Sunday, January 31, 2010

How You Test Is How They Will Learn

Quick Announcement: If you want to see our new (free, online) Financial Accounting textbook, you can go to -- heck, start reading and get an accounting education. You can check out the Socratic Method and watch my videos. See how many of embedded exercises you can answer.

No matter what students or faculty tell you, students learn based on how they are tested and graded. Too many teachers tell students “I do not want you to memorize; I want you to understand.” Then, they test memorization. The grapevine in college is strong. If your tests emphasize memorization, then every student will know that by the third day in class and they will react accordingly.

So, ask yourself what your complaint is about your students (it is hard to have a perfect class; I assume you will have some complaints). Then, ask yourself whether there is something that you can do through the testing process to fix that complaint. I always assume that complaints can be solved by better communication (“stop doing that”) or by better testing.

When it comes to testing, I have three suggestions for you to ponder:

(1) – I give three tests per semester (plus a comprehensive final exam). I don’t like taking up three entire days for testing but I find that students react better if there is a test in their relatively near future.

(2) – In the last 10 years, I have started spending a lot more time writing my tests than I did in the 30 previous years. Consequently, my test questions have gotten a lot better. I usually begin a couple days ahead by writing a rough draft and then I edit it several times. Seems like too much work but I do believe that the word has gotten around that I am looking for something more than memorization. I also give all of my students the tests that I used in the previous year just so they get a feel for what I am looking for them to learn.

(3) – Most importantly, I allow the students to bring one full page (front and back) of notes to the test. I have found that this policy was good for both them and me. Creating that page of notes helps students to assess what is most important in the coverage. They only have one page so they have to consider seriously what to include. And, it clearly points out to them that I am looking for something more than memorization. There is no reason to memorize anything if you can write it down on a sheet of paper and bring it with you. But, I think I am actually the real beneficiary. If you know the students are sitting there with a page of notes, you cannot fall back on memorization questions. You force yourself to go beyond what they have written down—to think of what use can be made of that information. How can you test real understanding? Consequently, I have come to really enjoy writing tests because it is a challenge and a puzzle to push them beyond their sheet of paper.

Students will learn based on how they expect to be tested. Take advantage of that.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Book Is Now Available

Okay this is not really a blog posting but just a quick announcement. If you are teaching at a college or university and would like to get a hardcopy version of the new Financial Accounting textbook that I have written with C. J. Skender of UNC, please send an email to It is hot off the presses and ready for your consideration.

And, in case you want to see exactly how I have spent the last three years of my life doing, here is a short promo letter that I wrote this morning about this new textbook.

I have long been frustrated with textbooks on the market, especially at the introductory level when students are first being exposed to accounting. To me, the “traditional” textbook is (a) too expensive, (b) too boring, and (c) too confusing. Without a textbook that guides students through the material and helps build their interest, it is difficult for any teacher to have a successful classroom experience. In this time of rapid technological innovations, I am stunned that textbooks have evolved so little. In general, they are not much changed from those that I used over 40 years ago as a student.

I do not want to take up too much of your time so let me provide you with a few quick reasons why I believe this new textbook will prove to be different, why I hope it will change the way accounting professors use textbooks in the future.

a)--The online version is available for FREE (yes, FREE) to all of your students. There is a moderate cost for the paper version but every student may certainly use the textbook online for free.

b)--The entire book is written in a Socratic Method style. We pose a question and address it. We then follow that with the next logical question. I could probably write several pages as to why I think that all textbooks will eventually be written in this fashion but let me give you just four:
it has the natural feel of a conversation rather than a lecture,
it allowed us as authors to blend both theoretical and practical questions,
it guides students through the material in a logically organized structure, and
it enabled us to better address those areas where students typically have trouble.

c)--Each chapter begins with a short video to introduce students to the material and explain why it is both relevant to them and potentially interesting.

d)--Embedded multiple-choice questions are included on virtually every page so that students can receive immediate feedback as to whether they have picked up key concepts.

e)--An ongoing conversation is included throughout most chapters with a Big Four partner about IFRS (international financial reporting standards) and their differences and similarities to US GAAP.

f)—We include 17 short interviews with a successful investment analyst to provide students with a look at the real-world side of financial accounting.

g)--Each chapter ends with a closing video that challenges students to pick the five most important elements of the chapter and compare them to my list. We want students to think deeply about the material. Asking them to make this evaluation is one way to encourage that type of critical consideration.

However, you need to judge a textbook for yourself. If you have any questions at all, do not hesitate to contact me at I am always glad to talk about this textbook or education in general.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Renewing the Energy Level

Today was moving day here in my classes at the University of Richmond. I find that after about 2-3 weeks even the most enthusiastic student starts to get a bit lethargic. There is something about every day looking the same that eventually gets to be a grind. And, learning is never efficient if it feels like a grind.

So, when I sense a drain in the energy level of my students, I come in and move everyone in class around. I have a seating chart so I just print up a new one and move the students around in a random fashion. I move the ones on the left to the right and the ones on the front to the back and so on. Usually, I feel an immediate surge of enthusiasm. All of a sudden, things feel new again. It won’t last forever but for another 2-3 weeks, they should do better.

In addition, I want the students to get to know the people in class other than just their friends. I think that should be a goal of every college class. Moving them around helps that.

I also want to see if some students do better close up or far away. Yeah, there are reasons to move students around.

However, the primary reason is to create a new class feeling. I don’t want them to be too settled in. I find (at least for me) that comfortable students often don’t have the edge that I want.

I moved them all today and, sure enough, I felt like class just went better.

Where are we in Financial Accounting? We have gone through transactions and financial statements. They now seem to understand the difference between rent expense and prepaid rent. They have gotten a feel for terms such as contributed capital, retained earnings, cost of goods sold, and the like. On Friday, if it doesn’t snow, we will introduce the concept of debits and credits to them. That’s always a fun challenge (for them as well as me). I would really like to have them on their toes for that. So, I moved them all into new seats today.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What Do You Want On Your Tombstone?

It is early in the semester so I want to ask you to consider a question.

Several years ago, Tombstone Pizza ran a series of television ads that asked the question “What do you want on your tombstone?” Although the company was trying to sell their pizzas, the ads also made people think about how they wanted to be remembered. Not a bad question to ponder.

