Saturday, December 25, 2010


When I give presentations about teaching, I always urge the audience members to experiment as much as possible. It is hard to make improvements if you are not willing to try new things. I am always reminded of Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Some experiments work and some experiments don’t work. That is just the nature of the game. However, you will never find the winners if you are not willing to risk some losers. Playing it safe is no fun (and provides no benefit).

I tried an experiment with my final exam about two weeks ago. Even now, I am still not sure whether it was a winner or a loser but I found it interesting. I like the fact that I am still thinking about it.

What is the purpose of a final exam? I can think of two reasons. First, it gives the students one last opportunity to influence their grades. There is something about having hope for improvement that keeps students working until the end. Second, the final exam forces the students to review the material and, hopefully, get it better set in their understanding. In other words, they learn more.

I like giving my students an opportunity to improve their grades but my main reason for believing in final exams is that I really want them to leave the semester with all of the knowledge fresh in their minds. The final exam should encourage them to tie all of the material from the semester into a cohesive whole.

Unfortunately, I have often been disappointed in the results of final exams. Students seem overwhelmed by the huge amount of material and flit back and forth during their studies over the various topics without really getting a strong grip on any of it. They just don’t always learn as much as I want from their preparation.

So, at the end of my Intermediate Accounting II test this past semester, I wrote out 49 multiple-choice questions that covered everything that we had discussed that I thought was essential. I tried to gear each question to take about 4 minutes to solve. Although they were designed to be multiple-choice questions, I did not include any answers—just the questions.

Ten days before the final exam, I distributed these questions to my students along with the following speech: “Here is your final exam. These are the 49 questions that I would really love for you to be able to answer on the final exam. When you arrive for the final exam, you will have three hours to answer these questions. I will only make three changes from what you see here:

“1 – I will change the order of the questions.

“2 – I will add four multiple-choice answers to each question along with a “none of the above” answer.

“3 – Most importantly, for each question, I will change one or more of the variables in the question. For example, if the cost is $400,000, I might change that to $500,000. If the life is 5 years, I might change that to 10 years. If the interest rate is 8 percent, I might change that to 10 percent. If the blue method is used, I might change that to the red method. But the question will be fundamentally the same. If you can answer these questions, you should be able to answer all questions on the test.

“If you make sure you can work these 49 questions over the next ten days, you should make 100. But you must understand the problem so well that my changing of the variables will not really slow you down. I realize these are very difficult questions, but they cover the essentials that I want you to be able to work. You’ve got ten days to get these 49 under control.”

I quite honestly was not sure what was going to happen. In the end, the A students missed about 6 of the questions and got 43 correct. The B students missed about 13 and got 36 correct. The C students missed about 20 and got 29 correct. (The D and F students missed more, as you might imagine).

If I had given this test without the pre-test, I am convinced that most would have missed 50 to 100 percent more than they did. Students had clearly gone over the pre-test and learned to work many of the questions. They knew where to focus their attention. However, the number of missed questions was still higher than I had anticipated. Okay, these were 49 extremely tough questions about leases, pensions, cash flows, bonds, deferred taxes, and the like. But I really expected someone to become obsessed and learn them all backwards and forwards and make 100. That didn’t happen. Even with ten days, they just didn’t have enough time for that.

What interested me the most was that this type test had little impact on overall grades. Of all my students, the final exam grade made by 68 percent was within five points of their overall average for the semester. Students with an 82 average made about 82 and students with a 95 average made about 95. Only 32 percent had more than a 5 point difference between this test from their final average. I really had expected a greater number of students to show a greater change.

But, the basic question is still the same-did the students learn more in their studying? That was what I was trying to accomplish. And, I think they did that. Or, at least, I am encouraged enough to try it again. Maybe, this time with 40 questions instead of 49. Maybe, you just can’t do 49 complex questions in three hours even with a ten-day head start.

That’s my most recent experiment and how it worked. What was yours?

Monday, December 20, 2010


I began writing this blog almost a year ago. At the time, I seriously wondered whether anyone would ever read it since I had no easy way to get the word out. I decided to write the blog, though, because I thought doing so would force me to think more deeply about my own teaching. In that way, it has been a huge success. I am a better teacher today, I firmly believe, than I was at this time last year because I have taken time to reflect on almost every aspect of my work.

However, I was still faced with the question: does anyone “out there” actually read these thoughts? So, yesterday, I finally broke down and looked at the statistics. Since I wrote the first blog entry last January, there have been 27,398 page views. Wow, that is roughly 27,000 more than I expected. It turns out to be 75 page views seven days per week for a solid year. That is a lot of teachers and a lot of education.

I just wanted to say THANKS!! This could not possibly have happened without a lot of great people helping to spread the word. I cannot fully express my appreciation to everyone who has taken the time to tell someone else about this blog.

I have long been convinced that virtually all teachers want to be better teachers. Often, unfortunately, it is hard to get practical advice. I sincerely hope that this blog has helped some folks become a tiny bit better in the classroom. If so, then my time has been well spent. If we all work to make tiny improvements in our teaching, the whole world will improve in an amazingly short period of time.

At the end of a semester, a few of my students will often write to talk about the goods and the bads of the semester. A student wrote me 3-4 days ago and made a comment that I found interesting. “I want to let you know that one of the greatest parts of the class is that you allowed us to fail initially, but then helped us to see our error(s) and eventually we learned to succeed on our own.”

Probably the essential question in teaching (at least to me) is “how do you get away from simply conveying information and requiring memorization so you can move to the more difficult task of creating understanding and critical thinking?” Can you think of a more important question for education as we enter 2011? It is not 1954—we cannot afford an education process that continues to resemble 1954.

I find that my students are hungry for the right answer so they can copy it down – ready for later memorization. They can get very frustrated at me when (during our conversations) I respond to them “Nope, that answer is wrong; try again and give me a better answer.” In fact, I like asking questions where I’m not sure what the right answer really is. I want them to convince me that they have figured out the right answer and can stand behind it.

Virtually every History student knows that the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. Why wasn’t it issued on the first day he took office? Why wasn’t it issued on the first day of the Civil War? Why wasn’t it issued on the day that Lee surrendered? To me, those are fascinating questions. Give me a good answer that makes sense. Don’t just tell me what is on the top of your head so I won’t fuss at you. That is not thinking—that is just guessing.

If you have read this blog for long, you know that I don’t believe in trying to surprise my students. I am not sure that anything is served by that. So, 48 hours in advance, I might have given my students the following “conversation starter:” “I believe that the Emancipation Proclamation was one of the key factors in US history. Why did President Lincoln issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863?”

After about a week in class, my students would come to understand that I wasn’t going to ask them that question – they would have already made a list of five bullet points to read to me as an answer. We would just be back to conveying information, this time from student to teacher rather than the other way around. Booorrrring.

I’d prefer to start off the conversation with a related question like “when do you think it first occurred to Abraham Lincoln that he should issue the Emancipation Proclamation? Do you think he woke up one morning in 1855 and said ‘you know, if I ever become president, I think I will free the slaves?’ Where do you think this idea came from?”

I don’t have a good answer for this question but I do think the conversation can help the students (and teacher) understand the man, the times, and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Education can be so much fun if you get away from the obsession of “knowing” a right answer. Let the students stumble around for awhile and you’ll be delighted to discover that, with a little guidance, they can develop enough understanding to think their way to their own reasonable answer.

And, after graduation, isn't that what they are going to have to do in the real world?

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Yesterday, I carried out my very favorite activity of every semester. I sent an individual email to each student who made an A in my class this semester just to congratulate them. As teachers, we push our students unmercifully to succeed. We are after them constantly to do the work necessary to make an A. We push and prod them to give us an excellent effort. We complain when they disappoint us.

Therefore, I think those students who take up our challenge and do the work we ask of them deserve our acknowledgement. I believe they should get more than an anonymous A on a grade report. So, before I turn my grades in to the school, I send each A student an email so they know that I did notice.

In my classes this semester, 14 percent of the students in my introductory class (a relatively low number for me) made an A and 35 percent of the students in my intermediate class (an all-time high) made an A. I sent each of these students an email something like the following:

Wednesday afternoon

To: Mr. X

From: JH

I am very pleased to let you know that I have finished grading the final exams in Accounting 201 (Financial Accounting) and you earned the grade of A for this semester. Only 14 percent of the students in this course managed to earn an A and you were one of those. Congratulations!!! Your work for the semester was outstanding. I am pleased for you and believe that you should be very proud of yourself. Although a lot of people have taken Financial Accounting with me over the past 40 years, very few of them have been able to say that they made an A. You now belong to a relatively exclusive club. To do this well in Financial Accounting requires a lot of hard work and (hopefully) some deep thought. Your work was excellent and it was, very much, a pleasure to have the opportunity to work with you. I really hope you will carry this success with you into the spring semester. Nothing pleases me more than to hear that my former students are knocking the top off of their subsequent courses. You can do it – you are very bright and hard working. So, make it happen.

