Friday, July 27, 2012


Several weeks ago, I wrote a blog entry describing my discussion each semester with my juniors about the best book that they have ever read. In the blog, I explained that I thought education needed to be more than just conveying material. It also needs to be about helping students to broaden their horizons and become better rounded members of our society. If we are just going to teach stuff, computers can probably do that better than we can.

I got quite a number of emails about that post – most were positive although some were a bit mystified as to why I would do that in an accounting class. Heck, I would do that in any class.

So, okay, let’s take this thought a step further. What is your favorite class memory of the spring semester? I assume virtually everyone who reads this post is a teacher. What is your favorite teaching memory from the spring? (If you don’t have one, you probably need to make some serious changes.)

One of my favorite memories is of a photograph (now taped to my wall) taken with a camera phone of 8 freshmen students at the University of Richmond who are standing in front of the stage of the Virginia Opera waving at me. Why are they there? Why are they waving at me – their accounting teacher?

Although most of my students are juniors, I do teach an Introduction to Financial Accounting class which will often have freshmen. Last spring, I got an email from a friend who had some free tickets for a performance of the Virginia Opera and wanted to know if any of my students would like to go.

If I had sent out a note to my students about free opera tickets, on a school night no less, the silence would have been deafening—probably only broken by the sound of sarcastic remarks.

Most freshmen in college have never experienced an opera. The tickets were free. I wanted some of them to go. So, I wrote an email to the introductory class and explained that I had these tickets and would gladly give them out. And, I would add two points to the grade on their second test for any student who went. I give three tests each semester and a final exam so two points on one hourly exam has virtually no impact on a student’s overall grade. But, it is a tangible reward. No matter how small, students feel like they are being paid to go.

Believe it or not, a total of 13 out of my 30 students asked for tickets and went to the opera that night. Many of them came back the next day to tell me about the experience. I have not been to many operas (but I’ve seen enough to have a favorite - Tosca).  However, I could, at least, talk about the opera a little.

Is accounting where we should teach opera? That’s a ridiculous question. But I do not believe that any class should be limited to teaching just material. Computers can do that. Classes should also be about helping people learn how to live and experience.

And one serious key to achieving that goal is to offer a reward. Even if the reward is terribly small, it seems to jump start the students. And, that’s what I wanted.
Let me give you a second example that has worked for me for years. I teach juniors in Intermediate Accounting II. That course is terribly hard and very challenging. For many years, I have offered those students five bonus points on their final exam (a bit more reward than for the opera but still not much) to go out and do things in Richmond. If a college is in a city, I believe students should take advantage of that opportunity. Over the years, I estimate that 95 percent of the students in that class have taken advantage of the offer and gotten all five points. They’ve left campus and done something interesting – for a mere five bonus points on the final exam.

What do they have to do to get those five points? Here is what I tell them (highly edited):

“It is always sad for me to see students live here for four years and miss out on some of the most interesting aspects of the area. Your college experience should be about more than campus (and off-campus bars).  Therefore, to encourage you to get out and about, I will add one point to your final examination grade for each of the following activities that you do between now and the date of the final exam. However, I’m only willing to give you up to five extra points. Here is a list of what you can do to add points:

"---Visit Maymont Park and walk down to the Japanese Gardens. Walk around the pond. If it is turned on, stand under the waterfall (well, make sure it is summer for that). Truly one of the most beautiful and serene places in all of Richmond.

---Go to the Westhampton Theatre near campus and see a good movie. After you go to the big modern theatres, it is hard to believe that a movie theatre could have real antiques in the lobby. Plus, it has the most intellectual movies in town (by far). If you’ve never seen a great foreign movie, here’s the place to start.

---Visit the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Check out the Faberge Eggs and the 19th century Impressionist. Always neat to see a real Van Gogh or Renoir. They have a wonderful collection of American art as well as art of India and you can also see a statue of Caligula from about 2,000 years ago. Amuse is the restaurant there (third floor) and it is quite nice – excellent place to take your parents and impress them with your savoir faire.