When I give teaching presentations, I often ask the members of my audience to write down in one or two sentences exactly how they would like to be remembered by their students. My point to them is that you cannot be the type of teacher you want to be unless you really know how you want to be remembered.

Afterwards, I’ve had dozens of people tell me they had never thought of the question until I asked it and, then, it really made them think about their teaching from a new perspective.

Several years ago, the seniors here at the University of Richmond were holding an awards ceremony and they voted me “the most feared professor in the Business School.” That was fine; I understood how they might think that. However, later in the same evening, they also named me “the professor who cares the most.” Okay, when you put the two awards together, I kind of liked that. He is mean to us because he cares. Well, it wouldn’t be my dream description but I still kind of liked it

So, I thought about the question more seriously. How do I really want my students to remember me? If you were to ask me, it would be “he is the professor who pushed us the hardest to think and learn” and “he is the professor who cared the most.” Not one or the other but both. If by the end of the semester I could get those two comments, I think I would be satisfied. Even here early in the semester, those two already serve as a goal for me personally: push them as hard as I possibly can but make sure that they know that I care about them and their future. I don’t want one without the other; I want both.

So, my challenge for you is to sit down and ask yourself this question. When you next go to class, how do you want these students (not some dream students but the live ones sitting there in front of you) to remember you? Look into their eyes and ask yourself that question. I think if you can come up with a verbal description to answer that question, you will have taken a real step toward having a great semester.

A student who came to my office this afternoon made me think of this. She had been in my class some time back and we were just chatting. I asked her about her classes and her response was “all of my teachers this semester seem to throw up Power Point slides on the screen and then kind of read them to us. I’ll remember these teachers as Power Point people.”

I’m not sure that’s how I would want to be remembered by my students. Which raises the question, again, here at the beginning semester: What do you want on your tombstone? How do you want your students to remember you?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Critical Points in the Learning Process

Author’s Note: Before I get started today, I wanted to mention a note that I received from Professor David Albrecht. I am always pleased to pass along information that might help in better teaching.

From David: I've been blogging for a while. My blog is at On my blog, a have a page of links http://profalbrecht.wordpress/com/links/ for all other accounting professors that blog. You might be interested.

I have long believed that there are three critical points in the learning process: (1) what students do prior to class to prepare themselves to learn, (2) what takes place during class, and (3) what happens immediately after class to help the students solidify the material that they have just heard and discussed. If I were to guess, I would think that teachers spend about 10 percent of their time and energy on helping guide step (1), 89 percent of their time setting up step (2), and 1 percent of their time and energy guiding step (3). Personally, I think a 33.3, 33.3, 33.3 allocation might make for a much better educational experience.

Students leave class and if they are not careful any and all understanding leaks away very quickly. Subsequently, when test time arrives, they find it necessary to cram all that understanding back into their brains in almost a panic. Not surprisingly, they will then complain that they “knew it all until they got to the test.” What they really mean is that they had a vague understanding leaving class but never solidified the knowledge so that it went from a general appreciation of the material to an actual and deep understanding.

Therefore, I encourage my students to organize, review, practice, or whatever it takes within a few hours after each class. I stress that this might well be the most important work they do in my class. I do not feel that I can over-emphasize taking the material that we have gone over in class and bringing it into their actual knowledge base.

Unfortunately, students seem to have little training as to how to do this. Ask your students some day “what have you done since the last class to make sure that you understood that material we covered?” You may well get some truly bewildered stares. You have introduced a foreign concept.

I try to help guide my students AFTER material has been presented. As I have said before in these postings, I use email a lot. One of my favorites uses is a quick email right after class to say “okay, here is what we covered today and here is what you should do next to get that material under control.”

For example, on Wednesday of this week, we had our opening discussion on transactions and transaction analysis. Within 10 minutes of leaving class, I sent them the following email to alert them to exactly what I needed for them to do next. Plus, I introduced my concept of “three-second knowledge,” the stuff they should know so well that they really don’t need to think about it. I believe every course has a significant amount of three-second knowledge. If the students can get that learned, they will have an excellent base of understanding on which to build more complicated concepts.

Email to students after Wednesday’s class:
“--We ended class looking at the financial ramifications of seven transactions. I need for you to go back over those seven until you know them backwards and forwards. These are not hard (and there are not many) but you cannot have soft knowledge on this. You need to have this down absolutely solid. If I walk into class Friday and ask you about one of those seven, I need for you to have this at what I call the "three-second level of knowledge." In other words, if I call on you with one of those seven, you should be able to count to three and tell me the answer. Not look it up in your notes or the book but count to three and tell me the answer. If you start coughing and sputtering, then, by definition, you are not at the level that I want. Notice, that this is just for the seven transactions that we specifically covered yesterday.”

How can you help your students take their soft knowledge and turn it into an understanding that is absolutely solid?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Making Sure the Message Gets Through

A mere 45 years ago, I was on my high school debate team. I still remember the wonderful lady who was our coach. At the first meeting of the season, she said something that I have never forgotten: “When you say something, you know exactly what you mean so it sounds clear as glass to you. However, no one else can see inside of your head so even the simplest message can slip by your listeners as they try to catch up with and organize your words. Always remember, there are three steps in getting your message across to your audience: tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell it to them, and then tell them what you told them.”

I think every teacher could benefit from that guidance. We often say something that sounds as clear as glass to us and then wonder why our students fail to comprehend.

When I started to write my Financial Accounting textbook (for, I was disturbed by how poorly students seem to understand what they had read. I wanted to get beyond that. It is certainly no secret that students often pay a lot of money for textbooks that they don’t even open. This has got to be one of the real weaknesses at the heart of our educational system. However, would you invest a couple of hours of your time reading stuff that you didn’t understand?

I really, really want students to read and understand my textbook before they walk into class. So, I used the advice of my debate teacher. I decided to tell them what I was going to tell them, then tell it to them, and then tell them what I told them. I felt that if the overall reading experience became successful then students would be more likely to do the reading. And, education always improves if students are prepared when they come to class.

