Wednesday, December 26, 2012


I am now halfway through my 42nd year as a college teacher.   This semester (like all semesters) had its ups and downs.   There were days when every student seemed brilliant and days when no one seemed to be able to count to four.     I don’t think I taught any geniuses but almost every student appeared capable and, hopefully, gained something of lasting benefit.   I started with 73 students and a total of 16 finished with the grade of A.   I always hope for more excellent work but 21.9 percent was not bad.   I try not to contribute too heavily to grade inflation.

At the end of every semester, there are always a few students that I wish I had handled differently.   I often ponder them long after class has ended.   With 73 students, it can be difficult to get an accurate read on each student at the beginning of the semester.   Some need carrots to do well and some need sticks.   Often, I feel frustrated because I do not have the time needed to determine what buttons to push to get individual students excited about the learning process.    In those cases, I am left wondering if I helped or hindered the student’s learning.

When I travel around the county speaking to teachers, I get to talk with a lot of folks.  One common theme I hear is that students do not always appreciate what teachers do for them.   “If I work them hard, they are unhappy.”   “If I challenge them to go deeper, they rebel.”   “Why should I work so hard when the students prefer the easy way?”   Teaching can be really frustrating.

And, in truth, human beings (even teachers) need motivation.   Everyone needs a pat on the back as often as possible.   It is hard to beat your head against a wall if no one really appreciates what you do.

Occasionally, though, I am brought back to reality and reminded that many (if not most) students really do care about their education.   But, they do not always have an easy way to show their appreciation for what you do.   Last week, I got emails from two of my fall students, two students that I never expected to hear from because I was not sure whether I had taught them anything or not.   Until I got their emails, I would have included them on the list of:   “I didn’t get through to these students very well.”   I guess that is my point:   Sometimes you just never know.

Student A

Student A seemed extremely quiet.   He was a student in my Introduction to Financial Accounting class.   When I called on him each day, he would take a long time to answer and his answers frequently seemed very hesitant and unsure.   As a result, if you had asked me, I would have said that he was not well prepared.  I assumed his hesitancy was because he was not terribly interested in the material.   From my vantage point, that was how it appeared.

The email I got from Student A last week was 1,276 words long.   I cannot remember ever getting such a long email from a student.   All semester, I thought he was a relatively nonverbal student when, in fact, he was just quiet.   He was not uninterested, he was quiet.   If this email was any indication, he was actually a very very verbal student.  

This student that I thought was basically uninterested in financial accounting was, in fact, one of the most interested.   I would have said that he did not appreciate what I did when he really did.   I misjudged him completely.   I am not sure how I should have taken advantage of that knowledge but I judged him incorrectly and probably should have pushed him harder.

Here are just a few (494) of those 1,276 words.

“I wanted to wait to message you until after I received my final numbers so I didn't appear as a brown noser pleading for a better grade. I just wanted to thank you for a great semester. Regardless of whether my letter grade ended as an A, B or C, I can honestly and confidently say that I walked away from your course knowing a great deal of new information about accounting. This class was unique for me- instead of studying just enough so I could pass a test and then forget everything I had learned, the accounting information became ingrained in my head. I began to, actually, like my accounting course. What impresses me most about your teaching abilities is that you instruct a course (accounting) that is considered to be boring/monotonous/dreary by so many people, and you manage to spark an interest within your students. . . . You ran a very tight ship, but that is what you told us to expect from the beginning. From day one, and through each and every email and paper you sent to us, you reinforced the fact that you would expect a lot of time and dedication from us. I appreciate your honesty. I appreciate your strategy of pushing your students to their academic limits. . . .  The thing that had the biggest impact on my thinking was the comparison you made one day between professional athletes and business world professionals. You said that when we look at professional athletes, we automatically assume that they had put in countless hours of perfecting their craft to be where they're at now but, for some reason, the same generalization is not made about those who work in the higher levels of business. This statement was very true and I thought about it for a long time after class. I questioned my own efforts and settled on the fact that I had not previously been putting in the time to my studies that I should have been. I do not lack any work ethic in the athletic department, probably because it is what I love to do the most. A few hundred swings and hours in the weight room are no hassle to me. However, I could honestly say that during my freshman year, and during most of this past semester, I was doing enough to get by and do 'well enough' but was I really pushing myself to become substantially better in the classroom? The answer was no- not at all. Your words that day helped me redefine my work ethic when it came to school. I started taking a little more pride and setting aside a little more time for my studies. I kept my new approach through the end of this past semester and I was pleased with my final grades. I am not saying you are the sole reason why I did well overall this semester, but your lessons definitely helped me.”

Student B

Student B was in my Intermediate Accounting II class and seemed completely uninterested.   His answers were almost flippant and I kept wanting to ask him why he was in the class if he cared so little.   His work on tests was all over the place from a 71 to a 92.   I fully expected him to make a D or an F on the final exam and perhaps a D in the course.   In my own mind, I had him firmly labeled as “having not one iota of interest in accounting.”

But then, Student B made a strong A on the final exam, a test that I considered incredibly complicated.   I was stunned.   I wondered if he had sent in a clone to take the test for himself.   I would have bet that he did not appreciate one thing about my teaching of that class so I didn’t understand that excellent work on the final exam.

Then, out of the blue, I got the following email.