As I am sure you know, for about the last 12-15 years, I have asked every student who has made an A in one of my courses to write a short essay (a paragraph or two will be sufficient) to explain how you managed to make that grade when so many (equally bright folks) failed to do consistently excellent work this semester. I hope you will write this up and forward that essay to me in the next few days. Think about it a little bit. What should those other students have done differently? As you know, I will share your thoughts with the students for next semester in the hopes that they can replicate your success. What can you tell a rising 201 student to explain to them what I want? I am always frustrated that some students simply never catch on to what I am looking for. I honestly believe that everyone can make an A in 201 if they will do the work in the proper fashion. I need for you to explain what that proper fashion is. All I ask is that you be totally honest. The grade is already in – so, tell them the truth.

Have a great holiday. Enjoy your vacation – you have earned it. If I can ever be of assistance, please just let me know.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Annoying or Amusing?

I had the genuine pleasure this past Thursday of speaking to 150 new faculty members in the Virginia Community College System. It is always a treat to work with people at the very beginning of their teaching careers. They have such a wonderful opportunity to help change the world.

One of the themes that I explored with the group was the idea of improvement. If you continue to improve as a teacher, year after year, you will get very good and eventually become great. And, the amount of annual improvement doesn’t have to be huge. In connection with their teaching, I suggested that every person work toward making a mere 5 percent improvement per year. That is doable and at that rate, in not too many years, you can become the best teacher in your building.

However, a great majority of teachers get better for awhile but eventually plateau. Many people who were B- teachers two decades ago are still B- teachers. I find that troubling. Why doesn't a B- teacher eventually become an A+ teacher?

There is a point where it simply becomes easy to say “I am what I am and I am never going to get any better so I’m not even going to try.” As you can imagine, that is not an attitude that I like. As far as I’m concerned, if I am not dead, I should be working to get better.

The question comes up, then, as to what causes a teacher to plateau. I have known a fair share of people who were good teachers and then suddenly began to become disgruntled. After that, they never got one bit better.

When does that happen? I have a theory. When you first start teaching, it is easy to find your students amusing. My students are all about 19 years old and I occasionally refer to them as puppies. They are just beginning to try out the responsibilities of adult life. As with growing puppies, this time can often be a very humorous period of transition.

However, there can come a time when those same students and those same actions can become annoying. A student will say something bizarre and instead of finding it amusing, the professor finds the student’s ignorance to be annoying.

In fact, if a professor ever says to you, “students simply aren’t like they used to be,” that is a clear sign that they have gone from viewing students as amusing to annoying.

If you find students in general to be amusing, then you are willing to do the work that is necessary to continue to improve. Five percent improvement is clearly a possibility. But, if the students have started to annoy you, then improvement becomes a much more difficult task. It is very easy, at that essential moment, to hit that plateau where your days of improvement cease.

So, wherever possible, I try to view the actions of my students as relatively amusing. And, even though they do incredibly dumb things at times, I try to avoid staying in a constant state of annoyance. The reason is fairly obvious. I really do want to get better. I want to get 5 percent better by this time next year. And, that is hard to accomplish if everything the students do seems to annoy you.

Monday, November 8, 2010

We Shouldn’t Take It For Granted

Topic One: On this coming Thursday, I will be having one of the great pleasures of my life. I will be leading a 3 1/2 hour teaching workshop for 150 new teachers in the Virginia Community College System. When you are given the opportunity of working with 150 new teachers, you realize that you are looking at a group that can truly make a difference in the lives of an almost countless number of students for decades and decades to come. This truly is an honor for me.

Topic Two: This past Friday I sat in my office for about 30 minutes and talked with an official in the Afghanistan government. That certainly is not a traditional part of my job. However, his daughter is a student at the University of Richmond and he was on campus visiting her. Because I knew the daughter, she brought her father by so we could meet.

We talked about the progress being made in Afghanistan and he immediately started talking about the problems caused by illiteracy in his country. His point was that for nearly 25 years, the country was without a formal education system. First under the Russians and then under the Taliban, schools as we know them were often nonexistent. Can you imagine, he asked, what it is like to go 25 years without education? An entire generation is lost.

Instead of producing doctors, engineers, accountants, and the like who could serve as the leaders to help pull the country out of poverty, an entire generation basically went without education. And, what can most people really do without education? I do not know if this is accurate but I found the following on the Internet: “The overall literacy rate in Afghanistan is reported to be 28.1%; according to an Afghan Ministry of Education report, ‘In rural areas where 74 percent of all Afghans live, however, an estimated 90 percent of women and 63 percent of men cannot read, write and do a simple math computation.’”

That is a staggering set of statistics. If you simply stop and think of how limiting those numbers are for the people, the challenges faced by the entire country seem overwhelming.

How hard it must be to try to create a peaceful, prospering country with those kinds of statistics working against you.

There is a lot of criticism of the educational system in the US and, most certainly, improvements can be made. However, regardless of what you think of US education, no one can deny how important it is to the growth and prosperity of our country. Sometimes it is easy to say “oh, I’m just a teacher” and view the job as unimportant but those of us in education need to constantly remind ourselves of how essential our job is. If you are a teacher, never take it for granted. Our country needs great education. As teachers, we each have students who are depending on us to help them read and learn and go out into the world and make a difference. And, through that learning, they will be able to help continue the building of a great nation.

I couldn’t help thinking, as I sat and talked with the Afghan official, that I wished every teacher could hear what he was saying about the total loss that comes from lack of education. There are a lot of the world’s problems that I cannot do a single thing about. However, when it comes to helping to educate the next generation, that is a challenge that I can personally address—even as soon as Wednesday—when I walk back into class and make a little difference in the lives of my 64 students. I want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Teaching Is Serious Business

I was asked, about four years ago, to write an essay on teaching. The following was my response. I believed this then. I believe it now. Joe

Teaching is serious business. We have wonderfully bright and talented students at every school. They have almost unlimited potential. For most, this is their one shot at college; they deserve nothing less than an excellent education,
an academic experience that challenges them to excel from their first day to their last.

Faculty members have a responsibility to the world to coax the very best from their students because they will certainly become the next generation of leaders. Where they go from here, what they accomplish, how they impact the world, depends in large part on how much we are able to push and nurture their development. I want every student to leave my class at the end of the semester saying, “I had to work very hard but I am so amazed by how much I learned.” Anything less is unacceptable.

If a teacher challenges students to think and do their best, word gets around campus quickly, but having a tough reputation is both good and bad. When students walk into my class on the first day, they tend to be very quiet and pay attention right away. On the other hand, I am always so disappointed when a student says to me “I hear you are a good teacher, but I didn’t take your class because I know you are very demanding.” Isn't that just incredibly sad? I think all of college education (as well as the world in general) will be better when students become convinced to sign up only for classes where teachers push them each day to do their best.

During each semester, I occasionally point out to my students that the grade of A, according to the University catalogue, reflects “outstanding” work. A student does not earn the grade of A for a good effort, only for consistently outstanding work. That’s a great goal; it inspires a wonderful level of effort. Grade inflation has hurt college education across this country and could be fixed simply by faculty members saying, “You earn an A when the work that I see is truly outstanding.” Don’t fool yourself; students are well aware of the difference between “good” and “outstanding.”

I use the Socratic Method. I call on every student every day in class. I don't ask them to regurgitate material; I ask them questions that I believe will cause them to think and reason—on the spot. That is what adult life is like. I then follow my initial question with others based on their answers. If I don’t get good replies from a student, I don’t just nod and smile; I demand better of them. A student once compared my class to a contact sport. Students should be ready, willing and able to discuss and debate issues. This is college, not high school.

I want a reasonable effort from my students because students get back based on what they put in. I expect them to study four to six hours each week outside of class so they’ll be ready to participate in class discussions. I use carrots and sticks. I say, “Good job!” when a student gives me a thoughtful, well-conceived answer, and I say, “Listen, you can do better than that!” when a student gives me a bad answer. I don’t view that as being disagreeable, although I do realize that it injects a bit of tension into the class. But this is not Sesame Street; a bad answer is a bad answer. There is only one primary goal in my class: to improve each student’s ability to think, reason and understand. Students realize how capable they are, but human nature loves to take the easy path.

A good basketball coach adapts to the talents of his or her players. A good teacher does the same. You cannot take an identical approach with every student. Some love to be pushed and pushed hard. They enjoy “in-your-face” challenges. Others are more fragile. You have to coax and nurture them. So toughness comes into my class where toughness is necessary. You teach each student, not each group. However, every student needs to be willing to prepare and to think. That is not negotiable.

One of the keys to becoming a good teacher is learning to walk into a room of students and “see” what is happening to the individual members: Billy needs a few extra seconds to formulate an answer, Susan loves to be called on, Andy doesn’t know what is happening right now, Ellen is not prepared. You have to be able to adapt to your students on the spot every day. What a wonderfully exciting job.