---Visit Agecroft Hall. This is a 500 year old manor house that was taken apart in England piece by piece and rebuilt on the banks of the James River by a tobacco millionaire about 80 years ago.

---See a movie at the Byrd Theatre, especially when they are scheduled to play the mighty Wurlitzer. The movies are nowhere near as interesting as those at the Westhampton but the experience is marvelous. You feel like Al Capone is probably sitting nearby in the audience.

---Go to St. John’s Church on Church Hill and see a reenactment of Patrick Henry’s call for liberty speech. I never have enough students do this one. It is a genuine touch of US history.

---See a play put on by Richmond Shakespeare. There is something about seeing a few people put on an entire Shakespeare play that is great. Or, if you are really adventuresome, drive 90 minutes up into the mountains to Staunton and see a play at the American Shakespeare Theatre. The plays and the theatre there are fabulous.

---Go to the Poe Museum and learn about one of Richmond’s favorite sons. Yeah, I know he is buried in Baltimore but he spent most of his life wandering the streets of Richmond.

---Have a sub at the best deli in Richmond (and possibly the world). It is Bernie’s on Forest Avenue. Where else can you go where you are absolutely the only person in the room who has not already eaten there 1,000 times?

---Cross the Huguenot Bridge and take River Road toward town for a mile until you get to the Pony Pasture. Park your car in the lot and climb out onto the rocks of the James River. “Peaceful” doesn’t even begin to describe the experience.

---Go to the Virginia Historical Society and visit their exhibits. Richmond is nothing if it is not about history.

---Go downtown and visit the Museum of the Confederacy and the White House of the Confederacy. How could you stay in Richmond for four years and not do that?

---Head over toward the Richmond Airport and visit the Richmond Aviation Museum. It is not the Smithsonian but they do have a nice group of fascinating planes.

---Check out Hollywood Cemetery. Yes, visit a cemetery – it is one of the loveliest and most interesting places in Richmond. If the office is open, get a map to locate all the famous dead people. Park your car and just stroll around. It’s a place where you really need to walk. Take a date, walk around, hold hands, watch for ghosts, look at the statues.

---Go over to Willow Lawn Shopping Center – go around to the back and there is the Barksdale Theatre. Live theatre is always fun and at the Barksdale, you are only five rows or less from the stage.

---Go to the Science Museum and wander through their exhibits or watch a movie in the Imax Theater. Okay, a lot of places have Imax but the Science Museum is built in the old Richmond train station and when you walk in the front door, it has the feel of Grand Central Station.

---Drive a few miles south of Richmond and visit Berkeley Plantation, supposedly the home of the first official Thanksgiving.

---Go to the Carpenter Theatre at Center Stage and see an opera by the Virginia Opera. This fall they are doing The Pearl Fishers and Die Fiedermaus. Yeah, I know you are an accounting major and couldn’t possibly appreciate opera but that’s what I thought when I was your age and now I wonder how I could have been so ignorant. How do you know if you never try? Don’t take too much pride in being a hillbilly.

---Drive to Petersburg and see The Crater. If you read the book or saw the movie “Cold Mountain,” you know that the Northern army tried to blow up a huge part of the Southern Army by tunneling up under their line and setting off a gigantic store of dynamite. Well, the hole (actually 1/3 of the hole) is still there. It is just a hole but it has been there for nearly 150 years and it really gives you a genuine feel for the Civil War.

---On 14th Street downtown, you can take a boat ride through some of the canals built hundreds of years ago to get cargo around the rocks in the James River. This is a really fun thing to do on a nice afternoon. Your parents would love it. When you finish, enjoy the Canal Walk.

---Spend an afternoon in Williamsburg (or Jamestown or Yorktown) and finish with dinner in one of the taverns (try the King’s Arms if you can get in – they all require reservations well in advance).

---Take a walk through Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. Most of the year, it is filled with hundreds of thousands of flowering plants.