“I just want to thank you for a fantastic semester. I can honestly say I enjoyed coming to your class every day of the week, as it was one of the only classes where I felt that I could sit and figure things out instead of scrambling to write down every word the professor says, to try and "learn" it later. After this semester I feel that I have grown much as a person, and more than ever find pleasure in things intellectual and thought-provoking. In car rides that used to be filled by whatever mindlessly popular music the radio station chose to broadcast, I now find myself either listening to talk radio or turning off the radio all together and pondering different facets of my life or humanity as a whole.   Not only has this class enriched my ability to think about life, but I feel to have gained a real understanding of financial accounting. While during the semester I may have seemed somewhat uninterested, I promise you this was never the case. My problem was that I easily understood about 85% of the material, and thus didn't feel particularly pressed to immediately work for the other 15%. Interestingly enough, when I sat down to begin studying for the final, I found that going back through the material was not as stressful as I expected it to be. The concepts I had learned throughout the entire semester were clear and seemed to flow together perfectly. I honestly enjoyed the 4 hour final, as it gave me a chance to sit down and think through problems, and the fact that I was able to easily reason through them was actually fairly exciting for me.”

I had 73 students this semester.    Only 3 or 4 chose to write me an email about the semester.   And, much to my surprise, two of the most interesting emails came from students that

(a) I clearly did not understand too well during the semester and

(b) I would have labeled as not at all appreciative of the class.

As I have said before, I write these blog entries for me more than for you.   So, what should I take away from these two emails?

First – don’t rely too much on external appearances.   Work harder to get to know the students as best you can.   One of the absolute great things about teaching is that every student brings his or her own issues and personality to your class.   After all, you don’t teach a class; you teach people.  

Second – don’t waste so much time worrying about whether students appreciate what you do.   You simply may never know.   If you work hard and if you understand what you want your students to learn and if you challenge them (but do so fairly), they will come to appreciate what you do.   Yeah, there may never be a way for them to express that appreciation but it is there.

Friday, December 14, 2012


Happy holidays to all the teachers out there.   This blog just went over 67,800 page views.   I have been thrilled throughout the year to have the chance to interact with so many wonderful educators.  


When I give teaching presentations around the country, I am often asked how my teaching has changed during the past 42 years.   Because I stress working for 5 percent improvement each year, that particular question is certainly a legitimate one.   Invariably someone will jump up and ask:   Okay, how are you managing to improve over time?

I actually have a couple of different answers for that question.   But, there is one response that I always give:   During the past decade, I have come to spend a lot more time writing my test questions.   I used to throw tests together hurridly with one goal:   to be fair.   Now, though, I view testing as a much more important element of my class environment, one that requires a significant amount of preparation time. 

I occasionally argue in this blog that the way you test students is the way they will learn.   No matter what you tell them, if you test memorization, they will memorize.   If your tests are purely mechanical, they will only learn the mechanics.   If you only test at a superficial level, they will only learn material to that same shallow depth.   I believe this is the absolute truth.   The type of tests you create has a huge influence on the type of learning that the students do.

I am always shocked by how many well intentioned faculty members turn testing over to a textbook test bank.   I want to run screaming into the night when I hear that.   In my opinion, an overworked graduate student who does not know you or your students is not in any position to write a legitimate test for your students.   When writing this blog, I sometimes discuss what I would do if I were king of education.   Burning all test banks would be one of my first royal acts.

Yes, I know you are extremely busy.   But abdicating this valuable task to a person who might never have taught a single class (or a class like yours) makes no sense.   Any test in your class should be designed for your students based on what you have covered and based on what you want them to know.   It should not be composed of randomly selected questions written by some mysterious stranger.   To me, using a test bank is like asking Mickey Mouse to pinch hit for Babe Ruth.    You are giving away an essential element of the course to someone who might not be up to the task.

Over the decades, I have worked very hard to learn how to write good questions.   During those years, I have written some questions that were horrible.   But, I have learned much from that experience.  

--The first thing I learned about test writing was that a question that everyone could answer was useless.  
--The second thing that I learned was that a question that no one could answer was also useless.  

As with any task, you practice and you look at the results and you get better.   You don’t hand off an essential part of your course to a test bank.

As everyone who has read this blog for long probably knows, one of the things I started doing about 8 years ago was allowing students to bring handwritten notes to every test.   That immediately stopped me from writing questions that required memorization because the students had all that material written down and in front of them.

That was a good start but that was not enough.   Allowing notes pushed me in the right direction but it did not get me to the tests I wanted.   It takes practice and study.  

About 3 weeks ago, I wrote a 75 minute test for my introduction to Financial Accounting class here at the University of Richmond.  This test was the last one of the semester (prior to the final exam).  By that time, I surely believed that everyone in the class had come to understand what I wanted them to accomplish.   So, I wanted to test the material in such a way as to see how deeply they really did understand it.  

I wrote 12 multiple-choice questions designed to take about 4-8 minutes each.   For accounting tests that are often numerically based, I like multiple-choice questions because I can give 6-8 potential answers and, therefore, limit the possibility of a lucky guess.  

In writing the first four of these questions, I tried to envision what an A student could figure out but that a B student could not.   In other words, I wanted these four questions to show me the point between Good and Excellent.   These were tough.   For those questions, I really didn’t worry about the C, D, or F students.   These questions were designed specifically to see if I could divide the A students from the B students.

The next four questions were created to divide the B students from the C students.   They were easier questions but a student would have to have a Good level of understanding to figure them out.  I knew the A students could work these questions and I knew the D students could not work them.   These four were written to split the B students from the C students.

The final four questions were created to divide the C students from those with a lesser level of understanding.   They were easier but still not easy.  I wanted to see who deserved a C and who did not.   If a student could get those four questions correct, that (to me) was average work.   Those students deserved at least a C.   But, if a student could not get those four, they really had failed to achieve a basic level of understanding worthy of a C.  

Then, I shuffled the 12 questions and gave them to my students.

