Tuesday, December 17, 2019


I have always been frustrated by how I could better use the final examination each year.  My hourly exams throughout the semester typically go into depth about a few topics that have been covered extensively over the past few weeks.  That makes sense to me.  The results seem reasonable.  

For my classes, a final examination covers a massive amount of material, much of which has not been reviewed by the students in several months.   Students often appear unsure as to how to prepare and how to allocate their time.  Over the past 49 years, they have often arrived at the final exam ill-prepared, moaning that their preparation made them more confused and less confident.  They then leave 3 or 4 hours later mumbling that they, “Had not expected to see those questions.”  They had guessed at the topics and had guessed wrong.  Their grades suffered.  I am not sure what that proves.  What is the benefit in that?

For me, the final exam seemed a poor ending to what was often an excellent semester.  The students frequently left discouraged and I had to curve the exam heavily in order to have a legitimate distribution.  To be honest, the final exam felt like a “downer” and I didn’t like that type of conclusion for my course.

During the past two semesters, I have changed my approach to the final exam and, truthfully, I am much happier with the results.  Perhaps this proves that an old dog can figure out some new tricks.  

Now, about 10 days before the final exam, I create 25-30 final exam questions that cover the entire semester at the depth that I believe is appropriate.  Each question is designed to take between 4 minutes and 10 minutes to resolve.  Each question contains at least one variable such as a cost or a life span or an interest rate or preferred method.  If I were teaching art history, I could write a preliminary question about Raphael knowing that I could switch the question to Botticelli or Monet on the actual final.

One week before the final exam, I give all of the questions to my students and tell them that these are the questions they will face on their final exam.  I warn them very carefully that, on the actual final, I will change at least one of the variables for each question.  The question will be basically the same but some variable will be different.  Perhaps Raphael will become Botticelli.

A buyer might be turned into a seller.

A ten-year period of time might be increased to 20 years.

A loan of $100,000 might become a loan of $200,000.

A piece of equipment might become a piece of land.

An event occurring within the U.S. might be moved to a foreign country.

I told the students that they could talk with each other if they liked (I probably couldn’t stop them any way and I don’t like putting up rules that I cannot enforce).

Almost immediately, the students began to organize themselves in order to prepare.  Their study tactics were not based on trying to guess at topics or remember hundreds of pages of material, much of which might not even appear on the exam.  Now, they had to learn how to work 30 very precise and complicated problems.  They studied in groups.  They helped each other.  They talked through the problems to determine how each one should be solved.  They discussed how variables might be changed.  They gave each other encouragement and support.

They thought about the questions.  They began to understand better.

The changes I made to the questions were not easy.  The students had to think about what was different and how that affected the determination of a solution.  But, that was what they had expected.  On the actual exam, no one got all 30 correct but most of the students were able to get 80 percent or more.  I thought that was good given the complexity of the subject and the difficulty of the questions.  I still applied a very slight curve. Unfortunately, a few students made an F.  Even with the questions, their knowledge was shaky.  

What did I see as the benefits to this change?

(1) – Without a doubt, the final exam became a learning process.  I am completely convinced that almost every student learned a considerable amount through their attempts to figure out how the basic questions were to be solved.  I felt that they had gained understanding.  How could I want more than that?  It became less of a test and more of a learning exercise.  

(2) – It was a team building exercise.  There were no instructions on how to prepare.  They had to decide whether to study together or apart and, if together, how could that be organized.  I loved walking through the halls and seeing them huddled together in small or large groups working through their problems.

(3) – My feeling was that the students left the final exam with a more positive attitude towards themselves.  A great many of them managed to answer most of the questions correctly.  I don’t want my students leaving on the last day feeling defeated.  I always want a more positive outcome.

(4) – The grades on the final exam were not based on which students could best anticipate the topics to be covered.  Yes, they did have to consider how the variables would be altered but no one could say, “I studied several topics for hours and they didn’t even appear on the exam.”  I seriously wanted to reduce the gambling aspect of exam preparation.

What should you do now?  Well, if you are happy with your final exam, I wouldn’t do anything.  Experiments and evolution should occur where there is a problem.  

If you are not totally happy with the present results, do what I did:  Pick one class for the next semester and try some variation of this idea.  See what you think.  You cannot experiment purely in your head.  At some point, you have to go out and try an idea and see what results you get and whether you like those results or not.