Our students can do amazing things, but if we don’t challenge them fully, they will never realize what marvelous talents they truly possess. Signing up for demanding classes might hurt a student’s GPA, but which is more important: developing a good mind or a good GPA?

Saturday, October 16, 2010


If you have followed this blog for long, you know that my favorite saying about teaching is "Teaching does not come from years of doing it. It actually comes from thinking about it." Unfortunately, it is easy to get trapped into thinking superficially about teaching. “Why are students so lazy?” “Why can’t students read?” “Why do students seem incapable of thinking?” I’m not sure that kind of thinking does anyone much good.

A few days ago, a friend and I had a long conversation about teaching, just a general conversation about what works and what doesn’t work for us. We talked about our goals and our frustrations. When is the last time you had such a conversation? Really, a conversation about how teaching is actually done. Find someone in your building or in your school who truly likes to think and talk about teaching and make it a point to have such conversations on a regular basis.

As part of my recent conversation, the question was raised (now that we are half-way through the current semester) as to what we expect from our students each day. My now we have trained them (either on purpose or by accident). When you walk into your classroom, what do you actually expect to get from your students? If all you expect is for them to sit there quietly and take notes, you will probably get your wish. But, shouldn’t learning require more than that from students? If all students have to do is sit quietly and take notes, then education by television or the Internet is the way to go.

My answer to that particular question, after a bit of thinking, was that I wanted three things from my students.

First, I want them to be engaged. I want them on the edge of their seats ready to participate at the drop of a hat. I don’t like comfortable students. Comfortable students tend to be lazy students. Comfortable students don’t seem to like to do the depth of thinking that I want.

Second, I want the students engaged 100 percent of the time. One of my all-time favorite teaching books is One L. Scott Turow, the author, talks about his first year at Harvard Law School and this famous teacher who taught by the Socratic Method. He made the point that everyone was on the edge of their seats practically holding their breath until the first student was called on. The teacher had the habit of interrogating that one student for the rest of the hour. Therefore, after the first question, every other student started to daydream or think about other classes. When I read that 20 years ago, I thought it was ridiculous. I don’t want one student to be engaged. I want all of them to be engaged all of the time. My classes are 50 minutes long – I’m convinced that people (even young college students) can stay focused for that period of time.

Third, as I have said often in this blog, I want my students prepared. I think 100 percent of good teaching has to start with student preparation. College is for deep thinking and complex learning. When I ask students about a capital lease or a deferred income tax, there is no possibly way they can come up with a legitimate response off the top of their head. This has to be something they have thought about and considered in advance. Without the preparation, what are we able to do in class? Darn little.

It was a good conversation about teaching. I went back to my own teaching with some new insights into what others think as well as what I think. You don’t need those conversations every day but it is hard to get better as a teacher without some of those conversations.

Monday, October 4, 2010

It Is An Honor

My good friend Paul Clikeman furnished me with these lines from Pat Conroy's book The Prince of Tides. This is the way that we should all feel every day when we have the good fortune of being able to go into a classroom to try to help our students to work and learn and understand.

Savannah Wingo: "You sold yourself short. You could’ve been more than a teacher and a coach."

Tom Wingo: "Listen to me, Savannah. There’s no word in the language I revere more than teacher. My heart sings when a kid refers to me as his teacher and it always has. I’ve honored myself and the entire family of man by becoming one.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Incentives Matter

(1) – I had my first test of the semester last week in Financial Accounting. If you would like to see a copy of that test, drop me a note at

(2) - Several weeks ago I heard part of a story on National Public Radio. It was about British sea captains who were transporting prisoners to Australia in the 1700s. Unfortunately, many of the prisoners were dying along the way. So, the British government changed the way they paid the sea captains. They began to pay only for each prisoner who arrived in Australia alive. Not surprisingly, the death rate dropped to nearly zero almost immediately.

The punch line of the story was that incentives matter.

I am a believer that you can encourage people to do almost anything if you figure out the right incentives. With an incentive that matters, people can practically leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Like every teacher, I get frustrated by my students on occasion. I give an assignment and they don’t do it or they don’t put significant time into it. Assuming that the assignment is not too tough for them, why don’t they do better? That is an easy answer. They don’t have any incentive to do better.

I once asked a class: “if I gave you each $1 million to make an A on our next test, how many of you would make an A?” Every hand in class was raised quickly. So, it was not a question of ability – with the right incentive, everyone will do enough work to make an A.

Assuming that you don’t have a lot of extra millions to give out, what incentives can you use? Historically, teachers often fall back on the old standby “this is likely to be on the test” to motivate students to work. However, that is such a negative incentive. It tells the students “learn this or else.” That is hardly a way to build excitement for learning.

Personally, I prefer not to use incentives at all. I think learning should be fun and the reward of knowledge and understanding should be enough to motivate students to do the work that is necessary.

At the same time, I realize that is a bit naïve. Students are humans and they will always put their energy where they perceive the greatest immediate benefit. So, at times a more tangible incentive is needed.

On Monday and Wednesday of this week, in my financial accounting class, we covered accounts receivable. The weather has been cool and rainy and the students have seemed especially lethargic. The next test is not for 2-3 more weeks. I could tell that many of them were going to defer thinking about accounts receivable until that next test. I needed to get them cranked up. Last night, I sent them an email saying that I was going to start class off on Friday with one quick question on accounts receivable. No penalty if they missed it but I would give them 2 bonus points on their next test if they got it correct.

I’m hoping this will be the incentive they need to focus their attention on this topic. Two points is not a lot but it provides them with a tangible reason to learn this material now and not wait until the night before the test.

I will write later and let you know if this bonus question works or not. However, I am convinced that appropriate incentives do work. So, if you are having a class that is not responding in the way that you would like, step back and consider what incentives they have for doing better. Perhaps changing those incentives a bit will change your results.

Friday, September 24, 2010


I have been tied up with the start of a new school year and have not had time to post anything. So, a good buddy of mine (and great teacher) Steve Markoff of Montclair State wrote the following. His words are ever so true and he says it better than I could have.

Thanks Steve!!!

We’ve probably heard the expression that you were born with two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we talk. I remember the first time I heard this from an elementary school teacher over 40 years ago. Just how does this apply to teaching? How can we use this to become better teachers?

In order to listen more, we need three things:

1. Someone to listen to,

2. Something to listen to

3. A reason to listen

For too many of us, the answer to number 1 is “me”; after all, we have all the academic and professional qualifications along with all of the knowledge from our years of accounting – who better to listen to? It took me a long time to realize that there was someone else worth listening to in this exchange – the students.

So, now that we have someone else to listen to, we need something to listen to. As long as I am talking, there is nothing else to listen to except the sound of my own voice. What else is there to listen to? Answers to questions, that’s what. The math basically looks like this: more asking = more listening. If you ask a question, then you are going to get a response, and THAT gives you something to listen to. Have you ever thought about one of those people who you think of as “great conversationalists?” If you really take notice, all they mostly do is ask questions about YOU and open their ears and listen. Most of the time it is YOU doing the talking, but they are getting all the credit. Students frequently tell me know what a great teacher or explainer I am, when in fact I am mainly just asking and not doing that much explaining in the first place.

So far 1 and 2 sound easy, but one thing I’ve learned in life is this: People can know what to do and how to do it, but, unless they have a reason WHY they should do it – they won’t. When someone isn’t doing something, it’s one of three things. They either: a) don’t know WHAT to do – that’s easy – explain what you want done, b) they don’t know HOW to do it – also easy solution – train them. Show them how to do it. If they still aren’t doing it, then the solution is WHY – they don’t have a good enough reason for doing it.

A lot of us know that we SHOULD be asking more questions, and HOW to go about it, but we don’t have a compelling reason WHY. I’ve found that once I TRULY WANT TO HEAR my students, and then I have a good reason why. I have a real love affair with what is on the minds of my students. I can’t wait to hear what they have to say in class. As long as I honestly WANT TO HEAR them, I will be a better listener and, accordingly, since it is questions that start that process, I will naturally want to ask more and more questions.

So, if you want to ask more and tell less – create that COMPELLING REASON to listen – truly value what your students say. After all, if they had the winning LOTTO numbers, you would listen pretty closely, wouldn’t you? Well, they might not have that, but they have something that I think is worth its weight in teaching gold. Fall in love with what they say – the rest will become easy.

You have 2 ears and one mouth – so ASK twice as much as you TELL – my elementary school teacher gave me great teaching advice!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Need Some Inspiration?

There are times when every teacher needs some inspiration. There will always be days where everything goes wrong and the idea that anyone actually learns anything in your class seems remote. We all need inspiration now and then and I believe you should not ignore those needs. We are human.