How did this test work out in practice?   Pretty well.   When it was over, I put the papers in order from best to worse to see if I was comfortable with the results.   I genuinely felt like I could tell the A students from the B students from the C students from everyone else.   And, isn’t that a primary reason for giving a test?

Okay, I had to create a pretty interesting curve to get the grades to line up with what I thought I was seeing.   But I am the teacher for this class.  That evaluation should be mine.  I tell my students early in the semester that I do not grade on raw percentages.   Getting 66 percent of the questions correct should not automatically be a D.   In fact, in many cases, getting 66 percent of the questions correct might well be a very impressive performance.   It depends on the difficulty of the questions.

After the first test, students will often ask something like, “I only got four questions out of 12 correct and I still got a C, how can that be?”   My answer is simple “by answering those four questions, you have shown me how much you have understood and I thought that level of understanding deserved a C.”

If I take an adequate amount of time and write good questions, I believe I can gain a good evaluation of the knowledge of the student.   And I usually find they will work harder after that to achieve a deeper level of understanding because they begin to see what I am after.   The way you test is the way your students will learn.


Monday, November 26, 2012


Last week, in each of my three classes, we were covering some extremely difficult material.   The students came to class well prepared for the most part.   They did a good job of analyzing and discussing the issues.   They came up with reasonable solutions.    They were certainly not perfect but they demonstrated a solid understanding of some truly complicated concepts.   I was proud of them.   They had come a long way.

We are now down to the last few days of the semester.   I was extremely happy to see such a good effort here near the end.   Even a grump like me had to be pleased.   Virtually every student in class had demonstrated a real improvement since we began back in August.   They not only knew more financial accounting but, just as importantly to me, they knew more about how to be good students.  

At times like these, I am always reminded of a quote that I heard a number of years ago, one that I think is terribly relevant to teaching:   "In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins--not through strength but by perseverance."   Every semester I set out to be the stream.

In other words, no matter how frustrated I get with my students during the semester, if I keep my long-term goals in mind and if I pound on the students day in and day out to get to that goal, I WILL WIN.   I will simply wear down their resistance and teach them how to do what I want them to do.  

As long as I keep them moving toward the goals, we will get there. 

Okay, I never have a 100 percent success rate.   If a student sets out to fail, there is not much I can do about that.   However, most students really do not want to fail.   They would actually like to learn the material (at least at some level) and make a decent grade.  

To me, then, the only real question is whether I will get them to do what I want them to do so that they will learn the material and get that decent grade.

And the answer is:   "In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins--not through strength but by perseverance."

I am convinced, when the students walk in on the first day of the semester, that I am the stream and they are the rocks and I will get them to learn what I think they need to know because I am going to stay focused on my long term goals.   To be a good teacher you need that extreme level of perseverance (or maybe “infinite patience” is a better way to put it).   Perseverance is a great help in becoming a good teacher.  

If you have read my blog previously, you know that I always have two long-term goals right from the beginning of each semester:

--On the last day of class, I want my students to say “I never knew I could work so hard, I never knew I could learn so much, I never knew I could think so deeply, and it was actually fun.”

--On the last day of class, I want my students to say “I understand this material so well that I can solve problems without needing the teacher.”  

I think those are educational goals worth achieving.   They make people better.   However, your goals may be radically different than mine.   That is absolutely fine.   I just feel like these two goals work best for me.   You need to determine what goals work best for you.

I also have facilitating goals that I use to help the class get to my long-term goals.  

--Every day, I want my students to come to class adequately prepared based on specific assignments that I have given them previously.   If they are not prepared, I am upset with them.

--Every day, I want my students to participate by analyzing new situations I pose in class.   I want their knowledge to always be pushing into new and unknown territory.  

--Every day, I want my students to go beyond memorization to achieve a level of understanding that allows them to solve questions and problems at a deeper level.

--After class, I want my students to organize the material that has been covered that day to help them come to a more concrete level of knowledge.   I don’t want them to quit when they just have “jello knowledge” but to keep working until they have a solid understanding.   Most student leave class with a squishy level of knowledge (jello knowledge) that requires more thought, work, and organization before it is truly solid.  

Does it work?   At first, of course not.   But, that’s normal; that is no reason to give up.  If I keep pushing them and guiding them and working on their mistakes, they gradually improve.   Learning is a slow, methodical process.   My only concern is whether I can get them to my goals by the last day of the semester.   And I have a strong belief that "In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins--not through strength but by perseverance."   Keep pushing and they will make it.  


Monday, November 12, 2012

East versus West -- No Pain, No Gain

A few days ago, this blog moved over 65,500 page views since its inception.   It is amazing how often I receive emails from teachers (around the world) who start out by saying “A friend of mine who teaches at my school told me about your blog.”  

Consequently, I like to stop now and then and say Thanks!!! to everyone who passes along a good word about this blog.   If not for you, I would be writing all this stuff to myself.   Whether you agree or disagree, I really appreciate your passing along the blog entries.


One of the things that I try to do in my classes is talk with my students about my teaching philosophy.  I want them to understand that I do not do things randomly.   I try to have a reason for what I do and I want that reason to be logical.   I think students appreciate being brought into the conversation about their own education.   I think they are more likely to do what the teacher asks if they understand that there is a reason.  

To use an overused cliché, I want my teaching to be transparent.

Here’s an email that I sent out to my students today.   It is probably pretty obvious that I do become frustrated at times by students who simply will not try.   For some reason, they have come to the conclusion that trying is not a necessary part of learning.  Or, that trying is some type of bad omen.  

I want them to look at trying in a different light.   Here's what I wrote them.

