Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Dream

I dreamed about teaching last night. Normally, I do not remember my dreams and, if I do, they are weird snippets that make no sense. Last night was different.

I dreamed that I flew to Arizona (not sure why it was Arizona) for a teaching conference with about 25 other college professors. At the end, one of the participants challenged the group to write down on a sheet of paper what we each believed was the secret to good teaching. In my dream, I wrote down “you have to care enough about your students that you are willing to force them to prepare for every class.” And, I woke up.

I am not sure what I would have written down in real life but it could not have been better than what I wrote down in that dream. I do not think you need to love your students but I do believe you should care about them – even the ones who occasionally drive you crazy. For a short period of time, about 14 weeks twice a year, a small piece of each student’s future is in your hands. Where they go and what they do for the rest of their lives will be influenced ever so slightly by the way you teach that class. To ignore that reality is to abdicate the responsibility you accepted when you chose to become a teacher. I think it is hard to be an excellent teacher if you are not willing to acknowledge that you have the capacity to change lives. I have 81 students this semester. I have had over 6,000 students in my career. At times, it is easy to think of each one as just another brick in the wall. But they are not. They are unique individuals who will go on to have lives and careers. Each one is affected differently by you. The last one is as deserving as the first one. I want to make those lives and those careers a little bit better. If you do not care about your students and how you will change them, why would you do all of the work that it takes to become a good teacher?

And, of course, if you have read this blog or my other writings, you know that I am obsessed about student preparation. If students walk into class having properly prepared themselves, great things can (and probably will) happen every day. Conversely, if students walk into class with no real preparation, Socrates himself would have very limited options. Students are humans. They rarely do work without proper motivation. From kindergarten until the moment before they walk into your class, they may never have had to prepare for any class on a daily basis. They are well trained in not preparing. I think our school systems do a pretty good job but class preparation is not always a priority. So, you have to address the real questions: Am I going to insist on my students being prepared each day and, if so, how will I do that? Will I do it with carrots or will I do it with sticks?

I would bet those two questions are rarely ever considered by most teachers. However, even in my dreams, I have come to believe that these questions form an essential juncture in what a teacher is able to accomplish. James Thurber was a wonderful humorist who wrote short stories and cartoons about 60-70 years ago. In 1939, he concluded: “It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all the answers.” Maybe, in teaching, we worry too much about getting specific answers and not enough about asking the right questions.

Here is my question for you today and, believe it or not, it is based on the dream I had last night: Do you care enough about your students that you are willing to force them to prepare for every class?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Third Test Available

I gave my third (and last test before the final exam) last week. Many of you have asked for copies of my previous tests. Anyone who would like a copy of this one can send me a note at

I thought the test was pretty good -- it was a quirky type of multiple-choice test that I like to give when I have a lot of computations that I want the students to make. However, it was clearly a challenge for them. They had to push hard to finish in 75 minutes. In the end, I had 44 percent who earned an A or B. I thought that was a bit low. I believe the class has gone well this semester (they are the most engaged group that I have had in years -- I'm biased but I credit my new textbook for that) and I always prefer to have over 50 percent grades of A or B. It is an intro class in late spring with only a very few potential accounting majors so maybe 44 percent is about right.

Obviously, this is one of the never ending internal debates for a professor: how much do I push my students to challenge them without discouraging them? I want my students to be challenged to think and work but I don't want to set the bar so high that they feel defeated before they start.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Chinese Proverb

A CPA friend of mine sent me the following and told me that it was an ancient Chinese proverb (Google agrees). I thought it was worth passing along.

“When planning for a year, plant corn. When planning for a decade, plant trees. When planning for life, train and educate people.”

Saturday, April 10, 2010

14 Questions to Introduce Present Value

When I talk with financial accounting teachers, the topic of present value will eventually come up. Teachers are often puzzled by how much they should cover. Some teachers tell me they skip present value entirely whereas others let me know that they believe extensive coverage is necessary. What does a sophomore in an introductory financial accounting class need to know about present value? What can they really understand? I find that if I throw terms like “discounted cash flows” and “the time value of money” at my sophomores, they quickly become lost. What seems crystal clear to me as the teacher can be puzzling to a young student.

However, if students are going to take other business courses or other accounting courses, they need to have some basic understanding of present value concepts. So, yesterday, in my classes here at the University of Richmond, we began to examine present value.

