Saturday, March 31, 2018


The spring semester is rapidly ending.  I have little time left to work with my current group of students.   I always want every semester to end on a surge of energy.   Especially in the spring, classes can drift into mass lethargy where everyone just begins to go through the motions.  Education is too important for that conclusion.   Everything goes better when it ends with enthusiasm.

Recently, I emailed all my students in hopes of encouraging them to redouble their efforts even as spring began to warm the earth and flowers began to appear.   I am trying to establish a strong mindset here at the end of the semester.   They are young and strong.   With the right mindset, they still have time to move mountains.  I have a motto, "if you are not dead, things can always get better."

Here is the email I sent to my spring students.

We have four weeks left in the semester – roughly 12 hours that we will be together.   It’s not much time but it is enough time to push that grade up.

Let me make a suggestion.

I listen to books on CDs as I drive around town.   A few years ago, I was listening to an audiobook in my car:  Wild by Cheryl Strayed.   It is long and complex so I will not include a detailed synopsis here.    However, at the beginning of this autobiographical work, the author believes that she has lost control of her life (at least in part because of the death of her mother).  She decides to focus on a genuine challenge in hopes of regaining inner peace and balance.  In that circumstance, I might have taken up a hobby like pottery.  With virtually no experience to guide her, Strayed chose to walk 1,100 miles alone through the mountains of California and Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail.  Even now, the level of that challenge seems absurd.  Although she faced horribly frightening experiences during those months, she ultimately succeeded.  She was not the fastest hiker, actually one of the slowest, but she made it.  Along the way, she faced enormous challenges, but figured out ways – often by herself – to get through them successfully.

One day, I was listening to Wild as I drove to campus.  The author was getting ready to begin her incredibly long, difficult journey.  Not surprisingly, she lost her nerve and almost quit before marching off resolutely to the starting point.  In describing her emotions, she wrote a line that is so insightful that I pulled my car over to the side of the road so I could write it down. 

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.”

Shakespeare could not have said it better.  “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.”  For me, this was the most brilliant sentence I have read recently.  The words have stuck with me like an arrow for months.  And, the sentence is even more relevant if you begin to swap out the word “Fear” for other words such as “Joy,” “Excitement,” “Hate,” “Love,” and “Success.”   We are very much a product of the stories that we tell ourselves.   I believe that.

We have four weeks left in this semester.   My guess is that all of you would like to finish strong so you can learn the material and make the highest grade possible. 

What is holding you back from reaching your potential?   I suspect a large barrier to your desired level of success is a list of the stories that you tell yourself about this class.   Be honest – what stories linger in the back of your mind about this class?   Which of these sound like you?

--I’m not as smart as the other students.
--I’m just not very good with numbers.
--I’m tired of being a student so I’m going to coast out with as little work as possible.
--I prefer to sit and listen and this teacher keeps asking me questions, which is annoying.
--I’m good at memorizing.   I am not very good at thinking.
--The class is in the morning and I am not a morning person.
--I’ve got other classes that take up much of my time.
--I am never going to need to know this material so why waste my time.
--I don’t really know what I want to do in life so why spend so much time on this course.
--I want to have fun with my friends and don’t want to waste time on this class.   College is for fun.
--I’m really terribly shy and don’t like to speak in class.
--I always seem to know the material until I get to a test and then I panic and make stupid mistakes.
--No one really cares if I make above a C.   Mediocre is good enough.

And, all of those are absolute nonsense.  They are designed to hold you back.   They are designed to give you a dull, mediocre life.   They are designed to take you off the hook and have an excuse to be lazy.   Those are the wrong stories.  They will never lead to success in anything.  That mindset makes you an average person.   You are smarter than that.  Come up with better stories and you will come up with better results.   I cannot guarantee that you’ll make 110 on our third test but I honestly believe you will do better.

What stories should you be telling yourself?

