Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Favorite Quotes About Teaching – Number Three

As my friends will tell you (or my wife, for that matter), I’m not a terribly modest person. It is a fault of which I am aware. So, I am a bit embarrassed by my third favorite quotation about teaching because it comes from, well, me. Yes, I am quoting myself. But, in truth, it is a quote that I like. And, it is a quote that I genuinely believe can help make any person a better classroom teacher.

I was reminded of this yesterday in two emails that I received from former students. This past semester, I worked with 65 students and 11 of them earned the grade of A. As I mentioned in a recent blog entry, I wrote each of those 11 to pass along my congratulations and to ask them to write a short essay on how they earned that A, an essay that I will pass along as guidance to my class in the spring.

Yesterday, two of those students separately mentioned my tendency in class to throw out random questions and then direct them to “figure it out.” (They both said something like “when Professor Hoyle tells you to ‘figure it out’ you really do need to figure out how to figure it out.”)

I think you can make any class better by simply uttering those three words (“figure it out”) as many times as possible during class. In fact, if you don’t need to provide that instruction at least once every day, I think you are missing a wonderful opportunity to engage the students. After all, what are critical thinking skills but the ability to take a quantity of information and then use it to figure something else out? And, a student's critical thinking skills are made sharper and sharper as you ask students to figure out more complex issues.

I believe every class should have numerous times where the “teacher” throws out seemingly random bits of data and asks the students to assimilate that information in some logical form to figure out some other result or consequence. That is true, I feel, whether you are teaching biology or religion or Shakespeare or, like me, accounting.

--Here’s what we are facing. What should we do? Figure it out.
--Here’s what just happened. Why did it happen? Figure it out.
--This work is considered one of the most important in history. Why is that the case? Figure it out.

What I like about “figure it out” is that it clearly sends a signal to the students that you are not interested in having them regurgitate memorized lines. You really are interested in making use of what has previously been covered.

Nothing does that better than turning to a student and saying “you don’t need me to tell you the answer. You’ve already got the information you need to come to a logical conclusion. Figure it out.”

And, now, to reiterate, here are the first three of my favorite quotes about teaching:

“The process of learning is asking sharper and sharper questions."
“The real purpose of books is to trap the mind into doing its own thinking.”
“Figure it out.”

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My Favorite Quotes About Teaching – Number Two

In 1980, I started writing my Advanced Accounting textbook. I was so young and innocent that I really didn’t understand that writing a textbook by myself of that size and complexity was almost impossible. However, after 3-4 years of intense writing (I remember one Christmas day when I sat typing on my little blue portable typewriter trying desperately to finish the project before it was out of date), I managed to complete the book. Several editions later, I added two wonderful co-authors and the book is now going into its 11th edition as the market leader.

When I finished the first edition of this textbook, I wanted to add a quote at the beginning to put forth my feeling about textbooks and education in general. I looked everywhere and couldn’t find a quote that I liked. I was about ready to give up on the quest. One day I went to get my hair cut and was talking to the young woman who was cutting my hair. I told her about my search for the perfect quote and she casually responded “I have a quotation calendar on my table – why don’t you see what the quote is for today?”

I glanced over and was just stunned to read a sentence from the writer Christopher Morley:

“The real purpose of books is to trap the mind into doing its own thinking.”

That was exactly how I felt about the textbook that I had just written and that was how I felt about education as a whole. I copied the quote down and it has appeared at the beginning of every edition of Advanced Accounting over the past 28 years.

I am a big believer that colleges and other schools have a bad obsession with teaching “stuff.” In class, we just pour out facts and figures and the poor student can’t write fast enough to get it all down. We like to teach “stuff” because it is easy to test and easy to grade. There are never any arguments; students either know the stuff or they don’t. Consequently, we graduate students with heads crammed full of stuff who cannot always do the thinking necessary to make use of that stuff. I think the world suffers a bit as a result (maybe more than a bit).

I’m in my 41st year as a college teacher and, year by year, I get less interested in teaching stuff. However, I get more interested (my students might say obsessed) with trying to get them to do their own thinking. They are bright folks – if they learn to think clearly and logically, they can figure the stuff out for themselves. That's exactly what I want for them.

How do you get away from teaching “stuff?” How do you encourage students to do their own thinking? Well, you probably already know my answer: Ask them questions and keep at them until they come up with reasonable answers.

--What is going on in this situation?
--How did we get into this mess?
--What are our alternatives?
--Which option would you pick?
--What are the potential benefits and problems?
--What information do you have available and what use can you make of it?
--What have we done before that might be helpful here?

The questions can go on forever and (trust me) they can make your students very frustrated. But that just means they have hit a wall that they need to break through if they are ever going to think for themselves. I have a saying that drives my students crazy when I respond to their queries: “I’m paid enough to ask questions; I’m not paid enough to provide any answers. That’s your problem.”

And, over the years, my students have come back over and over and said "I'm so glad you taught us in that intense questioning style because it has helped me so much in life after school."

Go through your class materials day by day and be brutally honest – how much of it is just teaching “stuff?” Is that what you really want to do? Is that really what your students need from their classes?

If I can paraphrase Christopher Morley, I can’t think of a better education quote than: The real purpose of my class is to trap the student’s mind into doing its own thinking.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Real Loss

The world of education lost a truly wonderful teacher this past week. I had only known Tom Hindelang for a year or so but I cannot remember meeting another person who so loved teaching. He truly understood the power and importance of education and my life is better for having had the opportunity just to be around his enormous enthusiasm. You could not talk with Tom for long without getting excited yourself and wanting to be a better teacher.

This article gives you a sense of this man and his love for students. He was truly a wonderful human being.

Friday, December 9, 2011

My Favorite Quotes About Teaching – Number One

My Favorite Quotes About Teaching – Number One

(I’m writing this in the middle of a final exam. I figured I might as well do something useful while I sit here.)

I am a person who likes quotes. I have numerous books of famous quotations and I’m surprised by how often I read through them. They can be inspirational; they can make you think. In each book, there are always several quotes that I find touching or meaningful. Certain of those thoughts seem to have been lifted directly from my brain without me ever having formed them consciously. I am surprised by how often I find myself muttering “oh, yeah, that’s what I believe.”

There are a number of quotes about teaching that I really like. Over the years, they have come to mean something special to me as I try to do my job well each day. They have helped me better consider what I am attempting to do in this life as a teacher. Several days ago, I decided to write a blog entry about several of my favorite quotes on teaching. After some consideration, I decided that entry might well be far too long. I’m not trying to create Hamlet here. As a result, I decided to write short essays on each of my favorite teaching quotes. Please feel free in the “comments” below to add your own favorites.

As everyone who reads this blog must know by now, I teach using the Socratic Method. I love to structure my classes around questions, questions, questions, and more questions. In fact, my Financial Accounting textbook is written entirely in a Socratic Method style. I find that if I ask questions (in class and in the textbook) students are able to get away from trying to memorize and start to ask their own questions. Through the learning process, they come to the point where they know enough to pose really insightful questions. And, hopefully, they become curious enough about what we are doing so that they actually start to ask those questions and seek the answers themselves.

Knowledge plus curiosity equals questions. (Joe Hoyle’s formula for learning.)

Each semester, I know that my class is moving in the direction that I want when I walk in and hands all over the room are raised to ask questions. The questions that really impress me are those that take what we have covered in class or in the textbook and move forward. The students are taking the next step on their own: Where does this topic go from here? How can I use this information to solve some problem?

If the questions are basic and easily figured out, that is still okay because it is a step in the right direction. However, what I want is the question that begins “We covered this in our last class and I was wondering if we can use that same logic to ….”

So, here is my first favorite quote. About two months ago, my elder son sent me an email saying that he had read a quote in a blog about home schooling that he thought I would like. Sure enough, I loved the insight:

“The process of learning is asking sharper and sharper questions."

Notice that the word here is “learning” and not “teaching” which is, I think, the key to the quote.

We traditionally think about the learning process from the perspective of the teacher but this quote focuses the emphasis where it should be: on the learner. What do I want from my students? I want them to be so curious that they can and will ask sharper and sharper questions as they learn more about each topic. If they become genuinely curious about the topic, everything else kind of takes care of itself.

The quote here is not about the teacher; it is about the student. I ask questions in my classes to prime the pump. A questioning atmosphere leads students to start asking their own questions. When that happens, the learning process can quickly evolve from memorization to something quite wonderful.

Favorite Quote Number One: “The process of learning is asking sharper and sharper questions."

Thursday, December 8, 2011

One of My Favorite Days

Okay, I post a blog entry like this about every six months but I think it is important enough to be redundant. If you ask your students to leap tall buildings in a single bound and they manage to do it, I think you owe it to them to acknowledge what they have accomplished. Simply putting an anonymous A on a grade report doesn't seem to properly recognize those students who have done truly outstanding work.

Every semester, when I finish my grading and I sit down and write this note, I am amazed by how good it makes me feel. I had several truly outstanding students this semester and I wanted them to know that I did notice. I did recognize that they worked incredibly hard and learned an amazed amount. I noticed and I wanted them to know that I noticed.