One recommendation—the next time you are down and out about teaching, go to the video store and check out a movie from 1988 titled Stand and Deliver. You cannot possibly watch that movie without getting excited about the joys of teaching. It is the true story of a Los Angeles high school math teacher in a very poor area who drives his students to succeed on the AP test for calculus. He pushes them so hard that his students are accused of cheating because they do so well on the exam. They all forced to take the test a second time and they come back and pass it again.

No matter what the problems they encountered, the teacher did not let his students give up. He willed them to succeed.

It is just a wonderful story of how one teacher is able to make such a difference in the lives of so many young people by pushing them to be great. Watch it one night and you will be a better teacher the next day.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Be A Student

If you are always the king, it is very difficult to understand what it is like to be a peasant.

Most college professors that I know have spent a long time being the experts in the classroom. They are the ones who walk in each day with all the knowledge. They are the people in charge. Trust me, that gets to be a very comfortable feeling. At times, teachers can forget the feeling of being a student.

Consequently, whenever possible, I try to take classes where I am the student. I prefer to take classes in subjects where I have little or no knowledge. Over the years, I have taken classes in jewelry making, Russian culture, portrait photography, creative writing, and ballroom dancing. I think I managed to be terrible in all of those classes. I like being the person in the room who is worried about looking stupid. I like sitting through a 75 minute class where I am bored to death after 10 minutes. I like taking a class where I listen to a teacher and try (sometimes hopelessly) to figure out what he would possibly be explaining.

If you have forgotten what it is like to be a student, it can be very difficult to be a good teacher. When is the last time you took a class so that you were the student and not the person in charge?

A few years back, I took a two-day class in large format photography (think Ansel Adams or Matthew Brady). For some reason, I really wanted to do well so I spent the first day of the class taking careful notes and making sure that I understood every step. I asked questions and focused my attention on every demonstration.

At the end of that first day, each of the four members of the class took two pictures with one of those huge cameras as we crouched under a black cloth. The teacher was going to develop those pictures overnight and we would critique them the following day.

I came back, the next morning, with great anticipation. I had been so careful to do everything correctly and I really wanted to see the finished product. I was so optimistic. When we walked in, the teacher informed us that “three sets of pictures were great but one set did not come out at all.”

Immediately, I felt my stomach clutch up as I mumbled to myself “Oh please, don’t let me be the one who messed up. I tried so hard to get it right.”

The pictures did not have names on them so the teacher held up the first batch and one of the students identified them as her pictures. I am now down to 1 chance in 3 for being the incompetent fool. “Okay,” I said to myself “you were so careful—surely, your pictures were fine. Surely, someone else made a mistake.”

The teacher held up another set of pictures and one of the other men in class held up his hand. Now, we are down to the final set of good prints. By elimination, the dummy will now be unmasked and the other three people and the teacher will know who failed to learn the lesson. I can actually hear my heart beating – no one wants to appear stupid. “I want mine to be good; I want mine to be good” I silently chant, almost in prayer.

Well, the last prints went to the other remaining student and I was left to confess that I was the person who apparently couldn’t complete the assignment. Everyone was nice and told me that such things often happen with these big cameras. But, one person in the group looked dumb, and it was me.

When I went to my own class the next day, where I was once again in control, I looked out at my students with a bit more awareness. No matter how hard you try, sometimes things go wrong and you feel stupid and feeling stupid does not often encourage learning. At least on that one day, I was a bit more careful with my explanations and I had a little more patience when the students did not grasp the concepts immediately. On that day, I was a better teacher. And, I was a better teacher for having been a student—not 40 years ago but on the previous day.

Take some classes. Take hard classes. Be brave and put yourself into the student role. The king and the peasants really need to work together and if you are always the king, it is very difficult to understand what it is like to be a peasant.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Writing Assignments

I want my students to learn to write well. Good writing skills should be a requirement for any college education, regardless of the major. Writing well helps people think more logically. Sentences must follow sentences in a pattern that makes sense. Words need to be positioned so that ideas are clear. The message must be delivered in a fashion that can be understood by the intended reader. Today, the writings of many college students seem to be influenced heavily by Twitter and instant messaging.

How can a teacher assist students in developing good writing habits? I use a four-step approach. I grade each of these steps individually but I put the most emphasis on the finished product that comes from the final step.

First, students need something to write. I instruct them to create a problem or a question (within our discipline) that needs to be addressed. I give them guidance on arriving at their question. They then write a letter or memorandum to describe this issue in an understandable fashion. The reader must be able to comprehend the various aspects of the problem and the reason that it needs to be resolved.

Second, the students do the research necessary to arrive at a reasonable resolution for the problem they have created. Every person writes a response to explain the answer that they believe best solves the problem. Again, clarity is essential. The reader must be able to understand the recommendation and the rationale for following that approach.

Third, these first two writings assignments are collected in class and immediately given back, but to a different student. This second student is assigned to critique every aspect of the problem that was raised and the proposed solution. The critique should look at both the technical answer provided and the first student’s use of the English language. This reader must search for anything that prevents either of the first two assignments from being perfect. I have always felt that requiring an evaluation of this type makes both parties more careful. The original writer feels the pressure of having a peer assess the work. The second student must provide a critical evaluation of the technical answer and the written communication, a task not always encountered in school.

Fourth, the critique letter is given to the first student. Hopefully, the student will see the reason why some portions of the original letters were not clear or where the technical material was inaccurate. This student is given the opportunity to rewrite the first two assignments based on the advice provided in the critique. Students can make whatever changes they feel are needed. They have a chance, before they turn in the final letters, to have another member of the class provide advice.

I want each student to see the elements of what they wrote that were judged by their reader to be unclear and needing additional work. I am not an English professor but I have been well pleased by the improvements that I have seen between the original letters and the final versions.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

What Do You Really Want to Accomplish?

When is the last time you took a pencil and paper and wrote down (in a sentence or two) what you wanted to accomplish in your classes? Here, at the start of a new academic year, it might be a profitable way to spend 5 minutes. I always tell my students “if you don’t know where you want to go, any road will get you there.”

Probably, any time in the first 30-35 years that I taught, I would have written down something like “I want to help my students come to understand and appreciate financial accounting so they can use it in the real world to help make good decisions.” That is a worthwhile goal and every word is still true for me today. However, in recent years, I have become more and more convinced that I want to do more than teach students a bunch of stuff. Somehow I feel that there is another plateau to this teaching gig that I am not yet achieving. Could I be doing more?

So, as the 2010-2011 academic year begins, I have added a few additional words to my goal: “I want to help my students become smarter people.” Is that even possible? Colleges are all about creating better educated people. Can they also increase the smartness level of their students? I personally think it can be done but it takes a lot more time and energy.

How do you increase smartness? Whenever I consider such questions, I always go back to my favorite quote about learning—one that I reflect on virtually every day. In his wonderful book, What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain talks with one highly successful professor about his teaching style. “’It’s sort of Socratic . . . You begin with a puzzle—you get somebody puzzled, and tied in knots, and mixed up.’ Those puzzles and knots generate questions for students, he went on to say, and then you begin to help them untie the knots.”

You puzzle the students; you tie them into knots. And, then you begin to help them untie those knots. What a glorious description of what education can be—learning that I think not only educates but can actually makes the student a smarter person.

Yesterday in class, we discussed two small accounting rules. My students could have easily “learned” these two rules in 5 minutes or less. Instead, we took the rules apart, piece by piece, looking for connections and contradictions trying to figure out their purpose and how they were supposed to achieve that purpose. After 50 minutes of questions and debates, I asked the students another question, one that seemed unrelated. The students were able to take the understanding they had developed and figure out how to use it to resolve this final question. That was my ultimate goal. They were able to figure out something new on their own.

Were they actually smarter people? Well, after just 50 minutes, they probably weren’t really any smarter. But, if we are able to create those puzzles and knots for an entire semester and work to figure out how to untie them, then, yes, I do hope they will become both educated and smarter by December.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Opening

In my previous post, I indicated that I believed teachers should do a lot less than 100 percent of the talking in class—especially on the opening day. Several people wrote to ask me how I do that.

I view every class as a conversation. So, how do you start a conversation? Most conversations begin with a question. “Do you come here often?” “Have you ever had better barbecue?” “What did you think about that baseball game last night?” “Do you remember the weather ever being this hot?” Questions are a natural conversation starter. You then reply based on the answer you get. A good question can lead to hours of non-scripted conversation. The same is true in class.

Therefore, I really think about my opening question. Where do I hope it will lead our conversation? I think it often sets the tone for the entire day. In fact, on the first day, you may well be setting the tone for the entire semester.

Okay, I teach accounting classes so my opening question probably cannot be about William Shakespeare or e. e. cummings. I have to start convincing some very skeptical students that my accounting class is going to be both beneficial to them and interesting. English majors, biology majors and the like are not always sure that this accounting stuff is worth their time.

In each of my three opening classes yesterday, I walked in, read out the roll, and then called on a student randomly and asked the following question. “I was listening to National Public Radio on Friday and heard a bit of news announced at 6:40 p.m. Day in and day out, more people probably pay attention to this piece of news than any other single news item in the entire world. The announcer said ‘Today the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 57.59 points.’"