To: Accounting Students

From: JH

A friend of mine sent me the link above from an NPR show that was aired this morning about education. As people who have been students virtually your entire lives, I thought you might find this essay interesting. It could make you question whether you have been educated by the best possible philosophy. And, it might also help you understand my style of teaching a bit better.

Basically, this article stresses a philosophy that learning is greatly improved by struggle (a word that we rarely associate with education in the US).

In fact, here is the quote that I found most interesting.

“In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it's just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle”

“To show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle” – interesting concept for education. The author is apparently talking about something more than taking notes and memorizing formulas.

I think we all realize that in sports there are many sayings that stress the importance of struggle: “No pain, no gain” being probably the best known. I don’t think I’ve ever met a single athlete who didn’t subscribe to that philosophy whole heartedly. Whenever you see a championship athlete (in the Olympics, for example, or on the football field), it is simply assumed that the person has spent countless hours in rigorous training in order to become that good.  

However, we don’t exhibit the same attitude toward our best students. We rarely talk about the countless hours it takes to become a championship student. Instead, we tend to dismiss the difficult work that is necessary because “oh, he/she is just smart.”

For some reason, our education system doesn’t put much emphasis on the struggle that is necessary for deep learning. In fact, any visible sign of a struggle to learn material is often viewed as a weakness (“he/she is really not cut out for this stuff”). Is learning that takes place quickly any more beneficial than learning that occurs after considerable effort?

I believe the reason we don’t stress the need to struggle to learn is that we don’t challenge our students enough (and then we are often unhappy that they don’t turn out better prepared). From kindergarten forward, the “struggle” to learn is not often much of a struggle. After enough years, you come to believe that struggle is not really a necessary component of learning.

Oh, do I disagree with that. I want you to struggle. To repeat, I want you to struggle. Every single day. I want you to have to put up a fight. I want to make this stuff hard enough that you have to struggle to do well. I think it is good for you and it makes the learning so much more a part of your being.

If I could make learning easy for you, I would not do it.

In truth, I think about 70 percent of you are putting up the fight that I want. I am very pleased (most days) with about 70 percent of you. The other 30 percent have a tendency to give “lazy answers” that often seem to say “I didn’t feel like struggling with this material so here’s a throw away answer so that you’ll let me slide.”

My goal in this email is not to convert you to my thinking. I’m more interested in making you aware that lazy answers don’t do you any good.

My real goal here is to make one point: Champion athletes struggle mightily to get better. Champion students must do the same thing. There is no shame in having to put up a fight to learn this stuff. In fact, that’s how it ought to be.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


Joe’s Top Ten List

This past Thursday, I had the great good fortune to lead a 3 ½ hour discussion of teaching at the New Faculty Seminar put on by the Virginia Community College System.   The VCCS had about 150 folks there who had joined their teaching ranks in the last year or so.   We spent our time together chatting about how to become a better college teacher.

Whenever I lead this type of discussion, I always like to give the participants something at the end that will keep the thought process moving forward even after we have parted.   Here is what I typed on Wednesday night and then distributed to these folks after our time together on Thursday.


One of my favorite class assignments is to ask my students to read a chapter and pick the top 5 or 10 things they found important in the material.   I think that does a lot for them.   It forces them to think more deeply about the subject as they read.   It also requires them to make an evaluation, something that is not often done in education.   What part of this material was really most important?   They have to do some thinking and make some judgments.

Then, I will give them my countdown of what I thought were the most important parts of the reading.   My challenge to them is to compare my list to their list and figure out why mine had some differences (or justify why their list was actually better).   So, on November 1, we are going to spend 3 ½ hours together talking about becoming a better teacher.   Before you get too far away from this session, sit down and make a list of the most important things we discuss.   Then, pick your top 10 and rank them.   I want you to really consider what was most significant factor in your goal of becoming a better teacher.  

I have made my list below.   Compare your list to my list and see what you think.   In fact, if you go out tonight with other folks from the session, pick a group top 10.   It would be a worthwhile exercise, a great step toward being a better teacher on Monday when you return to your home school.   If you think my list is messed up in some way, let me know.   You can always send me an email at and explain why my judgment is a bit faulty (I’m getting old – I have an excuse).  

I don’t know exactly what we will get covered on Thursday but this is based on my best guess as of Wednesday.

NUMBER 12 (Okay, I lied about a Top Ten list.   I just couldn’t get the number down below twelve.)    REMEMBER THAT WE ALL NEED MOTIVATION AND INSPIRATION.   I gave you a quote from Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides as a celebration of teaching.   Occasionally, it is easy to get down and depressed when we teach.   Students never quite do what we want them to do.   I don’t think you should ignore your own need for inspiration.   Talk with other teachers about their best days in class.   Or, keep a list of student evaluations that talk about how much you have helped them.   Read those now and then to remind yourself of why you got into this business.

NUMBER 11.   NEVER QUIT THINKING ABOUT YOUR TEACHING.    As our quote from Fortune magazine said, when learning a new skill, most people get good at first and then stop improving.   However, a few continue to get better and go on to greatness.   I’m convinced you will stop growing when you stop thinking about your classes and how you can make things go better.   I’m also convinced that when you have a bad day or a “bad” class that a good response is to sit quietly and just think what is happening and how you can turn things around.  

NUMBER 10.   BE AMBITIOUS.    The best teachers have a fire burning in their belly that pushes them to be great.   If you are satisfied with average, you’ll never be more than average.   The world needs better teachers.   The world needs for you to be a better teacher.   Make that a passion in your life.