Dear Mr./Ms. XX,

I just wanted to let you know that I have finished grading the final examination and computing course averages. Only six students in my two Accounting 201 classes earned the overall grade of A for the semester and you were one of those six. Congratulations!! I am very pleased for you. It was a very difficult class (and a tough final exam) but your work was really outstanding. You very much deserved the A grade. I had 47 students in Accounting 201 this semester but only 13 percent managed to earn an A. I really believe that every student in these two classes was capable of making that grade but it did take a consistently strong effort throughout the semester and you accomplished that. Good for you! I’m very pleased. You should be proud of yourself. You managed to get the grade. Many came close but you earned it with your excellent work.

As you might know, I would like for you to do me a favor. I always want more of my students to shoot for the A and make it. Frequently, though, they seem mystified by the challenge. They are never really sure what I want from them. Too often, students take an entire semester simply trying to understand what I want them to do. What does it take to be great? I will have another Accounting 201 class in the spring. I’d like for you to tell those students how you managed to earn your A when so many others did not. What did you do that set your work apart? I would very much appreciate your writing me a paragraph or two (as soon as you can) on the topic – how I made an A in Professor Hoyle’s class. What was your secret? What worked for you? What information can you pass along to the next group of students that will help them do better? I really want more than 13 percent of my students in the spring to make an A and you can help. I'll pass along your advice and, hopefully, it will make a big difference.

I’d like your paragraph as soon as possible. There are only two rules: take it serious and be totally honest. Beyond that, what else could I want?

Again, congratulations!!! You did the work and you did it well. I enjoyed having the opportunity of working with you and I very much appreciate your excellent effort. I hope to work with you again at some point in the future.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Putting on a Last Minute Push

Football coaches across the country work constantly on getting their players to play especially hard at the end of each game. Often, the difference between winning and losing is based on who can put on the strongest push in the final moments. One last valiant effort can lead to a victory that will be remembered with fondness for years to come.

When my students return from Thanksgiving break, they will have one more week of classes and then final exams. In less than 2 weeks, it will be all over. They can be lethargic or they can be energized. I know what I want. I don’t want them to coast out. I want them to finish strong. Why do all this work throughout the semester only to fade out at the very end? If the material is worth learning, now is the time to put on that push to add even more knowledge and understanding.

Here at the end of the semester, I like to challenge my students to keep pushing forward. I think it is human nature; people need motivation. For students, it is quite easy to start operating on auto-pilot and just coast out. I don’t want that.

So, this morning, I went through my grade book and divided my students into six groups depending on their grade so far this semester: A students, high B students, mid-range B students, high C students, mid-range C students, and students with averages lower than C.

For each group, I composed a general email where I first reminded them of where they stood going into the last few days of the semester. I didn’t want anyone to be delusional about their grades at this point. I think students can get used to “Santa Claus graders” – teachers who give them better grades for a course despite their averages. They need to know that I am not going to play Santa Claus. You can catch a student’s attention very quickly by simply reminding them: “If you don’t do better on the final exam, you are going to get a C in this course.” Reality sets in, or maybe panic.

Through these emails, I hope to challenge every student to give their very best efforts here at the end of the semester. Below is the email that I sent out to the students who were in the high B range. I really want to see if I can’t get many of these students to step up and go for the A rather than settle for the B. I always say that I like aggressive, ambitious students who play for the win. I think they’ll remember this course with pride for a long, long time if they are able to do well on the final exam and turn that B into an A.

“I am writing this note to the students who have a relatively high B average (84.5 – 89.4) going into the final week of classes. First, let me congratulate you on a very good effort this semester. You have done well and I’m quite pleased with your effort throughout this semester. This is a challenging class and you've done well.

“I am writing, though, to urge you to put on a good push here at the end of the semester and shoot for the A. It won’t be easy but you do have the chance. Every semester, I have students who move into the A range by doing a great job on the final examination. It is the biggest part of your course grade. It can make a big difference. You are capable of that. I’m always so very pleased when a student hits a home run on the final exam and goes from B to A.

“And, I do give grades of B+ and A- so even if you don’t quite make an A, you can still improve your grade.

“There’s no shame in making a B in Accounting 201. I actually made that grade myself when I was a sophomore in 1967 and my life hasn’t been ruined. But you’ve worked so hard. I would love to see you make it all the way.

“Good luck. I’ll be cheering for you. Win, lose, or draw – it has been a pleasure working with you in class this semester. You really should consider taking more accounting. As I like to say – you seem to have the knack for it.”

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

How to Read a Student Evaluation

Interesting article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on what a professor can learn from student evaluations. The article is insightful as are a lot of the numerous comments that were left by readers.

Friday, October 28, 2011

What Would You Have Done?

Last week, I encountered a problem with one of my students. I wasn’t sure what I ought to do so I turned to my colleagues here at the Robins School of Business and emailed them a cry for guidance.

To: Fellow Faculty Members

For the first time in (at least) 25 years, I had a student sleep through a test. The test was at 10:30 on Friday and I got an email at 12:30 that he had stayed up late on Thursday studying and just slept through his alarm. He was hysterical, begging for mercy.

If you have ever had this happen, what do you do that makes sense?

Here are the factors:

1 – I absolutely do not want to set a precedent that I cannot live with in the future. I don’t want “I slept through the alarm” to become a common occurrence in my classes.
2 – I don’t want to ruin the young man’s life. He just overslept – he didn’t rob a bank. I’ve overslept.
3 – There were students who showed up for the test and failed (and will probably fail the course). I’m very concerned about being fair to them. I don’t want to penalize “showing up.”
4 – I think he is telling me the truth but I don’t know that for sure.
5 – I give three tests and a final exam. This test will be approximately 22 percent of his overall grade.
6 – Although I do not know that it is relevant information, he made a solid D on the first test.
7 – Although I do not know that it is relevant information, he has missed a few classes along the way this semester.

If you have ever faced this type of situation, what would you do? I’m really curious as to how people handle this kind of problem – other than a public beheading in the Atrium.

I sent out this plea on a Saturday morning and within a very few hours I had received 24 different responses. I was very interested in two things: (1) the thoughtful nature of the responses and (2) the wide variety of suggestions. Everyone understood the situation and had some strong feelings about what was appropriate. How do you treat a student who has messed up? Should the punishment be harsh or nonexistent?

A few days later, I shared the responses with the faculty (anonymously) as well as my own final decision. I am not going to list all 24 responses here (but contact me at if you have an interest in seeing the entire list) but I have picked out several that I thought were fairly representative of the group. And, at the end, I explain what I did and why.

It was not an unbelievable situation.

What would you have done?

Professor A - I have made the mistake of giving some students "a break" and I have regretted the decision. Here is my take. At the age of 20 - 21 some of our students are mature, responsible adults. Others are still in the process of growing up and learning to be responsible. The mature students never ask me to give them a break...they never seem to need one. The immature students ask and then ask again. In your situation I would give the student a zero. Given his performance thus far he will likely fail the class. However, I believe the University will let any student retake a course and the new grade appears on the transcript as well. It is better for this student to learn that actions have serious consequences while he is still in school. Better to fail a class than get fired. You can always tell him that he may not have learned Accounting, but he did learn Accountability.

Professor B - This is difficult. On one hand you don't want to reward the behavior, but it is also harsh to deal out such a stiff penalty. So here is what I normally do in something like this. I would have the student put the exam points toward the final. This is a penalty in that most students don't want to have so much riding on the final. But, if the student can perform on the final they have the opportunity to wipe out the mistake.

We live in an imperfect world and there is probably something wrong with whatever attempt we make to address a problem like this.

Professor C - I tell the students at the beginning of the semester that a missed test is a zero regardless of the situation. However, I did have one student have a family medical emergency and notify me before the exam. When exceptions absolutely must be made, I ask the student if they are willing to distribute the weight of the exam missed across all other assignments and exams. In every case, they have happily agreed. So for these students, I grade them in a way that essentially assumes they were not required to take the exam missed.

However, if this particular student were in my class I would not extend this option to him. If he is a D student that often misses classes and simply slept in, I would think that he needs a wakeup call to be more responsible. I would likely talk to him during my office hours and tell him this while giving him advice on how to improve his performance from here on out and probably require him to check in with me every week to make sure he's on top of his assignments. It is my opinion that allowing him to make up the exam in any way would just be enabling his bad habits to continue.

I would not view this as ruining his life. Rather, this is likely the wakeup call he needs. Better now by failing an exam/class than in the future by losing his job for similar behavior.

Professor D - I give a comprehensive final. If a student misses a test for any reason (this is not an opt out) that percentage goes to the final exam. That way they are tested on the material and I do not have to play judge or truth teller regarding the excuse. There are no "make up tests". In the past this has not proven to be a great option for the students grade wise and I let them know this up front. The policy is on the syllabus and seems to work well with regard to them making every effort to attend. This is especially true for MBA's.

Professor E - I usually offer the student two options: take the exam with a penalty applied to the grade (for example, 10 points off), or put the weight on the final or the other exams already taken.

Professor F - It sounds like he is having personal problems. I would talk with him and maybe make his being able to take the test contingent on him seeing someone in counseling or the Dean's office.

Or let him take the test and let him know you are concerned about him and are going to let the Dean's office know.

I am always dismayed by the number of kids who get transported to the hospital for alcohol overdoses, each week. I guess this is a nationwide problem, but it just reminds me of how vulnerable some of these kids are.

