Saturday, February 25, 2012

Do They Appreciate What You Do?

This is my 125th blog entry in the last 25 months. When I started this site, I promised myself that I’d try to do at least 15 entries. My guess is that I would have quit long ago were it not for the many kind emails that I have received. Thanks – I love hearing from people who tell me about their own love of teaching and the challenges they face each day.

Today’s entry is broken into several individual parts.

PART ONE – I travel around the country 3-5 times per year to give teaching programs and presentations. Invariably, at each stop, some teacher will ask in complete exasperation “why should I even try to do better? The students do not appreciate what I do. They certainly don’t appreciate when I try to make them work and think.”

It is very tough to spend the time necessary to move toward excellence if you believe that no one appreciates you. It is hard to put out so much energy if no one cares. I often think deans and department chairs ought to be required to pat as many teachers on the back as possible each semester. However, the people who really benefit from your work are the students. They are the ones who should care the most. Do they truly appreciate your effort? That, as Hamlet says, is the question.

PART TWO – In one particular class that I teach, most of the students are junior accounting majors. It is a challenging course but virtually all of my students are capable. They can learn enough accounting to do well after they graduate. Interestingly enough, it is not the knowledge of accounting that often makes a difference in the level of success they achieve in their chosen careers. It is their ability to supervise others that can really count the most.

Within the first year or two after graduation, they will move into a position where they have to supervise other (younger) individuals. Instead of being responsible for just themselves, they suddenly become responsible for 2-5 associates. Suddenly, it is the ability to do well in that supervisory leadership position that starts to become important. We teach group work and team work in college but we don’t often address supervisory leadership.

One of the problems for them is that they don’t have many role models. If I mention the word “leadership,” they will tell me all about presidents (Roosevelt, for example, or Lincoln) or a great general (U.S. Grant or R.E. Lee) or a corporate executive (Bill Gates or Steve Jobs). But none of those individuals (at least when they became famous) were supervisory leaders. George Washington was not trying to motivate and guide 2-5 people under his direct supervision. Those leaders are on a different planet from the students.

Although it is not exactly the same, the closest role models that my students have for supervisory leadership are their teachers. The teacher walks into the room each day and is responsible for motivating and guiding 10 to 30 students or more. In most cases, how well the students do is largely based on how well the teacher does.

For that reason, I want my students to spend some mental energy thinking about how teachers manage to accomplish what they do. Most college students have been in class for roughly 80 percent of their lives. They have interacted with dozens of teachers in a very direct and personal way. They have observed both good teaching and bad. However, they rarely consider how a teacher works and what makes one person particularly successful. For a young person, who will soon be in a supervisory position, there is a lot that can be learned from their teachers.

I recently started giving my students a series of three exercises to help them consider how a good supervisor motivates and guides the people who fall under their care. The first assignment is simply to pick the best college teacher they have ever had and write a paragraph or two to describe why that person was the best. Notice, I specifically do not use the term “favorite teacher.” That is something entirely different. I want them to focus their attention on what makes a person the very best teacher they have ever had in college.

PART THREE – When I get the results of this assignment, many of the answers are genuinely touching. It is hard to read them without feeling a sense of real pride and admiration for teachers and how they affect the lives of their students. My guess is that the students would never say such things directly to a teacher (heavens, that might be embarrassing). However, in a written assignment, they have a chance to reflect on what a particular teacher did and talk about the impact that the teacher’s work had on them.

I tell the students that they should think a lot but they can keep the written assignment short. They are busy and I don’t want them spending too much time on this one task. Despite that suggestion, many of them write long detailed essays praising the best teacher they have had in college.

Here are just a few quotes that I picked out, almost at random. I have 52 students; I could have given 52 quotes similar to these.

You cannot read these without being proud that you are a teacher. When you read students saying things like this, you realize what a great career you have chosen. Teaching is the most wonderful and important job in the world because YOU have the chance to have this kind of influence. Read these and realize that this is what you have the good fortune to do every day.

--“If I could describe his attitude towards his students in one word, it would be egalitarian. He made each and every student feel as if they were important. Whether you were the best student or the worst student, he still gave equal attention to all.”

--“As for his expectations for the course, he did not hold our hand – he inspired us to do our own research in order to make the connections that would elevate our performance to an A level.”

--“Not only is her class a joy to be in – filled with discussions regarding everything from race to culture shock – she is also a great role model with diverse experiences to back up her advice.”

--“He made each and every student push themselves to the limit and use critical thinking that they had probably never used previously. There were times where I would walk out of that class and I would feel like my mind just got blown. That was partially because of what he had said but mainly because of the amazement I had at how he was able to guide me into thinking in ways that I never known I could do.”

