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!