Professor G - If the public beheading really isn't an option, then I would say that points #6 & 7 absolutely are relevant. Were he a stellar student, I would feel more inclined to help. Failing a class will not ruin his life. In fact, it may enhance it. It is part of the educational experience to learn that most of life is about (1) being where you're supposed to be and (2) doing what you're supposed to do. But it's important to determine whether he's the kind of student that will benefit more in the long run from an act of grace or of justice.

With all that said, you could (privately) give him the option of dropping the course or count the final twice. I would never offer a make-up exam.

Okay, here is what I did and I don’t know that I like this resolution at all but it’s done and I’ll stick with it.

If I had gotten the student’s email in time, I would have had him take the test on Friday afternoon with a 15-20 point penalty. However, I didn’t get the message until fairly late on Friday and I’m always a bit concerned about cheating. Once the exam was over, the other students had no reason not to talk about what was on the exam. The student grapevine is amazingly efficient.

If the student had an excused absence (health reasons, athletics, school activity, or the like), I might have given a makeup. However, I hate makeup exams because I find it very difficult to look at one set of answers all by themselves and know what that means. An N of 1 is always a problem. So, I prefer to simply give more weight to the other tests. That increases the risk but there is no penalty.

This was not excused, though. For this student, I would never give a makeup exam because I would have to do more work which makes no sense to me and I’m back to the problem of an N of 1.

I could have increased the weight on the other tests but that might actually be a reward. “I’ll have more time to study for the next test so I’ll just conveniently oversleep for this exam.” I thought there should be a real penalty but how serious should the penalty be for oversleeping?

Here was the major factor for me: I could not see giving him any chance at all of having a higher grade on this material than a student who actually showed up. That just seemed wrong to me. So, I told him that I would give him a grade of one point below the lowest test grade. That turned out to be a relatively high F.

But, and here is the point that I argued with to myself, I told him that I would only count this as half of an exam grade. I thought that was still a severe enough penalty that no one would ever want it. But it wasn’t crushing. I very much agree with what Professor F above says: “it just reminds me of how vulnerable some of these kids are.”

All Time Top Ten

This blog went over a total of 40,000 pageviews about two days ago. I continue to be amazed by that number. However, I find that when a teacher contacts me about my writings, they almost invariably make the statement “Someone told me about your blog on teaching.” So, as always, I want to thank you for passing along the message. My guess is that I would have had about 4 pageviews in the last 22 months without your willingness to tell others. Thanks!!! That’s one of the great things about the Internet, people can spread the word.

As I occasionally do, here are my all time top ten blog entries based on readership. I am not sure they are the most interesting or the most clever or the most innovative. But the most people have read these ten.

1 – What Do We Add? – July 22, 2010
2 – What the Catcher Tells the Pitcher – August 21, 2011
3 – Big Mistakes – March 26, 2011
4 – Introduction – Teaching (Financial Accounting) – January 7, 2010
5 – Need Some Inspiration? – September 13, 2010
6 – What Do You Tell Your Students? – August 19, 2010
7 – The $10 Million Question – January 16, 2011
8 – Lessons From Dilbert – September 28, 2011
9 – 14 Questions to Introduce Present Value – April 10, 2010
10 – An Idea From My Boss – September 2, 2011

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Ten Commandments for Taking a Test

As I have written a number of times on this blog, I like to think of myself as a mentor as well as a teacher. I’m hoping that my students walk away more thoughtful and wise on top of knowing more accounting. I think if all I was doing was teaching accounting and its rules I would have retired years ago.

I gave my first test of the fall semester several weeks ago. I really did want my students to succeed. They are capable people and I’d like to see them make the best possible use of those talents. A good grade on the first test is a wonderful way to get a semester started.

So, during the class immediately preceding this test, I talked with them about my Ten Commandments for Taking a Test. Hopefully, this helped them be (a) properly prepared and (b) able to show me what they really did know.

Of course, what I want is for the test to be fair and properly challenging and for them to prove to me that they have mastered the material and understand how to make use of that knowledge. Here’s what I told them.

To my students: My Ten Commandments for Taking a Test
1 – Read the darn question. I realize you are nervous but you have to read each word and each sentence carefully in order to give me an answer that actually addresses the question that I am asking. Because you are a bit tense, you probably want to get started answering as quickly as possible. It is easy to skim the question and start guessing at what is being asked. I sometimes refer to that as “shotgun reading” where you pick a word from here and a word from there and a word for somewhere else on the page and assume you know what the question really asks. Do not do that. If necessary, put your finger on each word and force yourself to read everything in the question. It is hard to get a question correct if you do not know what the question is asking.

2 – Stay calm. We have three tests this semester and a final examination. Yes, this test is important but you’ll do better if you stay calm. A little tension probably keeps you focused but more than a little tension can make you hyperventilate. Don’t get excited. If you tense a muscle enough, you can hardly move it. To get maximum movement, you have to let it get loose. The brain works the same way. You’ve taken tests since you were in kindergarten or the first grade. You should be an expert at test taking by now. If you have done the work that I’ve asked, you have no reason to lose your calm. I want to see what you know and letting your adrenaline get too pumped up keeps you from showing me what you know.

3 – Think. The questions are not written to see what you have memorized. The questions are written to test your ability to use your understanding. So I expect you to think. I am not training parrots to repeat back to me what I have told them. I expect you to read the question and think about what it is asking and what a reasonable solution would be. If the answer is not immediately obvious (trust me, it won’t be), it is because I expect you to think about it.

4 – Hours = Points. The more time you spend studying for this test, the better. Ten hours is better than five hours. However, the equation Hours = Points is really taking in all the time you have spent since our first class. If you have spent sufficient time on a regular basis since we began this course, you’ve already put in most of the hours that you need. That is what I really want. But, you need to avoid being na├»ve – either as we have covered the material or as you prepare for this test, nothing replaces studying enough hours.

5 – Figure it out. We have covered a lot of material since the semester began. Every question goes back in some way to what we have covered: a rule, an example, a principle, a discussion. The questions are not random (no matter how they look at first glance). I expect you to figure out how each question ties into what we have covered and then figure out how you can use that knowledge to come up with a reasonable resolution. As you and I both know, my three favorite words are “figure it out.”

6 – Good start. The first test is only a small part of your grade – about 20 percent. However, I would love for you to get off to a great start. A good grade on this first test doesn’t ensure a life of wealth and happiness but I do think it tends to make the semester go well. I’ve probably already got your full attention but, if not, I’d urge you one last time to put in a good effort in getting ready. Students almost invariably do better if they do a good job on their first test of the semester. Everything gets easier after that.

7 – Office hours. There is a famous line from the Watergate hearings back in the 1970s. When someone asked one of the attorneys for a witness why he was raising so many objections, he responded "Well, sir, I'm not a potted plant. I'm here as the lawyer. That's my job." So, if you ask, why do I spend 6-8 hours in my office each and every week, the answer is – Well, I’m not there as a potted plant. I’m your teacher. That’s my job. In other words, make good use of me as a resource. I didn’t get into teaching because I didn’t want you to learn. I got into teaching because I genuinely like young people and enjoy seeing them come to learn and understand the material we cover. Some students make great use of my office hours. Others wouldn’t walk into my office if they were bleeding to death. That’s dumb. You (or someone else) is paying a lot of money for your education. I have a lot of office hours. Come in and ask questions. Make use of me. I am not a potted plant. It is my job.

8 – Fair. As you are reading each question, I think it is helpful to realize that I am trying to be fair. There is no reason for me to ask you a question that you cannot figure out. That doesn’t prove anything. If you have done the work that I have asked, I think you have a wonderful shot at getting every question correct. I think that is fair. If you have not done the work that I have asked or if you’ve not been able to learn the material for whatever reason, I think you have a wonderful shot at missing every question. That is the purpose of a test – to allow me to see what you have learned and understand. I will never ask you a question that I don’t think you can answer if you have attended class and done the work. I am not sadistic; I’m just trying to figure out what you know.

9 – The first test is not life or death. Obviously, it is nice if you do well on this first test. But, I don’t want you to put a huge amount of pressure on yourself. Study as much as you can, come by and see me if I can help, stay calm, think about the questions. However, after it is over, walk away and—for the time being—forget about it completely. It is just one test in one course in a long life of education. Some students put so much pressure on themselves that it is hard to keep things in perspective. If you don’t do well on this first test, then you and I can sit down and plot out a good strategy to do better on the next test.

10 – Have confidence. In life, whether you are shooting a basketball or putting a golf ball or taking a test, things go better if you believe in yourself. You are bright folks—you made it through high school, you made it through other courses at this school, you’ve been working in my class for weeks. We've worked hard; you've done well. You are more than bright enough to do well on this test. I believe in you and you should believe in yourself. You have a wonderful mind. That mind is more than capable of answering any question that I might throw at you in this course. Don’t come in expecting the worst. Come in with a belief that you’ve done the work and you have the ability to take on the challenge of this test.

Good luck – absolutely nothing will please me more than giving 100 percent A’s. You CAN do it!!!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


This week-end I have the great honor and pleasure of driving to Raleigh to speak at the North Carolina Accounting Education Forum. There is nothing I enjoy more than speaking with a group of teachers about education—what works, what doesn’t work and how we can go about making a difference in the lives of our students.