--I will be the best prepared person in class next week.   I will analyze every question in advance and be ready with an answer.   I might not be able to do this for an entire semester but I can do it for the next week.
--I will write down questions in class that I don’t understand and go ask the teacher immediately.   He is paid to teach so let him earn his money.
--I will enjoy the energy and excitement of the class discussions.  I will look forward to this class. 
--I will pray that the teacher calls on me in class because I am ready to be a leader.
--I will work the extra class problems as soon as I get them.
--I will start keeping a diary of the amount of time I spend studying each day just to see if I can slowly raise that average.
--I will not worry about whether the material will ever be important.   I will learn it just for the sheer joy of adding knowledge to my head. 
--I will be better at time management so that I am ready for every class and can still have time to enjoy life outside of class.

I simply believe you will do better if you have better stories.   Positive stories create positive results.  You have to have stories that give you the strength to do the work now and do it well.   You have to overcome the bad stories.

That is not easy.   I fully understand.   But better stories really do make for better students.

I have an odd photo here at my house.  It is taped to my wall near my computer.   It is a photo of the cover of a notebook.   It was given to me by a student who did very well in my course about a year ago.   After the semester was over, she sent me the photo and explained, “I wrote this on the cover of my course notebook on the first day of the semester and I looked at it long and hard every day for the entire semester.”

On the notebook, she had written just four words:

“I want it more.”

She told herself the right story and she did very well.  She truly did succeed.

Monday, March 26, 2018


I often think about teaching in comparison to being a coach.  Both teachers and coaches work with a group of people in hopes that those people will accomplish some task particularly well (often under pressure).   There is an ongoing learning experience where individuals in both groups gradually improve (hopefully) over time.   In each case, the whole process culminates in some type of test – sports teams play a game that they hope to win whereas students take an examination where they hope to excel.   In sports, the coach is trying to maximize the team’s chances for a victory.   In education, the teacher is trying to maximize the amount of every student’s understanding so that each person can do as well on the exam as possible.  

I spent my weekend writing a long, complex test for 41 of my students.   I know it will be a challenge to each one.   There is nothing easy about any of these questions but they have worked hard and they are capable of success.  I would really like to maximize the chances for success.

When I finished writing the test, I decided to sit down to watch a little bit of the basketball games in March Madness.   It is hard to avoid these games at this time of the year.

As I watched the teams play, I was struck by how much time and energy the coaches had expended in hopes of getting each player to do their very best.  The best coaches seemed to have taken nothing for granted.   They had done everything possible to help the players perform well.  Hmm, I found that interesting – they had done everything possible to help the players perform well.   Had I done as much for my own students?

I started thinking about my students and the test that they were surely preparing for at that moment.  We had spent an enormous amount of time working on the material but I wasn’t sure that I had helped them to be as psychologically prepared for the test as possible.   Is that my role?   Am I purely a teacher of material?   Or, if I want my students to really do well, do I have more of an obligation than that?  

One of the things I don’t like about testing is that it tends to put the teacher in an adversarial relationship with the students.   We are the coach but we are also the judge and that creates a bit of separation in the minds of both parties.   I’ve always wanted my students to know I was on their side.   I think that helps their learning.

After the last game was over last night, I decided that there really was a little bit more that I could do for my students to help them do their best on the test today.  Instead of going to bed, I wrote them one final email, not about the subject matter but rather about doing their best.   I imagine that a great basketball coach might have done something like this.   And, in all seriousness, are those games on television one bit more important than the success of your own students?  You might disagree but I think not.   One of the first steps in being a better teacher is to recognize the importance of your role and in doing it as well as you possibly can.

Here is the email that I sent out.  I have no idea whether it increased anyone’s grade even one point but, for me, it was worth a try.   At least, I wanted my students to know that I was cheering for them.  I did truly want them to do well.   Before your next test, you might try something similar.   If nothing else, I think it is good for the student-teacher relationship for them to know that you really do want them to learn and succeed.

To my students:

You will have your second test in roughly 12 - 13 hours.   I know I have said all of this before but I want to say it again as you mentally prepare yourself for the battle.

Most importantly, I doubt seriously that I am going to ask you anything that is not already in your head.   Seriously, I wrote each question with one comment to myself, "I think this is in their heads -- it is not really impossible/bizarre/unworkable.  I think they'll know this."  

So, I think the whole key to the test is getting the material out of your head smoothly and onto the paper.   That's all I want you to worry about in these last few hours -- getting the knowledge out of your head smoothly and onto the paper.  