--“The distinction of excellence comes from his ability to connect to and motivate students. He helped me to not only learn the material, but to want to learn the material. This admittedly tough accomplishment was achieved because he made sure to get to know me.”

--“She was patient, especially with someone like me, who is not used to writing papers that do not contain some type of mathematical equation.”

--“He didn’t mock my writing abilities, though they were clearly lacking. Nor did he act discouraged. Rather, he told me he wanted to give me an A, but I needed to do A work.”

--“His passion for his subject is unmatched by any other professor I have had while at the University of Richmond, and it rubbed off on everyone in the class.”

--“Often times we would have long, time-consuming assignments. However, as long as I had shown initiative and spent time thinking critically about a problem, (the teacher) was willing to work with me to understand the concepts that I was applying.”

--“He is extremely friendly and approachable and almost always has a smile on his face. All of his students can see how much he loves teaching (the subject) and this makes them want to work harder.”

--“(The teacher) clearly articulated his expectations and requirements to succeed. He went beyond telling me what to do, but actively pushed and engaged me. His confidence in me, as well as his general desire to see me succeed, drove me to perform extremely well in this class.”

--“She posed challenging and thought-provoking questions in class that made me dig deeper into the text which gave me a better chance to write a paper with substantial content.”

--“We would often get emails from him at 4 or 5 in the morning with very complex Excel models and/or regression methods that helped us better understand and practice using the material.”

--“He focused more on the actual learning of concepts as opposed to memorization and grades.”

PART FOUR – I do not think you can read any of these (or all of the remaining papers that I didn’t have room to quote) and not realize how much students appreciate your hard work. Yes, they will whine and they will complain and they will moan about the work load. That’s human nature. That’s just what college students do. But I’m convinced that it is like strenuous physical exercise. In their hearts, they really want to be pushed to be great and they appreciate it. They might never walk up to you and say thanks but it is clear when they write about their teachers how very much they appreciate the ones who try the hardest and care for them the most.

PART FIVE – My students in this class make up well below 2 percent of the entire student body on our campus. Consequently, there are many, many great teachers around here who they never get a chance to have in class. For that reason, many of our best teachers do not get mentioned because these students had never been lucky enough to be in their classes. However, I want to give a huge shout out to all of the folks who were named by my students. These were students who had been at the University of Richmond for six semesters and felt that YOU were the very best college teacher they had ever had. That just has to feel wonderful. That is the reason you get into this business. You are changing lives in a very positiv way. Congratulations!!!

Tom Arnold
Ed Ayers
Harold Babb
Julie Baker
Patti Carey
Will Case
Arthur Charlesworth
Alex Checkovich
Oliver Delers
Frank Eakin
Al Fagan
Jan French
Della Fenster
Marshall Geiger
Volker Grzimek
Linda Hobgood
Kim Marie McGoldrick
Manuella Meyer
Jim Monks
Randolph New
Bob Nicholson
Angel Otero-Blanco
Elizabeth Outka
Daniel Paik
Rob Phillips
Randle Raggio
Phil Rohrbach
David Routt
Louis Schwartz
Daniel Selby
Thomas Shields
Monika Siebert
Stephen Simon
Melanie Simpson
Jerry Stevens
Akira Suzuki
Andy Szakmary
Jonathan Wight

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

How Can You Get Better?

I gave my first test in Intermediate Accounting II last week. As probably most of you know, this is a really difficult course. Every topic, every day, is complex.

For this first test, I gave nine problems. I referred to these problems as puzzles because they were quite verbal. I find that the more numbers a problem has, the more likely it is to be a purely mechanical exercise.

The students had 75 minutes to see how many of these accounting “puzzles” they could solve. It was a challenging test but, heck, it is a challenging course. And, maybe more importantly, it is hard to convince students that they can leap tall buildings in a single bound if you don’t make every test both challenging and fair.

Here’s the good news: 19 percent of the students made an A. For my classes, that’s a pretty good rate. I had 19 percent of the students who did what I judged to be “excellent” work. I was pleased with that.

Here’s the bad news: 48 percent of the students made a C and 12 percent made less than a C. Those aren’t terrible grades but I don’t like C’s and I really don’t like grades of less than a C.

Too often, every student is used to getting an A or a B in every course. (This was the point of the Doonesbury cartoon last Sunday: ) So, the students are not going to be pleased with a C or worse. I get a lot of questions that begin: I’ve never made a grade that low so how can I do better?