NUMBER 9.    DON’T FORGET THE 50-50 RULE.   Almost every teacher talks too much.   Students prefer to sit and be passive and spoon fed.   Don’t let them pull that trick.   Make them talk.   If you talk, the class quickly becomes a conveyance of “stuff” with student thinking going out the window.   The goal should always be that you never do more than half of the talking in any class.   Above that, the quality of learning goes down.

NUMBER 8.   ARE YOU A FOOTBALL COACH OR A SCOUT LEADER?   There are two ways to motivate students.   You either push them or encourage them.   Great teachers are one or the other.   You cannot ignore student motivation.   Figure out how you are most comfortable providing that motivation.

NUMBER 7.   KNOW WHAT YOU WANT ON YOUR TOMBSTONE.    I obviously like the idea that I am judged by my students to be “the scariest prof” but also “the most caring.”    That is how I would like to be remembered.    Once I realized that, it has influenced my teaching.   I didn’t want to be remembered as “most boring” or “most confusing” or “funniest.”   I really want to push my students as hard as I can (enough to scare them or, at least, keep them on their toes) but also have them realize that I was doing it solely because I cared about them.   I want that student response.   Ask yourself what you would like for students to write on your tombstone.   It will influence the way you teach.

NUMBER 6.   A MEANS EXCELLENT.   I think grade inflation has had a horrible impact on college education.   Students have come to believe that they deserve a good grade just for breathing and don’t deserve to fail no matter how poorly they do.   If that is the teacher’s attitude, there is no reason at all for a student to work very hard or think very deeply.   I know it can make you feel like a tyrant but if you really care about the students, you want them to learn.   Set a high (but fair) standard and let them know that standard right from the start.

NUMBER 5.   PREPARATION FOR CLASS IS A REAL KEY FOR LEARNING.   If you can get your students to walk in to class well prepared each day, everything goes so much better.  If they are not prepared, all they can really do is sit and take notes and fall back on memorization.   Always think about how you can improve their level of class preparation.   That alone will create a much better class and learning environment.

NUMBER 4.   AFTER THE SEMESTER, ASK YOUR STUDENTS TO TELL YOU HOW THEY MADE AN A.   This allows you to pat your best students on the back.   They will love you for that.   It also helps you evaluate how you are doing in each class.   And, you can use these written responses to guide your next group of students.   One of the best ways to improve a new class is to let them know what it takes to do well.  Getting previous students to explain “the secrets” of how they made an A puts out the message loud and clear to the next group.

NUMBER 3.   THE WAY YOU TEST IS THE WAY THEY WILL LEARN.   If you ask test questions that focus on memorization, your students will do no more than memorize.   If you want them to think deeper, you have to ask questions that will require that depth of knowledge.   Try open book tests; you’ll write better questions and the students will be forced to think at a deeper level.

NUMBER 2.   BE SURE TO KNOW YOUR FLY-ON-THE-WALL PHILOSOPHY.   What you want to hear from your students on the last day of class should guide everything you do for the entire semester.   Don’t worry so much about any one day; worry about getting them to achieve your goals by the final day.   Figure out what you want your students to say about the experience on the last class and then use that to help you to design and focus each assignment.

NUMBER 1.   BY NOVEMBER 1, 2013, SHOOT TO BE 5 PERCENT BETTER AS A TEACHER.   To become great, you must continue to improve.   No one gets great overnight.   Set a reasonable goal and then work to make sure you feel you have achieved that goal over the next year.   You can’t measure it but you’ll know if it happens.   That’s the first step toward greatness.

Thursday, October 11, 2012


College education has numerous critics these days.   I believe the recent fascination with MOOCs comes – at least in part – from dissatisfaction with the perceived quality of the current educational experience.   We promise development of critical thinking skills in our students but often appear to deliver little more than well-rehearsed memorization.    The argument then follows that we don’t need small classes and individual attention simply to teach memorization.   Massive online courses can achieve that goal with much less cost.

In my spare time, I often ponder how modern college education can become better.   For example, is the education that a college student gets today really superior in any way to the norm 40 years ago?   Cars get more miles per gallon of gas than they did back then.   Computers run thousands of times faster.   But, has college education gotten better during that same period?   We are certainly able to teach more students but has the average education actually improved in any significant way? 

About 20 years ago, I read an article that I remember well to this day.    The article argued that society’s best teacher was the drill sergeant in charge of new Marine recruits during their stay in basic training.    This officer gets paid a relatively small amount but will work 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, for weeks on end to make sure the new recruits are properly trained.   The drill sergeant will push, cajole, and drive each person toward success.   At the end of that time, the recruit will be basically a new person – gone are laziness and bad habits.  The person is now a well-trained soldier.  
Why does the drill sergeant work so hard without much real compensation?   According to the article, the sergeant is training each new recruit on how to stay alive during combat and other dangerous situations.   For the drill sergeant, the very life of the recruit is on the line.   A properly trained soldier stays alive whereas a poorly trained one might not.   Failure to teach the young soldier well can possibly lead to an avoidable death.   It is the urgency of the education that pushes the drill sergeant to go all out, night and day, to train the recruit.   The recruit might actually hate the sergeant but also might owe his life to that teacher.  

I was reminded of this article recently.   My wife and our daughters occasionally watch a television show called “The Biggest Loser.”   I have never seen a complete episode but I will sometimes watch a few minutes as I pass through the room.   As you might know, a group of very heavy contestants are chosen.   These folks typically weigh between 280 to 500 pounds and their lives are in jeopardy simply because of their extreme heaviness. 

Over a period of weeks, these contestants eat less and exercise so much that they often lose hundreds of pounds.  They become new people ready to resume more active rolls in society.