I thought about this for a very long time. Eventually, I decided to start each chapter with a video where I would spend a few minutes introducing and “selling” the chapter to the students. “Here is what you are going to read in this chapter and here is why it will be worth your time.” Not everyone believes that reading about intangible assets is worth a couple of their hours. I wanted to show them why it might well be.

Of course, I am hoping that they will then actually be intrigued and read the chapter. I am also hoping that the introductory video will help them key in on the important materials and gain a better grasp as they read.

Finally, I close each chapter with a different type of video. I ask the students to pick out the five most important things within each chapter and then I review my own personal countdown for them. It is obviously a way to review but I think the process of evaluation is a great way to encourage students to reflect on the material in the chapter. That kind of reflection has to help them solidify their understanding even before the first class meeting.

In your own teaching, especially if you feel that the students are not picking up the messages well enough, you might want to ponder how you can tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell it to them, and then tell them what you told them. That added redundancy might be just the ticket to make your message much easier for the students to grasp and appreciate.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Stepping Stones

When I wrote my free on-line teaching tips book (, I compared the education process to walking across a pond on stepping stones. The student is trying to go from ignorance to understanding and the teacher plays many roles in this process. Two of the most important are (a) placing those stones in a logical sequence that best guides and promotes the learning and (b) helping the student get from one stone (concept) to the next—especially in areas that can be difficult for a person with limited (often very limited) knowledge.

Early in the semester, at least in my Financial Accounting class, I do a lot of thinking about sequencing. In an introductory class, students know little or nothing. They can get lost and frustrated very quickly and lose interest or confidence. I believe that many textbooks do not do a particular good job in the sequencing of material in the early chapters. In general, here is the sequencing that I have been trying to establish in my first week-and-a-half of classes this semester.

--Every student is a potential decision-maker when it comes to organizations because you work for, invest in, or do business with them.

--A lot of financial information is available to help you make wise decisions about those organizations.

--The more you understand that financial information the more likely it is that you will make wise decisions.

--Accountants have devised a structure known as US GAAP so that everyone uses the same reporting rules. This structure is hugely important in helping decision-makers to understand the information they are seeing. Communication of information is much more successful when we all speak the same language. As much as anything else, this course is about coming to understand that language--US GAAP (as well as IFRS, the international standards).

--A significant portion of the information is designed to report the assets, liabilities, revenues, and expenses of an organization. There are other things to report but those are the major ones. Those four are so essential to our understanding of an organization and its financial health and prospects that we take our time in class and make sure there is no confusion. Why is a building an asset and an employee is not (according to rules)? What exactly is meant by the term "revenue?"

--The information has to be presented in some organized form. We use financial statements for that purpose.

Okay, after four days, I am satisfied that my students are beginning to make it across the pond on those stepping stones. At least they have made a start. Tomorrow, we will look more closely at financial statements. They have been looking at Kroger's statements on line -- just picking out the parts they understand.

In addition, we will try to move the process along a bit more by introducing transactions and just talk about a few basic transactions and what actually changes in each one. This is another one of those places where students can stumble so we’ll start using those three magic words that are always helpful in education: practice, practice, practice.

That’s the sequencing that I have built into our new Financial Accounting textbook and into my class. However, there are many potential sequences that you can follow. But it is helpful to think about your sequence. Don’t sequence randomly unless you are trying to promote confusion. What is your first step, what is the second step, and so on? Is there anything in that sequence that might really frustrate or lose your students? If so, is there anything you can do to help them successfully move forward?

Anticipate where the problems will be. Being able to spot the potential difficulties and guide the students through them is certainly one key to a successful learning experience.

I hope we have a great day tomorrow and I hope you and your classes do as well.

Friday, January 15, 2010

What Are You Seeing?

We had our third class this afternoon. By now, my students have a feel (I hope) for the need to use financial accounting information to make decisions. Today, I told them that the numbers they are seeing are presented fairly in accordance with US generally accepted accounting principles. We discussed what that could possibly mean.

Why are reported numbers not absolutely correct in every situation?
What is the role of generally accepted accounting principles and who creates this GAAP?
What would be the result if there were no rules, if GAAP did not exist? (I always view this as an essential question in understanding the importance of rules.)

Immediately after class, I sent them the following email. Especially over a week-end, I like to link the class that they just had to the one that they will next have.

“Here is the opening question for Monday's class. In its financial information for 2009, Apple reported sales of $36,537,000,000. What can we say with confidence about that figure? I'd like to start class by making a list of everything we can say about that figure. I believe we can probably come up with 4-6 things that we now understand about the information that is being conveyed by Apple. ”

What do I expect the students to come up with as a response. With college students, you never know for sure but here is what I am hoping for:
--$36,537,000,000 is not the exact amount of sales for Apple but it is a fair representation of that figure.
--$36,537,000,000 is the sales figure presented fairly in accordance with US GAAP.
--$36,537,000,000 is a number that decision-makers can use with confidence as they make decisions.
--$36,537,000,000 is a figure that contains no material misstatements according to US GAAP
--$36,537,000,000 provides a portrait of the company’s sales, not an exact amount but one that resembles reality enough to be usable by decision-makers.
--$36,537,000,000 is the number Apple determined using the rules created by FASB and other authoritative bodies.
--$36,537,000,000 is a number that contains no material errors or fraud.

If I can get all of those (and I guess we’ll see on Monday), then I will believe that my students have gotten away from the idea of accountants as bean-counters and have started realizing the need for rules and how those rules can help us derive usable information that we can rely on in making decisions. Then, when we start learning those rules, they’ll have an understanding of their use and importance.

As I told my students: HAVE A GREAT WEEK-END!!!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Balancing Act

Yesterday afternoon, we had our second Financial Accounting class. I thought it went well. Guiding an introductory level course is a balancing act at the very beginning of the semester as you try to accomplish basic goals: creating a foundation of knowledge that can be built on throughout the semester while also helping students to understand why the material is both beneficial and interesting.

No one wants lost students so you have to make sure that they start to learn the basics sooner rather than later. However, no one wants bored and uninterested students either so you must provide a rationale for doing the necessary work. That can be a real balancing act. I am always intrigued to read the first few pages of a Financial Accounting textbook. Some seem to push students so fast that they must surely get lost, confused, and frustrated while others go so slowly that you wonder if anything is actually learned and whether the students are able to stay awake.