To do that, you know what I'm going to recommend first -- get a normal night's sleep.   Being tired is one of the worst things you can do on a difficult test.   No one functions well when they are tired.   If you normally get 7 hours of sleep, then go for 7 hours of sleep.

Second, stay calm.   I know the questions are going to look bizarre at first.  Take a deep breath and tell yourself, "he wrote these questions knowing us and believing that we can work them.  Getting rattled is not going to help.  Let me read it carefully."  

Third, have confidence.   You are bright people who have made your way into this university, into this school, and into this class.   That didn't happen by accident.   Yes, the material is complicated but it is not that complicated.   Don't blow it out of all proportions.

Fourth, keep your concentration.   I always tell my students, "if the building catches on fire, you don't want to notice until some fireman picks you up and carries you from the room."    I don't care what happens in room 223 tomorrow morning, nothing but that test should make any difference to you.

Fifth, if you get stuck on a question, don't waste a lot of time on it.   Go find another question that you might know better and come back to the "stuck" question at the end of the time.  

Finally, be careful.   I'm always shocked/dismayed by how many points great students just throw away by doing careless things.   If you don't know a question, that's fine, I can live with that.   But don't just hand over points by making careless errors.  

I know you (not the person beside you but YOU) are capable of doing great.   I'll be cheering for you!!!!!!   Go get it!!!!!    Make it happen!!!!!!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018


I had lunch with a friend recently who asked what I had learned from nearly 47 years in college teaching.   My initial answer was trivial (but possibly true), “Well, I certainly have learned you never get paid enough in this job.”  Later, as I thought about it more deeply, I came up with what I thought was a more appropriate answer.   Because I like ranking things, I decided to put it into a “David Letterman Style Top Ten Countdown” list.  Not sure why but I seem to think better when I am using lists with a ranking.  It makes me more observant or thoughtful.

Your mission, Mr. Phelps, if you decide to accept it (as they say on Mission Impossible) is to decide how your list would differ from mine.  We all work in different teaching situations.   How would your list look?  What have you learned from your years of teaching?

Here goes – the top ten things I have learned about college teaching after nearly 47 years on the job.

Number Ten – You always have to prepare for class.   I taught my first class in August of 1971.  If you had told me that first day how much time I would still need to invest to get ready for my classes in 2018, I would have been stunned.   I assumed that preparation would get easier over the years.   But, if you want a class session to go well, you simply have to be the best prepared person in the room.  There are no shortcuts.  The class has to feel fresh and that requires preparation time--not once in awhile but every time.  Here is a piece of personal advice:   When you are no longer willing to prepare adequately, it might be time to consider retirement or a new career.

Number Nine – If possible, engage all of your students every day.   Don’t let students sit around like stumps.  If you do, they will just daydream.  Ten percent of your students are dying to participate.  The challenge is getting the other 90 percent involved.  For years, teachers have let those other 90 percent slide.  They fully expect you to do the same.   Don’t!!!  I call on every student once or twice every day.   I want them walking in knowing that they will need to be actively involved.   How do you get all of your students engaged with the material?  That is aood question for each of us to address.  Class should not look like a movie theater where the audience sits passively and watches.   That misses completely the excitement of the learning experience.

Number Eight – Students rarely change over the years.  In 1958, I heard my sixth grade teacher tell another teacher, “Students today cannot read and comprehend.   They have to have everything explained to them.”  I literally heard almost those same words last week right outside my office.   Comparing finished students from previous years to your current students-in-process is not fair.  All students come into a semester uneducated and go out the other end educated if you guide them well.   Dismissing them as being inferior to previous generations creates a tension in your attitude that is not helpful.  You will start resenting your current students.  That sets up a roadblock to your own success.  I know some readers (maybe many) are going to write and tell me that I am wrong, that students in 2018 are not as good as they used to be.   I think your memory is playing tricks on you.  More importantly, I don’t that attitude helps you become a great teacher.