This morning I had a wake up warning about my presentation. As I ate my Special K, I read the comic strip Dilbert. In it, Dilbert is talking with the garbage man and he asks this very pertinent question: “Wise Garbage Man, why are Power Point slides so boring?”

Well, that question certainly gets right to the point.

Now, if you have followed this blog for long, you have heard me fuss about the use of Power Point in a college classroom. My main argument is that the slides encourage the students’ strong tendency to copy and memorize. Okay, I already know all the justifications for using Power Point. But, if we are going to be truthful, the number one reason that teachers like to use these slides is that it makes teaching easier—not better but certainly easier. Power Point reduces preparation time significantly. Instead of planning out and writing an outline, you simply follow along with the slides. They can save a huge amount of time. And, in 2011, most teachers don’t have enough time.

Well, we’ve well established that I am a critic. However, this Saturday, when I speak in North Carolina (to a bunch of teachers), I will be using Power Point slides. Yes, I confess. In fact, I have 56 slides and I hope to get through quite a number of them. I justify this heresy in my own mind because it is difficult to walk into a room with 50 people you don’t know and get a conversation going quickly.

But Dilbert’s question (“why are Power Point slides so boring?”) got me to thinking: how can a teacher make good use of the advantages of Power Point without boring people to death and without encouraging copying and memorizing?

Here are my two suggestions for using Power Point. And, I actually worked on both of these myself this morning immediately after reading Dilbert.

1 – Never have more than 10 words on a slide. If you limit yourself to 10 words or less, the slide is a prompt and not a crutch. Make that an absolute rule. If you put more than 10 words on a slide, both teacher and student wind up reading. I think we stopped having class readings in the 2nd grade.

2 – On as many slides as possible, ask a question. Questions are always good – so use the Power Point slides to put out the questions you want students to consider.

If you follow both of these rules, I think you will find that Power Point really does provide a great class. Students get away from reading the slide and get into the thinking that you really want them to do. It is not Power Point slides that I am against; it is the use that is too often made of them in our college classrooms today.

Hopefully, it will work for me on Saturday in Raleigh.

PS - If you would like to get a copy of the slides that I use at the presentation in Raleigh, drop me a note at

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Who Are YOU?

As we start a new semester, I think it is an important idea to stop and think about who we are as teachers. The word "teacher" can mean a lot of things -- as a teacher, who do you really want to be? Below is an essay from my teaching tips book that talks about making that determination. I've always thought it was helpful to actually know who you wanted to be.

As a teacher, I think it is important to have a clear self-concept of your own “teaching personality.” Who are you? Maybe more to the point, who do you really want to be at key moments? Do you have what I occasionally refer to as a “personality role model?”

That term does not allude to a teacher whom you have known, as in the preliminar exercise at the start of this book, but an actual role model for your teaching style. For example, when making presentations to fellow educators, I often distribute a list of names such as the following and ask the participants to select the one individual with whom they most closely identify when it comes to their teaching personality. Or, better still, if none of these names suits them, they can come up with a personal choice. This can provide excellent insight as they tread the steps of their teaching journey. So, with whom do you identify as an educator?

---Attila the Hun – a cruel but victorious warrior
---Billy Graham – a fiery orator who shows Heaven and Hell to his listeners
---Dr. Dolittle – a learned man who talks to the animals every day
---Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – a person with multiple personalities, some good and some
---Florence Nightingale – a person dedicated to healing the afflicted
---General Patton – a dynamic, charismatic soldier and leader
---Gil Favor – on the 1960s television series “Rawhide,” he was the trail boss who was in charge of moving the cattle to market
---Jay Leno – a comedian who keeps his audience constantly entertained
---Leonard Bernstein – a conductor who brings the entire orchestra together to make beautiful music
---Martin Luther King Jr. – a leader who truly made a difference in society as we know it
---Meryl Streep – a talented actress, always playing different roles
---Moses – the man who led the children of Israel out of the wilderness
---Mother Teresa – a saintly person who cared deeply about every individual, especially the afflicted
---Mr. Wizard – in early television, a character who seemed to have the answer to every possible question
---Santa Claus – a kindly fellow who gives out gifts to good boys and girls
---Socrates – a wise person who guides students to understanding by means of questions
---The Marquis de Sade – a sadist who enjoyed the pain of others
---Vince Lombardi – a championship football coach known for motivating his players to
do their best

Most people who have been students in college can probably recollect certain of these characters as being among their own teachers. I know, for certain, that my education included a Mr. Wizard and a Jay Leno, not to mention a couple versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I only wish that I had experienced a Santa Claus or, perhaps, a Mother Teresa.

With whom do you identify? I feel that being a teacher becomes a bit more directed when a person has a personality role model. For me, that one individual has always been Vince Lombardi. During his years as the football coach of the Green Bay Packers, his teams seemed to win the championship game virtually every year. He was probably best known for taking average players and turning them into winners. This concept greatly appeals to me: working with average people to achieve outstanding
results. One of Lombardi’s quotes has often guided me both personally and in the manner in which I interact with my students: “A man can be as great as he wants to be. If you believe in yourself and have the courage, the determination, the dedication, the competitive drive and if you are willing to sacrifice the little things in life and pay the price for the things that are worthwhile, it can be done.” That seems to be excellent advice for both teacher and student.

Over the years of my teaching career, there have been a seemingly infinite number of times when I have been thoroughly stuck as to what action to take when faced with a troubling situation. After running out of easy options, I inevitably scratch my head and ask myself: “Wonder what Vince Lombardi would do in this case?” In all honesty, I do not always follow the path to resolution that he probably would have taken. However, simply framing the question in this manner helps me organize and direct my often scattered thinking. The real question, of course, is: What action is really appropriate for me here? Even as I near age 60, I think it is great to have role model to provide guidance.

The Vince Lombardi personality model has guided my teaching in other ways. For example, he never seemed to over-emphasize individual games during the season but,rather, focused on winning championships at the end of the year. Likewise, I attempt to keep my eye directed toward the desired end-results. As much as possible, my concentration is solely on the potential positive changes that can be engendered in my students by the conclusion of the term. How will a particular action today impact their overall long-term development? I have never been much interested in short-term results but, rather, my priority is in maximizing the amount of progress achieved by each student from the beginning of the semester to the end.

But the goal here is not to follow me. Consider your own personality and teaching style. Everyone is unique. Are you more like General Patton or Florence Nightingale when you slip into your “teacher mode?” Had they been educators, those two would have probably approached their classes with widely different tactics and strategies. Yet, my guess is that each would have achieved significant success.

I often tell my students that “nothing in this class ever happens by accident.” Good
teaching is not a random series of unfortunate events; it is a logically thought-out process based on the teacher’s vision of education. Having a personality role model can help guide the design and creation of the structure that anchors your classes. The essential question comes back to: Who do you really want to be when it comes to orchestrating the education of your students?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Open Letter to My Students

If you have followed this blog for long, you probably know that I use the Socratic Method to teach Financial Accounting (sophomores) and Intermediate Accounting (juniors). My students are stunned at first when I start asking them questions. Most of them have never experienced anything like this. My goal is to get them comfortable (but not too comfortable) after the first 2-3 classes.

We have now had 8 classes (we start early). Class is moving along nicely (I think). I really want them to enjoy the give and take of learning. A roller coaster will scare you to death the first time you ride it but about the third time “scary” becomes “fun.” I am not interested in scaring anyone but I do want to help them develop their critical thinking skills. That is rarely easy. So, I like to get them to buy into what we are doing.

I also believe in being totally honest and open with my students as to what I am doing and why. I think they deserve to know the why. After all, it is their life; it is their education. I think we should all talk more with students about what we are doing in class and why. Verbalizing the goals can be helpful to you as well as to them.

Therefore, after class today, I sent the following email to my students just to explain what I was doing.

“I often have students ask me why I teach so differently. I could have explained this on Day One but you wouldn’t have understood. For the first 20 years of my career, I was a lecturer and I was good at it. I was as good at teaching copying and memorizing as a person could possibly be.

“And I was very disillusioned – I was ready to quit and go get a real job and make a lot of money. If that was teaching, I wasn’t interested. That wasn’t how I wanted to spend my life. I wasn’t changing anyone in the way I wanted.

“Two things happened that changed me. People can change. That alone is something to remember.

“The Youtube video below is one of the two things that changed me – it comes from a movie of that time. My guess is that a lot of students would watch this video and claim that it demonstrates cruel and unusual punishment (I have a friend here at Richmond who believes that). Hopefully, you’ll have a different view of it. Three things to pay special attention to as you watch.
***First, at about the 3:35 mark, the teacher talks about what he is doing. I wish I could have said it that well.
***Second, it’s all about preparation and thinking. That’s it; there are no short cuts. You either prepare to learn or you don’t learn.
***Third, compare “Mister Hart” at the beginning to “Mister Hart” at the end. That class has changed him and made him a smarter, more confident, much better educated person. That is a class worth having. That’s a learning experience that is worth doing.

“That is exactly what I want for each of you. I promise you that I never call on you where I’m not trying to get you to the point that he experiences at the end of this video. 50 minutes per class – that is the goal."