---Visit the Monumental Church. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall raised the funds to build the church after a horrific fire on December 26, 1811. The fire killed 72 people, including the governor of Virginia. The bodies were burned so terribly that they are all buried together. John Marshall raised the funds and had the church completed by 1814.

---A short bike ride from campus is the Wilton House Museum, a James River Plantation house. Built around 1753, it was the centerpiece of a 2,000 acre tobacco plantation. It was here that the family entertained George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the Marquis de Lafayette.

---Visit the Richmond zoo. Okay, it is a bit of a drive and it is in the middle of nowhere but how often do you get to see a white tiger or feed a giraffe.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Starting to Reprogram Your Students - Part Two

A few weeks ago, I wrote about sending out an initial email to start reprogramming my students to be the type of students that I wanted them to be.  Below is the second step in this process.   It is my second email to the students for the fall semester.   I emailed this note to my students this morning.

To: Accounting 302 Students

From: JH

Okay, I’m sending out a bunch of material to you folks occasionally over the course of the summer. You already have the course outline and I assume you have looked over that pretty carefully by now.

Attached is something entirely different. Everyone knows this class is challenging and that making an A takes an excellent effort. I want to help you understand (before we get started) what you need to do in order to do well in this course. So, every semester, I ask the 11 – 25 percent of the students who make an A to write a paragraph or two to explain how they managed to do so well. I cut and paste all the student responses into a single document and it is attached to this email. I firmly believe that these words can serve as a road map to help you understand how to do well in my class. I hope you’ll read and think about what they have to say. Success is not a secret.

From my experience, everyone seems to enjoy a good sports story. In sports, winning and losing is always more apparent so it is easier to see what leads to some people winning while others lose. So, here’s a sports story for you (and, unfortunately, I don’t recall the details exactly but close enough for the point I want to make).

I was watching ESPN a few years back and the announcers were talking with a retired pro basketball coach about a championship team that he had coached a few years before that date. Apparently, his team got locked into a real battle in the final playoff series. The announcers asked the coach when he knew that his team was going to win the championship. His response went something like this:

“In one of the key games, we were behind by a point with just a few seconds to play. I called timeout to set up our last shot. It was a shot that would lead to either a victory or defeat in that game and possibly for the entire series. As soon as I called timeout, all five players on the court came running to the bench yelling ‘give me the ball and let me take the last shot; I can make it.’ A lot of times when you get to a truly critical moment, no one wants to make eye contact with you. Players start staring around or looking into the stands because they don’t want to take the risk of missing that final shot. When all five players on my team were begging me to take that last shot, I knew I had a team of winners and that we would win. And we did.”

Everyone knows that I ask scores of questions in my class. That is surely no secret. Rapid fire questions based on the homework assignments. When I get to the tough areas, it is amazing how often students begin to stare at their papers or look at the ceiling. They become deeply engrossed in checking their calculators – anything other than making direct eye contact with me.

Here’s my one piece of fatherly advice. On the attached sheet of student advice, the first student says “I wanted to be called on for every question.” That is exactly what I want from you. I want you to be so well prepared each and every day that you literally sit there and pray to get called on for every single question. I cannot promise you that this attitude will get you an A but I do promise you that it will make you the kind of student who succeeds.

Okay, then the obvious question is: How do you get to where you want to be called on for every question? The second student on the attached list says “If you prepare for the class like you would for a quiz/test, then you will be successful.” Virtually all students under prepare for class. That is a given; that is nearly 100 percent. The reason is that humans don’t have much self-discipline. They don’t do real work unless they see the urgency. They prepare just enough to get by. And, then they wonder why they are just able to get by. If you want to succeed, there has to be a genuine sense of urgency (not panic or dread but urgency) in your preparation. To do that, you need to prepare each day like you expected to have a tough quiz when you walked in to class. If you can be ready for a quiz each day even though there is no quiz, you will be the student that I want in my class no matter what your grade turns out to be. You will be ready to become the kind of student that you are capable of becoming.