Monday, December 2, 2019


I am a fan of Frank Zappa’s assertion, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”  If you have followed this blog for long, you know that I am a huge proponent of teaching experimentation.  Consequently, I push the Three E’s of Teaching:  Experiment, Evaluate, and Evolve.  Follow these three steps on a regular basis and wonderful things can happen.  Always be on the lookout for a potential new innovation that you can try out just to see if it works.  Keep your eyes open and consider changes that are possible.  Awareness is a good quality to have when looking to improve as a teacher. 

We are quickly moving toward the end of another semester.  What has been your most interesting teaching experiment of these past few months?  I have long believed that every school should award prizes for the most successful teaching experiment each year.  That would both reward and encourage classroom innovation.  Maybe we could post all the winners on a website just to circulate unique ideas.

With two weeks left in the current semester, I decided to try something I had never done previously in my 48+ years as a college teacher.  I created this experiment as a mash-up of two ideas that I have long pondered with admiration.

(1) – Teaching is extremely personal as you create a relationship of some kind with each of your students.  Therefore, I have always been troubled that giving grades at the end of a semester is a completely impersonal process.  Students take final exams and then leave campus for weeks or months.  After they depart, the teacher posts a symbolic letter grade (A, B, C, etc.) that the students will access, often hundreds if not thousands of miles away.  There is a disconnect (both in time and space) that I do not like.  No words are shared between teacher and student.  No encouragement or suggestions are conveyed.  There is not even eye contact. 

My younger son attended Sarah Lawrence College (outside of NYC) nearly 20 years ago.  At least at that time, students did not receive letter grades from their teachers.  Grades were posted with the Registrar but never conveyed to students unless they explicitly asked to see them.  Instead, teachers authored a letter to each student describing the work the student had done over the course of the semester—the good, the bad, and the ugly.  The teacher was supposed to work on this letter throughout the semester as a basis for an ongoing assessment of the student’s entire body of work.  I liked that approach because it did not boil an entire semester down to a single letter grade.  The student was given both constructive criticism and positive reinforcement.  The teacher reflected on the student’s work, its potential and its quality.

I started my own experiment last week by trying to make the grading process in my classes more personal.

(2) – One of the most popular blog postings that I ever wrote was titled, “What the Catcher Tells the Pitcher.”  It describes a conversation between Brad Ausmus, a long-time major league baseball catcher, and Terry Gross on her NPR radio program, Fresh Air.   

At one point, Gross asked her guess what a baseball catcher tells a pitcher when he goes out to the mound.  Ausmus’s response has stayed with me since the day I first heard the interview in 2011.  “I always had only one goal in mind when I went out to talk with the pitcher. When I left him, I wanted the pitcher to absolutely believe that he was capable of getting out of the situation that he was facing. If he didn’t believe he was capable of taking care of the problem, we didn’t have much chance.”

We are getting to the end of the semester.  If one of my students doesn’t believe he or she is capable of improving, we don’t have much of a chance.  A positive but realistic attitude is essential for success in almost any endeavor and that can slip away here at the end.  No improvement will ever happen if the student gives up.

I wanted to do something dealing with a student’s grade that seemed more personal but also encouraged the student to do better.  I wanted to combine Sarah Lawrence with Brad Ausmus.

The Experiment:  With about two weeks left in the semester, I wrote individual emails to each of the 39 students in my introductory courses this semester.  They are all first-year students or sophomores.  They have worked hard this semester and their test averages at the moment range from 63.0 to 99.0 with an average of roughly 81.

The 39 emails probably took me a total of about 4 or 5 hours.  (At 4 hours, that means that I am writing each email at an average pace of under seven minutes.)  I did not make the emails long, about 5 to 8 lines each.  But, in that time, I told each person some of my thoughts that had stood out about their work this semester—their attitude, their preparation, their interest in the subject matter, their willingness to engage in class, etc.  I tried to touch on the important stuff.  With two weeks left in the semester, I did not see much benefit in describing what they had done during the semester that left me frustrated or exasperated. 