Friday, September 2, 2011

An Idea from My Boss

If you read much about education, you will quickly see many of the same general ideas suggested over and over as beneficial. “Create teams” is one that many experts recommend. “Use the last few minutes of class to review and tie concepts together” is another. “Stress peer education – encourage students to teach each other” is a third that I often read. “End your class with a positive experience” is also common advice.

However, one of the problems of teaching is that turning general ideas into practical classroom activities is often harder than it sounds.

My boss here at the Robins School of Business is Dean Nancy Bagranoff. For the first time in a few years, Dean Bagranoff is teaching a class this semester. She has an “Introduction to Financial Accounting” section every Tuesday and Thursday morning with about 25 sophomores.

Because she has been out of the classroom for a while, Dean Bagranoff and I have been having a few conversations about teaching and how to help students learn. As is often the case, I’m probably learning more from these conversations than she is.

Recently, she described an idea that she uses in her classes. It was one of those epiphanies I love to have. As soon as she described the idea to me, I knew that it ought to work quite well in virtually any class. I’m a strong advocate that we need to pass along excellent teaching ideas so that they get wide exposure. So, here goes.

--Occasionally, with about 10-15 minutes left in the class period, hand out a short quiz with questions covering the current class material. Give each student 6-7 minutes to provide answers and then take up those answers.
--Immediately, pass out the exact same quiz questions again and put the students into teams of 2-3. Each team has to come to a consensus answer for every question. After a few minutes, take up only one answer sheet from each team.
--Half of the quiz grade comes from the individual answers. Half of the quiz grade comes from the group answers.
--Each time you do this end-of-class exercise place the students into different teams.

There are so many good things about this assignment that I am not sure where to begin.
--Students are rewarded for their own personal learning because their individual quizzes count as half of the grade. No one can just coast on the work of a teammate.
--Students must operate as a team and help each other learn in order to come up with their group’s answers. The members of the team have to arrive at a consensus answer. If one student believes the answer is True and the other believes it is False, they have to work as a team to arrive at one answer.
--The students who do poorly on the individual quizzes don't just walk out of class feeling stupid. They have the chance to improve their grade in the group exercise and will probably be very engaged.
--Because the group answers will hopefully be better than the individual answers (two heads should be better than one), students leave the class with a positive feeling--toward the class and toward themselves. There is a lot of “ah, now I see what is happening here.”
--The quizzes serve as an overview of what was covered that day. The quizzes provide an end-of-class review for that day’s class.

Whether you are teaching anthropology or zoology or anything in between, this is an exercise that should prove to be beneficial. Try it.

Even bosses can have good ideas.

A quick personal note – three days ago this blog site went over 37,500 page views since it started early in 2010. I just want to thank everyone who has mentioned this blog over the past 20 months to friends, relatives, acquaintances, coworkers, bosses, enemies, and total strangers. Without having your help in spreading the word, my guess is that no one would have ever seen this blog. Thanks! Truly!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Addressing Bad Habits

A lot of your college students have been students for most of their lives. They have been trained by all of the teachers who came before you. Unfortunately, the students have not always been well-trained. They pick up bad habits. And, they don’t even realize they have those bad habits.

So, on my first day of class (this past Monday), I tried to alert my students that I wanted something very specific from them and what I wanted might just be different from what previous teachers had wanted. No matter how successful they had been in the past, they needed to realize that they might have to adapt.

“Here’s exactly what I want from you this semester. I want you to get to a point where you can be presented with a fresh and unique situation and then figure out how to respond or act based on what we’ve learned previously or what you have uncovered in your studies. It seems so simple: (a) fresh situation, (b) figure it out, (c) based on what we have learned or you’ve found. However, most students have been brought up in an educational system that often rewards a ‘copy and memorize’ mentality. I have students with 4.00 GPA’s who become very frustrated with me because they copy down every word in class and memorize them all and then cannot figure stuff out on a test and do poorly. They are frustrated because copy and memorize has worked so well for them in the past. And, maybe, in the 4th grade, that was appropriate. But, this is a college education.

“Students who stress copy and memorize often prepare too little for class. Why prepare if you are just going to write everything down? They want to learn by following along. They come to class a blank slate—ready to be inscribed. I don’t think that’s what a college education should be. You’ll be in the ‘real world’ in another 18 months. Nothing in the real world as far as I know is copy and memorize so I see no reason for my class to be that.

“If I am going to give you a completely fresh situation to figure out on a test, then I need to help you learn how to do that before the test. That’s only fair. So, every day I’ll try to present you with some new stuff and we’ll try to reason it out together based on your preparation and what we have already learned. In fact, if we are successful, you’ll get pretty darn good at this before the end of the semester and you’ll wonder why you ever copied stuff down for memorization purposes.

“But, you have to be willing to walk into class very prepared and you have to be willing to try to use what we have studied to come up with viable solutions. 'Figure it out' are my three favorite words in education. You can’t tell me ‘this makes my brain hurt.’ You can’t beg ‘just give me the answers.’ In fact, most of the time, there are no ultimate answers. Most of the time, you and I (hopefully, mostly you) will be coming up with logical and reasonable possibilities.

“To me, that’s what a college education should be.”

Sunday, August 21, 2011

What the Catcher Tells the Pitcher

Occasionally, when I am driving home from work, I’m able to listen to a show called “Fresh Air” which is on NPR (National Public Radio). In it, Terry Gross (or an associate) will interview some interesting person. The discussions are often fabulous.

One day last week, I was able to listen to the show for just 4-5 minutes but, during that time, I heard something that really caught my attention. I have thought a lot about what I heard ever since that time and pondered its connection with my dealings with students. The person being interviewed was Brad Ausmus who retired recently as a catcher in baseball. He played in the major leagues for 18 years and is 7th on the all-time list for the number of games caught by one person.

If you follow baseball at all, you know that occasionally (especially when things are going badly) the catcher runs out to the mound for a quick talk with the pitcher. Probably like every other baseball fan, I’ve always wondered what the catcher can possibly be saying. Well, the person doing the interview on Fresh Air asked that specific question: “When you go out to talk with the pitcher, what do you tell him?”

Unfortunately, I was driving in my car so I couldn’t write down the words verbatim but here is the gist of what Ausmus said. “I always had only one goal in mind when I went out to talk with the pitcher. When I left him, I wanted the pitcher to absolutely believe that he was capable of getting out of the situation that he was facing. If he didn’t believe he was capable of taking care of the problem, we didn’t have much chance.”

What a fascinating lesson: I only had one goal. When I left him, I wanted him to believe that he was capable of getting out of the problem.

No wonder the guy stayed in the major leagues for 18 years.

We talk with our students all the time. Often, they have a problem – they have failed a test or they don’t understand what’s been covered or they have been lazy or busy and fallen behind. Frequently, it is their fault entirely.

It is easy to get really frustrated with students. There are times when I want to look into the student’s eyes and say “you messed up. This is all your fault. You’re an adult; let’s see how you get yourself out of this problem.”

That might well make me feel good (maybe we are all a bit sadistic) but I’m paid to teach students not to put them in their place. I didn’t become a teacher to berate young people for the mistakes they make. I became a teacher to help them succeed – not half of them, all of them. Over the years, I’ve talked with hundreds of teachers. One thing I have noticed is that, if you are not careful, it is easy for teachers to get into an “us versus them” mentality. “Students are lazy.” “Students have to be told everything.” “Students will cheat if you don’t watch them every second.” But in teaching, we are all on the same team. The catcher may be really upset at the pitcher but he still wants the pitcher to do well and win.

As a new semester begins, I’m going to try to be a bit more like Ausmus. When I talk with students, I’m going to think of them as pitchers and me as the catcher trying to get them back on top of their game so we can both win.

When students come to me with issues/challenges/problems, I’m going to attempt to (a) define the problem so we all understand, (b) tell them how I think they can and should resolve the problem, and (c) make sure they believe they are capable of fixing the problem. When they walk out of my office, I want them to believe they are capable of solving the problem. That certainly doesn’t mean that I’m going to do the work for them. The catcher doesn’t go out and offer to pitch.

In baseball, the goal is so obvious: we want our team to score more runs than the other team. In education, the goal may vary somewhat from person to person but it usually is pretty close to: we want every single student to learn the material and understand how to use that knowledge to have a better and more fulfilled life. When a student gets off the track to that goal, it is our job to show them how to get back on the track and leave them believing that they are capable of doing just that.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Very First Question

My first class of the 2011-2012 academic year will be next Monday at 9 a.m. If you have followed this blog for long, you know that I only teach by using a Socratic Method approach. I distribute questions in advance and then discuss those or related questions for the entire class time. I want a thoughtful conversation. This allows me to stick with my 50-50 goal (I do 50 percent of the talking and they do 50 percent of the talking).

I am a big believer that it is important to get each new class off to the proper start. You set a tone at the beginning that carries through for the entire semester. If you are funny, they’ll expect you to be funny from now on. If you do 100 percent of the talking, they’ll assume that this is the way you teach every single day.

Consequently, I spend a lot of time thinking about the tone I am creating during that first class. By now, I have already sent my students 4-5 emails so I fully expect them to be prepared on Monday morning and ready to go. I like creating a bit of urgency right from the beginning – this is important stuff and we cannot afford to waste our time. I believe that myself so why not convey this message.