Number Seven – Memorization is not the goal of good education.  I cannot think of very many things that my students need to memorize—probably none.   Unless you can justify it, never ask students to memorize and never test them on their memory.   That just gives education a bad reputation.  Figure out a better goal – I always argue that understanding and critical thinking are the two things I want to accomplish.   Memorization has little place in that learning process. 

Number Six – Testing and grading have to tie in directly with your goals for the class.  The connection has to be clear.  If your goal is the development of critical thinking, then you must test/grade on the student’s ability to demonstrate critical thinking.   If you stress one thing in class and then test something else (memory, for example), you are going to (a) confuse your students and (b) irritate your students and (c) not accomplish your goal.

Number Five – Early in my career, I heard a professional football coach claim, “There is something in every person that wants to be pushed to be great.”  I liked that philosophy 47 years ago.   I like it equally as well today.   It is easy to claim that students are lazy or have no ambition.   I disagree.  I think at their very core most students want the teacher to get behind them and push them toward greatness.   Many of them might require an awful lot of pushing but they will thank you for it in the end.   I find this philosopht an interesting view of human nature.  I might actually prefer some other view.   However, that perspective has served as a foundation for much of my teaching.  Furthermore, few victories are as emotionally rewarding as pushing a poor student into being a great student.  When that happens, you know why you became a teacher.

Number Four – In this blog, I have often talked about the importance of helping students understand that they leave class each day with Swiss cheese knowledge – it looks solid but it is full of holes.  Student success depends on their ability to fill in those holes.   A book I read recently (I think it was Make It Stick) argues that students over-estimate what they know as they are leaving class every day.   I have a slightly different take.   I think students know that their knowledge is full of holes.  However, I think they under-estimate how much work it will require to fill in those holes.  To them, it is a casual concern rather than an urgent issue.  Teachers tend to make the material look learnable in class so students assume they can get it figured out.  That is why students often wait until the night before a test to try to put everything together.  By that time, there are just too many holes and they are way too big.  Teachers need to help students immediately start filling those holes as quickly as possible after each class.

Number Three – Nothing is ever going to go really well in a class unless the students have faith in the teacher.   Why should they work so hard if they don’t trust the teacher’s ability?  From Day One, you have to send a subtle message to the students, “I am going to ask an awful lot of you this semester but I am going to push you to learn this complicated material and be successful.  Have enough faith so that you will do what I ask.  If you do that, I will help you learn more than you ever thought possible.”   I have never seen a study of this but I have often thought that the amount (or depth) of student learning correlates directly with how much faith students have in their professor as teacher.

Number Two – At the very heart of great teaching is clear and understandable communications.   Students cannot read your mind.   If you want to guide them to success, you have to establish a method of communication that works for you and works for them.   Helping students to work efficiently and learn complex material cannot be accomplished through telepathy.  I use email.  I always say that my teaching improved dramatically when email became common.  I then had a way of conversing with my students beyond the first minute or two of class.  I email my students 5-12 times each week throughout the semester.   You might think that is obsessive (I might think that is obsessive).   However, I prefer to call that a strong level of communication that helps my students keep charging forward at a brisk pace and in the right direction.  It allows me to guide and enables me to motivate.   I can tell the students what they need to do and why.  Open and adequate communications are necessary for a strong marriage and for excellent teaching.

And, Number One on my list of things I have learned about teaching.   If you have read my blog for long, you already know what Number One is because it is always Number One for me.  I think great teaching starts when you can convince your students to be adequately prepared when they walk into class.   If they have done a sufficient amount of work in advance of class, then you can use the class time to heal the sick and raise the dead.  In other words, you can create miracles.   However, if the students are not adequately prepared, there is little you can do but lecture to them and have them take notes.  The difference between a wonderful class and a trivial class is student preparation.  Think about your classes right now.   What if every student spent an extra hour in serious preparation before each class.   Wouldn’t the level of discussion and learning simply skyrocket?  Too many students walk into class knowing nothing and end up wondering why they have trouble learning.   In my world, get the students to prepare adequately and your teaching will begin to rise wonderfully.

That is my ten.   However, I wanted a different perspective.   For many years, my brother was an outstanding middle school teacher and principal.   I posed the same question to him, “What did you learn from your years of teaching?”   I liked his response.  “You have to prove to students that you are going to be fair.  You have to show them every single time you get in front of them that you care about them as students and as people.  You have to live a life outside the classroom that shows them you walk the walk.”

