Saturday, March 24, 2012

Sometimes Taking Action Does Help

About three weeks ago (3/6/12), I included the following story in an entry in this blog:

“I immediately walked to my study and sent an email to one of my students. ‘You made a D on your first test in my class. Since then, I have not noticed one iota of improvement. None. You are not one bit better prepared for my class. You are not trying any harder as far as I can see. I can only surmise that your primary goal is to make a D in my class.’

“The next day in class that student was clearly better prepared. Not sure how long it will last but it was nice to see him more engaged.”

I basically confronted the student directly for not making changes in his attitude toward my class. I cared enough about him as a person to be confrontational. He may well have thought I hated him but, in truth, if I had not cared about him as a person, I would not have wasted my time. He made a D on the first test of the semester and seemed ready to make a D on the second test. Rather than fume to myself about his failure to reach his potential, I decided to be more direct and tell him of my concerns.

Waste of time? Certainly could be.

I gave my second test of the semester this past Monday. Intermediate Accounting II is an incredibly hard course with lots of complex topics. The second test covers some of the hardest stuff in all of accounting: bonds, leases, troubled debt restructuring, and deferred income taxes. If you are not an accountant, let me assure you these are difficult topics.

I gave an 80 minute test that 90 percent of the students didn’t finish. It was meant to be a challenge. The student above, the one I fussed at, made a 99 – tied for the top grade in the entire class of 51 students. Jumped from one of the lowest grades in class to the best grade.

I’m not na├»ve. I don’t think my one email made a great deal of difference. However, I do think it made some difference. As long as students feel anonymous, there is no push to do better. If not one person ever noticed them, if no one cares, it can be tough to really put out a strong effort.

But, when you say to a student “I’ve been watching your effort and you can do better,” (or, the reverse “I’ve been watching your effort and I am pleased”), you strip off that anonymity. There is something about being seen, being noticed, that makes a student more conscience of their own efforts. Often students fall into denial and you make them look at the reality of their situation.

My guess is that this student would have done better than a D if I had I said nothing but I don’t think the student would have made 99 had I not been willing to confront him. Not every professor can be confrontational but I do think, if done just occasionally by saying “I have looked at your work and I believe you can do better,” you can light a fire under a student.

I sometimes think that our tendency as human beings to avoid confrontation is one of the attributes of teaching that can actually hold a student back. Sometimes, they need to have that mirror held up so they can see themselves. Not because you hate them but because you care about them.

Friday, March 16, 2012

I Said It Before and I Still Believe It: There Are No Short Cuts

Before I ever started this blog, I wrote a short little teaching book titled “Tips and Thoughts on Improving the Teaching Process in College--A Personal Diary.” I wanted to push myself to think about teaching and I wanted to encourage other folks to think about teaching. The book was a bit of work but it seemed like everyone would benefit. When finished, I put it up on web at and forgot about it. However, the book got a very nice review in The Chronicle of Higher Education and people started sending me questions or suggestions. For a while, I got emails from teachers around the world. What fun.

Eventually, I wanted to add to those original essays. I had more thoughts on teaching. Plus, I missed the writing. But, instead of starting a second book, I created this blog which has allowed me to stretch out the thinking and writing process indefinitely.

A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with a former student of mine who has gone on to get a Ph. D. and is now beginning her first tenure-track position. She recently joined the faculty of a major university. She told me that she had gone back to my original Teaching Tips book and that one essay in particular had been extremely meaningful to her as she began her career as a teacher. I was touched that she had consulted my writings as she started her teaching. So, I decided to reprint the essay that she said was helping her. So, JPD, this one is for you.

Learning The Secret For Becoming An Excellent Teacher

At a crucial point during my first semester as a faculty member, I was lucky enough to unlock the ultimate secret for improving as a teacher. This IS the magic bullet. That was more than 30 years ago and, in my mind, the secret has not changed one iota in all these intervening decades. If you have a serious desire to do a better job in the classroom, this is the one absolute fact that needs to be accepted--sooner rather than later.

The secret is nothing more than a simple formula:

If it takes a person X number of hours to be an average teacher


it will take that same person 2X hours to be a good teacher


3X hours to be an excellent teacher.