This semester I have focused a lot of my attention on the very first question that I am going to ask. What do I want my students to think about immediately starting right at 9:00 a.m.?

I may change my mind by Monday but the question I plan to ask (as I type this) is: “if our class works perfectly this semester, if you and I both do all that we can possibly do and things go great, how will you be different at the end of the semester?”

Only a very few words but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question. Why do I like it?

--First and foremost, it focuses on the change that can occur in them. Students typically think about class in terms of learning. I’m not nearly as interested in learning (which can sound like the memorization of the Gettysburg Address). I want them to think about class in terms of how it will change them. In December, as a result of this class, I want them to walk out as different people. How is my class going to make that happen? I think “learning” simply understates the potential impact of a college class. I want them to be different; I want them to be better people in some definable way. And, I think they are more likely to get there if they consider what that change may be.

--Second, I want them to connect what they do with that change. Benefits don't happen by accident I want the students to realize that their “work” and their “change” are closely related. It is not just the passage of time that counts. That only makes you older. It is the work carried out during the semester that creates change in the student. I want them to realize that the more they work, the more they will change (and grow).

--Third, I definitely want my students to understand that the learning process is a team effort. It is not my job alone. Likewise, it is not just them operating by themselves. “If you AND I both do all that we can possibly do . . .” I often tell my students that class is like performing a dance such as the waltz. One party leads but both parties have to do an equal share of the work. A dance where only one person does any real work is an awkward mess. However, a dance where both people work together can lead to wonderful results. I inform students that I will do my half of the work but I will absolutely not do more than my half. It is their education and they have to be willing to do their share of the work.

--Fourth, I want the students to know that there is risk involved. I never never never take it for granted that a class will be a success. For me, “if” is always a scary word. “If this class works perfectly this semester,” sends the message that things might not work well. Benefit is not guaranteed. Students often seem to feel that if they merely persevere until the last day, they will accrue whatever benefit that is available. School = Perseverance = Success. No, some students gain immensely in my class whereas others obtain literally no benefit. I want to show students the opportunity that is available to them. But it may not happen There is a great benefit to be gained but only if we both do the work necessary.

Now, I have a question for you. And, I’d love to hear your response: When you walk into class on the first day of the semester and you are ready to get started (you’ve gone over the course outline or whatever housekeeping you have to do), what is the very first question that you ask your students. I’m definitely curious. Let me know – I might change. Send me your “first question” at

Saturday, August 13, 2011


In 9 days, I will begin my 41st year in the classroom. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to do it all once again. Teaching is just the greatest profession.

One of the things that I love about teaching is that there is always more to learn. It is such a complex art. No matter how long you’ve done it, there are insights that suddenly seem brand new. At this time of year, even things you’ve thought about before suddenly seem totally fresh and invigorating. Unless you just let yourself, there’s never a reason for a teacher to fall back on auto-pilot.

As the new academic year is set to begin, it is not a bad idea for every teacher to pause and consider what actually makes up good teaching. Not “average” teaching or “mediocre” teaching or “getting by” teaching but good teaching where you make a real difference in the lives of your students.

I went to a movie today with my daughters. The movie was titled “Buck” and was about a man who has spent his life training horses, especially challenging horses that didn’t want to be trained.

As I watched the movie, I was struck by what a great teacher this man is. He was marvelous at getting his “student” (the horse) to learn what he thought they needed to know. He made the process look simple.

You can learn so much from teachers like that. If nothing else, it reminds you of how good it feels to be a teacher.

As I watched the movie, I tried to analyze what he was doing and why it worked so well for him. I actually tried to memorize as much from the movie as I could. As soon as I got home, I wrote down everything I could remember about his teaching methodology because I wanted to see what I could learn.

The movie was a wonderful lesson on good teaching. I’m sure I forgot a ton but here is what I wrote down.

--The “student” has to trust the teacher or the student will simply not want to do what is being asked. Everyone wants to stay in their own personal rut. The natural inclination is to resist when someone asks you to do something new, especially if it requires work. His whole teaching style was based on developing trust right from the start. He never did anything that would cause his student to mistrust him.

--Several times he talked about that neat moment when the teacher and the “student” get on the same wave length. When the student comes to understand what is wanted and is willing to do it. At that moment, the teacher and the student start operating as a team. And, in education, if you can create that team, the potential for learning is beyond imagination.

--(This may be the thing that he talked about the most.) The “student” is a product of all the teaching they have had previously. Don’t blame the student for bad habits that prior teachers have created. Instead, have patience and work to retrain those habits. In my case, my students have had 20-30 teachers before they ever get to me. Some of those teachers may have taught the students to memorize so that learning seemed totally boring and useless. Some of those teachers may have taught the students that the development of critical thinking skills was a waste of time. Thus, you can’t get upset at students for believing that learning and thinking are boring and a waste of time. That may be the training they have received. Instead, you have to show them what you want and why it is important. “Here’s what I need for you to do and why” goes a long way in education.

--Allow the “student” to make mistakes because that is how learning takes place but don’t let the student become scared of making mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with being wrong as long as the student learns from the experience. But making the student feel stupid so that they are less inclined to try the next time is not beneficial.

--Work to help the “student” feel good about themselves. In life, nothing succeeds like success. In education, the student who feels good about what they are doing and what they are learning is always going to keep getting better and better. In the movie, Buck would constantly praise the horse for every action that was correct. When the horse did the right thing, there was instant and obvious reinforcement.

--For the “student,” the last two minutes of each session are the most important. You always want the student to walk out with a positive feeling about the experience so that it will carry over to the next class. That positive feeling is not created in the first 48 minutes but in the last two minutes.

--Always be firm with the “student” without being cruel. You are in charge; you have to direct the experience. Whether horses or people, the student wants to have a clear understanding of what is expected. Make sure that information is conveyed clearly and firmly: “Here’s exactly what I need from you by the next class” is always better than “Be prepared” or “Read Chapter 9.” However, no animal or person responds well to cruelty. You want the student to fly, not crouch in fear.

If I were to go back to the movie, I’d probably pick out another half dozen lessons on teaching. These were the ones that my memory latched on to in this first viewing. Did I already know these? Certainly, there’s nothing magic here. However, it is always great to be reminded. And, it is especially great to see them in actual practice and not just in theory.

Most of all, it was just nice (as a new school year gets ready to begin) to watch good teaching. For me, that is always inspiring.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Common Sense

A student that I had in one of my classes last spring wrote me recently for a book suggestion. He said that he wanted to learn more about the nature of business success and wondered what books I might suggest for him to read over the summer. I gave him a few titles that I like and then finished off with one of my very favorite books from many decades ago: Up the Organization.

I made the point to the student that I liked this last book especially because it made so much of business just seem like common sense. The book didn’t try to overwhelm me with weird ideas and theories or complex calculations and assumptions. It just said, in very simple terms, “if you treat people this way, you should get good results.”

After I wrote the student, I started to wonder if I could use the same logic in my teaching. Is there a common sense approach to teaching? The education system in the U.S. gets criticized quite frequently and experts put forth a lot of new suggestions all the time. However, improvement seems elusive. So, for the past 2-3 weeks, I have been pondering what a “common sense approach” to teaching might look like.

Here are some of the ideas that I came up with. (If you have some additional common sense teaching ideas, let me know.)

--The teacher should know what he or she wants to accomplish. How do you decide what you need to do each day if you don’t know where you and your class are going? How do you evaluate whether you are making the progress you want if you are not sure what you want to see happen? Seems like common sense to me. So, as an exercise, write down in (let’s say) 20 words or less what you want to see your students gain from your classes in the fall. I think this is a great way to start every semester.

--Be careful that you are not simply teaching your students to memorize. There’s a big difference between understanding and memorization. As you look at your goal above, does it require anything more than memorization? In the past, occasionally, people would appear on television who were memory geniuses. They would have the entire New York City phone book memorized or the name of everyone in the audience. When I write a test, I always picture that person. If the memory genius can make too high of a grade on my test, I’m not happy with how I’ve written it. I’m not trying to teach memorization so why reward it. I need to be testing more understanding, asking questions that would leave the memory genius completely stumped.

--I never expect students to read my mind. Never. That’s a bad teaching strategy. I tell them exactly what I want from them every single day. There should be no guesswork. I give them very specific assignments and I make sure that they are each of a proper length. Not too long to discourage them but not so short that it doesn’t seem to have any substance.

--I never expect students to do work unless they will eventually (sooner rather than later) see the reason for that assignment. If I ask my students to read a 5 page article for Monday, then on Monday I will question them about that assignment. “In the article you read for today, what did WorldCom do wrong, why do you think they did it that way, and how should they have operated differently?” If an assignment is given but not mentioned later by the teacher, students have every reason to believe they wasted their time.

--If a student is given an assignment and it is not done properly, there should consequences. Students are gamblers. They are constantly weighing out what might happen if they don’t do a certain amount of work. If you ask students to read Chapter One and they don’t and you do nothing about it, then you can certainly expect them NOT to read Chapter Two. That will follow as night follows day. They have now been conditioned (by you) to ignore what you ask them to do.