There are obviously a lot of good answers.   Start with my list.   What would you add?   What would you delete?   What have YOU learned from your years in the classroom?   My email address is – let me know how your list would be different from mine.  I would love to hear from you.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018


Over the years, I have argued often on this blog that one of the really weak spots in education was the failure of students to close the holes on what I call “Swiss Cheese Knowledge.”   Thus, on the first day of class last week, I drew a block on the board and put holes in it.  I then explained the drawing to my students.

When you leave class every day, your knowledge looks like a block of Swiss cheese.   It appears entirely solid.  However, it is full of holes—things you missed, things you misunderstood, things you did not quite catch.  I know the knowledge feels solid, but it really is not.   If you do not take action, those holes just get bigger as time passes and your memory begins to fade.   Having taught for nearly 50 years, I know where the holes are likely to be.   I can and will write test questions to expose those holes.  In many ways, testing is just an attempt to measure the quantity and size of the holes in your knowledge.  

How well you do in this course is very much dependent on what you do after each class to close those holes before they simply get too big to manage.  I think this is the part of learning that most students either do not appreciate or simply choose to ignore.   You have to close those holes in your knowledge or I will find them on the tests.  Then, you will come to me after the test and say, “I knew the material perfectly until the test started and then I just froze and couldn’t answer any of the questions.”   No, that is a popular student story but it is rarely true.   The knowledge looked and felt solid to you but it was really full of holes and I found them.

There are many things you can do to close the holes but I want to suggest two.   First, I will send you practice exercises throughout the semester that will begin, “Here is a practice question based on what we covered today in class.   I wrote it so you could determine if you had any holes in your knowledge.  The answer is X.   If you get that answer, then move on.  I am not worried about you.   But if you cannot get X, come by and see me, sooner rather than later.  We need to fill in that hole.”

The second thing takes more discipline.   As soon as possible after class, write out a memo on everything we covered today.  Assume you were writing the memo to a friend who missed class and needs to know what we covered in a very clear and organized way.   Class moves very quickly and has a helter-skelter feel to it.   Nevertheless, if you look closely, you will begin to realize that there is a fairly well defined organizational structure.   By writing out a “friend memo,” you’ll start seeing the whole picture.   That’s a good way to start noticing some of those holes in your knowledge so that you can take action.

From my experience, students are good about doing practice questions because they are curious as to what I thought was important and whether they can do it.  Writing “friend memos,” though, is tougher.   It is not as much fun and takes some time.  As one student said, “That much thinking makes my head hurt.”

So, the holes are never filled.

I think we often fail to realize how much guidance our students need.   We can tell them but, in most cases, we need to show them as well.   For example, during the second day of class, we spent the entire 50 minutes talking about a lot of liability questions – Why is this a liability?   Why is that not a liability?

Immediately after that class, I wrote out a detailed memo and sent it to the students.  “It might not have seemed like we covered much today and it might have all seemed rather random but here’s exactly what we did.   We covered a whole lot of material.”   I very much wanted to show them exactly what a class memo could look like.  They need that modeling.  I cannot over emphasize that one sentence.

I will not do that again this semester.   I wanted to do it once to show them what I meant.   I have made my point.   Now, it depends on them if they have the ambition needed to do the work.  I felt like I needed to impress on them the problem of Swiss Cheese knowledge and two important steps needed to fill in those holes.

I think teachers often think all learning problems originate during class.   I am much more inclined to believe that many if not most problems happen in the day or so immediately following class.   That is why I focus so much attention on that time period.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Most Important Days of the Semester – Part Two

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On October 1, 2017, I posted the first of a two-part blog entry on the importance of the 2-4 days after the first test of the semester.  This initial essay included an email that I sent to my current students immediately after their first test.   My assumption has long been that students are most interested in how to do well in a course as they leave the first test.   The email encouraged them to consider two specific aspects of their post-test assessment. 