My favorite characters on this show are the trainers who work with each of the contestants.   I know that one of them is named Jillian.   Jillian will get in the contestant’s faces and push them unmercifully to do their exercises.   She will beg them; she will yell at them; she will use whatever trick it takes to get them to work harder and harder so that the excess weight is lost.  From what I have seen, no one does more than Jillian to get the results she wants.   I often wonder what college would be like if we had a few people like Jillian on our faculty.

By the end of the television season, these folks have had their lives completely turned around.   They might have weighed 390 pounds at the start of the competition but be down to 180 by the end.   

Clearly, they do not like the amount of pushing that Jillian does.   The work can be incredibly hard.   They are used to being lazy; she wants them to do real work.   They have always made excuses; she won’t let them make any excuses.    I am always expecting one of the contestants to pick Jillian up one day and throw her out the window.   However, at the last week of each show, almost every contestant will hug Jillian and tell her thanks.  Thanks for not giving up on them.   Thanks for continuing to push them to get better and stronger.   Thanks for guiding them to lose so much weight.   She is not their best buddy and doesn't want to be but she has helped them to change their lives for the better.

Why does Jillian push these people so hard?   Well, like the drill sergeant, there is a real urgency present.   Improvement is needed and improvement is needed immediately.   These people are so heavy that they will likely die before their time if they don’t make a change right now.   Today.   Each contestant is hundreds of pounds overweight and could have a heart attack at any moment.  

This is what I call “educational urgency.”   The teacher imparts an urgency that requires serious work and lots of it and all of it right now.   No procrastination.   No laziness.   No excuses.   There is work to be done and it needs to be done now.  

How many teachers have you ever had that seemed to indicate that there was any urgency at all in the learning of class material?   I have had dozens of teachers and I don't remember ever having any urgency.   I meandered forward at my own leisure.

Students are human beings (believe it or not).   Ask yourself this question:   How much real work will they do without a sense of urgency?

Most teachers want their students to learn and most do become annoyed if the students don’t learn.   But, is there ever any real urgency?   And, if there is not, why would in teacher expect a college student to do the work or even care about the class?

I believe that one of the reasons college teaching is under attack is that our classes often don’t ring with any urgency at all.   If the student learns the material, that is great but, if not, it is really no big deal.   In the end, it really doesn’t make much difference.   That's an attitude that can lead to general dissatisfaction.

Whether you teach Shakespeare or philosophy or political science or, even, accounting, is there any urgency at all to the learning process?   If there is no urgency, why should your students really do anything for you?   Of course, there are always a few great students who love the material and do the work because of that interest.   Trust me, they are not the problem.   It is the other students we need to reach and spur on to better habits and deeper thinking.

In my classes, I give out questions every day for the next class.   At that subsequent class, I call on every student to explain these questions and provide potential solutions.   I argue with them if I don’t like their answers.   I do worse if I don’t feel they are prepared.   I am trying to create a sense of urgency because I want them to do well and do well every day.  I am not trying to scare them.   I just want them to view every day as essential.   I want my students to feel a need to prepare so that they can be ready to be engaged in our class discussion.

Does it work?   Sometimes yes and sometimes no.   No system is perfect.   But, if you are not satisfied with what your students are learning, it may well be that they feel no urgency to do any better.
Add a little urgency to the mixture.

Sunday, September 30, 2012


I talk below about my first test of the current semester.   If you teach Financial Accounting and would like to see a copy of that test, drop me an email at

I think the most important time during any semester is immediately after the first test. Until that time, the students have done what they thought you wanted them to do (or what they thought they could get away with). The first test gives them a chance to judge how well their class strategy has worked. If they need to make corrections in that strategy, this is the time to do it. You have their undivided attention, especially if they did not do as well as they would have liked.   They are young -- believe it or not, they usually appreciate some serious guidance.

You need to understand that most students are very used to doing X amount of work and getting Y grade. Many are well satisfied with that approach and that result. Others are not satisfied but have no clue what adjustments they need to make. Our school systems produce many students who are not very good at being what I call "learning students." For many students, their entire learning strategy consists of reading the chapter and marking key words with a highlighter.  That's a long way from developing critical thinking skills.

So, my first test is always demanding but not impossible (I’m not sure what giving an impossible test might accomplish). I try to cover a lot of different things we have covered during the weeks we have been together. If you have read my essay on testing circles, you know that I try to give questions slightly outside of the circle of information that we have covered in class – questions they should be able to figure out if they have understood the material well enough.

Some students do extremely well on the first test whereas others struggle. It’s at that moment that I want to push them all in the direction that I want them to go. First, I mail out an answer sheet which can help them gauge how they have done – most can look at that answer sheet for a few minutes and have a general idea whether they are pleased. I wait a few hours and then send them another email. In this second email, I want to tell them two things: (1) if you are not satisfied with how well you were prepared for this first test, here are some concrete ideas to try and (2) you can still do well in this class but you need to start making some improvements.   I do not want to leave them feeling lost and hopeless.

I’m not out to punish them.
I’m not out to make them feel guilty.
I just want them to do the work that is necessary to learn the material. And, I don’t want them to lose their confidence because that is the first step in a spiral downwards.
I don’t try to be a cheerleader who just gives them rah rah encouragement. I want them to know that they can still do well and show them the kinds of actions they can take in my class to get the grade they really want.

Here’s the email that I sent out to my Financial Accounting class yesterday.