--When you call on students in class, call on the poor ones the same number of times that you call on the good ones. If you consistently call on John twice in every class but call on Susan only once, everyone in class gets the signal (especially John and Susan). What that exact signal is will depend on you (and why you call on John more), but all of the students will quickly get the message. One of the greatest rewards of teaching is turning a poor student into a good one. That is so much harder to do if you are sending signals that you recognize that some students are better than others. For example, I have a tendency to ask harder questions to the better students and easier questions to the poorer students. That is one habit that I want to break. I’m subtly telling the poorer students that I don’t believe in them and their ability to become better students.

--Care enough about your students as human beings to actually listen to their answers. It is very easy to make a quick evaluation (“this person is totally lost”) and start thinking about the next question you are going to ask. The student talking is a human being and deserves your full attention as they try to piece together an answer to your question. If you listen carefully, you can actually hear the pattern of their thought process as they work through the answer. They are talking to you; you should care enough to listen.

Okay, I could probably list 25 more like these. They are all just plain common sense. There is nothing here that every teacher in America could not do starting this fall. However, I’ll bet if you follow these religiously, you would improve as a teacher. Maybe not much, but some. And I have always held that the secret to becoming a great teacher is a little improvement each and every semester. And, to make that improvement, you don’t need to follow some complicated new educational fad. I’m betting common sense will be enough.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

And, Now, A Few Words from the Author

In case you are interested, I gave a presentation on teaching back in May at Lebow Businss School at Drexel University. The URL for that talk is below. I don’t know that I said anything in the speech that I have not said previously on this blog but I did put some of it together in a more organized way. The speech is about 75 minutes in length and I talk about why teaching is so important and how each of us can (and should) work to get better.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Garry Trudeau, who writes the comic strip “Doonesbury,” must have some interesting opinions about college education. In this blog, I have written previously about the picture of college education that he paints occasionally (see “Dealing With The Truth” posted on January 23, 2011).

Well, once again, Trudeau has written a strip that I felt went right to the heart of some of the problems we face as educators. In his cartoon for Sunday, June 26, 2011, two students are sitting at what looks like a coffee shop. One student asks: “When is Guy Fawkes Day?” and the other looks at a computer screen and responds with the correct answer in 0.08 seconds. The next question is what is “the seventh most abundant element in the earth’s crust”? This time the correct answer is provided in 0.14 seconds. The final question is what are “the three main branches of moral philosophy”? Discovery of the correct answer takes a mere 0.09 seconds.

The instant availability of an infinite amount of information leads these two students to ask questions that we educators should be asking all the time:
--Student One: “Which raises profound questions about what it means to be a student.”
--Student Two: “Yeah, like why go to college?”

Okay, this is the point where we should all provide our own personal answers. A college education normally takes four years of a person’s life and can cost up to $250,000. In 2011, have colleges become obsolete as a result of the efficiency of Google, Bing, and similar search engines.

In the cartoon, the students provide their answer. Why go to college? Student One has the perfect answer: “Well, to party. That hasn’t changed.”

And, my guess is that a lot of college teachers are not surprised one bit by this response. Many students seem to believe that parties are the primary reason for going to college.

Is that their fault? Or, is that our fault?

In this blog, I have often argued that too many college classes are built on a “conveyance of information model.” After World War II, when suddenly a lot more people were seeking a college education, a conveyance of information model probably made sense. At that time, other than an encyclopedia, individuals had very little way to get information. In 1951, determining the seventh most abundant element in the earth’s crust might literally have taken hours if not days.

Therefore, a wise individual would stand in front of a packed room of college students. This expert would rattle on for 50-75 minutes while the students copied it all down.

That probably made sense in 1951. However, this is 2011 and not 1951.

I think the biggest problem that colleges face today is switching from a conveyance of information model to a critical thinking model. And, truthfully, it is much easier to convey information than it is to help a young person develop critical thinking skills.

You have a new school year coming up. What if your new year’s resolution is to develop more critical thinking skills in your students? How would you go about doing that? Where do you even start?

I am going to give a few recommendations that seem to work occasionally in my classes. Perhaps a few of these will help you as you think about the question “why go to college?”

--Give students a reasonable amount of work to do prior to EVERY class and (a) make sure that this work relates to what you actually do in class and (b) hold the students accountable for doing that work. Don’t give your students a free ride—this is their education. They need to do their share of the work but that work has to be helpful to them.
--Ask questions, ask questions, ask questions – the more questions you can ask in a class, the better. I shoot for one per minute on the average.
--Don’t get upset by wrong answers. This is a learning process. If you get many correct answers, you are not asking the right questions. And, make sure the students know that they shouldn’t get upset by a wrong answer as long as they have made a serious effort. If you can get the effort, the rest will follow.
--Ask students what they think of other student answers. If I call on Susan, I don’t want Bill to fall asleep. If Bill knows that I might turn to him and ask “what do you really think of the answer, she just gave?” then Bill is going to pay close attention. I want every student paying attention every minute.
--Don’t ask students questions that you know they know. What good does that do? Your job as a teacher is to help stretch the mental capabilities of your students. If you do that, the students themselves should pay you a bonus. In my classes, I draw a circle and then put an X about 2 inches outside of the circle with a line connecting the circle and the X. “The circle is all the information you already know. The X is what I’m trying to get you to understand. The line is the connection between the two. If you will think about what you know, I honestly believe you can figure out the answer to X without my telling you. It is that ‘figuring out’ that I’m shooting for. It is that ‘figuring out’ that will make you better.”
--When you get to the tests, do the same thing. Ask them questions that they have to figure out. If you are just going to be testing memorization, forget the first five steps in this list because the students will ignore them.

I seriously believe that colleges are going to come under increasing fire over the next few years unless we do a better job of answering the question: why go to college? Personally, I think that answer comes from switching from a conveyance of information model to a development of critical thinking model.

And, to tell you the truth, helping students to develop critical thinking skills is a whole lot more fun (for you and them both) than simply conveying information.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Summer Time – Time to File Away Those Names?

I have mentioned several times on this blog that I would strongly urge anyone who wants to become a better teacher to keep a blog. There are always two reasons for that piece of advice.

First, I just feel that working out your thoughts on paper is very helpful in establishing what you really think and believe. Until I see it on paper, I’m never sure how I feel. Thus, I was delighted to read the following in Time magazine last week from the renowned historian David McCullough. “The loss of people writing—writing a composition, a letter or a report—is not just the loss for the record. It’s the loss of the process of working your thoughts out on paper, of having an idea that you would never had had if you weren’t (writing). And that’s a handicap People (I research) were writing letters every day. That was calisthenics for the brain.”

Second, keeping a blog gives you a chance to share your ideas with folks around the world. The Internet is a marvel in that way. I can sit here in Richmond, Virginia, and have a slight impact on education in dozens of countries. School is out for the summer in many places but, last month, this blog had nearly 1,300 page views. What struck me as most interesting was that the top 10 countries for accessing the site were: United States, Malaysia, United Kingdom, Spain, India, Israel, Iran, Ukraine, Canada, and Australia. As a wonderful example, there was an average of approximately one view per day for that entire month from the country of Iran. I am so appreciative of everyone who reads my thoughts here.

You probably have as much to say about teaching as I do, if not more. People cannot benefit from your ideas if they have no way to read them. Go blog.

I have just finished my 40th year as a college professor. From the first day I walked into a classroom, I have always wanted to be more than a teacher. What I tell people is that I want to be a mentor to my students. I think that type of relationship with students was prevalent decades ago but has become less and less the norm in recent times. Yes, I do know that a lot of professors work closely with their brightest students but I have always felt that 100 percent of the students could benefit from having a mentor.

What is a mentor? I looked up “teacher” in an online dictionary and got “one who imparts knowledge.” Sounds cold and mechanical, doesn’t it? I envision a person standing in a large lecture hall explaining to 400 sleepy students how to split an atom as each one writes down exactly the same words in exactly the same order.

The word “mentor,” though is defined as an “experienced advisor and supporter.” I don’t have any interest in being a friend to my students but I do hope to be an advisor and supporter. I want to be a mentor.

Okay, how do you go about giving advice and support? Well, here is one way. I had 62 students in the spring semester. We worked hard. Hopefully, they learned a lot. Obviously, I tried to show them that I wanted them to learn accounting. And, I tried to help them learn as much about accounting. But, I also worked to let them know that I wanted more for them than just a knowledge of accounting. College (I believe) should be more than the imparting of content.

Usually, after each semester is over, it is easy to file away the members of a class into your memory bank and assume they are no longer your responsibility. I think that is more of a teacher attitude rather than a mentor attitude. After the last day of class, I write one final email to say “If I can ever be of assistance, please let me know.”

But, I don’t want to leave it at that. So, last week, I sent the following email to each of those 62 students. I won’t have any of them in class again but I wanted to continue to influence them a little bit. Interestingly, a number of them wrote back to chat about books they were reading and recommend movies that I should see. I think that’s why I decided to become a college professor.

To: Students from the Spring Semester

Hope your summer is off to a great start. As with the rest of the world, it has been terribly hot here in Richmond but we all hang out with the air conditioning and manage to survive.

Now that your summer vacation is about 1/3 over, I wanted to take a moment to urge you to do stuff over the summer that will make you smarter. You are at a stage in your life when your mind is fast developing so make the most of that. You ought to make it a goal to come back to school in the fall smarter than when you left in as many ways as you can. You are forming a foundation for the rest of your life. Build that foundation well.

