Sunday, May 30, 2010

Are You a Teacher or Are You a Mentor?

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

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

Teacher or mentor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 27, 2010

How Do You Radically Improve Education?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 16, 2010

What Did You Learn?

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

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

There are several things that I like about this idea.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What Is The Purpose of a Final Examination?

Why do you give a final exam to your classes? What do you hope to accomplish? I have talked with lots of professors over the years and their strategies for giving final examinations seem to vary significantly from one to the next:
--It is a comprehensive examination on the material from the entire semester with a major grade component.
--It is a one-hour test on just the material since the last hourly exam with no added weight in comparison to other tests.
--It is basically ignored; it is the work for the entire semester that is more important than what a person can do on one day at the end of the semester.
--It is a little harder than a one-hour test but students can only improve their grades and cannot hurt them.

I do know that as I walk through our building during final exams that most students seem to leave well before the three-hour time limit is reached. I am not sure that many final exams are still three hours in length.

I have always been interested in the final exams that are given by some law school professors. The entire grade for the whole semester is based on what the student can do on the final exam questions. Nothing else counts. The rationale is that, if you are going to be a lawyer, you need to be at your very best every day that you walk into court no matter what is thrown at you. There can be no down days.

However, I am teaching 19-20 year old sophomores and juniors in college and not 25-30 year old law students. I am afraid that I would have students facing nervous breakdowns if I put the whole grade on the final exam.

So, what are my goals for the final exam? Psychologically, what am I trying to accomplish?
---I want students to stay emotionally involved with my class all the way through the last day. I am not interested in them quitting early. Thus, the final exam has to count enough to make it worth their time to keep working. In my 201 class, the final exam is 35 percent of the overall grade. I have found that this is enough to keep them emotionally involved.
---I want to give students who do poorly on the first (and, even, second) test of the semester a chance to improve their grades. If a student makes a C or a D (or an F) on the first test, it can be very disheartening. It is easy to give up. I do everything I can to keep them from giving up. I like to be able to say “if you can show me that you can learn this material, you still have a lot of your grade left to earn including a comprehensive final examination.” Nothing pleases me more than for a student to make a low C or a D on the first test and then come roaring back to make an A for the course. That is hard to do unless the final examination has a pretty serious weight attached to it.
---Likewise, I don’t like students who do well on the first test to get complacent and think they have an A in the bag. “Good job on this first test but realize that there is a lot of semester left and I want you to keep up this level of work from beginning to end.”
---I want students to understand the material well enough that they can still answer questions from throughout the semester at the end. If we cover inventory in February, I think they should still be able to answer questions on that topic in early May. Since I want to stress understanding more than memorization, I don’t think that is too much to ask.

As a result, I do give a comprehensive final examination and I do grade it and that grade (for better or worse) counts 35 percent of the overall course grade. In my introductory course financial accounting course, I want the first student to leave after 2 hours and the last student to finish at 3 hours. I like it when about half stay virtually the whole time. For intermediate accounting, I want the first person to finish in three hours but everyone else is relatively close to being finished. The material in that course is so complicated that I don’t see how a final exam can take less than three hours.

So, I line up all the topics for the entire semester on a sheet of paper and pick one pretty much at random (nonmonetary exchanges, for example). I then ask myself – if one of my students is at a job in six-months and this topic is raised, what should I expect an A student to be able to remember after five minutes of review? In all honesty, I would love to say “what should I expect an A student to be able to remember immediately” but I don’t think that is realistic. People forget everything quickly (even financial accounting). 39 years of teaching has shown me that students never remember quite as much as you might hope.

Based on the answer to that question, I write a problem to see if they still hold that level of knowledge now. For example, a company buys a truck on January 1, Year One for $80,000 with a $6,000 residual value. It has an estimated life of 10 years and the company is using double-declining balance depreciation without the half-year convention. On April 1, Year Three, when this truck is worth $53,200, it is traded for another truck which is worth $53,600. What gain or loss (if any) does the company record on the exchange?

The rule is straight-forward here. Not an easy question but not an impossibly hard question.
If students truly understand GAAP in this area, even after six months, with five-minutes of solid review, they should be able to answer this question.
Thus, I would use it as an appropriate final examination question.

Setting up the final exam in this way keeps the students (I hope) thinking about financial accounting all the way until the end of the semester. And, it gives them one last chance to make up for any poor grades they have earned during the semester.

What’s your philosophy? Why do you give a final exam?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Request for Assistance

If you teach financial accounting, I have a request for you. A friend of mine recently gave me a list of articles (from newspapers, journals, and the like) that he uses in teaching financial accounting. I thought it might be interesting to create a more complete reading list of articles about financial accounting or the topics within financial accounting that I could post for teachers in connection with the new Financial Accounting textbook that I recently wrote with CJ Skender. I am always looking for creative/innovative things to add to "the package" to make the learning process better for teachers and students both. Consequently, if any of you who read this blog have articles that you use in teaching financial accounting or know of articles that might apply, could you send them to me? Just a list of the publication and date would be fine - I can dig them up from there. Just send me a note at

Likewise, if you've ever thought "I wish a textbook had the following," let me know. FlatWorldKnowledge (the book’s publisher) has let me do whatever I thought might be helpful for student learning but I'm always limited to my own ideas. If you have suggestions, I would love to hear them.