Yesterday, I started off by asking the following question: “if we had a time machine so that we could go forward in time and then come back to the present, what would you really want to know about a company, such as Apple, a few years from now?” I typically start off by getting a few obvious answers: is the company still in business, has the company been profitable, are they getting bigger? My response: “those are good answers but is that ultimately what you would want to know if you had the miracle of a time machine?”

In the first class on Monday, we talked about making a profit in investing through stock price appreciation and dividends. Not surprisingly, after a few minutes yesterday, a student suggested that she would want to know the stock price in the future and the amount of dividends paid (and cash flows if she were a creditor). I then asked her the following question which was one of my major points for the day: “Assume that we go into the future and learn the stock price for Apple, the amount of dividend payments, and its cash flows. We then come back here to the present. When we get back to the present, I hand you all of Apple’s current financial information. What would you do next?”

“Throw it in the trashcan,” was her astute answer. Perfect; we are making progress.

Regardless of all the explanations found in a textbook, for an investor or a creditor, the ultimate purpose of financial information is to help predict stock prices, cash dividends, and cash flows. Everything else is just a means to those ends. Students easily understand that goal and it is one that they find intriguing. They can see why that might benefit them regardless of their future careers. Accounting IS relevant to them. That goal is not vague and theoretical. It is real and understandable and promises some potential benefit to their own lives.

Then, I switched to talking about accounting as a language. I constantly talk about conveying information so we chatted about how a language conveys information. “How does a language allow me to communicate both simple and complex information to someone who is five feet away or 5,000 miles away?” Again, that is not a difficult question—even on the second day of class. Each language has a relatively set terminology. Most people have roughly the same understanding of words such as “apple” and “cat,” for example. And, there is a structure to the language created by punctuation, syntax, and other grammatical rules. If both parties know the terminology and understand the structural rules, communication is possible.

I ended the day with one basic question: what is the purpose of this course? It didn’t take long for the group to come back to this answer which is how we ended the class: “to learn the structural rules of financial accounting and its terminology so that we can understand the information prepared by an organization, knowledge which can enable us to make reasonable predictions about future stock prices, cash dividends, and cash flows.”

Okay, there is still a long way to go this semesterbut I think, for the second day of class, we have started the learning process and given them a reason to do the work necessary. Tomorrow, we will start to introduce some of those structural rules and the terminology that will enable us to make those predictions. Hopefully, the students will understand why that knowledge can prove helpful to them.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ongoing Contact

Students today commonly use Twitter and Facebook and, therefore, they receive lots of information on a regular basis. Information comes to them in small bits many times each day. Therefore, the 48 to 72 hours between class meetings can seem like an eternity. It is little wonder that students often seem incapable of remembering what took place in the previous class meeting. The amount of correspondence they have received in the interim is probably massive.

I don’t use Twitter because I can’t write anything in 140 characters but I use email A LOT. I want to keep the students engaged in the period between my classes. I want them to think about Financial Accounting every day not just when they are walking into class.

The emails that I send to my students vary enormously from motivational to practice questions to simply informational. I often ask the students about these emails in class so they know they need to read them. Yesterday was our first class where we discussed ownership shares (of Apple) and the information that helps us assess the financial health and future prospects of a business. Today, I sent them the following email just as a follow-up to keep their attention on financial accounting and remind them why this topic can be of such importance to them.

Email sent to students on January 12, 2010:

I heard something on NPR this morning (yes, I do listen to NPR a lot) that I thought was interesting.

Because of its bankruptcy and bailout, ownership shares of General Motors are not sold on a stock market these days. The government owns most of the company.

However, they were talking with one of the company’s officials this morning and he said that he hoped the company would be able to have an IPO (initial public offering) prior to the end of 2010. If so, you could buy shares from General Motors and those shares would then start being sold from one investor to another on a stock market (most likely the New York Stock Exchange).

The announcer then asked the official: “would anyone want to invest in GM?” And, of course, that is our essential question. General Motors would just love to have your money for operations and growth but would you love to give it to them? Well, if you looked at the financial information that the company prepared and liked what you saw, then “yes” maybe you would love to give them your money. BUT you would want to look at that information carefully and you would need to know what you were seeing.

Investing is not for amateurs.

Our job in this class is not to tell you what to invest in or what other decisions to make.
Our job in this class is to help you learn to understand what the information reflects so you can make your own decisions.

Then, you can decide for yourself whether to buy GM’s stock when it comes out.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Getting Off To A Good Start

I held my first Financial Accounting class of the semester today. My classes are 50 minutes long and half of that time must be used up on the first day going through the course outline to make sure everyone knows the mechanical stuff. Consequently, we only got in about 25 minutes of real accounting today.

When I started discussing financial accounting, I opened with the following question: “I was listening to National Public Radio yesterday morning and some expert made the assertion ‘I think 2010 will be a great year for Apple.’ On hearing this, I said to myself ‘now, that is really interesting’ and started to smile.” Why would such an innocuous statement have any effect on me at all?”

Because I had sent out information from the textbook 2-3 weeks ahead, I wasn’t surprised that the first student asserted: “you will start thinking about the possibility of buying some of the ownership shares of Apple so that you can benefit from the company’s upcoming good year?”

That lead to a quick discussion of what is meant by “ownership shares.” Students hear about the stock market everyday on the news and this helps them realize what is happening. They are getting connected to the real world.

After that, I asked why I would possibly want to buy ownership shares and both stock price appreciation and dividends were quickly brought up.

My goal here was to convince the students (whether they were majoring in art history, religion, psychology, or the like) that this material had some benefit to them. I try to avoid: “learn this because it is going to be on the test.” They all realize that they may have to do some investing one day (especially if they plan to retire) so they can see themselves actually having to choose between buying shares of Apple or Google (another company that was being discussed on NPR). They would like to be able to make good decisions.

Then, I went to what I thought was the essential question of the day: “Do you think that I rushed out this morning and spent a lot of my money buying shares of Apple based solely on one sentence that I heard on the radio.”

Again, the students understood that wasn’t going to happen and one responded: “Of course not, you probably went to the company’s web site and got more information.” (In their first group of assignments, I had sent them to Kroger’s website and directed them just to look at the financial information so they could see what was actually there.)