Go to museums, go to plays, go to art galleries, take in an opera. You never know when you’ll discover something unexpectedly wonderful.

And, think about business. I’m always interested that students want to go into the wars of business and high finance (and those really can be wars) but aren’t inclined to do any real work to get ready for the battle. Here’s a story I read today about Warren Buffett and his education.

“Buffett was very interested in learning about business and its workings. In his graduate years, he studied under Benjamin Graham who is considered the father of Value Investing. Under Benjamin Graham’s training Warren Buffett learned value investing. It is said that Benjamin Graham was so perfect in value investing that he never used to give A grades to his students as he was never satisfied with their answers. But when Buffett joined him as a student, he was forced to give him A grades again and again. Buffett learned to master the art of reading and analyzing financial statements of companies. He could analyze Balance Sheets and Income Statements faster than anybody else in his college. One day somebody asked Buffett about the secret of his success. He said ‘when everybody was else was reading Playboy, I was reading the balance sheets of companies.’ Even today his major time is invested in reading financial statements of companies around the world.”

So, read a lot. Read the Wall Street Journal every day and just marvel at what goes on in the world of business and high finance. But, don’t just stick to newspapers. There are lots of things to be learned out there in the real world. I am currently reading “The White Lioness,” a mystery that is set in South Africa and Sweden (and unlikely duo) and also reading “Too Big To Fail,” and I suppose everyone knows what that is about. Good stuff—expands the brain cells.

Lastly, I went to a great movie yesterday. It was sadly brutal at times but the movie was just crafted brilliantly. Marvelous. I would highly recommend it. It was called “Incendies” and it was in French with English subtitles.

Okay, you are out of my class and you can obviously ignore me. I will just repeat what I have probably told you before: the more you learn, the more the world opens up to you. And, that’s where you start creating a life for yourself that can make a difference.

Enjoy the rest of your summer and don’t get too baked out.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

What Do We Accomplish?

A few years ago a dear friend of mine died at the age of 95. When he was a young man, he worked in the Massachusetts area in construction. He once told me that on many days they would finish their work and step back and someone would speak out in pride “Look at what we accomplished today.”

That has to be a great feeling. You put in a hard and full day of work and at the end of the day you see that you have created something tangible from your labors, something you can be proud of right then. The world is different because of what you did.

I have always thought that was one of the most difficult parts of being a teacher. At the end of the day, it is hard to see what (if anything) we have accomplished.

Oh, sure, we all know that we are changing lives. We all know that we are making a difference. Is that enough to keep us moving forward? At the end of the day, whether we did a great job or a lousy one, things look about the same.

If you are a baker, at the end of the day you can point to the lovely wedding cake you created. If you are a carpenter, you can hold up a table or chair and say “I made this myself.”

But, at the end of a day, your students walk out of the room looking exactly like they did when they first walked in (maybe a little sleepier).

I think this is one of the reasons that teachers sometimes become mediocre. The results seem the same regardless of their efforts. They don’t get the positive reinforcement for their work that comes from seeing a tangible output. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that I believe this has had negative consequences for the U. S. as it has morphed from a manufacturing economy to a service economy.

I was reminded of this last Friday evening when I went to a reception held at our school in connection with the 2011 Reunion. I had the pleasure of talking with former students from 1986, 1991, 1996, 2001, and 2006. Sure, we reminisced about “the good old days” when they were college students. But, more importantly, they told me all about their lives since graduation – the careers they have fashioned, the jobs they have worked, the graduate programs they have attended. For me, it was a moment to see the tangible evidence of my work as a teacher. My influence on most of them had been slight. In jest, I usually take credit for everything they accomplish. But, in truth, I’m just happy to have been any influence at all. They have fashioned wonderful adult lives and they have gone out and made their own difference in the world. I’m pleased that I was able to give them a push while they were in college.

I left the reunion just so proud to be a teacher.

So, if you have been feeling down about your role as a teacher, perhaps you need to find out when the next reunion is slated and plan to attend. Mixing with some of the students whom you have worked with over the years might just be the reminder of what you are accomplishing that you really need to keep energized.

I once compared teaching to playing the role of Johnny Appleseed. You plant seeds and hope that 5, 10, or 20 years down the road those seeds will bear fruit. Maybe it is time to go to a reunion and see what those seeds you helped plant have managed to accomplish.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

How Do You Know How Your Program Is Doing?

I had a great time last week attending the Teaching Summit put on by the Lebow College of Business at Drexel University. Dr. Thomas Hindelang was a wonderful host and I was so pleased to have the opportunity of presenting the opening keynote address. It is hard to boil a 45 minute speech down to a sentence or two but my primary theme was the disconnect between what colleges and universities claim to accomplish and what the new book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Arum and Roksa) says that we are actually accomplishing. I then described six steps that I felt we (as faculty) needed to consider if we were going to fulfill the promises being made to our students.

I might write more about those thoughts later but that speech was not the purpose of this post. After giving my opening remarks, I attended a number of paper presentations at the conference. One of my favorites was Feedback from Alumni and Employers Guiding Assessment of Business Curricula by Ellen Kraft and Diane Holtzman of Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

I was interested in this paper because it addressed one of my pet peeves about colleges. Over the past 40 years, I cannot tell you how many meetings I have attended where academic programs were discussed and changes suggested with absolutely no statistical backup. No evidence was given that a change was needed and no one could show that the proposal in question might actually provide improvement. It seems that we are often asked to modify programs based on our own intuition of what might work better.

Professors Kraft and Holtzman had helped direct a survey at their school where alumni as well as the employers of those former students were asked to identify characteristics that employees needed for success. Because I didn’t take great notes, I won’t try to explain their methodology. I was just impressed that the folks at that college wanted data to help in assessing the past and planning for the future.

All educational programs must evolve over time. That process, though, should be guided (I believe) by careful data analysis. Too often changes are made that seem to have no basis other than which person can argue his or her position the best (or who can last the longest in the debate).

Since I believe data gathering is essential as a prerequisite for change, I wanted to mention two relatively painless ways that information can be generated for better program decision-making.

(1) – I am a member of the Accounting Department here at the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond. Last summer, we decided to survey all Accounting students who graduated between May 2006 and May 2009. We didn’t include the 2010 graduates because they had not yet started work. We didn’t go back earlier than 2006 because the program had changed enough over the intervening years that we were not sure the feedback would still be relevant.

We had reached the point where we were tired of making decisions based on what we would hear from former students (almost randomly) at alumni receptions or from an occasional email. The basic questions were obvious: What were we doing well and, more importantly, where did we need to make improvements to better prepare our students for careers after graduation? All faculty members like to believe they are adding value and providing their students with an appropriate education. But how does any teacher really know?

The Alumni Affairs office here on campus was able to provide us with email addresses for well over half of those students who graduated in our designated time period. The Office of Institutional Effectiveness helped create the survey, send it out, and accumulate the returned data.

We asked a number of general questions including:
--How many jobs have you held since graduation?
--In what field are you currently working?
--Have you taken the CPA Exam and, if so, how well have you done?
--Have you attempted any other certification exams such as the CMA Exam?
--Have you attended graduate school?

We then took the former students through a number of different subject areas (income tax, auditing, government accounting, financial accounting, and the like) and asked them to assess whether they felt their education was adequate (a) for their employment and (b) in comparison to students from other schools with whom they worked. We also asked the same questions for three skills: written communications, oral communications, and IT skills.

We wanted to pinpoint areas where changes might need to be made.

Our response rate was quite good and the information has proven to be helpful as we move forward and try to guide the logical evolution of our program. Although the overall results were excellent, we did uncover several smaller areas where a number of individuals indicated that they had been at a disadvantage educationally. Obviously, we have worked on those areas during the past 9 months to rectify the problems.

(2) – Approximately six years ago, our department – once again – wanted to gather information to aid our internal discussions and decisions. Many of our Accounting students continue to live here in the Richmond area after graduation. We invited 16 former accounting majors who had been out of school 1-3 years to return to campus for a one-hour focus group. Because of the number, we had to split them into two focus groups held on separate days. We asked a facilitator to talk with these individuals about their job experiences and how well prepared they felt based on the education they received in the Richmond program. We provided specific questions for the facilitator to discuss with the group. The sessions were audio-taped and a transcript was typed. The facilitator wrote up his assessment of the information that was gathered.

No serious political campaign would ever make decisions without focus group studies. No large business would ever start a major advertising campaign without focus group studies. I am surprised that universities do not make better use of that technique to help assess the quality of the education that their students actually obtain. Once again, as with the email survey that was done more recently, we were pleased with what we heard although the former students did point up areas where they felt they had been at a disadvantage in their jobs.

Perhaps one reason that books like Academically Adrift are written is because universities do not do a better job of talking with their graduates to identify both strengths and weaknesses of the academic programs being offered. Professors Kraft and Holtzman seem to have done a great job of providing useful information for their school.

When is the last time your program made a serious attempt to generate data to indicate the quality of the education that your students are receiving? Either through a survey or through a focus group, information is not that difficult to obtain. Such data can help guide the decisions that are made in the future about modifications needed in your academic programs.