I always believe that a textbook should be more of a community project. I would love for you to be part of that community in connection with this textbook.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Making Summer Count

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about how much knowledge students lose over the summer time. Although he is looking at younger students, the amount is incredible. For some reason, we seem to hold the philosophy that summer time is a “no brain” time where students should do as little as possible that might stimulate their thinking. I’m not sure that is a very good idea.

Consequently, last week, I sent an email message to the 37 students who will be in my Financial Accounting courses next fall. (I will also be teaching one section of Intermediate Accounting II.)

I wanted to get the students’ attention.
I wanted to start convincing them that Financial Accounting was going to be challenging but very much worth that challenge.

Most importantly, I wanted them to have the opportunity to make use of their summer vacation to get ready for next fall. Why not? What is wrong with wanting to learn more? I don’t accept the premise that my students want to learn as little as possible. Some students certainly have little ambition but most, from my experience, don’t mind spending the time if they think the effort is worthwhile.

So, I sent them the following email. Please note that I have assigned my own Financial Accounting textbook here. However, since the textbook is a FREE online textbook, you can still use this “summer assignment” even if you have chosen to use some other book in the fall. There are some real advantages to “FREE online.”

(Interestingly, I got several emails in return from my future students talking about how much they were looking forward to the class.)

Email sent to the students who signed up for my Financial Accounting course in the fall:

“Hi, I’m on the faculty here at the University of Richmond and I am sending this note to the 37 students who have signed up for my two Accounting 201 sections for the fall semester. Okay, I realize that some of you will have to switch sections before the fall semester begins but I imagine that 80-90 percent of you will be in my class next fall.

“I want this to be a great experience for you. I don’t want this to be “just another class.” I want you to work hard; I want you to learn a ton; I want you to enjoy the process. On the last day of the class, I want you to walk away and say “Wow, I didn’t know learning could be that great.”

“To help make this happen, I want to convey a bit of information to you today before you leave campus for the summer. Please take time to read all of this note so that we are on the same page.

“First--My 201 classes in the fall semester will use the Financial Accounting textbook that I wrote with C. J. Skender (of UNC). This is a free online textbook. So, if you get bored over the summer, you can start reading now. That would give you a huge head start for the fall. Instead of rushing to finish assignments, you could read the book leisurely over the summer. Go to Click on “catalogue.” Then, under “Business and Economics,” click on “Accounting and Tax” and then on “Financial Accounting.” At that point, you should see a list of chapters. Click on Chapter 1 and start reading. If you read 5 minutes per day, you could read the entire book over the summer.

“When I designed this book, I was trying to “revolutionize” textbooks so you’ll find that it is different. It is written entirely in a question and answer format (the Socratic Method) and has videos and embedded multiple-choice questions. I used it in my class this semester and, although they might not be too honest with me, the students seemed to find the reading interesting and informative.

“When you come back in the fall, the book store will have color copies available for roughly $60.00 and black and white copies for roughly $30.00. However, as far as I’m concerned, use the online version and save your money.

“Second--The world of business is absolutely fascinating. Whether it is marketing, production, finance, human resources, or accounting, it is like a giant puzzle with an infinite amount to figure out. Most college students walk into a 201 class on the first day with little serious knowledge about business. As teen-agers, most students just miss out on the fun of business. What is it like to start a business? What is it like to talk customers into buying your products? What is it like to find the money needed for expansion? The more you learn, the more the business world will open to you. One strong suggestion that I would have is to spend an hour or two in the library each week and read (just randomly read) the Wall Street Journal, Forbes magazine, Business Week, or Fortune. Don’t try to learn anything – just read. You will be amazed by what you start to discover. And, it will make class in the fall go so much better. Instead of starting off at absolute zero, you will walk into class with important terms fresh in your mind. Things will just make more sense.

“Third--Around August 1, I will start sending you a few preliminary emails to get you ready for the fall semester. There is just some stuff that you need to know in advance. But, you don’t really need any of that until August. I am just trying to alert you to watch out for my emails (I’m not spam). And, to tell you the truth, if you are not going to be where you can get to your email, your life won’t be ruined if you don’t get this stuff. I simply want to make the semester as smooth for you as absolutely possible.

“Fourth--Have a great summer. Get out and enjoy life. At your age (well, at any age), that ought to be a requirement. If you need to get in touch with me, I’m always available at

“Fifth--I’ve had a great 201 class this semester. It has been a lot of fun. The students have been active, engaged, curious, questioning, and thoughtful. When you have students like that, it is unbelievable the amount that can be accomplished. My wish for you and Accounting 201 is that you’ll wind up demonstrating those same five characteristics.”