Thursday, May 31, 2012

On the Other Side of the Desk

Occasionally, someone will ask me to give them my number one piece of advice for becoming a better teacher. Teaching is such a complex art that I really think that is close to impossible. However, I do think there is one thing that every teacher (and I do mean every teacher) should do that will help them immediately to become a better teacher. Can you believe it? I’m almost guaranteeing you success with just one piece of advice.

Every teacher should get a reality check by enrolling as a student each year in a class in something about which they have no real knowledge. In other words, they should walk around to the other side of the desk and put themselves into the student role just as a reminder of how it feels to be the struggling one. I don’t mean for a history teacher to take another history class. There’s no benefit. I don’t mean for an English teacher to take a class in poetry. I mean for a history teacher or an English teacher to take a class in quantum mechanics.

Two weeks ago, I started a class in tai chi. For those of you who do not know, tai chi is a moving meditation.

I cannot tell you how happy I am that my teacher is patient.
I cannot tell you how happy I am that my teacher is willing to answer even the dumbest question.
I cannot tell you how happy I am that my teacher always repeats the movements slowly until we all catch on.
I cannot tell you how happy I am that my teacher is a kind person and a very good teacher.

I am not athletic. I have never had a good sense of body awareness. For me, this class is a real challenge.

The teacher will make a small movement that looks ever so easy when he does it. He does it without any strain or thought. Then, I’ll try to make that same slight movement and just cannot get it right. Suddenly, his simple has become my complex.

He doesn’t make fun of me. He doesn’t roll his eyes at me. He doesn’t imply that I’m a loser. He doesn’t call on a better student to show me up. He doesn’t become frustrated or impatient. He gently takes my hands in his and he moves them for me to show me what I am supposed to be doing. And, sure enough, when he leads me through it enough times, I can do it. And, I have this wonderful sense that I have managed to accomplish something. I’m excited and ready to learn more. I always leave the room feeling better than when I walked in. But, really it was the teacher who had the success more than me.

I believe that there should be a law that every teacher has to take one class each year that is out of that person’s comfort zone. I think the quality of teaching in our world would automatically get better if we all did that.

We all get so settled into the teacher role that we really lose track of what it is like to be the student. It is awfully hard to be a great teacher if you don’t understand what it feels like to be a student.

Okay, there it is -- there's your one piece of advice.   You can take it or leave it.   However, don't ignore the advice and then tell me that you want to become a better teacher.  

This is not new advice from me.   A few years back I wrote a teaching tips book and in one of those essays I talked about my habit of taking classes just to remind myself of what students experience in my classes. Here’s what I said at that time.

“Recently, I took a class on large-format cameras. Five of us were enrolled. This group took photographs for one entire day. I worked to replicate every step demonstrated by the teacher. The film was developed overnight so that we could discuss the results. On the following day, the teacher started class by saying, ‘Four of the film packs came out great but, for one, every picture was blank.’ It was my pictures that had been ruined; I felt so dumb.

“The following week, I taught my own classes with more patience and care. Many students face such heavy frustrations almost every day; their confidence is shaken constantly. Understanding the student perspective can help as you organize a class. How long has it been since you took a course, especially one where your knowledge and ability were strictly limited? Occasionally, feeling lost is a good position for a teacher.”

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us

My department chair (Darrell Walden) sent out the following link to an article from The Washington Post. You may have to register to read it but it is well worth your time. (If the link doesn’t work, just go to and search for “Is college too easy” as of May 21, 2012.)

Darrell summarizes the story quite well in just a few words. “Over the past half-century, the amount of time college students actually study — read, write and otherwise prepare for class — has dwindled from 24 hours a week to about 15, survey data show. And that invites a question: Has college become too easy?”

As I travel around the country talking about teaching, I very frequently hear faculty members complain that “college students are not like they used to be.” My feeling (after 41 years in this job) has always been that college students really do not change much over time. However, as this article pretty well documents, what we ask our students to do to get a good grade has become less and less demanding. For many students, college is barely a part-time job. The students have not changed but a college education has.

Two words say it all: grade inflation.

If you don't demand much, don't be surprised when students give you exactly that much.  

I have even heard the speculation that the heavy student drinking that is prevalent on so many college campuses today is partially a result of the boredom that comes from being under challenged.

Okay, I have lived long enough to already know the response to my rant here.
---Polls will tell you that most people believe public education is falling apart nationally but that their own local school does a pretty good job.
---Polls will also tell you (at least I’ve been told this) that most people will argue that Congress is completely incompetent but their own member of Congress does a pretty decent job.