“Work harder” and “think more” and “be smarter” really don’t provide much guidance. I think if you are really going to challenge your students you then have a moral obligation to help them figure out how to meet those challenges. I think that is what “teacher” means.

For that reason, when I returned their tests, I talked with them about “the five general points of learning.” In my mind, all classroom learning is built around five key times:
(1) – what the student does to prepare for class each day.
(2) – what the student does during class
(3) – what the student does in the 24 hours following class
(4) – how the student prepares for the test
(5) – how the student reacts during the test.

I explained to them that, from my observation, students tend to put most of their energy and effort into numbers 2 and 4. In other words, during class they will attempt to write down every word that is said and then, the night before the test, they will attempt to memorize all of those words. Many students actually view those two steps as “learning.” They become experts at 2 and 4. I told them that my guess was that they didn’t need to do anything more as far as 2 and 4 were concerned. I think they are pretty good at 2 and 4 already.

I explained that if they really wanted to do better, they probably needed to put more emphasis on 1, 3, and 5. Here’s some of what I had to say as guidance.

(1) – Every class session explores new material, both theoretical and practical. Therefore, class often seems like a helter-skelter mess as we talk and argue about a variety of issues. How do you turn that chaos into an organized picture? How do you start seeing the hidden elephants in the picture? For my classes, the answer is that you prepare very well before you walk into class. Preparation slows the speed of the class down and allows you to hear what is being said and understand the points that are being made. If you are not prepared, there is little you can do but copy down the material in hopes of making sense of it later. If you are prepared, the pieces should come together as we talk. This is not easy but if you really want to make a good grade, you need to become obsessed about preparation. The goal is clear: You need to be the best prepared person in class, not just occasionally but every day.

(3) – Most students leave class each day with the material bouncing around in their heads. Even the best students haven’t had a chance to step back and see how all the pieces fit together. However, at that moment, the urgency is off. We are going to move on to a new topic so there is no reason to worry too much if the material hasn’t quite come together in an understandable fashion. Unfortunately, if you don’t make sure it all becomes solid knowledge right then, the understanding begins to leak out of your brain very quickly. Within 24 hours (preferably within 4 hours) of class being over, you need to go back through everything we cover and make sure you understand how it works and why. On the surface, it may look random but it is not. Then, if you discover gaps in your understanding, you need to see me ASAP. I am convinced that the single most important time in the educational process is right after class as students put the pieces together (in their brains) so that they make logical sense. Without that, you are just memorizing random bits and pieces of information.

(5) – I’m often amazed by how many points students will throw away during a test. Okay, I know you are rushed and I’m sure you are a bit tense. But you can’t just throw away those easy points if you want to do well. When I write a question, I take something we have discussed in class and twist it around in some way and ask a question to see if you understand the concept. I expect you to read the question carefully and ask yourself how those facts connect to our class coverage. Then, hopefully, you can figure out what is the same and what is different from the coverage. Some questions require you to make a small leap from the class coverage while some require bigger leaps. But, I never write a question where I don’t think you are capable of making that leap. It doesn’t prove anything to ask questions that you cannot possibly answer. So, during each test, ask yourself the following: what are the facts, how does this question connect to class, what is different here, and how do those differences impact the solution?

And, of course, have some confidence in your ability to work through the complexities to arrive at a reasonable solution. If you have done the work, your confidence should provide you with a boost.

Will the students take my advice and work more on 1, 3, and 5? Yes, some will. Not all, but some will. And those students are likely to do considerably better on the second test because they have a plan that helps them actually learn the material. I’ve tried to go beyond just exhorting them to “work harder.”

They are 20 years old. They are adults. Should I be taking my time in class to help them learn how to learn? My only goal is academic success. By the end of the semester, I want them to have a strong understanding of the material. If giving them some learning tips is helpful, then – Yes – I believe it is part of my job.

Monday, February 6, 2012

My Favorite Quotes About Teaching - Number Six

To me, the following is a marvelous statement about what a college education really should be. But my favorite part is the last sentence. I could yack for days about virtually every word in the entire paragraph but I am not sure I could really add one iota to what is said.

“The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning. The university imparts information, but it imparts it imaginatively. At least, this is the function which it should perform for society. A university which fails in this respect has no reason for existence. This atmosphere of excitement, arising from imaginative consideration, transforms knowledge. A fact is no longer a bare fact: it is invested with all its possibilities. It is no longer a burden on the memory: it is energising as the poet of our dreams, and as the architect of our purposes. Imagination is not to be divorced from the facts: it is a way of illuminating the facts.”
Alfred Whitehead