Here is the moment of truth; it is time to face reality. Anyone who has a genuine wish to become an excellent teacher must be willing to invest a significant number of hours. There are no shortcuts. If you are reading this book in hopes of discovering quick and easy tricks, my advice is simple: Close the book and walk away. Preparing for class, grading tests and papers, working with students, and all the rest of the normal, daily teaching activities require an almost infinite number of hours of thought and labor.

How much time are you willing and able to devote to improve? That is the question that each teacher needs to address in an honest and realistic fashion. We live in a hectic society; almost no one has sufficient hours to complete everything that needs doing. We all scramble to become more efficient just to keep our heads above the proverbial waters.

Teaching takes time; good teaching takes more time; excellent teaching can quickly become a 24/7 pastime. Faculty members face serious pressures to research and write; committee assignments seem to multiply like the heads of the Hydra. Time is like gold.

But there will always be periods when a class is struggling. You are dissatisfied and frustrated with the failure of students to grasp concepts that seem self-evident. In such situations, the number one remedy is to put in additional hours. To tell the truth, that extra time might best be spent sitting alone in the corner of a dark room thinking about the topic, the assignments, the class, and the each student. Such reflection is helpful.

Radical (or even subtle) improvements in the educational diamond are difficult when the teacher is flying through life at warp speed. If it is important, invest the time. Because the hours in life are finite, learn to make use of moments that might otherwise be wasted. I have a 25-minute commute to campus. During that drive, I often listen to National Public Radio; other days, it is a book on tape. On occasion, though, the sound is turned off and I mentally walk through the steps plotted for the coming class, trying to envision exactly what is supposed to happen. When I take this third path, class invariably goes better. Adequate time has been invested and nothing is more essential in teaching.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

I Have An Assignment For You

My wife often watches “Morning Joe” on cable television as she gets ready for the new day. It is a group of people who discuss and debate politics and the world in general each morning. Last week, I wandered through and the people on the show that morning were discussing education. Just as I passed by, one person asserted: “We all know how to get great education: Demand Excellence and Expect Excellence.”

Demand Excellence and Expect Excellence. Hmm, sounds good. I wonder how many of us really do that? Do we really demand excellence from our students? Really? In fact, do we really demand excellence from ourselves? Or, maybe, they are just two sides to the same coin.

RESPONSE ONE TO MORNING JOE: After hearing the commentator, I immediately walked to my study and sent an email to one of my students. “You made a D on your first test in my class. Since then, I have not noticed one iota of improvement. None. You are not one bit better prepared for my class. You are not trying any harder as far as I can see. I can only surmise that your primary goal is to make a D in my class.”

The next day in class that student was clearly better prepared. Not sure how long it will last but it was nice to see him more engaged.

Was I demanding more excellence from him or was the email a way of demanding more excellence in my own teaching?

RESPONSE TWO TO MORNING JOE: However, that was not the part of “Demand Excellence and Expect Excellence” that really stuck with me. Since then, I have wondered a lot about two questions. First, what do I mean by excellence? Second, do my students understand what I mean by excellence?

How can I demand excellence if I don’t know what it means?
How can I expect excellence if my students don’t know what I mean?

Excellence is a word that is bounced around a lot in teaching. But is it just a word or does it have a real meaning to you?

So, I have an assignment for you. Write a short paragraph where you describe what you mean by a person being an excellent student in your class. Should be simple stuff. In your class, what is excellence? Is excellence just being able to achieve a certain score on a test? Surely not. If so, no wonder our education system is troubled.

For your students, what do you really mean by the term “excellence?” Then, email that paragraph directly to your students (and send me a copy at

Here’s what I mean by student excellence (not good, but truly excellent):
The student needs to come to every class having prepared and thought about the assignment so that they can discuss and debate each question with the teacher and other students. They need to show me that they understand the material so well that they can legitimately address any and all related questions. It’s not the first question that counts but where they can go from there. They don’t have to be right but their answers have to show a logical thought process. They need to spend sufficient time immediately after class organizing and reviewing our discussions so they can start to see the patterns and structure that form the foundation for the discipline. Then, they need to prove that they have gained a working understanding of this knowledge. They have the opportunity of doing this by showing me on a test that they can take a question they’ve never seen before and break it down into its component parts so that they can connect it to the logic and structure of the discipline in the same way we have done in class. In other words, they can use that connection to come up with a resolution to a problem that makes sense and that they can support.

In my class, that is excellence.
That really does deserve an A.