My guess is that most people in the business community around the world had a pretty good understanding of what that meant. What is the Dow Jones Industrial Average? What fell? Why did it fall? Why should anyone care? And, what did accounting have to do with this?” I actually asked these questions one at a time as the conversation flowed back and forth.

The students were immediately intrigued. To them, it is like there is secret information out there in the real world that everyone seems to know and understand but they don’t. This is not about being able to pass a test. This is about avoiding looking embarrassingly dumb when you enter the real world.

We proceeded to have a wonderful conversation as the students worked out what the Dow Jones Industrial Average is and what its drop on Friday signified and how accounting information helps investors know which company stocks to buy and which to sell. The students were interested to learn that Alcoa’s stock with up .02 on Friday while DuPont went down .25 – what accounting information might have led to that shift?

At the end of the day, the students seemed to feel that this accounting stuff was actually pretty interesting and might be worth spending some time to learn. And, I had only done about 50 percent of the talking which is always my goal.

Okay -- here might be the important part of this post:
In the minds of many students, there is school and there is the real world and it is that divide that makes school seem unimportant. With my very first question on the very first day of the semester, I wanted the students to see that we were going to be studying something that really could be important to their lives beyond school. And, if you cannot establish that, right from the beginning, is there any reason to have the class?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Send Them The Message

I watched a bit of a movie the other night (Where the Wild Things Are) and they had a classroom scene where the teacher stood in front of the group and did 100 percent of the talking while the students stared around the room in a mix of distraction, boredom, and random note taking. Education at its best(?) I watched a television show the other night (Breaking Bad) and they had a classroom scene where the teacher stood in front of the group and did 100 percent of the talking while the students stared around the room in a mix of distraction, boredom, and note taking. Education at its best(?)

I am convinced that you need to set the tone for the entire semester on the very first day. Right at the beginning, you need to send a signal for what you want and expect from the students. My recommendation for the first day would be to do a whole lot less than 100 percent of the talking. Make that a very high priority. Send the message immediately: In this course, you have to be actively involved.

As we all head toward the opening of a new semester, I will leave you with a quote that I have used before but it seems even most applicable at the start of a new academic year. “Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.” Education at its best!!!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

What Do You Tell Your Students?

Virtually all of the blogs that I have written over the past 8 months have been directed toward teachers. My goal has been to encourage teachers and give you folks something to think about that might stimulate a bit of improvement.

It crossed my mind this morning to wonder: who encourages the students? Being a student is not easy. They study hard and are constantly under pressure to do well on papers, tests, class presentations and the like. They are human; they need encouragement—especially when things are not going well.

Who encourages students? Well, I guess it should be their teachers. You need encouragement; you need assurance; you need positive feedback. And, so do they. If you genuinely want to teach students successfully, some small part of the job (I believe) must be to encourage them to do the work that is necessary.

Do we do that? Or, do we simply ignore that aspect of the teaching process and then complain when students don’t live up to our expectations?

I thought about this as I was writing an essay this morning to distribute to people who are studying to take the CPA Exam. I fully understand how much encouragement they need but I don’t always have the same insight on the struggles of my own college students. So, I think I will also share this essay with the students who will start my class this coming Monday.

Teaching has to be more than an effort to convey information. That makes education sound like a robotic process. And, neither teachers nor students are robots. Think about how you encourage your students in their difficult times. Here is one way that I plan to do it.

“I have been reading a book ('Mao’s Last Dancer') about a Chinese peasant boy who works incredibly hard and eventually becomes one of the top ballet dancers in the world. A lot of the book focuses on his early training when he moves quickly from extreme poverty to a national dance academy where he is pushed to learn ballet—something he does not even understand at first.

“In the book, he talks about how difficult it is to learn each dance movement. He is shown a new step or a turn and his first reaction is ‘I cannot possibly do that. Someone else may be able to do it, but not me.’

“And, sure enough, for the longest time, he cannot master the new move. He tries and fails, he tries and fails, he tries and fails. However, what really sets this young man apart from the other dancers in the academy is that he keeps trying even though he continues to fail. The other dancers practice three times each day (in a building without air conditioning) but he practices six times each day (at times breaking into the studio at night so he can practice alone). The other dancers are satisfied with being okay; he wants to be great. His desire is as large as his talent. His desire may be more important than his talent.

“So many times, after he has failed and failed and failed with a new dance movement, he’ll have a break-through and suddenly he can do it. It just happens—almost without warning. With enough practice, one day he can actually do what he had originally thought was impossible.

“The word that I really like in that story is ‘break-through.’ That is the way learning, especially when you are dealing with a very difficult topic, usually happens. Learning is just full of epiphanies. You miss the question, you miss the question, you miss the question and suddenly you have a break-through. Without warning, you see how the pieces fit together to form the correct answer. Once you catch on, the process frequently seems rather simple: ‘Why did I not see that before now—it is obvious how it works.’

“But that is just the way learning often works—you have to miss and practice, miss and practice until eventually you’ll have your own personal break-through and you will find that you have mastered the concept. That is a wonderful feeling. In learning, there is little that feels better than that quiet pause followed by ‘Oh, I see it now.’

“In learning, too many people give up too quickly. They never reach the ‘break-through’ point. The work is too hard or the failure is too devastating. They don’t have enough confidence to keep pushing or they don’t want success badly enough. They walk away saying ‘I just cannot do this.’

“Here’s what I want you to know: Those frustrations are normal; they are no reason to quit. Failure is a natural part of getting to success. Yeah, it is tough to miss questions but that is just the way the learning process works. If you keep plugging, if you keep pushing yourself, you will have a break-through and suddenly you’ll say ‘Oh, I see it now.’ And, that is going to feel great!”

Monday, August 16, 2010

Listening to Former Students

I like listening to my former students, especially the ones who seem to be doing well out there in the adult world. “Was your education lacking in any way?” “How could I have better prepared you for life after graduation?” “Am I doing anything in my classes that is just a waste of time?” It is hard to make improvements if you don’t have a good assessment of your own strengths and weaknesses. And, who understands them better than students who have gone through your class and are now out in the real world.

A couple of days ago, I posted the previous blog (below) about pushing students to go beyond the right answer and encouraging them to address the more important issue: why is a certain answer the right answer? Today, I got an email from a student who was in a couple of my classes 3-4 years ago. She started out at the University of Richmond and finished up at Wharton and seems to have done well since graduation. I respect her opinion. Here was her response to that post—I especially liked her last sentence (although it is probably a run-on sentence).

“The right answer only counts for so much. In my experience so far in life, you rarely have to come to an ‘answer’ that you submit to someone and then wait and see if it's correct or not. All of the situations I've found on the job to date involve either working with a team, or data you got from someplace, or ideas you generated. You then form a hypothesis or explanation and describe to people why your 'answer' makes the most sense. One of the competencies I have the most difficulty with is thinking outside the box. One of the reasons I think I have trouble is because in school we got so much training in coming to the correct answer, but really being able to examine that answer and explain why it is correct and be open to others helping you develop it further is so much more useful.”

I like her words: “You then form a hypothesis or explanation and describe to people why your ‘answer’ makes the most sense.” Okay, here is my challenge to you and to me both: As you get ready to enter the fall semester of 2010, is that what your students wind up doing in your classes?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Getting The Right Answer Is Not Enough

I start my classes again in 9 days. Even after 39 years, I am always tense as to what I want to say to my students on the first day. They have been in school for 15-16 previous years and, unfortunately, some of them expect every class to be more of the same. A few (maybe more) start off with a poor attitude. I am a big believer in first impressions. I want to get the class off to the perfect start. I want the students to realize that I want something different from them. They are college students, more should be demanded of them. But, if all you’ve ever been asked to do is memorize, it is hard to believe there is something more that the teacher might want.

I got a note today from Steve Markoff, a friend of mine who teaches at Montclair State. He told me about a book where computers were programmed to come up with the perfect move each time in various backgammon situations. The book, then, tries to help the reader figure out why each of those moves was the right one. The computer starts you off with the right move—you have to analyze the situation and figure out why it is the best possible answer.

Steve’s comment was something like “That’s what I want from my own college students—to go beyond just getting the right answer and be able to tell me why it was the right answer.”

Then, I knew what I should tell my students on the first day of the fall semester. From my perspective, too many classes focus on getting the right answer as the ultimate goal-that leads to memorization. I want my students to focus on understanding what is going on and why. How do I convey that desire? Simple—tell them: “When you get the right answer, you are half way home. You still need to be able to explain to me why it is the right answer.”

I think that is an understandable goal-one that will help my students know, right from the start, that I’m stressing something more complicated than what they might have expected.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


One of my favorite pastimes at any AAA convention is to visit the poster sessions where teachers from around the country talk about their classroom innovations. It is always impressive to me to see how many teachers are working to figure out new and different ways to encourage interest among students along with a deeper level of understanding.