To: Accounting 201 Students

From: JH

I am working on your tests this morning. I might have them done by Monday but more than likely it will be Wednesday. They have looked just like every other test I’ve ever given in 201: They range from the brilliant to the not quite so brilliant. On some questions, I am thrilled by your ability to work through a complicated issue. You looked like geniuses. On other questions, I wanted to kick my cat because a simple concept seemed to elude you. But, in the heat of a test, it is easy to have ups and downs.

The primary purpose of a first test is help you gauge how you are doing. If you are satisfied with your grade, then I would keep on keeping on. Don’t get lazy and make any changes.

However, if you are not happy with your first grade, I have one piece of fatherly advice. In most cases, the way to raise a grade is to invest more time. Not more time the night before the test but more time each day. If you are spending 30 minutes a day, maybe you should spend 60 minutes. If you are spending 90 minutes a day, maybe you should spend 150. To quote Miss Piggy of the Muppets: “more is never enough.”

How could you spend more time? Here’s a check list – check off the ones that you are already doing. The ones you are not doing, consider starting. I read an article recently about LeBron James who is usually assumed to be the best basketball player in the world. The article basically talked about how hard he worked to get better. That’s what I want/need from you.

--Did you watch the opening video whenever we started a new chapter? I didn’t always assign the videos but they are always there. They help you know what to watch for in the chapter. They give you an outline structure before you read the first word.

--As you read the chapter, did you stop and do every single “test yourself” problem? That’s a key way to make sure you are catching on to what the reading is saying. And, if you missed the “test yourself” problem, did you keep working on the answer until you understood it? Never walk away without understanding.

--Did you spend some serious time getting ready for each class by working on each new sheet? Students often get good at “kinda knowing” material without ever “really knowing.” That “kinda knowing” often becomes way too obvious on a test.

--If there was a question on the daily assignment sheet that you couldn’t figure out, did you come by during my office hours to chat or send me an email lesson? I talk with a lot of students but clearly not all.

--Have you been gathering for 30 minutes before each class in order to have a serious conversation about the material on the sheets? Have you been using that as a way to prepare or as a way to check your preparation?

--After class (almost immediately after class) did you go back through the material to organize it to make sure you really understood it all? That organization after coverage can be the most important part of learning.

--When I sent out a problem by email, did you work it right then and check your answer?

--When I posted the answers to the end of chapter true-false and multiple-choice questions, did you work them right then and check your answer and not quit until you understood each answer?

--Did you watch the video at the end of the chapter where I list out the 5 most important things in the chapter? It is a great way to review because I am pointing directly at what I thought was important.

--Did you go over last semester’s test until you could work it backwards and forwards and upside down?

I realize that most of you are used to “one-hour” courses – they require about an hour a week in your leisure outside of class and you learn a little that you forget over Christmas. This is not a one-hour course and I don’t expect you to ever forget what you learn. Yes, you may have to party a little less. Yes, you may have less time for television or Facebook. Yes, you may have less time for computer games. Yes, you may have to get up a little earlier to study.

But you CAN do this. I believe that from the bottom of my heart. If you don’t have a check by everything on the above checklist, then there is clearly more that you can do.

The first test is merely 21.7 percent of your grade. Pick the grade you want on the second test RIGHT NOW and promise yourself that you will do whatever it takes to make that grade.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


If you have read this blog for long, you must know that I put considerable stress on communicating with my students, often by email. I believe open and honest communication is a key for all successful relationships. These communications give you a chance to guide your students toward the outcomes that you want. They allow you to motivate the students, to keep pushing them forward (“I know this seems hard but you are smart enough to do these problems with a bit of work”). They provide a chance for positive feedback – “the class was especially good today” is never a bad acknowledgement – one that students often never hear. They enable you to correct actions that you don’t like (“not very many of you had worked problem 5 for today; I’ll expect a better effort at the next class”). Communications help the teacher to prepare the students for upcoming material – “we are really going to stress the computation of interest expense at our next class so make absolutely sure you’ve studied pages 456-458 in the textbook.”

Here is an email that I sent out to my students in one of my classes after the third week of the semester. Notice how many things I was trying to accomplish with this one communication. That’s a good test question for you – how many things am I trying to do here?

“To My Students

“Okay, we have finished our first 3 weeks. Our first test is a bit over 2 weeks away (October 1). Not a bad time to stop and evaluate how things are progressing.

“How are you doing? I’m constantly trying to assess how each class is doing. I think about that in general terms – how is the class as a whole doing? I also think about that in individual terms – how are you (yes, you) doing? I only have 23 students in intermediate accounting this semester so I can do some serious thinking about you individually. (A close friend of mine teaches classes of 400-500 at another school – he has no way to keep personal track of each student. I do.)

“In many ways, I’m really interested in how quickly you catch on to what I’m doing so you can get on board with the process. In any intermediate accounting course, I always have a few students who assume it’s still a high school class and treat it that way. I’m glad to say, though, that most of you are beginning to pick up the system. There are many moments when I'm quite pleased with you especially when we get to a point where we start seeing how things in accounting fit together.

“How do I view this class?

--I expect you to prepare very well on a consistent basis. I do my half of the work every day; I expect you to do your half of the work. You have daily questions from me. You have a huge textbook. You have last spring’s test along with answers. You can easily make use of 60-90 minutes between each class. I often say TIME equals POINTS and I believe that is true. The best thing you can do to do better in this class is put in more time. "How can I make use of more time?" is never a bad question to ask yourself. Too many students ask “how quickly can I get finished?”

--Then, you come to class and I throw bizarre questions at you – often different than the ones I have given you to prepare. What I am trying to do is teach you how to take what you’ve prepared and use it (on the spot) to figure out something else. I am teaching you how to answer questions that you haven’t seen before by a quick analysis and a genuine understanding of what’s gone before.