I computed each overall test average at that point in the semester and then discussed what it would take to pull that average up on the final examination.  For example:  “You have a 76.1 average on our three tests so far this semester.  If you want more than a solid C, you are going to have to show me what you have learned.  Your work at times this semester has been outstanding but your preparation has been wildly inconsistent.  With a solid B on the final exam, you should make either a B- or a B for the course.  From what I have seen, you are more than capable of a solid B.  But you are the one who has to make that happen.  You won’t get there by accident.  Get to work and let’s get it done.  Be consistently good not just occasionally good.  Let me know if I can be of help.”

I do think such notes can have a potential positive effect on the remainder of the semester:
(1) – The student knows that I know who they are.  They are not some invisible spirit that blends into the woodwork.  I want them to realize that I know them as a real person and not just as a student ID number.
(2) – They are reminded of the precise grade they have earned to date.  It is not, “You have a high C” or “You have about a B.”  I want them to know their exact grade.  I want that to be absolutely real rather than something vague.  
(3) – I want them to realize that an improved grade is still very much possible but it won’t happen by luck.  They will have to earn it.  A lot of teachers promise to be tough but really aren’t.  I am not Santa Claus.
(4) – I ended every note with, “Let me know if I can be of help.”  I wanted the students to understand that we are in this course together.  It is not a “me versus them” situation.  I am on their side and want them to do well.  I want them to know that I am available for help and willing to help.  They are not in this battle alone.

Okay, so I invested 4 hours of my life writing 39 emails to my current students.  Was it a good use of my time?  As far as improved results, that remains to be seen, but I was so glad that I used my four hours that way.  The messages felt personal to me and reminded me that I was dealing with real people who have real lives and real futures.  Maybe the benefit was always intended for me and my attitude.

I tried to make the achievement of a particular grade more personal to the students and I hope that they were able to see that their grade, no matter how poor it is at the moment, could still be improved by a rather modest increase in the level of work on the final.  I want them to fight until the end.  It is just a guess (or maybe a hope) but I will be surprised if some of the students don’t kick their work up into a higher gear and successfully improve their average here at the end of the semester.  That was the goal.

That is an experiment I tried at the end of the fall semester in 2019.  I wanted to do something different.  I like trying something different.  What experiment are you going to try at the end of the semester just to see what might happen?  Remember what Frank Zappa said, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” 

Monday, November 18, 2019


Students are human beings and, from what I have seen over the decades, most human beings need some level of external motivation in order to do their best.  In my classes, probably 5-20 percent of the students need absolutely no motivation from me.  They manage to arrive at class every day completely prepared and ready to discuss the issues of the day.  That group always impresses me.  I wish I could clone those students.

The rest are more likely to resemble me as a college student.  Ready on some days and completely unprepared the next.  In my case, I desperately needed better time management skills and I tended to procrastinate and then could not get everything done in the remainder of my time.  When tests came around, I earned a lot of B’s and C’s but always knew that I could have done better, “If I could have gotten my act together.”  Looking back, I wonder why the teachers in college did not push me to do better.  I do recognize that some professors do not believe that motivation of students is their responsibility and I understand the logic.  However, if you want your students to learn and succeed, I think some motivation is warranted and almost universally necessary.  It is just human nature.

Some professors motivate with sticks (“I’m going to give a pop test if you don’t start preparing better.”) whereas others use carrots (“If you are actively engaged each day, I will give you a high Participation Grade.”).  Each teacher needs to find his or her best approach to student motivation.  I do have two pieces of advice.

(1) – Motivation of college students needs to be on a regular basis.  The half-life of any motivation technique seems unfortunately short.  As each semester drags on to its conclusion, many students begin to get distracted and run out of energy.  Batteries need to be recharged every week or two.

(2) – Try to make as much of your motivation “encouraging” as possible.  I am not a big believer in either sticks (punishments) or carrots (bribes).  For me, their benefits are, at best, short-term and can push out any true deserve for learning.  I try to remind the students on a regular basis why the material is important and that, in my mind, they are capable of learning it.  "I can't do this" is an easy way for any student to give their own failure to try.

What is your philosophy toward student motivation?  Do you think about it frequently, occasionally, or never?  If you really do want to help your students succeed, I would spend some serious time pondering your approach to student motivation.

Here is an email that I sent out this morning to my students to push them to work harder over the final few weeks of the semester.  Finishing a semester strong can make all the difference in the world in the success of the student's work.