So, my guess is that a lot of college faculty members are going to read The Washington Post and respond “Yes, most students don’t work very hard these days but my class is the exception. If every class was as difficult as mine, college education would be much better.”

Hmm, that always reminds me of Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average.

Is the problem that our students are lazy or is the problem that we do not push our students enough?

Either way, are we willing to allow our students to "earn" a college degree with so much less work?

I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Now, That Is a Very Good Question

A good friend of mine who teaches at a university in Texas wrote to me a few days ago and posed the following question. My guess is that all college teachers have felt this same way at times over the years. It is very difficult to get students to leap tall buildings with a single bound if you can’t get them to prepare for class.

“For the past two semesters I have become so totally frustrated with the students in my classes. They do NOT come to class prepared AT ALL. They don't read the book. Some of them don't even get the book until the 3rd or 4th week of the semester.

“Do you have a secret for getting students to read their textbook, especially in Intermediate? Do you threaten them with hanging at dawn? Do you give them a quiz every class?

“I really want my fall Intermediate students to develop some better habits, so I'm looking for a way to facilitate that.”

Okay, I think the first way to approach this quandary is to consider where most of the students are coming from in your class. They rarely pop into a college class without some well-formed habits.

Many college students have spent the previous 13-16 years in school. Over that time, they have had many teachers. They have had a lot of training at being students. My guess is that all of those previous teachers have asked the students to read chapters in their textbook before class. Unfortunately, it is likely that this work has not proven to be useful to the student. If it had been useful in the past, they would still be doing it.

If the rat rings a bell and gets cheese, the rat will continue to ring the bell.
If the rat rings a bell and does not get cheese, the rat has little reason to keep ringing the bell.

Before they got to you, your students learned that ringing the bell (reading the textbook) did not get them any cheese. Trust me, they are much smarter than the rats; they stopped reading their textbooks long before they got to you.

And, when you tell them, “you need to read the textbook,” they say (in the back of their minds) “yeah, right, I’ve heard that for years; what good is that going to do me?”

When I was a sophomore in college, my Economics professor said “Read chapter one” and I read chapter one. As far as I could tell, his lectures basically told me what I needed to know in chapter one. For the life of me, I couldn’t see what good having read the chapter in advance did me. Then, he said “Read chapter two” and I read chapter two. And, again, in class I couldn’t see that he did anything other than tell me what I needed to know in that chapter. About the time he said “Read chapter three,” I tossed the textbook in the back of my closet and spent my time doing something where the reward mechanism was more obvious.

The problem is especially acute in a course like intermediate accounting where the material is so complex that most normal college students will get lost after only a few pages. More than one student has asked me over the years “what good does it do me to read something that I don’t understand?”

Fair question.

I probably sound like your students. Should I have been the subject of a hanging at dawn for my work in Economics? Well, maybe, but I doubt it. I did well enough in that class by just listening to what he had to say and never understood why I had paid my money to buy that book.

I didn’t get any cheese by ringing that particular bell.  So, I stopped ringing it.

So, here is what I do in my own classes.

--I only give assignments one class ahead. I want the students to know that this specific assignment has an immediate purpose. That purpose is not for some vague point in time down the road. That assignment is for the upcoming class.   We have about 41 classes -- we have about 41 assignment sheets.

--When I give reading assignments, I try to cut it down to what we are going to cover in the following class. “Read page 310 and 311 and the first 3 paragraphs of 313 and the last paragraph on page 315.” I want the students to understand that the readings have been selected to connect directly to the next class. I want them to read so they are ready for that class.

--I give them specific questions in advance based on those sections of the reading: “Read pages 310 and 311 and then be willing to discuss the following three questions.”

--I try to make sure the readings give the student a fighting chance to answer the question that I have presented.    There's no reason to read pages 310 and 311 if they don't help work the assigned problems.

--I then call on them in class to answer those assigned questions. I want there to be a very clear connection between the textbook assignment and their comfort level in class. If they get the question correct, I let them know right away “Good job, you did a good job coming to understand that principle.” If they don’t answer the question correctly but they’ve clearly tried, I work with them to get to a correct answer.   In the end, I just want them to learn as quickly and deeply as possible.

--Finally, I try very hard to make sure that the tests are more likely to reward those students who prepared well for class. I had a student recently describe my class in a way that I loved: “Success in class each day leads to success on the tests.” Okay, for most students, there’s the real cheese. If you can get students to believe in that connection between preparation, class, and tests, they can amaze you with what they can accomplish.

