to my classes and my students, I worry about many things.  Perhaps worrying makes me a better teacher.  Here are two things I at worrying about at the current time.

--I worry that students will not make good use of the 3-4 months they have off each summer.   I know that college students are very busy people.   Many have jobs or internships.  Others are taking summer classes.   However, learning simply cannot cease for such an extended period.   That is not a good use of available time or brainpower.  Learning should not be limited to formal classroom experiences.   College students need to be getting themselves prepared for what educators refer to as “lifelong learning.”  In our fast moving society, that becomes more and more important.  No one can afford to stop learning at 22.

--I worry that students will wind up in a program or a major that does not really intrigue them.   College should be a time of exploration when students discover their passions and then set out to follow them.   No one wants to hear a senior say at graduation “I earned a major but I didn’t find it very interesting.”  

As anyone who has followed this blog for long knows, I send out emails to my students over the summer.   Below is one that I recently sent out to the juniors in my upcoming fall class.   I am not sure how many will read the recommended book but I hope some/many do.   It will be good for them and, perhaps, it will help them become more interested in their major.  If nothing else, I have raised the issue of “are you in the right major?”  At the start of the junior year, that is probably a good time to consider that question.

I realize that many readers of this blog do not teach in the business area.   Okay, find a different book.   What book could you recommend that might have this impact on your students?   Surely, there has to be some book available that would work, some book that would be a good use of student time over the summer.  Introduce it to your studies and make it sound interesting, make it sound worth reading.
 **
  
To:  Accounting Students for the fall semester

From:   JH

I was sitting on my front porch a few minutes ago reading the June 5, 2017, edition of Time magazine.  I read something I wanted to share with you.   The magazine had a discussion with Bill Gates, the richest person in the world and one of the most influential.  The conversation was about the books he is currently reading and books he has previously read.   The second question in the article was “What one, two or three books changed your life?”  That question always fascinates me so I studied his answer carefully.   Here is the second book he mentions.


“Warren Buffett loaned me his copy of Business Adventures by John Brooks many years ago.  It’s still the best business book I’ve ever read.  It’s a collection of Brooks’ New Yorker essays about why various companies succeeded or failed.  The essay titled ‘Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox’ should win an award for most clever chapter name, and the lessons inside the book are even better.  I took inspiration from it while running Microsoft.”


I really don’t worry about teaching you accounting.  I know this confession doesn’t sound like my reputation.  You are bright and I suspect you will be willing to do the work necessary if I make it a fair (and not impossible) amount.   What concerns me is whether you enjoy business enough?   To me, business is absolutely fascinating.   It is like playing in the Super Bowl where you are trying to figure out a product and a manufacturing process and a marketing process and the like that are so well done that people will give you their money.   If you do all those things better than anyone else, then your company wins. 

I have created and eventually sold two businesses and few adventures are more fun and more satisfying. 

If that interests you, the fall will be a great semester.   If that doesn’t interest you, then I’m not sure Intermediate Accounting is the course for you.   You only have one life to live.   I much prefer for it to be in an area that you love. 

I say all of that to encourage you to get a copy of Bill Gates’s recommendation and read it.  Hopefully, it will excite you about business.   No, this is not an assignment.  If you are only going to do what is absolutely required, then I already know you are in the wrong program.   By this age, you should be doing stuff that interests you so much that you don’t have to be bribed to do it.

To be honest, I have not read this book.  Nevertheless, Bill Gates has made more money than I have so his advice is probably better than mine.  If you do read it, come by in the fall and tell me what you liked and what you didn’t like.


Hope you have a good Memorial Day.​






Thursday, April 13, 2017

HERE IS SOME ADVICE YOU NEVER REQUESTED



Over the years, I have written occasionally about the role of being a mentor for my students versus being a pure teacher.   Personally, I prefer to be open to mentoring for those students who might want it.   I think many of them like knowing that there is some rather disinterested person available that they can go to and simply say “I need some advice.”  For example, a former student wandered into my office a few days ago who was interested in talking about Teach for America.   This was a decision that had stressed her out and she began to cry.   We chatted for 10-15 minutes.   She didn’t leave dancing or singing but at least she wasn’t crying.  I did not mind listening and giving my opinion.