To:  Accounting Students

From:  JH

I watched a bit of a college football game on Saturday.  It was close and both teams seemed to play hard.  When they got to the start of the fourth quarter, a lot of the players marched around with four fingers raised to indicate that they planned to win the fourth quarter and, hence, the game.  Although those players had to be brutally tired, they so wanted to win that they were letting everyone know that they expected to play at their peak in the final quarter and win the game.  And, indeed, both teams played extremely well in the fourth quarter although those players must all have been exhausted.  The excitement of the possible win got them pumped up and ready to do well.

We have one more test and then a final exam.  I have seen way too many students fade out in the last few weeks of a semester and ruin a good grade.  I fully understand that you are tired.  It has been a long, hard semester.  Nevertheless, I want you (not the person beside of you but YOU) to show me your very best work in the last part of this semester.  If you do that, then you can still create a real upward push on your grade.  I see it every semester and you can be next.

I know that you would like to coast out from here.  That’s lazy human nature.  We are all like that.  We all want to hang out and play computer games or watch cats on Youtube.  But, the weeks from here to the end of the semester will make a difference for many of you in your final grade.  As far as I’m concerned, you can sleep 16 hours per day after the semester is over.  Until then, I need for you to dig down deep inside of yourself and show me the best work of the whole semester.  Work hard and work smart.  You can nail the last test and the final exam but that is only going to happen with your best work.  It’s not luck that you need.  It is real work.  That’s what I want – your very best work of the entire semester.

Don’t dwell on how tired you might feel.  It is easy to get into a chant, “I’m so sick and tired of this work.”  That will lead nowhere good.  Dwell on the excitement of learning new material and pushing your grade up.  With the right attitude, you will be amazed by what you can still accomplish this semester.


Monday, October 14, 2019


I have written about one essay on teaching per month for the past 10 years or so and I still seem to have more to say.  If you would like to receive a short email whenever I post a new essay, drop me an email at Jhoyle@richmond.edu.  I won't use the email for any other purpose.

A friend (Dr. Paul Clikeman) and I are leading a faculty discussion in our building next month on testing.  It is a great topic for conversation because it is such a regular and critical interaction between every student and their teacher.  More arguments surely occur over test grades than anything else in the daily teaching process.

There are many serious questions that our faculty group can discuss during this time.

--Should teachers give objective tests or subjective tests?
--Should teachers consider Bloom’s taxonomy when writing test questions?
--Should speed in completing the test be a factor in the grading?  (In other words, should slower students be penalized for working slowly and, possibly, not finishing all the questions?)
--How can the teacher prevent cheating?
--Should students be allowed to have notes or other aids during a test?
--Should grades be distributed on a predetermined curve?
--How should a teacher determine if a student really deserves an A?
--Is there really a difference between a B+ and A- (or between a C+ and a B-)?
--Should teachers make previous tests available to students?
--Should teachers reuse tests?
--Should teachers use questions from a test bank produced by a textbook publisher?
--How can teachers grade written essay answers fairly and consistently?
--Should teachers pass out an answer sheet?
--How can teachers be sure questions do not have inherent flaws?
--Is it better to give a lot of good grades or a lot of bad grades?  Some people have high means whereas others have low means.  Is one preferable?  
--Is testing even necessary?  Should teachers stick to papers and presentations for grading purposes and avoid tests completely?

Those are all great questions but there is one question that I think must come before all of these questions and it is the point of this essay.  Why do you give tests in the first place?  The answer might seem obvious but your response will affect the answers to almost all of the above questions.

You really need to be comfortable with why you give examinations before you attempt to write any exam questions.  

I tried to come up with several reasons for giving an exam.  I am going to list these randomly.  I would like for you to pick the top one for you because I think that will help as you consider how to write better exam questions in the future.

Here are possible answers to my basic question in no particular order.

A –Tests provide evidence for grades.  A teacher has to give grades.  They really do not need to serve any other purpose.  They can be used to show the student why a certain grade was given.

B – Tests can be used to motivate students.  Almost every teacher, at some point, has threatened, “This will be on the next test,” just to get the students to wake up and pay more attention.  It provides a bit of urgency for the students.

C – Tests are good challenges.  Without tests, many students would tend to be mediocre.  Students are human and human beings need the challenge provided by a test in order to do their best work.  If a test is not appropriately challenging, the best students will feel betrayed – they worked hard for nothing (and they won’t make that mistake a second time).  