I know this all sounds a bit frightening but it really is a great class that you will enjoy.

Hope you are enjoying your summer. Work hard but make sure to take time to see life outside of work.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Starting to Reprogram Your Students

Before I start today, I want to wish everyone in the US a very happy July 4.   Politically, we all tend to fuss and fight way too much but I think we can all agree that we are so incredibly lucky to live in a country where we can celebrate our freedom, liberty, and independence.   For that reason, every day around here should be July 4.
If you have ever been at one of my teaching presentations, you know that a main theme (obsession) of mine is that you have to reprogram your students to do what you want them to do. They have already been in school for many years and most have picked up sloppy habits and poor attitudes. Students are very much a product of the educational system; they are very well-trained, but often trained to be bad students. I believe it is the teacher’s job to start the reprograming process as quickly as possible.

For example, my first class in the fall is on August 27. I sent my students an email back in April suggesting some things they could do over the summer to make themselves smarter and better ready for this class in the fall. I also told them that I would be sending out emails over the summer and I expected them to be read. Luckily, I have a reputation at my school of “he means what he says so you better pay attention.” (Having the reputation you want is another incredibly important element of teaching.) I doubt the students jumped too quickly to do what I asked of them but I was really just starting the reprogramming process.

Yesterday, I sent another email to my students. This time it was the course outline giving the dates (and weights) of the tests, the textbook (Hoyle and Skender – of course), my rules, and other vital information. I told the students that I wanted them to read that outline and know how the class was set up before they arrived at the first session. I want them heading in the right direction before I even see them for the first time.

At the end of yesterday's email, I said something like “I want more A’s in the fall. You are all capable of making an A but you have to become efficient at the learning process. I have taught for a long-time. I have seen a lot of students do this class well. I have seen a lot of students do this class poorly. I think I know what it takes to do the class well. And, I want YOU to do it well.”

I am trying to get their attention before they become overwhelmed by the fall semester. I want my students to know that there is work to be done but they are capable and I actually want to give better grades.

I then gave them a list of advice on how to do well in my class. This is obviously the next step in the reprograming process. I know they will not follow all of this but if they just pay close attention to a couple of these things, they will do better. If some of this advice knocks around in their heads for the next two months, they will be moving toward being better students.

Here was the advice on the course outline that I have now given to my Financial Accounting students for the fall of 2012.

- Here is my number one piece of advice: the students who learn how to answer the questions correctly when called on in class are better able to answer the questions on the test. It seems so obvious—class is simply teaching you how to think about and answer questions and then the tests ask you related questions to see what you’ve learned.  Too many students tend to think “I won’t really try to figure out the answers to the questions before I come to class. Instead, I’ll listen to the answers and memorize them.” That is not learning to answer questions—that is learning to repeat answers that someone else has figured out for you. If you want to do well in this class, walk into class every day with a pretty good idea as to what the answers are.

- A lot of my students like to gather in the Atrium outside of our room about 30-45 minutes before class to discuss the assignments. Then, they walk into class ready to go to work. I think that is a great idea and would strongly encourage that. However, you really need to use that time to talk about the upcoming class and not about beer and pizza. And, do me a personal favor. If you are working with a group in the Atrium and you see a student from class, invite them to join you. Some students want to be part of the group but are shy. You are in this together – in my experience, the best classes are the ones that become a genuine group. Everyone you invite to join will add strength to the group.

- Be consistently good. If you are well prepared one day but weak the next, you wind up with holes in your knowledge and that leads to problems in learning. If students have one general weakness, it is the tendency to try hard on an irregular basis and then wonder why they don’t do well. A championship football or baseball team does NOT play well every other game. Instead, the real winners are prepared for every game and play well every time. Class is three times per week; you should really try to be good three times per week.

- One strong suggestion would be to take the class seriously from Day One. A lot of students don’t get their brains into gear until the 15th class but by then they have serious problems. If you get behind, catching up is tough. That’s like running the 100 yard dash and giving your competition a 40 yard head start.