First, if they felt they had not done well, I made three suggestions about what might have gone wrong.   It is hard to improve without some identification of the problem.  Students who do not do as well as they had hoped should come up with an honest ending to this sentence prompt, “I did not do well on the first test because . . .”    A vague response does not do anyone any good.  As I said in that previous essay, most students simply do not spend enough time studying.

Second, I tried to get my students to put themselves into one of four categories (confident and ready to build on that positive first step, over confident and relaxed, unhappy but ready to take on the challenge to do better, and terribly discouraged and ready to give up).   Obviously, I am trying to encourage them (whether they did well or poorly) to put on a burst of energy and enthusiasm after the first test.   It is still early in the semester.   I never want any student to feel defeated and hopeless.

The second part of my strategy to help the students make positive changes in their approach to this course comes on the day I return the graded first tests to them.   I walk into class with the papers under my arm.  However, before I hand them back, I make a few specific points about possible improvement.

I did not record my opening remarks this semester but the speech below is my best memory of what I said.   It only took a few minutes but I wanted to encourage them to start looking at the course in a different way.   Remember – my only goal is to guide the students to better learning and that should lead to a better grade.  

“In just a few minutes, I will return your first test which is roughly 25 percent of your overall grade so you still have plenty of time to improve your average if you want or destroy it even if you did well on this test.   We have a long semester.  This is just the first test.   Whether you improve this grade is squarely up to you.

“I often tell students that learning only occurs at three points.  I refer to this as the learning triangle.  First, learning can occur during class.  We are together 150 minutes per week.  I want us to use each of those minutes wisely to enhance your knowledge of the subject.   To tell you the truth, most students (and I certainly include this class) typically do well during class.  No one falls asleep.   Everyone attempts to answer the questions as I pose them.   People take good notes.  Students can always do better, but I am not upset by the work you have done so far in class.

“The second point on the learning triangle is all the work that students do before they arrive at class.   I assign questions and you have to decide how much time and energy you want to expend to prepare answers to those questions.   Most students, and again I would include this class in this assessment, do fairly mediocre work when it comes to class preparation.  For most, there is simply not enough urgency to push them beyond doing as little as possible before class.   I honestly believe it is hard for any student to excel unless they do excellent work leading up to class – not mediocre work and not good work but genuinely excellent preparation.   Without good preparation, it is hard to pick up the subtle but key points brought out during class discussion.   You can only struggle to keep up with the main points.  Key little nuances are just missed. 

“The third point on the learning triangle is all the work that students do after class.   As I have said before, students invariably leave class with Swiss cheese knowledge.   It looks and feels solid but is totally full of holes.  To do well, you need to spend serious time after class filling in those holes.   For some, those holes are tiny.   For others, the holes are massive.   Either way, the reason I send you problems after class is to help you fill in the holes.   When I give a test, all I am trying to do is discover the size of the holes in your knowledge.  

"Most students are good in class, mediocre before class, and absolutely awful after class.   That’s the way it usually happens.

“Some students are mystified as to why their grades are not higher because “I worked so hard during class.”  However, that is only one of the three points of the learning triangle.  If you don’t get the grade you want on this first test, remember it is my opinion that it was the quality of the work you did before class and the quality of the work you did after class that led to the poor grade.  Work on those two and I think your grade can and will improve radically.  

“I am willing to help you improve your grade if you will come my office.  But, do realize that I will probably not be addressing our 150 minutes together each week.   Typically, that goes well.   If you want to do better, you have to start looking more seriously at the other two points of the learning triangle.

“If you twant a higher grade on our second test, you will need a grade higher than ‘mediocre’ on class preparation and a grade higher than ‘awful’ on filling in the holes of your Swiss cheese knowledge after class is over.” 

I never like to hand back that first test without telling students in advance “listen, if you like your grade, don’t make any changes in your routine.  If you don’t like your grade, you have time to fix it and here is some advice about where you need to start putting in more time and effort.”   I believe it is unfair (at least on the first test) to give a student a poor grade (and I give plenty of them) without providing some type of framework to help them see where they are coming up short and how to make amends.  