Ah – INFORMATION. That was my goal—to get that topic on the table. But before I delved into that with them, I let them know that accounting deals with monetary information. If I don’t, they will start talking about the number of employees or the size of an iPhone. They quickly figure out that the reported information is stated in dollars.

So, I asked them: what information would I like to know about Apple that can be stated in dollars? I got several good responses:
--How much Apple sold?
--What the inventory cost Apple to get?
--How much cash Apple was able to generate?

What monetary information can be conveyed? What information would be helpful?

We finished off the day talking about why accounting information is not always exact, correct, accurate or the like. Most of these students think accountants are “bean-counters” and I want them to get away from that notion on Day One. No one wants to be a bean-counter. So, I pose this question, “you do something and you get sued for $1 million and you think it is probable that you’ll lose (in a couple of years when the case is settled) between $300,000 and $600,000 but it is reasonably possible that you’ll lose $800,000. In your financial information, you report one number. What is the goal of that reporting?”

This is an example they can understand and they immediately realize they have a problem. Clearly, no one reported number is going to be accurate, correct, or exact. So, what is it going to be? What is the goal of the reporting?

That will be the bridge that I use to get to our second class.

Ownership shares, stock prices, dividends, information, monetary information, the goal for reported numbers. I hope that I have planted the seed that this material is worth the effort it will take to come to understand it.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


My first Financial Accounting class of the new semester is tomorrow. I am prepared. I am excited. After 40 years, it is nice to feel such anticipation.

My goal for the first class is to convince the student that financial accounting is really important to them (regardless of their major), help them understand the topic in terms of the conveyance of financial information to decision-makers, and start helping them to understand that it is actually all quite interesting.

In my classes, normally about 11 percent to 24 percent of the students earn the grade of A. I like for the percentage to be small enough to feel really special, a genuine challenge. However, I also want the grade to seem attainable with a reasonably strong effort.

I am a big believer that students believe other students (“the grapevine”) much more than they will ever believe any teacher. So, at the end of each semester, I send an email to the students who make the grade of A in my class. First, I want to tell them their grade personally and congratulate them on doing such a good job. There is something about giving an A without a personal bit of congratulation that I don’t like. For those students who took up the challenge and made an A, I want them to know how pleased I am.

In addition, I ask them to write me a short paragraph telling me how they managed to achieve such an excellent grade when a large majority of the students did not. I only give them two rules: be honest and be serious. I use this feedback as my own personal student evaluations. I want to get a feel for how students go about doing well in my class.

More importantly, I want to use these little essays to guide the next group of students who come along. I cut and paste each paragraph into a Word document regardless of what the student says. Then, about three weeks before the semester begins, I send that document to my new students by email with a challenge: “I want everyone in this class to make an A. Here is what a bunch of students JUST LIKE YOU did to make an A in my class. If that is what those students did, I would take it to heart if I were you. They did it and so can you.”

I am always amazed that even the brightest person sometimes seems clueless as to how to be an effective and efficient student. In fact, some of my brightest students turn out to have the very poorest learning skills because they have never had a need (until now). Financial Accounting is a hard class for all of the students. I want to find ways to guide my students to be good learners. I believe these “How I Made an A” essays are great guides.

Here (below) is one of the essays that I got from a student at the end of last semester. It is pretty much typical. What messages was I glad to hear?
--Don’t miss class
--How to find answers to my questions
--Doing well is not impossible
--Don’t be afraid
--It is an interesting and helpful class.

I could (and do) tell all my students those things over and over. But coming from the teacher, they are probably ignored by the students who have heard those stories for their entire educational career. There is just something about getting the message from other students, especially ones who actually did well, that seems to catch their attention.

From Financial Accounting student (Fall 2009):
“The most important thing you need to get an A is to be prepared. Be prepared for every class. I understand that sometimes you won’t be that excited to read about accounting but it doesn’t take that much time and it’s worth it. Preparation is all you need here. Try not to miss a class, read the handouts every time and try to answer every question on them. Sometimes you won’t be able to answer them but this is the way to learn the stuff. Search through the book, work with some students from your class, ask Professor Hoyle. This is just the way learning works. As for the tests, just be sure to leave more time to study- 2 or 3 days was enough for me. Go back through all the handouts from Professor Hoyle and think about the material he could ask about on the test (although most time he covers all possible material). His tests are not impossible and he always curves them. Always, always, always be prepared and focused on the tests. They determine your grade. You will be perfectly fine if you don’t answer a question in class, but you will struggle if you start missing questions on the tests. Good luck and don’t be afraid! I remember reading these paragraphs several months ago and I was thinking that this class is a hell. However, this was my most interesting and helpful class. Professor Hoyle just wants to help you by giving you these. He wants to give you an A. Don’t let him down!”

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Student Preparation/Student Engagement -- The Socratic Method

(In case you are interested, information about the textbook that C. J. Skender and I wrote and which is the basis for this course and this blog, just go to: It is written entirely in a Socratic Method format which I think will aid student reading and understanding.)

In 1991, after I had taught for 18 years, I became disenchanted with the effectiveness of my teaching. When my students prepared for class, they became actively involved in their education and seemed able to understand the points I wanted to make no matter how complex. When they were not prepared, they fell into the role of stenographers and were forced to rely on memorization. Even small points were beyond their understanding. I came to believe, as I still do, that student preparation was the primary key to a higher level of student learning.

But how could I get my students to prepare consistently? Not just skim the chapter but actually think about the material in advance. When I give teaching presentations around the country, I ask that question of the audience and am surprised by how little educators think about the importance of that one aspect of the learning process.

In my own classes, I noticed that when students felt they would be called on they were much more likely to prepare. They didn’t want to look dumb in front of the teacher and the other students. Students are gamblers: If they were 50 percent certain that they would not be called on, they would not prepare. So, I decided to guarantee that they would be called on. That one decision changed my teaching life. Almost overnight, I switched to an entirely Socratic method class and I have kept at it for all of the years since 1991. One book (One L) and one movie (The Paper Chase) had a lot to do with that decision.

This semester I have two classes of Intermediate Accounting II with a total of 59 students and one class of Financial Accounting with 26 students. I will call on each of those students at least once (more likely 2-4 times) at every class. That’s a promise. The students know, when they arrive each day, that I will call on them; I will question them; I will expect them to be prepared to respond in a sensible manner.