D – Tests help guide students by showing them what you want them to learn.  If you want them to memorize, then you test them on memorization.  If you want them to develop critical thinking skills, then you must test them on their development of critical thinking skills.  Students pay attention to test questions and catch on to what you are trying to accomplish.  

E – Tests provide the teacher with a good means of self-evaluation.  Student answers show the teacher what has been learned to date so the teacher can judge whether that is sufficient and take corrective actions if the results are not as hoped.  For example, if many students miss the same question, either the question was written poorly or the students were not properly prepared for it.  

F - Tests help students to determine how they are doing in relation to the others in the class.  For example, a low grade on a test can indicate that the student needs to try different study habits or invest more hours to catch up with the other students.

Okay, my guess is that you are saying to yourself, “Well, 3 or 4 of those answers apply to me to some extent.  I have several important reasons for testing.”  

Be that as it may, I think every teacher should take the plunge and have one primary reason clearly in mind for every test.  It is hard to write questions properly if you do not have a definite reason for the test in mind.

Speaking strictly for me, I do have one goal for every test and that is (D) – I mean for my tests to help guide the students by showing them what I want them to learn.  I don't want their to be any ambiguity.  I have long had the motto, “The way you test is the way the students will learn.”  Consequently, I attempt to tie every test question to my overall goal for the semester.

On the first day of class (and often thereafter), I tell my students that my class has only one purpose, “I am going to present you with weird, odd, and unusual situations and then help you figure out how to resolve those logically according to accepted accounting principles.”  We do that every day.  Then, in every question on every test, I try to present my students with weird, odd, and unusual situations and see if they can now logically figure out on their own how to resolve those according to accepted accounting principles.  

Of course, I don't teach history, English, or biology, but I think I could adapt that goal if I did teach other subjects.

I must admit that I really like establishing a tie between my class goal and my tests.  

Yes, I have other reasons to give tests.  For example, I like that they can motivate and challenge the students.  However, the primary reason, by far, that I give exam questions is to guide the students toward what I want them to learn.

Why do you give tests?  Have a clear answer in mind and you might find that the testing process becomes a more beneficial component of your teaching.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019


Last week, Dr Paul Clikeman and I were installed as Robins Teaching Fellows here at the University of Richmond.  We had a nice ceremony where we each got to speak for 15 minutes or so.  I will include the URL for the video at the bottom of this essay in case you want to watch. 

We were asked to speak about our teaching philosophies.  As anyone who has followed this blog for long knows, I have dozens if not hundreds of teaching philosophies.  I could probably have talked for 15 hours instead of just 15 minutes. 

Over the summer, I had the pleasure of hearing Professor Bill McCarthy at Michigan State speak at a conference.  He said that he wanted his classes to be transformative experiences.  I liked the sound of that and it has become a theme of mine during the fall of 2019.  As I tell my students, “If this class isn’t going to make you different, I am not sure why you would ever do the work or even show up.” 

In developing my 15 minutes talk, I decided to focus on three teaching philosophies that have been transformative for me.  I figured if they had changed me maybe they could change others as well. 


In late August, I came to campus one morning and found that a student from the class of 1987 had left me a note on a 3 x 5 card that she had slid under my office door.  It said, “I wanted to thank you for giving me the kick in the rear that I needed as a college student.  My career would not have been the same without it.”  I smiled.  I had not seen this student in 32 years and this was her primary memory of the experience.

Two days later, I received a six-page hand written letter from a student in the class of 2013.  I had not seen her in six years.  The entire first page talked about how stressful my class was to her.  As I read, I feared that she had gone into therapy because of my teaching style.  However, at the end of the first page she wrote, “Your, albeit, stressful class prepared me for the real world, and for that, all I can say is Thank You.”  Again, I was pleased.

If this were an English literature class, I would probably comment that I am beginning to see a theme here.  It is that theme that leads me to my first teaching philosophy.  Approximately 50 years ago, I was watching television and a pro football coach was being interviewed.  I think it was Vince Lombardi but I am not sure.  He said, “There is something in every person that wants to be pushed to be great.”  I believed that completely 50 years.  I believe it just as absolutely today.  Those few words have formed the very foundation of my teaching.  From working with thousands of students, I do believe that there is something in every person that wants to be pushed to be great.  Sometimes it might be buried quite deep but it is there.