If you can get your students to make necessary adjustments, the first test can be the key step toward turning a mediocre semester into an outstanding semester.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Most Important Days of the Semester – Part One

I have long asserted that the most important days of any semester are the 2-4 days immediately after the first test.  So many good things and so many bad things can happen in this short period of time. They can make the semester more wonderful or they can ruin the semester.  It is the point where the group is of no importance but the individuals are of maximum importance.

Because of the importance of this period, I have started (as of this semester) doing two things.   I sent my students the following email immediately after their first test with the subject line “Please Read.”   I want to get their attention.   Then, a couple of days later when I get ready to return the graded exams, I take the first 5-10 minutes of class time to talk with them about my view of the learning process.   I will describe that talk in my next blog posting in a few days.

Email to my students:

I have not looked at the test yet but I will try to get an answer sheet to you tonight.   I will also try to return the tests to you on Monday. 

My only comment on the test (without looking at any of your papers) is that it looked like a test I would write.   I tried to cover lots of different stuff.   I tried to make every question tie back into our class in some logical way.   I tried to make some questions decently easy and other questions more challenging.   For those of you who have not been in my class before, this is what my tests look like.  Warning:  They will not magically become a lot easier.
I have taught for 46 plus years and I have always argued that the most important days in any semester are the 2-4 days right after the first test.   No other time comes close to being as significant to your grade. 

Until we have the first test, everything is just hypothetical.   You have no way to know whether you are studying too much or not enough.   You have no way to know whether you are catching everything or missing some things.   You have no way to know whether two hours between each class is too much or too little.   You have no way to know whether you should worry about the email problems that I send out or not.

Today, it all became real.   When you get your test back, it is important to self-assess.   What, if anything, do you need to do differently?   Most of you have been students for at least 16 consecutive years.   You might not be trained at much but you should be an expert at being a student.  Use that knowledge to determine what adjustments, if any, you need to make.   I felt that everyone was capable of making an A on this test.  If you didn’t, then you need to figure out what changes might be helpful.   Remember, whether good or bad, Test One is a relatively small part of your grade.  With adjustments, you can still do great.

If you didn’t do as well as you wanted, there are only three possible problems.

(1) – You didn’t study enough.   I don’t care if you study 23 hours per day.   You can always study more.   My guess is that 60-70 percent of students don’t study enough between classes.  That is a fact of life.   They are busy and the work is just not urgent.  This problem is the easiest one to fix.  Start keeping a study diary just to see how much time you are spending.  Lack of urgency is the biggest thing standing in the way of a good grade for most students.  Spend more time studying between classes -- that's always my first advice.

(2) – You didn’t study well.   You used techniques that have worked in the past for you but just didn’t work here.   A lot of students focus on the textbook and clearly I don’t focus that much on the textbook.   Try to come up with one different approach that you might use in your study routine – either on a day-to-day basis or for the next test.  Improvement requires change – it is just a fact.   Improvement requires change.   I'll say it twice.  Clearly, with all the material that I have sent you over the first 4 weeks, you have a lot that you can be doing.   Pick the ones that work best for you and focus on them.   You don’t need to do everything but you really need to do the ones that work.  One thing I would do is go back and read some of the paragraphs in the handout “How to Make an A in Professor Hoyle’s Class.”   That handout was all written by students just like you – who had all the problems you have and still managed to make an A.   What can you learn from them?

(3) – You had a bad day on the test.   It does happen.   People have headaches or a personal problem arises right before you walk into the class.   I think the first two are the most likely problems but bad days do happen.   If so, shake it off and start working on Test Two.

Please feel free to come by and talk with me about these three.   Students often think there is a magic fourth cause.   There is not.   If you didn't do well, it is probably one or more of these three.

The reason that I think this 2-4 day period of time is so important for a great semester is solely because of how you react to this test.   I watch students during these days very closely.  I want to see if there is any change – for better or worse.

It seems to me that there are four possible responses to your grade on Test One (when you get it back on Monday).   Everyone in class will fit into one of these four categories.   The only question is where you fit in. 

(1) – You were pleased with your work on Test One and that gives you confidence to push even harder for a good grade.   A lot of students who do well on test one get excited with the realization that they are capable of doing well in this course and they start working even harder/better.   Their class answers each day get better immediately.   Confidence is wonderful.