I did this by looking asking them the following series of questions:

1 – What is interest? (Interest is the charge for using money over time – students seem comfortable with that definition.)
2 – If I buy a piece of land and make a single payment of $200,000 today, how much do I pay and why am I paying that amount? (The students seem puzzled by that question because it is self-evident—you pay $200,000 and you pay it to acquire the land.)
3 – I buy a piece of land and agree to pay $200,000 in exactly two years. In the interim, I will pay an additional 10 percent (or $20,000) each year. How much do I pay and why am I paying that amount? (Students realize that $240,000 is paid--$200,000 for land and $40,000 as interest over the two years. The interest is necessary because of the introduction of time to the cash payment.)
4 – I buy a piece of land and agree to make a single payment of $200,000 in exactly two years. Nothing else is paid. If interest is the charge for using money over time, is it reasonable to believe that some part of that $200,000 will actually be paid as interest with the rest being the amount paid for the land? (This is obviously an essential question. I find that students are open to the possibility that part of the payment is for interest since there is a two-year wait for the cash.)
5 – I buy a piece of land and agree to make a single payment of $200,000 in exactly two years. GAAP requires that we view part of the $200,000 as payment for the land with the remainder as payment for interest since I am delaying my payment. What is our next problem? (Students understand that they do not know how to allocate the $200,000 between the land and the interest. They don’t mind the split but don’t know where to draw the line between the land and the interest.)
6 – Mathematically, we can determine the amount of interest. If we determine the interest and then remove it from the $200,000, what is left? (The remaining amount is what we are paying for the land. Again, that seems self-evident to most students. There are only two possibilities: land and interest.)
7 – Why do we determine the amount of interest and then remove it? (Interest is the charge for using money over time. Since no time has yet passed, there can be no interest at this time.)
8 – What do we mean by present value? (It is a future flow of cash with the interest removed because no time has yet passed.)
9 – When we are making a present value calculation, what are we doing? (Present value is the removal of the interest that we assume is included in the cash flows. The present value calculation removes interest because no time has yet passed.)
10 – If we buy land by agreeing to pay $200,000 in two years, how do we record the acquisition? (Both the land and the liability are recorded at present value. Accountants assume there is a charge for using money over time. Part of the $200,000 is assumed to be for interest. No time has yet passed. Thus, that interest is removed and the rest is the amount of the debt incurred today to buy the land.)
11 – Whether we use a formula, tables, or a spreadsheet, what is the purpose of the present value computation? (It mathematically removes the interest from future cash flows. We don’t have to guess at what part is interest and what part is for the land. The present value computation automatically removes the interest mathematically.)
12 – The land and the liability are both recorded at the present value of the cash flows. What happens at the end of Year One? (Time has now passed. The assumed interest rate is multiplied by the liability [principal] balance and that shows the interest expense to be recorded for that first period. It is not paid right then so it is compounded—the interest is added to the liability [principal] balance. The land account is not changed. Its cost was established when it was first acquired. The liability balance grows.)
13 – What happens at the end of Year Two? (More time has now passed. The assumed interest rate is multiplied by the new liability [principal] balance. That provides the interest expense for the second period. It is recognized and the liability is again increased because of compounding.)
14 – After two years, what is the reported liability balance? (The liability balance will be the $200,000 total that is now due to be paid. Present value removes the interest because no time has passed. The accountant then puts that interest back in over time. Mathematically, the amount has to come back to the total amount of the cash flows. Interest is taken out; then, the interest is put back in.)

Okay, you have to ask the questions carefully and guide your students as they work to get their answers. But I was pleased yesterday. After we had walked through these 14 questions, all of my students seemed to have a basic understanding of the concept of present value. We will practice this until they get smooth. However, that “mathematically remove the interest because time has not yet passed” line is one that they seem to grasp just fine. They are obviously not present value wizards yet but they know enough now that we can build on that knowledge and, eventually, they will be able to go into a finance class and not start out totally lost. And, to me, that is the purpose of an introductory course.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

More Predictions

A few days ago I wrote about speaking to a group of accountants here in Richmond about the future of higher education. At that time, I made a prediction about Google (or some similar organization) getting into higher education in a serious manner during the next decade.

Today, I wanted to give you a few of my other predictions. Not sure that I entirely believe any or all of them but it is always interesting to contemplate how the world of education will evolve over the next ten years.