--Then, you go back to the library or your dorm and spend 30-40 minutes assimilating what you’ve learned so that you can use it in answering future weird questions.

--I think all of that is a skill/talent worth developing. That’s something you can use in the real world regardless of your major.

--The four keys to this process as I see it: (1) preparation and (2) “figure it out” and (3) assimilate for future use and (4) consistency.

“When all of the above goes well, the class should be fun. You should look forward to coming to class and be surprised and disappointed that our 50 minutes together has flown by. I know things are going well when people tell me ‘I wish all my classes were this interesting.’

“How do some students seem to view this class?

--These students believe that preparation is a waste of time because the teacher (me) is going to tell them what they need to know in class. Their preparation is, at best, a half-hearted affair.

--In class, they pray they won’t get called on. They write down what anyone and everyone says with the assumption that they’ll memorize it all the night before the test. All real learning is deferred and replaced by a cram system.

--The problem is that when they get to the test and I throw a bizarre question at them, it doesn’t match up with the memorized material in their head and they haven’t determined how to analyze and figure out a reasonable answer.

--This system only works if the teacher is going to ask you to repeat back what you have been told. I won’t do that.

“In addition, that type of class is just flat boring.

“So far, at least in general, I’m not unhappy. Not at all. Oh, I throw out questions occasionally and feel we should get better answers but that always happens. It’s hard to understand gravel or gift cards until you’ve worked through it for a while. Or, I ask something directly from a previous class and get a “deer in the headlights look” that says “I haven’t thought about this one second since we last discussed it.” But, you are getting better each day and I’m not looking for perfection. We've made 3 weeks of progress in 3 weeks.

"That’s sufficient for me.

“I’m just looking for preparation and the willingness to try to figure things out. (A genuine curiosity is a big help in my class and in life.)

“Come see me if you need help.

“And, remember, a good grade on the first test is nice but it isn’t a guarantee of great things to come. And, a bad grade on the first test is not the end of the world. It’s just a first test, a way to gauge how you are doing in this somewhat unusual class.

“If nothing else, enjoy the process.”

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Do You Have to Be Entertaining to Be Popular?

The following link will prove that if you scare enough students over enough years, you will wind up with your picture on the Internet:


I think one of the most detrimental myths of teaching is that a person has to be funny or easy or entertaining to be popular with students. I think this idea has ruined a lot of good teachers. I cannot even estimate how many teachers have told me over the past 42 years “if I try to hold the line and make the students work, they will dislike me and kill me on the student evaluations. Students only want teachers who make them laugh and give them A’s.”

Students only want teachers who make them laugh and give them A’s. If that line is true, the future of education is truly bleak.

Often, I believe that line is merely a scapegoat – not always, but often. What I think those folks are really saying is “whether it is true or not, the students believe that I am giving them busy work in this class with little value and they resent it.”

At times on this blog over the past few months, I have shared (and chatted about) several of my favorite teaching quotations. They have all influenced my teaching significantly over the years.

The quote for today has had an enormous impact on my teaching career. I cannot emphasize enough how important these few words have been to me over the years—almost every single day. However, I’ve resisted including this quotation before now for two good reasons. First, I’m not sure who said it. Second, I’m not sure exactly what the person said. But, I firmly believe the basic truth of what is said here and that belief has really led me to teach the way I do.

As I remember it, probably 35-40 years ago I was reading a story about a successful football coach. I have always thought it was Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers but I cannot be sure of that. In the story, according to my memory, the coach says something like “There is something in every person that wants to be pushed to be great.”

Every person wants to be pushed to be great.

I may not know for sure who said it or even the exact words that were said but I certainly believe the sentiment. As far as I can see, almost every person needs (and wants) some amount of external motivation to push them to reach their true potential. They want to feel good about themselves but they need some help.

--Why do we hire personal trainers to tell us what physical exercises to do when we already know what we should do?
--Why do we pay teachers when we could simply read books?
--Why do we pay preachers when we do know the difference between right and wrong?

We need (actually, I think we crave) external motivation that will push us to use our talents wisely and make something great of ourselves.

--I don’t think it is an accident that the US Army slogan for many years was “Be All You Can Be.” That appeals to people.
--I don’t think it is an accident that most successful coaches in sports seem to have a drill sergeant type of philosophy. If there is a clear and desired goal, people react well to being pushed and pushed hard.

Almost everyone, I believe, wants to be great but some external motivation is usually needed. As the Bible says so well: “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”

I think the key is having that clear goal that says “here’s what you need to do to be great and I’m going to push you to make it happen.” Always remember: No one needs external motivation to be average.

So, if you are going to push people to work hard in your classes, you have to convince them that this effort has a genuine payback. They must believe they will become better in some way. Making a certain letter grade is not really much motivation for many people.

My own experience is that if you explain to students why you want them to do a certain amount of work (assuming the amount is fair as well as challenging) and what the benefit to them will be, they will usually surprise you with their efforts. They will not resent you. In fact, they will appreciate you. Okay, not every day but most days, people are willing to put out a real effort if they see the benefit clearly.

What’s the point of all of this? Here are some questions to consider if you want to become a better teacher. Be honest – skip the PR and do an honest self-evaluation.

--What is your goal for your students? On the last day of class, what do you really want to see?
--Is what you are asking the students to do actually going to get them to that goal?
--Do your students understand what your goal is?
--Do your students believe your goal is worth their effort?
--Are your students able to connect the work you are requiring at the moment with that goal?

It is not about being funny or easy. It’s about pushing people to be great and making sure they understand what you are asking them to do and why.