One of my favorites last week in San Francisco was work done by Mary Michel at Manhattan College. I have a saying (that I stole) that I think applies to all students:

“Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.”

But, let’s be truthful, it is always a whole lot easier to tell students information than it is to involve them in learning. Anyone can lecture and the students will take notes. Involving students is much more challenging and requires teachers to do some serious thinking about their goals for the learning experience.

Dr. Michel starts off her Advanced Accounting class by having the students gather into groups and search for a set of financial statements from a company in a foreign country. Then, they must look for a set of financial statements from a comparable company located in the US. Car companies or pharmaceutical companies are good examples that should work well. The students have a set of foreign financial statements and a set of domestic financial statements. They must then find critical differences between the two as well as their similarities.

Okay, Dr. Michel could easily just tell the students the similarities and differences and they could write them down and memorize them. That’s not learning. That is note taking. I believe there should be a rule in education: “never tell students anything that they can find out for themselves.” In other words, get them involved and the learning will be so much more meaningful.

Is there anything you absolutely have to tell your students? Or, can you get them involved so that they will find the knowledge out for themselves? I have a saying that my students hear often and never really like: “I only get paid enough to ask questions; I don’t get paid enough to answer questions.”

I don’t like telling my students anything. I like figuring out ways to get them involved so they can find their own answers. I always love talking with teachers like Dr. Michel who have managed to create ways to successfully get their students involved in the educational process. They just inspire me to do a better job.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Find the Variables That Lead To Experimentation

I have recently been writing about some of the wonderful people that I met at the American Accounting Association annual meeting in San Francisco. On this past Wednesday, I participated in a panel discussion on blogging: how is it done and why do we do it? I talked for about 10 minutes about my blog and the enjoyment I get in writing about teaching and hearing from my readers about their teaching.

On the panel, I was sitting beside of Tom Selling who has the incredible blog The Accounting Onion ( When I returned to my seat, he handed me a sheet of paper where he had written a few sentences that he had penciled while I was speaking. I thought his words on self-improvement in teaching were so neat that I wanted to pass them along to you. (Thanks – Tom – this was one of those moments where I said “Gee, I wish I had said that.”)

“Teaching is highly idiosyncratic. The process of self discovery through experimentation is integral to self-improvement. It is inherently experimental.

“Does talking about teaching make you a better teacher? Yes, because it helps you decide what variables to change in your next experiment.”

So, go find another teacher who shares your passion for helping students to learn. Offer to buy that person a cup of coffee if they’ll just sit and chat with you about teaching. Use that conversation to start thinking about the variables, the things you can change in your teaching, and then go experiment to see where improvement can be found.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


I am writing this week from the annual meeting of the American Accounting Association in San Francisco. On Monday, I had one of those wonderful experiences that I so enjoy, the type that always seems to rejuvenate my teaching spirits. I had a long conversation with a person who really knew and understood how to be a great teacher. I find, in colleges, that there are not enough times when you sit down with another teacher and just talk about teaching: What works? What do you do in this situation? How do you handle this topic?

I had never met David Marcinko before Monday but he is on the faculty at Skidmore. As soon as we sat down and started talking about Financial Accounting, it was clear that Professor Marcinko had spent a lot of serious time over the years thinking about teaching. How do you get students engaged? What should you cover in the first chapter to interest them and not turn them off? When do you introduce Accumulated Depreciation without confusing them?

Teaching can be a lonely profession. Professors will talk about their research until the cows come home (a wonderful Southern expression) but it is often hard to find someone who will talk with you about teaching (other than whining about their students). Sometimes it seems like a mark of weakness to open up about the difficulty of getting students to work and learn. I was amazed, even our 39 years, as to how energized I felt about teaching after I walked away from our conversation on Monday.

Maybe, if you are feeling a bit down about being a teacher, finding a colleague to talk with on a regular basis might just be the remedy.

Monday, August 2, 2010

I Was Impressed

I am at the annual meeting of the American Accounting Association in San Francisco. I thought, if I saw something interesting while I am here, that I would write about it.

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to have a long conversation with Presha Neidermeyer, Associate Professor of Accounting at West Virginia University. She was telling me about all of her many trips to Africa to take her students to places like Uganda and South Africa to work with the not-for-profit organizations there. We typically think about accounting professors sitting in a classroom teaching sleepy students about debits and credits. Dr. Neidermeyer is going way, way beyond that. She takes small groups (“I like to be able to load them all up in a van, if I have to”) and goes to the country and helps out some of the NFPs there. She talked specifically about one organization that did micro-lending and how her students helped them organize their forms so they could become more efficient.

Can you imagine how her students benefit from that experience? A lot of college students go to Italy, Australia, or the like for a semester in school there. This is something entirely different, an accounting experience in a third world country.

She has even co-authored a book on the impact of HIV-AIDS in Africa. Impressive!!!! The conference is off to a great start for me.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Know What You Want To Accomplish

At some point, a friend of mine gave me the book “Thinking for a Change.” I’ve read bits and pieces over time but never the whole book. This morning, I picked it up and randomly turned to page 54 where I found one paragraph:

“It doesn’t matter whether you were born rich or poor. It doesn’t matter if you have a third grade education or possess a Ph. D. It doesn’t matter if you suffer from multiple disabilities or you’re the picture of health. No matter what your circumstances, you can learn to be a good thinker. All you must do is be willing to engage in the process every day.”

That is exactly the goal I have for my students—word for word. I want each of them to learn to be a good thinker and I firmly believe you attain that goal by engaging in the process every day. That is how I structure my class and that is what I want to promote and that is what I want to help them accomplish.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Three Opportunities

(1) – If you have read this blog for long, you know that I am a big believer in communications with my students. I want them to understand what I am doing and why I am doing it.

In addition, I’m also a big believer in marketing my course. I think students will work harder if you can convince them that the course is fair and the material provides a true benefit.

Hence, I like for my students to walk in on the very first day of each semester with some amount of knowledge and enthusiasm. If that happens, I think the battle is half won. The building process in terms of their knowledge and interest has already begun.

For that reason, I have already sent the students who have signed up for my fall classes two emails to start “priming the pump.” What I am trying to do is help them realize that they can learn a lot from my course (and enjoy doing it) but only if they are willing to do some serious work and thinking. The benefits outweigh the costs.

If you are interested in this communication strategy and want to see a copy of the two emails that I have already sent out to my Financial Accounting class this summer, send me an email at and I’ll see you those copies by attachment.

You wouldn’t want to use the same emails that I sent out but you might want to adapt them to your own style and goals.

(2) – On Wednesday, August 4, I will be participating in a panel discussion about blogging. If you are going to be attending the national convention of the American Accounting Association in San Francisco, I hope you will come by the presentation and introduce yourself. I would love to meet you and have a chance to chat about teaching or about blogging. It will be from 10:15 a.m. until 11:45 a.m. at the Wyndham Parc 55 Union Square Hotel, on Level Four in a room called Cyril Magnin II

As a result, I do hope to do some blogging while I am at the conference to fill everyone in on what I am learning.

If you want some information on the panelists (who are all bloggers), you can check out the details at:

(3) – Also on Wednesday, August 4, I will be participating in another panel discussion. This one is on innovation in accounting education. The folks who were runners-up for the 2010 Innovation in Accounting Education will be talking about their innovations. Consequently, I am discussing the new free online Financial Accounting textbook that I wrote with CJ Skender of UNC. I am going to bring along a 1925 intermediate accounting textbook and compare it to a 2010 textbook to show how little evolution has taken place and why innovation in textbooks is so desperately needed.

This presentation will be from 4:00 p.m. until 5:30 p.m. at the Hilton Union Square Hotel in San Francisco. It is on the Grand Ballroom Level and is in Grand Ballroom Salon A.

Would love to see you there.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

What Do We Add?

Over the last few years, my wife and I have become big fans of the video classes produced by The Teaching Company. Two or three times per week, we will watch a 30 or 45-minute video lecture on art or literature or history or religion prepared by a college teacher. I am amazed by how much I now know about topics that once were totally foreign to me.

In watching these videos, I am occasionally reminded of a question that comes up in colleges now and then: Do we need live instructors? Why don’t we find the very best college teachers and film their classes? Then, put those videos up on the Internet and everyone (or, at least, our students) can learn the material without the need of a classroom or a teacher.

Well, the easy answer to that query is that a college education has to be more than the conveyance of information to a passive student taking notes. So, doesn’t that automatically raise the next question that we need to address as teachers: What are we adding in our classes that goes beyond the conveyance of information to a passive student? If the answer is nothing, then maybe we should all be replaced by videos.