And, of course, then the question is: what do you do if you call on a student who has not prepared as you have asked?

---Well, the first time, probably nothing.   Everyone has a day off now and then.
---The second time, I am more likely to show my displeasure: “I expect better from you. You can do this but you have to try.”
---The third time, I call the student into my office and ask them straight out why they are in my class if they are not willing to do the work. I want them to realize that learning requires work.   I try to make a clear point that preparation is required and I’m not wasting my time trying to teach students who care so little that they are unwilling to prepare.

Does it work? Do my students prepare for class? Not always but most of the time it does. If I fuss at a student in class or in my office, they often stare at me with a puzzled look on their face: “Oh, you are not like previous teachers. You really do expect me to prepare. Well, okay, if you make it worth my while, I will.”

The rat has to have a reason to ring that bell. So, consider the question:   How can you bring some cheese into their preparation?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Prize Will Not Be Sent To You

I was going through some files this evening and discovered a quote that I received some years back from a person in India .  There's a lot to like about this quote but I especially appreciate the line:  "The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods."   I sometimes think in teaching (and maybe many other things in life) that we are too obsessed with finding the perfect method. 

"Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it. The man who knows how will always have a job. The man who also knows why will always be his boss. As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble".      Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Just a quick reminder (because I know adoption decisions for the fall semester are being made as I write), if you would like to receive a copy of the second edition of my Financial Accounting textbook (written with C. J. Skender of UNC and published by Flat World Knowledge) which just came off the press a few weeks ago, all you need do is send a note to  Okay, I’m biased but I honestly believe you will get the best textbook on the market AND your students will each save $100 to $200. In these days and times, those are two very good reasons to give it a look.   (If you are interested, drop me a note at and I'll send you a survey we did of all the students using the first edition just to see how they liked the book.)


I have written this type of blog entry before over the years BUT last night at 9:47 was my very favorite time of the entire semester by far. Right before I entered my final grades for the semester into the university's computer system, I sent the following email out to 15 students (9 in Intermediate Accounting II and 6 in Introduction to Financial Accounting). I had pushed these young people unmercifully the entire semester. People just don’t like to be dragged out of their comfort zone and I had pulled and pushed them daily to be prepared and to think and to work.

Consequently, I really wanted them to know how proud I was of them.

I know they will get a formal report of some type that will show the grade of A. But, somehow that just doesn’t seem to be an adequate amount of recognition. I want them to feel very special.

I often think that the reason we don’t get as much outstanding work as we want from our students is that we don’t acknowledge personally those people who actually do outstanding work.  Why work so hard if no one is going to notice?

Here’s what I wrote last night. I really would urge you to consider doing something similar. It might seem corny to you but I bet that it won’t seem corny to the students. (I cannot tell you how many students have written back to me over the years to tell me how much they cried when they got my note about them making an A. I obviously don’t set out to make anyone cry but it does indicate how special the recognition of their hard work can be to a young student. I often say that the world would be much more efficient and effective if we all gave out a lot more pats on the back.)


May 1, 2012


I am sending this note to the nine students who earned the grade of A this semester in Intermediate Accounting II. We started the semester with 52 students but we only had nine (17.3 percent) who earned the grade of A. And, you did – congratulations!! I very much appreciate the effort that it took to excel in such a challenging class. From the first day to the last, we pushed through some terribly complicated material. We never let up, not for one day. And, you did the work that was necessary. You didn’t let the challenge overwhelm you. I am so very proud of you and pleased for you. More importantly, you should be proud of yourself. I sincerely believe that all 52 of those students who started back in January had the ability to make an A. But you nine made it happen. In life, success comes from more than ability. It comes from taking on real challenges and investing the time necessary to make good things happen. I occasionally get frustrated that more students don’t set out to truly excel. However, I cannot say that about you.

As I am sure you know (or remember), I always ask the students who make an A in my class to write a short paragraph (well, write a short paragraph directed to next fall’s students) and explain how you did it. I find this is important. You nine understood what I wanted you to do and you did it. So many students never catch on to what my goals are. It is always helpful (I believe) when the A students one semester tell the students before the next semester “Listen, everyone can make an A in this class but you really have to do certain things.” What are those things?

I only ask two things: be serious and tell the truth. There's really nothing more that I can ask of you.

And, write that paragraph for me before you forget.

Have a great summer. Work hard, learn a lot, see the world, experience great things. There is plenty of time to be a boring adult after you graduate. Open your mind and pour as much into it as you can over the summer.

Congratulations again. It has been a genuine pleasure to have had the chance to work with you.