When I talk about my former students and provide you with this quote, you probably view my class as me leading a bunch of oxen out into a field where I whip them unmercifully to get them to do the work.  Well, that is not how I view my teaching at all. 

I tell my students that education should be like a beautiful dance where two parties come together and push each other to be great.  One party does half the work and the other does half the work and when it all clicks something absolutely marvelous is created.  When it goes right, there are days in class that are simply beautiful.  But it doesn’t happen by accident.  I have to push the students to be great and they have to push me to be great.  If either fails, then we both fail.  Go to Youtube and search for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and you will see what I mean. 

People often ask me if I have had favorite classes over the years and the answer is, “Certainly.  My favorite classes have always been those students that pushed me the hardest to be great.” 

My philosophy is simple – if you push your students as hard as humanly possible and convince them to push you back with equal vigor and excitement, you will be amazed by how great the learning can become. 


I came to campus 13 years ago and one of the members of our faculty had put a magazine article in my mail box with the simple words, “I think you will like this.”  It was from the October 19, 2006, issue of Fortune magazine.  The article was “What It Takes to be Great” by Geoffrey Colvin.  As the title implies, the article describes research on how people become great singers, chess masters, violists, and the like.  The article was interesting to me but there were two assertions near the beginning that really caught my attention.  “In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly and then stop developing completely. Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness.”

These sentences seem so obvious that they are hardly worth noting.  If I take up playing the piano, I will gradually improve for a time but will eventually plateau and improvement will cease.  That happens all the time.  Nevertheless, it is the second sentence that caught my attention.  “Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness.”  That has stayed with me almost daily for 13 years.

I love that concept – if I can continue to improve year after year, then eventually, I will become great.  Okay, it might take 135 years but it is inevitable if I just work to improve.

If we evaluate each of our endeavors, then we all fall into one of two groups.  For most activities that we undertake, we are probably in the plateau group.  We reach a level where additional improvement does not seem worth the effort and we become stuck.  In all honesty, many of the teachers I have observed over the decades are in this plateau group.  A few, though, continue to improve year after year and will eventually become great.

So, my question for you is simple.  Which group are you in?  Are you in the plateau group – stuck in place?  Or, are you in the improving group, still moving forward toward greatness?

My philosophy again is simple – to have a vibrant, active life, you need to find a few activities where you dearly want to remain in the improving group so that you continue to take the actions necessary to make that happen.  For me, that is teaching.  In 48 years, I have never once walked into my classroom when I didn’t want to be a better teacher.  I hope you have the same opinion.  For those things that are truly meaningful to you, stay out of the plateau group and reside in the improving group.


Paul Clikeman and I go to Taco Bell for lunch once each week and we have been doing that for about 15 years.  We talk about a lot of things over those tacos but the one consistent theme over the years has been teaching. 

If you want to remain in the improving group, find someone who has a similar philosophy as yours, a similar attitude, similar goals.  Find a person who thinks deeply about the same things that you think are important.  Then, meet on a regular basis and talk.  Don’t have an agenda or a check list.  Just talk.  The conversation will always come back around to topics that you both think are important.

--It is incredibly difficult to improve year after year if all the ideas must come from inside your own head. 

--It is hard to do the work necessary if you don’t have a foundation of support.

My third teaching philosophy is a bit more direct – make conversation a scheduled part of your work week.  Don’t wait for a formal presentation.  Don’t share an occasional glass of wine or beer.  Find someone who cares as much as you do and make sure that you have those discussions on a regular basis and not just when there is nothing else better to do.


These three teaching philosophies have been transformative for me.  Hopefully, one or two of them might touch you as well.

--There is something in every person that wants to be pushed to be great.  View class as a dance where two parties come together and push each other to create something marvelous.

--Most people improve until they plateau but a few continue to improve year after year and go on to greatness.  Decide where you want be great and for those things (like teaching) stay out of the plateau group and reside in the improving group.

--Find other people who have the same goals and ambitions that you have and then have very regular conversations with them so you can inspire and push each other to stay in the improving group.

Here is the URL for the actual installation ceremony:


Sunday, August 18, 2019


Last week, I posted an essay about an email that I sent to my students 17 days before the start of the fall semester.  I wanted to convince my students that the class was going to be worth the effort.  I just believe having students believe that there is a benefit to be gained is a great way to get them started.  And, I want to begin that “convincing” process before I meet them rather after we are into the semester.