As you get ready for the fall semester, ponder how you are going to add value to your students.
--“I’m going to tell them some interesting stories.” -- A video can tell them hundreds of interesting stories.
--“I’m going to tell them about the history of my discipline.” -- A video can tell them about the history of your discipline.
--“I’m going to walk them step-by-step through the essential core of the disciple.” - A video can walk students through the essential core of the discipline.

Those are all important to a class but they could just as easily be done by a person on video. What are you going to do this coming semester in your classes that a video could not do?

We live in a time when too many people believed that they could not be replaced until they were replaced. My assumption is that if you add real value to a process, you become essential. Otherwise, someone will eventually catch on that you can be replaced.

There are many, many ways that teachers add value to the students in their classes. How will you do that in the coming fall? What will you do that couldn’t be replaced by a video?


I hope you will check out all of my other posts about learning and the education processs at

Friday, July 9, 2010

Five Great Characteristics

I am not sure that any students know exactly what a professor really wants from them. My guess is that if you sent a note to your students for the upcoming fall and simply asked—what do you think I want from the students in this class—you’d get some simplistic answers like “learn the material” or “pass the tests.”

Is that really what you want? It sounds so dull. No wonder students find education boring. No wonder they often put out less than an excellent effort.

If that is not what you want from the students in your class, why not tell them? First, you’ll shock them by your honesty. Second, you’ll take an immediate step toward having them think differently about your class. You might even move them closer to what you really want.

I had a very interesting principles class last spring. Okay, I didn’t have that many A students but the class was just very lively and really got into learning about financial accounting. The discussions were marvelous. I looked forward each day to working with them and I think everyone got a lot out of the class.

I wanted to encourage my upcoming fall class to be just as lively. Maybe it had never occurred to them. So, I sat down a few weeks ago and tried to figure out what characteristics I really wanted. As a result, I sent the following note to all of the students who have signed up for my fall class.

“I had a great principles class last semester. It was a lot of fun. The students were active, engaged, curious, questioning, and thoughtful. When you have students like that, it is unbelievable the amount that can be accomplished in a class. My wish for you and the upcoming semester is that you’ll wind up demonstrating those same five characteristics.”


If you could get a class that demonstrated those five characteristics, wouldn’t you be able to accomplish an almost unlimited amount? Notice that I did not include “smart.” It is nice to have smart students because it makes the job easy but if teaching is really what you want to do in this life, aren’t you better off to have active, engaged, curious, questioning, and thoughtful students than smart ones? Smart students probably don’t really need you.

Why did I tell these five characteristics to my new students? Simple—I wanted them to know walking in the door on the first day that I wanted them to be alive in class and use their brains. I don’t want them to sit there and mindlessly take notes. I want them to know that I have different expectations. I want them excited about their own education because if they get excited, there is no end to what they can accomplish.

I wanted them to know what I wanted even before they had ever met me.

Okay, if you can send emails to your fall students, why not think of the characteristics that you would like for them to display in your class? Then, provide them with that list. It should be no secret.

You may want characteristics that are totally different from mine. That is fine. But, if you really want your students to demonstrate specific characteristics, give them a head start. Just tell them.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Nonaggression Pact in Reverse

I guess most college professors have heard about the college teaching version of the nonaggression pact. The teacher sends subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) messages to the students: “I’m a very busy person. I won’t challenge you to do much if you’ll leave me alone. I won’t expect much of you so you shouldn’t expect much of me.” Obviously, this attitude leads to grade inflation and a mediocre (at best) educational experience.

It would be interesting to give college teachers truth serum and ask them what they think of this approach. My guess is that a lot of people are appalled by it but I would bet that a significant number would shrug and suggest “that’s just what college education is like.” The nonaggression pact has been around for a long time now. In 2010, I sometimes think we see so little truly exceptional education that we don’t even know that it exists. It is hard to strive for beauty if you have never experienced it. Acceptance of the nonaggression pact reduces the chance of experiencing education at some wonderfully high level.

At your university, what percentage of the classes are much better than mediocre? What percentage would you judge as a wonderful experience?

How can we change this trend? What is the reverse of the nonaggression pact? I would suspect that it would sound something like this: “I’m a very busy person. However, your education is important and I am going to challenge every person in this class to succeed. All of you. That means you can expect me to be very well prepared for every class and you have the right to come by my office and get help if you need it; I will help you to succeed.”

The question is not about the first three sentences. The question is about the last sentence. But, it is the important one. Teachers often challenge students. That’s easy to do. That challenge is a hollow one, and the students recognize that, if the teacher is not willing to back it up with some effort.

I often say “you cannot challenge a student to leap tall buildings in a single bound if you are not willing to do the boring stuff involved with helping them to learn to fly.”

If you have read this blog for long, you know I often tell my students that a class is like a dance: they do half of the work and I do half of the work and together we can create something that is wonderful. But, both sides have to do their half. Otherwise, it all falls apart.

Here’s my suggestion. Push up your 50 percent to a higher level. Be better prepared. Think more about your classes and your teaching. Encourage your students to come by and see you more often for assistance. Spend a bit longer grader tests and writing notes on their papers.

Student change won’t come immediately but I believe that you will find that, over time, they will begin to push up their 50 percent also. In a dance, someone has to lead. In a class, someone has to lead and it ought to be the teacher. If one dancer starts working harder, the other person often responds accordingly. Don’t ask the students to increase their 50 percent first. That won’t work—you are the leader. Push up your 50 percent and see if you are not impressed by the response you get.


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Are Your Class Goals Nouns or Verbs?

A good friend of mine asked me recently what my goal was in teaching one of my courses (financial accounting). I think he expected me to list out certain topics and concepts that I wanted all my students to learn. I call these “noun goals” because they describe rules, computations, or the like that students should come to know. For example, I might want my students to be able to compute cost of goods sold using a perpetual LIFO system.

In truth, I don’t think I have a single “noun goal” because I am not certain what any of my students are going to need to know after they leave my class. I am not sure if some or even any of my students will ever need to compute cost of goods sold using a perpetual LIFO system. How can a topic be a course goal if most of the students may never need the knowledge?

I explained to my friend that I had a single goal for my classes and I call it a “verb goal” because it involves action. I will be perfectly happy if I can get all of my students (100 percent – not just the ones who need to know perpetual LIFO) to spend 5 hours per week outside of class thinking seriously about financial accounting and 3 hours per week inside of class thinking seriously about financial accounting. I believe that is reasonable and if I can get that kind of effort then my students will come to better understand and appreciate financial accounting –qualities that can have a very positive effect on them in their years after leaving my class.

For this reason, I’m not so obsessed with getting every bit of information covered. If my students don’t happen to cover every possible depreciation method, I don’t lose sleep. If my students don’t learn every characteristic of common stock, their lives are not ruined. If I can get them, though, to think seriously about financial accounting for 8 hours per week for 14 weeks, I think they will take away a huge amount of understanding and interest. I think that is how you get a student to say “wow – I never knew financial accounting could be so interesting.” And, that is what I want – it comes from having a verb goal and not from a noun goal.

How do you get students to think seriously about a topic? Isn’t that really the ultimate question for a teacher? Forget everything else. If I can get my students to think seriously about financial accounting, haven’t I won the battle? At that point, the class starts to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

If you have read this blog before, you know that I rely almost exclusively on two teaching techniques. First, I ask a countless number of “why?” “how come?” “are you sure?” type questions. I believe questions are the driver for critical thinking skills. Second, I work constantly to puzzle my students. If I can present them with a puzzle, I find they are dying to figure out how to solve that puzzle.

Think of your classes for the fall of 2010. Are your goals nouns or verbs?

Sunday, June 6, 2010

June 6, 2011

When I lead teaching seminars, I often start out with a quote and a challenge that I hope tie together well enough to give the audience members something to ponder.

The quote is: "Teaching does not come from years of doing it. It actually comes from thinking about it." Your teaching, I believe, will not get better simply by ongoing repetition. Too often, bad teachers stay bad teachers year after year until they retire (often with an established list of rationalizations). Teaching gets better when people sit down and think seriously about what is going on in their classes, why it is happening in that way, whether they like the result, and—if not—what can be done differently. I am always reminded of Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If you do something in class that does not work as you hoped, don’t just do it again and expect better results.

The challenge is: “Work to become 5 percent better as a teacher over the next year.” I consider that a reasonable and worthwhile goal. No one is going to become 50 percent, or even 20 percent, better as a teacher in one year. But, 5 percent is a goal that I think everyone can achieve. And, if you meet that goal for a few years straight, you’ll be surprised by how quickly you become one of the best teachers at your school. Evolution does happen.

Many of us do not teach during the summer making this the ideal time to think about teaching. A brand new school year is coming up in the fall. What do you need to work on? What elements of your teaching need to be evaluated and retooled? How are you going to make 5 percent improvement? Surely, there is some aspect of your teaching where you can get better.

One of the things that I like to do is break teaching down into its various components and then consider them individually. Many times, I will work on one single component of the learning process rather than try for across the board improvement. What are some of these components?