At the start of every class, I give a handout that lists 4-10 “conversation starters” for the next class. So, they have the basic questions in their hands and 48 hours to get ready. For example, I might write out an opening question such as: “I was looking at the financial statements of Jones Corporation last night and, on its balance sheet, it lists an asset titled “Accounts receivable, net” with a balance of $19 million. What information does that convey to an outside decision-maker?”

In class the conversation might go as follows.

Teacher: Mr. A, when Jones reports $19 million for its accounts receivable, net, what does that reflect?
Mr. A: That is the net realizable value of the accounts receivable.
Teacher: Ms. B, what does Mr. A mean by the term net realizable value?
Ms. B: Net realizable value is the amount of cash that the company expects to collect from an asset such as accounts receivable.
Teacher: Mr. C, how did Jones determine the $19 million figure?
Mr. C: It has to be an estimate. They certainly do not know for certain how much money they will collect.
Teacher: Ms. D, how do they make that estimate?
Ms. D: They should use historical data updated for any changes in the environment or in the company.
Teacher: Mr. E, what kind of changes is Ms. D talking about?
Mr. E: Well, we are in a recession at the current time so that might mean that the company will collect less from its receivables than in the past. Or, the company might loosen up its credit policies to generate more sales and, thus, again, expect more bad accounts.

We can string together this type of question and walk right through the entire topic in a logical manner.

Notice how we started with a conversation starter (what does the $19 million figure reflect) and then had a discussion about the entire reporting process of this asset. And, I didn’t ask any question that the students (with some thought) could not have answered. They learned about the topic in reasonable increments. By the questions and the sequencing of those questions, I helped guide their understanding. Good questions and proper sequencing – you are talking about the essential building blocks of understanding.

Okay, it doesn’t always go that smoothly in my classes and I do get dumb answers on occasion. But, the students enjoy the give and take of the class. Within a couple of classes, students will start telling me that they actually look forward to the "discussion." Last semester, several students told me that they wanted to be called on more often.

That is how I do it. However, keep in mind that the key is student preparation that leads to student engagement. You have to decide what works for you. Experiment. Try lots of different things. But keep your eye on what you are trying to accomplish: getting your students to prepare so that they can be an active part of their own learning.

Here are the Day One conversation starters that my Financial Accounting students received from me about ten days ago and will be expected to answer this coming Monday at 1:30. This is actually a little short. My classes are only 50 minutes in length and taking the roll on the first day and covering the course outline will take some of our time.


(a) – I start every class by giving you a handout like this one. It contains the questions that we will talk about in the following class. I never lecture. We just have a conversation. However, you cannot hold up your end of that conversation unless you have prepared for class. I am not much interested in what you can throw out off the top of your head. I realize you have done that in the past in high school and (possibly) in college but you need to stop it. You are an adult now; I need for you to be prepared. I am very much interested in what you have spent time thinking about and considering. I believe that is how people succeed in life—being prepared.

(1) - I have sent you the first chapter for a textbook that I am writing with C. J. Skender of UNC (well, it is finished now and we will have the finished version in a couple of weeks). Read that first chapter—since I wrote it, it ought to tie really well into what I want you to understand.

As you read, think about a couple of things: what do you see that you already know, what do you see that you have heard of but don’t quite know and understand, what is completely unknown and how much of it is interesting and how much of it seems boring (“all of it seems boring” is probably a bad answer)?

Instead of underlining or highlighting stuff in the book, take each separate page and write down the 10-15 words that seem most important. I like the idea that you are making a decision about what is important. The process of evaluating is good for you. Plus, I think it is very helpful to force yourself to keep your notes short. You have to understand stuff to be able to make it concise. When I was in college, I once bought a used textbook that had every line in the first 120 pages underlined – what benefit was that?

(2) – Assume that one of your parents or one of your friends or someone you know makes the following comment: “I just received $400.00 cash as a present. So, I took the $400.00 and went to and invested it in shares of Ford Motor Company. I had looked at Intel, Pepsi, Microsoft, Google, and Ford but I put the $400.00 into Ford.”

--What is meant by “shares of Ford Motor Company?” What is it? How many “shares” does a company have?

--Other than buying shares of a company, what other types of investments are possible? What are their advantages over the ownership of shares and what are their disadvantages?

--Financial accounting information is information that can be stated in monetary terms (dollars) and is relatively objective (it is not a wild speculation). What might have been one piece of financial accounting information that I could have discovered that made me say “wow, I better go out and buy some shares of Ford right now!!!”

--Why would anyone put $400.00 “into Ford?” Why would anyone do such a thing? What do they expect to get out of that? (This is a really important question that we will come back to throughout the semester.)

--Why would anyone choose to put $400.00 into Ford rather than Intel, Pepsi, Google, or Microsoft? I had a chance for all of those last year but I chose Ford. (I also chose Bank of America, General Electric, and CapitalOne.)

--Based on your answers to the above questions, what has to be the ultimate purpose of the financial information that companies produce and distribute to help investors and potential investors?

(4) – Go to
--At the bottom of the opening page, click on “Investor Relations.”
--On the left side of the page, click on “reports and statements.”
--In the middle of the page, you should see a short paragraph about the annual report. Click on “view.”
--After it downloads, scroll down to pages A-33, A-34, and A-35. Find 3 or 4 things on those pages where you can say “oh, I know what that means.” Find 1 thing that seems interesting but you do not know what it means. By the end of the semester, I would hope that every single thing on those pages you could look at and go “oh, I know what that means.”

Friday, January 8, 2010

Creating the First Impression that You Want

I am a big believer that you need to set the tone that you want for a class right at the beginning. That first impression forms a foundation that you can build on throughout the semester.

I am lucky at the University of Richmond for two reasons.

One – I have been here for 30 years so I already have a reputation. I imagine that most of the students that I will have starting on Monday would say this about me: “I hear that he is a good teacher but I hear that he is very challenging and really wants you to learn; I imagine that I am going to have to work hard this semester.” I believe teachers should think about the reputations they are building because students will live up (or down) to what they have heard about you and your class.