Today, I wrote my students again but for an entirely different purpose.  I am a big believer in class transparency.  I want them to understand what I am trying to do by how I structure the class and why.  I do this by explaining one thing – how they should get ready for the first class.  I am not focusing on the semester.  I am focusing on that one class.  If that goes well, we are off to a great start.

I want that first class to be a real winner.  I want them to walk out at the end and say, “I expected this stuff to be boring but I was ready to learn and it was interesting because I was engaged in the class conversation.”

I know exactly what I want.  Therefore, I need to explain what I want to my students and convince them that it is purely for their benefit.  In 8 days, when they walk in and class starts, we will see how well I have done getting them ready to succeed.

Email to My Students:
Class starts in 8 days.  I hope you are as excited by that prospect as I am. 

Yesterday, I took a couple of my grandchildren to the Richmond Science Museum.  Inscribed on one of the walls was a thought from Benjamin Franklin, “Tell me and I forget.  Teach me and I may remember.  Involve me and I learn.”  I realize that Franklin was a truly brilliant person but I cannot believe he ever wrote anything that was wiser than those words.

You have been in school a long time.  You probably have had a number of “tell me” teachers and some “teach me” teachers.  And, unless you have been unlucky, you have had some “involve me” teachers.  Which would you prefer?  You are an adult now.  Which type of teacher will have the most positive effect on you? 

I heard a great teacher speak last Tuesday and he talked about education as a transformative experience.  That is what I want for you. 

The problem with “tell me” professors and “teach me” professors is that the responsibility is 100 percent on the professor.  Students show up and sit and take notes or daydream or try to sneak peaks at their phone.   That is not in-depth learning.  Unmotivated students will always pray for a “tell me” teacher. 

The challenge in creating an “involve me” class is that the professor only has half of the responsibility while the students have the other half.  If the students prefer to stay uneducated, they can shut down the process.  I will teach you using an “involve me” type class.  That means that you must do two things.  First, you must be willing to prepare adequately for EACH class.  You cannot be involved if you have not done the work needed in advance.  You cannot just make it up on the spot (I’m sure you know students who try that).  You cannot talk about nuclear fusion unless you have spent some time getting ready for the conversation.  That is the problem that makes a lot of education so darn poor.

Second, you must be willing to try.  I am not seeking perfection or brilliance.  I just want to have a conversation with you.   You must be willing to try.

The key to this class being one where you will learn (one that will be a truly great class):  a willingness to prepare and a willingness to try.  Bingo. 

A day or so ago I emailed you the handout that we will begin covering on Monday, August 26, after we run through the course outline.  You will receive a handout like this for all classes.  There are many types of questions we will explore this semester but ones on the Day One handout are pretty good examples.

Here are four important suggestions as you look at each of the problems on that first sheet.  The better you "prepare" the more likely it is that you will "try" in class and then you will be able to "learn" the material. 

(1) – Read each question and write down the facts provided.  Don’t underline or highlight because that just allows you to turn off your brain.   Problems typically have several key facts presented – a time period, a cost or sacrifice, a method, a theory, a goal, and the like.  Write them down to ensure you know the basic facts before you get too far into the maze.  I always want to bang my head on a wall when a student tries to work a question without even knowing the facts.  That simply will not work.  This is how I often start each question, “Give me the facts.”  Be ready for that.

(2) – Write down what the question is asking you to do.  Most questions have a fairly specific “Ask.”   For example, is this a theoretical or a practical question?   Is the question talking about a past action or a future possibility?  What exactly is the teacher asking for you to answer?  Again, it is almost guaranteed that you will struggle unless you have a good handle on what the “Ask” is.  What are the facts?  What is the ask?

(2a) – Have I asked you to do anything in (1) or (2) that you are not capable of doing?  Heck, no.

