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.


  1. Your scene setting in Email Three is very effective--heck, now I want to take Accounting! I didn't understand before why it mattered, or how it would help me.

  2. Every one should learn financial accounting. It simply allows you to understand all those things you hear on the television virtually every day. It really is close to a universal language. Joe

  3. the clarity of your communications and the expectations that you establish are the keys to your success as a teacher. it's really no different in working with staff, but we tend not to lay out these expectations as clearly and concisely as we should. and honestly, even though email is a very flat medium (versus face to face where you can sense inflection and other interpersonal signals), it can be an effective medium for establishing and managing expectations for a large group like a class (or an engagement team).

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  6. I do remember my dad words, when he said "first impression is the best impression! this is best match to this wonderful post! keep it up

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