But, at other times, I want to be a mentor to my students without even being asked.   I want to butt into their lives just a little bit—especially as it deals with college and their education.   Without any request, I sent out the following email yesterday.   Will any of my 61 students follow my advice?   My guess would be that 10-15 percent will actually reconsider their course schedules.   If that is true, I will have had an impact on their lives over and beyond teaching them accounting.   I love teaching accounting (it is truly a great way to teach critical thinking) but I would like to be more of an influence, more of a mentor—at least to some.  That is how I want my career to be.

I do this occasionally.  Do you?  Are your courses all about subject matter or do you try to have more influence than that?  I prefer more influence.  But, that is a personal decision.  It is your career.   What do you want it to be?  That’s a personal decision but one you should consider.
**

To my students:  (slightly edited)
I realize registration is over for the fall semester but, of course, there is always drop-add.  

Students occasionally come by my office and chat with me about what courses (other than accounting) they should take.   I have mixed emotions about my own college experience – it was a lot of ups and downs (but part of that was because I expected to wind up going to Vietnam to try to kill people – that puts an odd spin on reading books, writing papers, and taking tests).   However, if I have one special regret, it is the courses I chose to take outside of my major.   I don’t think I quite realized how much those courses would influence the person I became.   I am sure that if I had better judged the impact on me I would have chosen those courses more carefully.

So, what courses should you take if you have an open slot?  Here’s some advice you didn’t ask for.

--I don’t think you can ever take enough math and computer science.  Think how the world is going to change over the next 30 years.   The people who are positioned to do well are those who are ready for all those changes.  I suspect that math and computer science will be the two areas that make you most ready for the world to come in 30 years.  But, for goodness' sake, don’t take just any course – ask around and find out who is the best, most inspiring teacher.  

--For a fulfilled life, you need to be able to find beauty in life.   Take an art appreciation course or a course in great literature.   Your adult life will be so much more wonderful if you appreciate beauty and there is nothing that teaches us more about beauty than art and literature.   And, if you now tell me, “Oh, I find that kind of stuff boring,” I’m going to give you my worst possible insult:   You are reacting like a teenager and not like an adult.  I’m convinced that art and literature become more beautiful as you study them more deeply.   But, for goodness' sake, don’t take just any course – ask around and find out who is the best, most inspiring teacher.
 
--We live in wonderfully interesting times.   Take a political science course.  How does Congress work?   Why do we only have two political parties?   How have politics evolved over the last few decades?   Heck, it is hard to read the newspapers without some basic understanding of politics.  How could any class be more relevant to your life than political science?   But, for goodness' sake, don’t take just any course – ask around and find out who is the best, most inspiring teacher.

--When I talk with former students who have graduated in the last 2-5 years, it is absolutely amazing how many of them tell me “I’m shocked by how much I have to write and how important it is to write clearly.   I never realized that grammar was so essential to a career.  Writing has turned out to be more important to my success than anything else.”   How can a person learn to write clearly?   I have had several students over the years take Copy Editing from the Richmond Journalism Department and they have always raved that they have finally learned how to write.   Here at Richmond, the copy editing professor is fabulous.   He will teach you something you probably do not know—how to write a clear sentence.  

--Find something you have a passion for learning.   Surely, there is something at this university (other than accounting) that you have a passion to learn.  Oh, I hope so.  It would be incredibly sad if you said that you have no passion for any learning.  If that is the case, you might as well spend your life planting potatoes.  Pick something that you really have an interest in and then go for it.  But, for goodness' sake, don’t take just any course – ask around and find out who is the best, most inspiring teacher.


If I had my college career to live over again, I would have chosen a course or two differently each year.   And, if I had done that, I would be a different person now.   More importantly, I suspect I would have been a better person.   Pick wisely.