--How often do you want students to be prepared for class and how do you get them to do the preparation that you want? Does this preparation stress critical thinking? There is a big difference between: “why does a lessee want an operating lease?” and “write down the four criteria for a capital lease?”

--How do you get all of your students to participate in class and not just the most extroverted ones?

--How do you introduce a new topic into class without just telling the students about it (lecturing)?

--How do you move from a mechanical/memorization based class to one where students truly are pushed to understand?

--After material has been covered in class, how do you encourage students to continue spending time on it until they understand it fully? Class coverage is rarely enough to establish complete knowledge.

--How do you encourage students to learn on an ongoing basis and not just to prepare for tests?

--How do you test in a way that encourages students to learn and not just memorize?

--How do you grade so that students are challenged without being overwhelmed, encouraged without everyone getting an A?

--I led a discussion this past Friday where I stressed I I E E – involve, interest, engage, excite. How do you add those verbs to you class?

There are lots of components to this learning process that we deal with each day in our work lives. Today is June 6, 2010. Think about the components of your teaching and pick one or two to focus on over the next 12 months with the goal of using that thinking to help make yourself 5 percent better as a teacher. Come back on June 6, 2011 and hold yourself accountable. What did you actually do? What did you try? Did you get better at those components of teaching and did they make your overall teaching 5 percent better?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Are You a Teacher or Are You a Mentor?

When I first started working in a college classroom in 1971, it struck me that some members of the faculty were teachers and others were mentors. A teacher is a person who walks into a classroom and helps students learn to understand material. Some of the people I encountered were good teachers and others were not so good. The only criterion for excellence, though, was how much the students learned by the end of the semester.

A mentor was certainly a teacher but, in addition, the mentor was a little bit more. I checked on the Internet just now and found the term “mentor” defined as a trusted guide or advisor. Yeah, I have known a few of those also over the past 39 years. In fact, some of the best mentors that I have seen were not particularly good teachers. It is a different talent. However, it is a way that a faculty member can have a genuine and long lasting effect on the life of a student.

Teacher or mentor?

It seems to me that you can divide college faculty members into three categories. The first is the pure teacher who works to help students learn but has no real interest in giving advice or guidance. I have worked with some wonderful teachers who did not know the name of a single student and didn't want to know their names. As an undergraduate, I went to a large research-oriented school. I would say that virtually every college professor I had in four years at that school was a teacher. If I had walked into one of their offices and said “I’ve got an issue that I wonder if I could talk with you about,” the response would have been something like that of W. C. Fields: “Go away kid, you bother me.”

The second category is what I call “mentors for the best and brightest.” Many faculty members really like to work with the top 10 percent of their students because they can push them to excel. This is often where we get our next generation of doctors, engineers, scientist, and college professors. There are always students capable of great achievements and having a mentor to push and guide them forward is so important.

The third category is what I call “mentors with an open-door policy.” Every student feels free to walk in and talk with these faculty members about everything from majors to roommates to personal tragedies. My first four years as a college professor were at a very small, religiously-oriented college. All faculty members were expected to be mentors. Students with real problems would call me at home for personal advice.

I am not here to tell you what you ought to be. I think that is a very personal decision. What I do think, though, is that every program needs some of each. I would even say that having 33 percent of your faculty in each category is not a bad allocation. When I first started teaching, I think many of the schools that I came in contact with came pretty close to that pattern. A faculty is like a baseball team; it needs people to play different positions.

What concerns me now a bit is that I think fewer and fewer faculty members are in category three and I worry that this category may eventually become extinct. At a lot of schools, this level of mentoring has been virtually reassigned away from the faculty. Universities now have career development centers and advising services and all kinds of surrogate mentors. Those are great and awfully helpful but it is almost as if some administrator said “make a list of every question a student could possibly ask and then we’ll hire someone other than a faculty member to answer it. Keep the students away from the faculty.”

I think there should always be a few professors in every department who have an open door policy for every student and who are willing to go beyond being a teacher. Into which of these three classifications do you fall and are you satisfied with that placement? When your career is eventually over and done with, do you want to be remembered as a teacher or as a mentor?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

How Do You Radically Improve Education?

I am giving a 75-minute presentation next week to about 60-70 college educators. I am going to talk about the evolution of textbooks (as I see it) over the next few years.

When I give a speech or presentation, I like to send out a note to the participants in advance to help get them involved in the topic even before I start. It is not always possible but, if it can be worked out, they tend to walk into the program with some thoughts already rattling around in their heads which helps in getting them involved in the conversation.

So, here is the note that I sent out to the participants in next week’s conference. I share it with you because it talks about some of my feelings about college textbooks.

I am writing this note to the participants in the June 4 Virginia Educators’ Symposium at the VSCPA in Richmond. My name is Joe Hoyle and I am on the faculty at the Robins School of Business here at the University of Richmond. More importantly, I will be the opening speaker at the Educators’ Symposium. I look forward to seeing whether you are more or less asleep than my own students would be at 8:30 on a Friday morning.

At the Symposium, I will be chatting with you about “The Emergence of New Textbook Models in Higher Education.” In November 2006, an accounting textbook editor challenged me to design “the textbook of the 21st Century.” As a result, I have spent the last 3 ½ years thinking about what textbooks look like, what they are supposed to accomplish, what they do well, what they do poorly, and how they could be changed. These musings have been influenced by my own thoughts and beliefs about learning and the education process in general. How do we get students engaged in our classes? Why should any student really want to learn accounting? How are we able to take a person in August who knows nothing about accounting and systematically turn that person into someone who has a genuine understanding of accounting by December? Come up with legitimate answers to those kinds of questions and I guarantee you will have a successful class.

As I will tell you on June 4, my number one realization from these musings is that textbooks sit at the very heart of a vast majority of courses in college. The quickest way to create a radical advancement in college accounting education across the board is to improve the quality of that textbook. There is a limit on how much you can change the students or the teachers but the textbooks offer a real opportunity for improvement. Better textbooks simply mean better learning.

Want to get a feel for what is wrong with textbooks? Here’s an experiment that I tried. Walk across your campus to your bookstore. Pick up a textbook titled something like Introduction to Physics. Find a comfortable chair and read the book for 15 minutes. This is as close as you can get to the actual experience your students have when they start reading the textbook for your class. So, after 15 minutes, what was your response to “Introduction to Physics?”
A – My gosh this is boring
B – I don’t understand what they are talking about
C – Wow, I really want to spend many hours this semester learning physics

The problem with textbooks is that 50 percent of YOUR students will say A and 50 percent will say B and no one will say C. And, that is a shame because learning accounting (and probably physics also) can be a wonderful and enlightening experience. At its best, education is super enjoyable. If we want to improve the education experience, we need to start getting our students to read their textbooks and say C.

When I bring up “textbooks need to improve,” I always get the same one word response: “technology.” And, I agree that technology can be a wonderful aid but I think we abdicate responsible for being more innovative when we leave educational improvement to punching more and more keys on smaller and smaller electronic devices. That is one component of the needed change but only one component.

I really look forward to conversing with you about textbooks on June 4. Bring your questions. More importantly—bring your answers.

And, if you want to see the result of my 3 ½ years of pondering textbooks, you can go to:

I go through Mozilla Firefox but you can access it with IE also. Click on “detailed view” and you’ll see the content of the chapters. Watch a video and read a few pages. Pretend it is a physics book and see how you feel about it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

What Did You Learn?

A friend of mine (Steve Markoff who is on the faculty of Montclair State) shared with me an interesting exercise that he does on the final exam for his courses. He asks the students to complete the following sentence anonymously: “During the semester, I learned…”

He then has another person gather this information into a Word file that he emails back to his students.

There are several things that I like about this idea.

First, it forces all of the students to reflect on the semester and make an evaluation. “What did I learn that is worth putting down?” I think every class could benefit from more student reflection and evaluation. We convey information to them and they convey it back to us, possibly without ever thinking of why they are doing that and what thy are gaining from the process. We often end the semester with a final examination that asks “can you apply LIFO?” or “do you know how to compute interest expense?” without any general query about what was actually learned.

Second, these reflections should help the teacher get better at teaching. If Steve doesn’t like what he reads from the students, he can consider what changes need to be made. I have never made a secret that I do not like formal student evaluations which too often hinge on whether you get a 4.3 or a 4.2 on a five point scale. However, I believe that asking students what they learned and then deciding whether you like the answer or not is a very valid way to get some genuine feedback.

Third, it gives students a take away from the semester. Too often, students study like mad and take a complicated final exam and then walk off without the semester being brought to any type of logical conclusion. Somehow there should be some closure to the semester other than the mystery of walking away from a final exam wondering what you got right and what you got wrong and then a grade magically appearing on a grade report. By sending out the list of “what did you learn in this course?” the students can get a sense of what the entire community gained from the course and I think that is a great wrap up.

Thanks Steve, I’ve learned something that I’ll probably try myself next fall.