Here you go:

(1) – Accounting programs will begin to require less accounting coverage. I think it is unrealistic to expect students to learn more and more accounting in college before they have sufficient practical experience to grasp what they are learning. I could give you a list of 50 things we commonly teach students today that they cannot possibly understand fully without additional real life experience. I have long argued that the flaw in the 150 hour requirement is that the profession was dissatisfied with the amount that college students could absorb so more hours were thrown at the problem. That is like Congress throwing money at problems; it does not necessarily solve anything.

I think what will happen is that states will eventually require fewer hours of accounting in college and then require three years of practical experience to get certified. But, during that period, the states will require 200 hours of CPE per year. The new accountants can tailor these hours to help them gain the knowledge they need in parallel to their actual work experience. You still get the same amount of education but the last 600 hours are done while the person is also discovering how the working world operates.

There is just a limit to the amount of accounting, tax, auditing, systems, and the like that a student can actually grasp while in college. I think we have passed that limit.

(2) – Textbooks will change radically. Obviously, I am biased here since I just released a brand new Financial Accounting textbook that has a revolutionary new design (free online, Socratic method, videos). However, traditional textbooks today are not much different than they were 50 years ago. Like newspapers and magazines that are also in the information conveyance business, they have failed to evolve and probably face the same future. If you ask students about textbooks, the three phrases that you are most likely to hear are “costs too much,” “boring,” and “confusing.” Radically better textbooks would immediately enliven the college education experience from Maine to Montana and from Florida to Alaska. I would love to think that my new textbook is a step along that path. Regardless, a system where students pay $175 for a book they will not read and cannot understand is destined for eventual replacement.

(3) – All programs (from poetry to political science) will start including a “finding a career” component. As the cost of a college education skyrockets, the interest (of both student and parent) in career opportunities goes up each year. I love liberal arts; I love learning for the sheer joy of learning. However, students want to leave college with some reasonable chance of making a decent wage. I think if liberal arts programs are going to remain viable over the next ten years they will have to acknowledge and address that concern.

(4) – Some (maybe many) universities will stop having a physical campus. Historically, traditional colleges brought their students to a campus to live so they could sit at the feet of their professors. As courses become more innovative, then I think the amount of actual physical interaction will decrease. At some point, a school will say “listen, we can teach you just as well in England as we can here on campus.” When that happens, the need for the cost and maintenance of a campus will come into question. I do think, though, that before this happens, online courses are going to have to make some type of major breakthrough. At present, no one seems totally comfortable with the quality of online courses. Over the next ten years, though, I think someone is going to come up with better online ideas. When that happens, four years of living on a college campus may no longer be needed.

(5) – Courses will start being designed in many different time frames. Instead of 150 minutes of class each week for 14-15 weeks per semester, courses may be for just a few hours or may be for hundreds of hours stretched over years. The current course system is a “one-size-fits-all” type of box. Courses are expanded or trimmed to fit into the allotted time schedule. That might have been necessary in 1960 but do we still believe that such a high percentage of classes have to fit such a structured format?

(6) – Some courses will stop being subject matter driven. Instead, new courses will be created to bring about certain changes in a student such as thinking skills, finding answers, and critical analysis. Then, each week, a different discipline will address that central topic from its own perspective. Think about “finding answers” in biology one week followed by “finding answers” in accounting the next followed by “find answers” in Shakespeare the next. Wouldn't the student come out with a wealth of knowledge? I have long argued that (in the day of Google) we have to get away from an obsession for the conveyance of information. If students can find the weight of the Earth in 10 seconds on Google, why do they need to memorize the formula for that calculation? Courses will become more interested in using information than memorizing it.

These are just a few of my thoughts on where college education is going between 2010 and 2020. I am probably 100 percent wrong but it is always interesting to speculate about such matters.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What If?

Last Wednesday, I gave a one-hour presentation for PricewaterhouseCoopers. The partner and I had talked about a topic and finally decided on “College Education Over the Next Ten Years” since I do a lot of thinking about how education as we know it will evolve.

I decided to end this program by making a few predictions. I thought that seemed appropriate. And, it would be fun. To generate discussion (or debate), I made a few of them rather far out. But, on the whole, I really did believe that most would come to pass in one form or another. So, I figured I could throw out my predictions to you today and let you ponder them a bit.

Because the first one is central to my overall view of the future, I decided to include just it today. In the next day or so, I’ll give you all of the rest of my predictions. Remember, though, that these are for the next ten years. And, as we all know, over 10 years a lot can happen given the fast pace of change in the world today.

Here is my first prediction. I do not really have an answer for the question that I raise but I think it is worth considering.