(2) – You were pleased with your work on Test One so you start to relax and pay more attention to your other classes or your life outside of class.   The pressure is off and you cut back on your study time.  I am not a big fan of relaxed students.   The A becomes a B and eventually a C and you’ll be mystified as to how you lost the A.  If you were pleased, that is not a good reason to slack off.  Don't do it.

(3) – You were not pleased with your grade on Test One and that irritates you.   You know you are capable and you are not going to accept a poor grade without a fight.   You start to spend more time on each assignment.  You do the email problems quicker.   You spend more time in my office asking questions.   You don’t leave a problem until you understand the answers.   You take a serious look at the PowerPoint Flash Cards that I created.  Consequently, your class answers begin to improve as you start to truly learn this stuff.  Annoyance is not a bad motivator.  “I can do better and I will do better” is a great response.

(4) – You were not pleased with your grade on Test One and your confidence is devastated.   This always breaks my heart.   One test is just a small part of the semester.   I can look in the eyes of these students and read their minds, “See, I told you I wasn’t good enough to do this stuff.   This grade proves it.”   That is absolute nonsense.   Everyone in this class is capable of making an A or a B.   I believe that completely.   You might have to study more.   You might have to study better.   You might have to ask me more questions.   But there is no reason to surrender.   Have some faith in yourself and start getting better prepared for the next class.

That last sentence is the key.   You cannot get ready for the second test today.   The only thing you can do is get really ready for our next class.   Make it your goal:  “I will be the best prepared person in the room on Monday.”   That’s always the best first step toward an A.

Saturday, September 16, 2017


A few days ago, I posted some advice that I had given to my students about the amount of true study time they needed to invest to succeed in my class.  In that essay, I made the point that students need someone to give them some direction now and then.   That is one of the reasons many of them come to college.   I doubt that anyone disagrees with the idea that a college teacher can provide guidance to students about their study habits.  You might not do it but I do not suspect that anyone thinks it is a problem.

Today, I want to talk more about sharing advice with students.  This might be a bit more controversial.   I never take class time to give advice outside of subject matter.  Never.  However, I do use email to do so.   If I see or read something that I think students should consider, I put it in an email and send it to them.  Most of the time it is about a book or a movie that I think is worthwhile.  Is that part of my job as an accounting professor?   I personally think so but I do understand that some might disagree.  

As an example, here is an email that I sent to my students yesterday morning.   I hate to sound so much like a baby boomer but I think it is hard for anyone to understand the animosity in the U.S. today without some idea of how the country went from the solid backing for World War II to the country splitting controversy of the Vietnam War just 20 years later.  

Of course, as always, this is my style of being a college professor.  Teachers must figure out what works for them.  In many ways, I think that is the key to being an effective teacher.  Find out the style that works for you.   But, in most cases, some experimentation can help you in that quest. 

To my students:

I occasionally make recommendations to students because I want them to get a well-rounded educational experience.   Usually, it is something I have seen or heard that I thought was well done.  Here is one recommendation that is a bit different.

I believe three events over the past 100 years have had more impact on the United States than any others.   What we are today as a country has been greatly influenced by these events:   the Great Depression, World War II, and the Vietnam War.   (I will add 9/11 to that list and make the total four.)  I might argue that the Vietnam War had the greatest influence because it threatened to tear the country apart.   A lot of the hostility that we see in the country today was born at that time.   I still remember watching the television news when they announced that the Ohio national guard had started shooting and killing college students at Kent State.   Even in the odd times we live in, can you possibly imagine that announcement today?

Starting on Sunday night, the PBS (public broadcast stations) will have Ken Burns’ ten episode series on the Vietnam War.   Most college students really don’t understand the influence that the war has had on the people of this country.   I know you are busy.  But, if you have the time, it might be worth watching a few of the episodes.   It is truly a living history lesson.

If you watch and want to chat about it, come see me.   I always like to talk.   But, remember, when I was exactly your age, I knew that there was a decent chance that I would be drafted into the military and sent 12,000 miles away where I had a reasonably good chance of getting killed in a war that I did not understand.   Again, times are odd today but put yourself in that picture.   My guess is that it is not a picture that you can even create in your head.