Two – The University of Richmond provides us with email addresses for our students and I have already sent them three emails getting them ready. I want my students to understand what I expect right from the first day. I want to set the tone right then that I prefer. Now, you might expect the students to ignore my emails but if you hear that a teacher is very challenging and he sends you an email three weeks before the semester begins, you would probably at least read it (especially if you are bored a bit over a long vacation).

Email One – About 18 days before the semester begins. I introduce myself and indicate that I expect Financial Accounting to be the best class they have this semester. We will work hard but we will have fun. I want them to start thinking that they will have to do a reasonable amount of work but it will be interesting and useful. I want to sell them on the course before the semester even begins.

I include the course outline so that they can see that I have a couple of rules that I expect them to follow. I have always found that students follow rules if they understand them.

In addition, I start talking with them about my desire for them to make an A. I don’t want good work; I want excellent work. Vince Lombardi (legendary football coach) always said that people want to be pushed to be great. Well, I start that push with the first email.

And, I give them a series of hints on things that I think will help them to make that A (see below). I’ve taught for nearly 40 years – I have some ideas on how to be a good student.

Email Two – About 10 days before the semester begins. I send them the assignment for the first day. I explain that I only use the Socratic Method. I will furnish them with questions each day for discussion at the following class. I will call on them and I will expect them to be prepared to response.

I want them to be part of the conversation. Not half of them but all of them. That is why they will get called on. I want to involve them in their own learning.

I think the key to student success (and if you were in my class, you’d hear me talk about this almost daily) is preparation. I am convinced that students in high school often learn that they do not need to be prepared and so they don’t. One of my goals is to change that perception. I want them to be well prepared each day and I plan to call on them and have a discussion of the topic. I’ll talk more about my use of the Socratic Method in a subsequent post. I’ll also give you some of the assigned questions that I use.

Email Three – About 5 days before the semester begins. I try to come up with something of practical interest to throw at them. I want to intrigue them a little bit. I want them to ask themselves: what is going on here? You hear the term “engaged student” a lot – I want to get them engaged in what we are going to be doing.

This year, my third email came from something that I read in USA Today. I’ll include that third email below so you can see whether you think my Financial Accounting students will be engaged or not.

I don’t know how you do it but I do think it is important to consider what first impression you are creating. Is it the one you want? Will it serve you well throughout the semester?

HOW TO MAKE AN A IN FINANCIAL ACCOUNTING (included on my course outline):

HINTS FOR LEARNING AND MAKING AN A: I have taught this course virtually every year since 1971 (probably way before any of you were born). I have observed thousands of students in this class; I've seen them try to do it every way possible and I've seen what works and what doesn't work. Based on that experience, it seems to me that - if you truly want to learn the material and make a decent grade - there are a couple of things you can do to improve the odds.

- A lot of my students like to gather in the Atrium about 30-45 minutes before class to discuss the assignments. Then, they walk into class ready to go to work. I think that is a great idea and would strongly encourage that. However, you really need to use that time to talk about the upcoming class and not beer and pizza. And, do me a personal favor. If you are working with a group in the Atrium and you see a student from class, invite them to join you. Some students want to be part of the group but are shy. You are in this together – the best classes are the ones that become a genuine group. Everyone you invite adds to the group.

- One strong suggestion would be to take the class seriously from Day One. A lot of students don’t get their brains into gear until February but by then they have serious problems. If you get behind, catching up is tough. That’s like running the 100 yard dash and giving your competition a 40 yard head start.

- Be consistently good. If you are well prepared one day but weak the next, you wind up with holes in your knowledge and that leads to problems in learning. If students have one general weakness, it is the tendency to try hard on an irregular basis and then wonder why they don’t do well. A championship football team or baseball team does NOT play well every other game. Instead, the real winners are prepared for every game and play well every week. Class is three times per week; you should really try to be good three times per week.

- Get excited about learning. The only people who benefit from this class are you, the students. If learning is not exciting to you, then you should change courses or get out of school. Making your mind better should be great fun - an experience that you cherish and value, one that will aid you for the rest of your life. It's the only brain you've got and it has to carry you through life - fill it up and it will serve you well.

- Talk to the people who have been in my classes before (they are all over campus; they are easy to find) and ask them what the secret to success really is. If you can find a person who made an A in one of my classes, that person knows the key. Get them to share it with you.

- Realize that everything we cover in this introductory class (every single thing) is already known to every average business person in the real world. Nothing we do here is busy work; in an introductory class, I just want you to come up to the level of the average business person on the street. If you want to know more than the average business person, take Intermediate Accounting – it is a wonderful course. But remember that if you don’t learn something in this class, when you enter the business world, you start with a serious disadvantage – everyone else knows more than you do and that is not a good idea on the path to success.

- Forget shortcuts. They only work in high school. Plan to spend 2 hours of study between each class. I don't mean 6 hours on Monday night or 12 hours right before a test; I mean about 2 legitimate hours between every class. When students do poorly in this class, it is almost always caused by a failure to put in the time on a consistent basis. I have a formula for getting good grades that I believe is true: HOURS EQUAL POINTS. I wish there was a magic pill that I could give you that would allow you to learn a lot without doing any work but I've just never found that magic pill. There are no steroids for the brain – there is only hard work. Spend 70 percent of your study time preparing for the upcoming class. Spend the other 30 percent reviewing the previous class and making sure you have the knowledge organized in your brain before you get too far away from it.

- Being prepared prior to class each day is the best method to gain understanding of the material. Too many students try to take an enormous quantity of notes and then cram that knowledge into their brain on the night before the test. That’s a big mistake in this class. I realize that you may have gotten through high school without learning how to study; however, as you get ready to enter the adult world, it is time to become a more efficient learner. I cannot overemphasize that being prepared when you walk into the room every day is your most important step in getting a good grade. It just enables you to understand and absorb what we cover.

- Read each chapter one time but not more than once. Read one page at a time and write down (in one or two sentences) the basic idea of that page. For the illustrations, be sure to walk through the numbers and see where each one comes from. That takes time but time is just going to be necessary. If you don't understand something clearly at first, don't assume that (a) you are stupid or (b) it is stupid. Work to figure it out. If it were easy, we wouldn't cover it in college. In all honesty, the “figuring it out” part is all the fun.