(3) – Visualize the following scenario.  I look you in the eye and say, in a calm and friendly voice, “Student A has given us the facts.  Student B has identified the question we are being asked to resolve.  Now, how do we go about sorting through that information to arrive at a logical, reasonable answer?”  What are you going to say?  This is not a dream.  This is going to happen to you.  You need to have an answer ready, not vague mumbling.  My recommendation is that you write down the first two sentences that you will give me if I ask you that question.  Not three words but two complete sentences.  You can write out the whole answer if you want but I will be satisfied if you just write down the first two sentences because that does three things. 
---First, it forces you to think about the answer in real and not vague terms.  It makes the idea of your having an answer a reality which I think is good.  The answer is not simply going to be baloney made up on the spot. 
---Second, by having the first two sentences written down, you are pushing your thinking in a logical direction.  That is a great first step in the solution process.  You are heading off toward an answer. 
---Third, rather than panic, you can read the sentences to me, which will get your brain moving and show that you have thought about the question.  There is a great security in having that first two sentences written down.  With two sentences written down, this is a fun class.

After writing down the first two sentences, just outline the rest of your answer.  Where will you go from the first two sentences?  What is important?  What leads you to a resolution?  The first two sentences and a brief outline for the rest of the answer should get you ready for each question in class.

In my thinking, that clears our two hurdles:  You have prepared and you are ready to try.  That will get us into what I like to call “involved education.”  After that, we will just be solving puzzles and that is always fun.

(4) – Within 8 hours of class being over, organize your notes.  Do it quickly or you will start to lose track of things.  Take each question that we covered in class and write out or outline how to get to a logical answer.  If we covered a question in class and you cannot write out an answer within 8 hours after that, then either you or I (or both of us) have failed.  Again, visualize my asking you to solve the problem and think about how you would respond.  I’m a big believer in the benefit of that type of “visualization.”  Way too many students just say, “Oh, I saw how that was done so I am okay now.  There is no reason to do any further work.”  That is a path that will lead to a C or D.  After class, you should be able to visualize getting to the correct answer or you really have not learned the material yet and probably need to come chat with me. 

If I can get you to do those four steps for every class, I think YOU will be amazed by your own brilliance.  One of my favorite parts of this course comes about halfway through the semester when students start realizing that they really can learn very complicated stuff and do well.  Once that happens then nothing can stop those students.  That feeling is what I want for you.   True learning is wonderfully exhilarating. 

Friday, August 9, 2019



As anyone who reads this blog knows, I email my students obsessively.  I cannot over stress how important I believe communications are with college students.   Since early May, I have written my junior level students about 15 times and talked about all kinds of things. 

Nevertheless, the email that I sent to them today might have been the most important email that I will send them.  Our class starts in 17 days and I wanted to start “selling” them on the benefit of the work.  I truly believe students will work amazingly hard if you can convince them that the results are worth the effort.  Underline that sentence because it is essential.  They will leap tall buildings in a single bound if they trust that you can provide an adequate amount of benefit. 

So, I wrote them the following email for that one purpose – to let them know that there was work to be done, I understood that, but the change they would undergo would be worth it.   That message is beyond important.  Most students do work basically to get a grade.  If you want greatness, you must break through that barrier and convince them this material (this learning, this understanding) is more important than that. 

Here is what I wrote today:

We start class in about 17 days if my counting is correct.  I realize for the students in this particular class there is always a bit of trepidation.  I always want to hold your hand for a moment and say, "Don't worry.  It will be fine.  No one ever gets hurt."   But, you probably wouldn't believe me.   

I received a long hand-written letter two days ago from a student who graduated six years ago.  She was (as best I remember) an average student.  She wrote to tell me the following, "I am not going to pretend that your class wasn't stressful - I was shy, didn't have many friends in the B-school, & hated being wrong (especially in front of everyone) -- but, six years later, I can say without a doubt that your class prepared me for the real world.  The comptroller at work doesn't look at my team and ask if anyone knows X; he demands an answer on the spot.  Your, albeit, stressful class prepared me for the real world, & for that all I can say is thank you."

I suspect in the coming semester there will be days when you like me and also days when you dislike me (maybe hate me).  That's the nature of my job.  But, if you write back in six years and say, "You prepared me for the real world," then I will feel like you and I were tremendously successful.  That, my students, is what I really want for you.

I say "you and I" because this is not my class.  This is our class.  Half of the responsibility is mine.  Half of the responsibility is yours.  I will work very hard to do my half.   But we will NEVER succeed unless you put in a strong effort.  You must do your half.  If you do that, then I firmly believe that in six years, we will look back and we will both be thrilled by how successful that work turned out to be.