I predict that in the next 10 years, Google (or a company like Google) will announce that by 2020 at the latest, it will provide a Harvard-quality education to an infinite number of people around the world for a flat fee of (let’s say) $10,000 per year.

Why Google?
--The company is in the information conveyance business.
--The company likes to make money and there is an enormous amount of money to be made in college education.
--The company has the cash and other resources necessary to get the enterprise up and running.
--The company is innovative and likes challenges.
--The company has a great reputation so it would not have as much trouble selling its product.
--The company likes to change the world and this would really change the world

“an infinite number of people around the world”
“Harvard-quality education”
“$10,000 per year”

Sounds like science fiction. But is it that unbelievable?

But here is the question that I would throw out to you today for your consideration. If Google made this announcement tomorrow, how would the colleges and universities of the US react? Would it just be “no worry” for them or would they be “scared to death?” To my knowledge, they have never had that type of extreme competition and, in a capitalistic economy, don’t we all believe that organizations are made better by fierce competition? How would Harvard, Duke, the University of Illinois, etc. react to that announcement? Seems like a legitimate question to consider.

Okay – I will throw out the remainder of the predictions that I made in the next day or so.

Monday, April 5, 2010

What's The Payoff?

Remember you can read the brand new Financial Accounting textbook that I wrote with C. J. Skender by going to It is free, online. Why not read it or let your students know it is there and ask them to look it over as a supplement?

If you have read my blog, you already know that I am somewhat obsessed with the importance of student preparation for class. In fact, my students would probably say that I’m “totally obsessed” with the importance of student preparation. I do not see how a teacher can accomplish much if the students have done no preliminary work. At that point, all they can do is sit quietly and take notes. That is not education; that is stenography.

Like most professors, I assign several pages for them to read prior to each class and give them some questions/problems to prepare so that we can hold a legitimate discussion/debate. However, most students have a lot of calls on their time and they will look at any such assignment and automatically calculate “what’s the payoff for me? What is the real benefit that I will gain by using my time to do this work rather than an assignment from another class?”

Obviously, the theoretical answer is that it makes the learning process go better in class. And, that alone should be enough. Unfortunately, “better learning” is pretty nebulous. My students seem to need a more solid payoff. I fear that too many teachers before me have given them assignments with no eventual payoff and they have learned to be cynical. We can argue all day as to whether it should be like that but I think it is human nature. Many students have to know the answer to the question—“how do I benefit from doing this assignment”—or they will simply not do it.

So, here is a technique that I find helpful on occasion. Wednesday, we will start covering liabilities in Financial Accounting. One topic that I like is “gift cards” because (a) students understand the concept very well, (b) a great many companies seem to sell them, and (c) the handling takes some thinking but it is certainly understandable to most students.

For Wednesday, I asked my students to read pages 294 to 296 which cover gift cards (including an illustration about Best Buy’s reporting of $479 million as “unredeemed gift card liabilities”) along with two embedded multiple-choice questions to provide feedback about their understanding. I could explain this liability to them and they could take notes but then the learning is dependent on me. Thus, my assignment was simple: Assume I’m the president of a company that sells gift cards and you are the accountant. Read these three pages in the book and tell me everything that I need to know (as president) about the financial reporting of gift cards. Assume I am a curious president and I really want to know how the reporting works.

They can do that and it puts the responsibility on them. Plus, it is a realistic sounding situation. They like that. They can all envision something like this happening.

In class, I will play the role of the president and start asking them questions as if they were the controller. I am betting that with 4-6 questions asked to 4-6 different students I can help navigate the group successfully through the topic. That is how I like to run my class. The answer comes from them but with my guidance. But it requires them to do some preparation/thinking in advance.

How do I know they will prepare: (a) they see from the nature of the assignment what they are expected to do (I have tried to eliminate any ambiguity) and (b) they can see that I’m going to be calling on someone to provide me with the information I seek (it might be them). I have tried to show them that there is a positive payoff from doing the preparation: when I call on them, they will be capable of responding without looking like they are totally lost. Students do not like to appear dumb. Plus, they have a sense that this is the kind of experience that they might encounter in the real world after graduation. If they see what they are expected to know and understand the payoff, most will put in a reasonable effort to have a decent response ready.

If you are not happy with student preparation in you classes, ask yourself what the real payoff is for your students and whether that payoff needs to be improved. If they don’t see the payoff, students are not inclined to do the preparation.