- The attitude that you bring to this class (or that you bring to life, for that matter) is a truly important ingredient in your success. Play a mental game with yourself. Don't start out assuming that the class will be a pain or that you will do poorly. Instead, assume that you are really looking forward to adding this knowledge to your brain and that you are going to do the work and actually enjoy the learning and that because you do the work, you are going to make an A. Much of success and happiness is just getting into the right mindset.

- Never miss class. I make sure each class covers what I want (and expect) you to learn. Missing class is like losing the road map. Almost no one does well who misses many classes.

- Come by my office early and often and ask questions (or send me an e-mail). I can frequent­ly resolve your problems or confusions in just a few seconds where you may waste hours trying to figure out a problem for yourself. Make good use of my office hours - I am here for your benefit. Even if I seem busy, I do not mind working with you at all. One of the things I have noted over the years: the A and B students come by often whereas the D and F students come by hardly at all (wouldn’t you expect it to be the other way around?)

- Don't build up excuses: "I'm not good at numbers." "I don't do well in hard classes." "I don't understand business." You are simply giving yourself permission to get a poor grade. Once you have permission, it becomes acceptable to you. I don't know of any talent or skill (other than hard work) that is really necessary for this class.

- Don't assume that because you have a certain average in school that you will maintain that in this class. Some students who have high GPAs just assume that they will get a good grade in this course. Likewise, some students believe, because they have low GPAs, that they are destined for C's. If you will put out the energy, everyone can get an A. Everyone!!!!

The most important thing you bring to this class is NOT your intelligence.
It is NOT your GPA.
It is NOT your high school background or how rich or poor your family is.

The most important thing you bring to this class is the discipline to put in the time that is necessary on a consistent basis in order to get a good grade. If you have the discipline needed to do the work on a daily basis, then I fully expect you to get an A plus.


Our first class is this Monday. By now, I suppose, you’ve looked over some/all of the information that I have sent to you so far.

The main question that students have at this point is usually: what the heck is this class all about?

I was in New Orleans on Monday and picked up a USA Today newspaper. I was wandering through the Money section and found a discussion of the stock market during 2009. According to the article, the stocks of several companies did extremely well: Ford went up 336 percent, Priceline went up 197 percent, Whole Foods went up 191 percent, and Amazon went up 162 percent. If you had bought any of those during the year (I actually bought Ford), you would have made a huge gain.

During the same year, though, the stock of Kodak went down 36 percent, SunTrust went down 31 percent, Kroger went down 22 percent, and Exxon went down 15 percent. If you have put big money into any of those stocks, you would be upset at the moment.

Well, the opening question is: what do we mean by “stock?” We hear the term whenever the “stock” market is discussed – but what is it? We’ll discover that this is a relatively easy term to understand.

More importantly, for our purposes, when investors looked at the information that Priceline (for example) published, why did they choose to bid the price up so high and, conversely, when they looked at the information that Kroger published, why did they choose to bid the price down so far?

What did those investors see in the information from these two companies that gave such differing results?

Our course is all about understanding the information that companies report. If you don’t understand the information, then you don’t know what’s going on.

That’s why accounting is often compared to a language – it allows us to understand the information being communicated. I will try to show you this semester what information suggested to investors that Whole Foods had a bright future while similar information made Kroger not look so good.

See you on Monday.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Introduction -- Teaching (Financial Accounting)

My name is Joe Hoyle and I am on the faculty of the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond. I am half-way through my 39th year as a college professor. During that time, I have been fortunate enough to win a few teaching awards. Most notably, I was named the 2007 Virginia Professor of the Year by CASE (the Council for Advancement and Support of Education). In addition, in 2006, Business Week named me “One of 22 Favorite Undergraduate Business School Professors in the United States.” I also manage to make 3-4 teaching presentations each year in locations that range from Las Vegas to Tampa to Philadelphia.

In January of 2010, FlatWorldKnowledge will publish a Financial Accounting textbook that I wrote along with C. J. Skender of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We have worked on this book now for over three years. During that time, we spent a considerable amount of time thinking about teaching and student learning.
--How do you engage students in 2010?
--How do you help them to think critically?
--How do you get them to do the work necessary so that they can learn effectively?

Simple questions to ask but complex questions to answer.

As a result of all this contemplation, I want to share with you some of my thoughts on the learning process as I teach Introduction to Financial Accounting here at the Robins School of Business starting on January 11, 2010. I plan to write this blog as I teach 25 sophomores here in Richmond.

I am not trying to convert other professors to my style of teaching. It is a style that works (usually/sometimes) for me. You need to develop a style that will work for you. What I am hoping to do is to give you some ideas. It is as simple as that. If a few of my ideas help you, I will be thrilled. However, I already know that all of the ideas will not work (for me or anyone else). But you must try things to find out what works. I am hoping this blog will stimulate my thinking about education as well as your thinking about education.

When I give teaching presentations, I challenge every person in the audience to work to get 5 percent better as a teacher over the next year. I think that is a reasonable goal and one that can (over time) have a radical impact on higher education. In fact, at one school where I led a teaching discussion back in September, the teachers formed a “5 Percent Club” after I left with that very goal in mind. I could not have been more pleased.

So, my goal on this blog is to make myself 5 percent better as a teacher in 2010 and maybe give you some ideas that will help you reach that same goal.

Two final comments:

--This blog is about my teaching of Financial Accounting. However, I hope that 95 percent of my comments will apply to the teaching of any course from history to biology. I believe that good teaching practices cut across all disciplines.

--If you would like more information about me and my ideas, here are a couple of sources.

(A) – I have a free on-line book of teaching tips that you are welcome to download at I get emails on a regular basis from teachers around the world who have found some helpful ideas in this book.

(B) – Last year, I was chosen as the first speaker for the Last Lecture series here at the University of Richmond. In that speech, I talked about the thrill of teaching. The video of that Last Lecture can be found at: I think that video tells you about as much as I can think of about my feelings towards this wonderful, wonderful, wonderful profession.

And, finally, my email address is – let me know if you have suggestions, questions, hints, ideas, complaints, etc.

Joe Hoyle
Associate Professor of Accounting
Robins School of Business
University of Richmond