- Be observant in class and try to figure out who really knows what is going on. Then, take them aside after a couple of weeks and ask them “you really seem to have good answers in class, how do you do it?” You can learn more about the process from good students than you can ever learn from a faculty member.

- Get excited about learning. The only people who benefit from this class are you, the students. If learning is not exciting to you, then you should change courses or get out of school (yeah, get out of school -- if learning is not fun, you shouldn't be here).  Making your mind better should be great fun - an experience that you cherish and value, one that will aid you for the rest of your life. It's the only brain you've got and it has to carry you through life - fill it up and it will serve you well. (Students sometimes complain about boring teachers – you should walk into class sometime and look out at 25 boring students. Now that is a horror. Don’t you be a boring student—get excited about learning.)

- Talk to the people who have been in my classes before (they are all over campus; they are easy to find) and ask them what the secret to success really is. If you can find a person who made an A in one of my classes, that person knows the key. Get them to share it with you.

- Realize that everything we cover in this introductory class (every single thing) is already known to virtually every business person in the real world. Nothing we do here is busy work; in an introductory class, I just want you to come up to the knowledge level of the average business person on the street so you won't be "the dumb one."    If you want to know more than the average business person, take Intermediate Accounting – it is a wonderful course. But remember that if you don’t learn something in this class, when you enter the business world, you start with a real disadvantage – everyone else knows more than you do and that is not a good idea on the path to success.

- Forget shortcuts. They only work in high school. Plan to spend roughly 2 hours of study between each class. I don't mean 6 hours on Monday night or 12 hours right before a test; I mean about 2 legitimate hours between every class. When students do poorly in this class, it is almost always caused by a failure to put in the time on a consistent basis. I have a formula for getting good grades that I believe is true: HOURS EQUAL POINTS. I wish there was a magic pill that I could give you that would allow you to learn a lot without doing any work but I've just never found that magic pill. There are no steroids for the brain – there is only hard work. Spend 70 percent of your study time preparing for the upcoming class. Spend the other 30 percent reviewing the previous class and making sure you have the knowledge organized in your brain before you get too far away from it.

- Realize that I have high expectations for you and I will push you. My class is not necessarily like other classes. Don’t be rigid. Be willing and able to adapt. That is good advice in the real world and good advice in my class. That is one of the great things about people your age: you are willing to adapt. Students who tell me “well, my strategy for class worked well for me when I was in the 6th grade” simply are never going to be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. A sign at the Jimmy Johns deli up the street says: “If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you have a boss.” Not a bad thing to keep in mind when I am pushing you along.

- Read each chapter one time but not more than once. Read one page at a time and write down (in one or two sentences) the basic idea of that page. For the illustrations, be sure to walk through the numbers and see where each one comes from. That takes time but time is just going to be necessary. If you don't understand something clearly at first, don't assume that (a) you are stupid or (b) it is stupid. Work to figure it out. If it were easy, we wouldn't cover it in college. In all honesty, the “figuring it out” part is all the fun.

- The attitude that you bring to this class (or that you bring to life, for that matter) is a truly important ingredient in your success. Play a mental game with yourself. Don't start out assuming that the class will be a pain or that you will do poorly. Instead, assume that you are really looking forward to adding this knowledge to your brain and that you are going to do the work and actually enjoy the learning and that because you do the work, you are going to make an A. Much of success and happiness is just getting into the right mindset.

- Never miss class. I make sure each class covers what I want (and expect) you to learn. Missing class is like losing the road map. Almost no one does well who misses many classes.

- Come by my office early and often and ask questions (or send me an e-mail). I can frequently resolve your problems or confusions in just a few seconds where you may waste hours trying to figure out a problem for yourself. Make good use of my office hours - I am here for your benefit. Even if I seem busy, I do not mind working with you at all. One of the things I have noted over the years: the A and B students come by often whereas the D and F students come by hardly at all (wouldn’t you expect it to be the other way around?)

- Realize that I do want you to do well. I want you to learn the material so that you can go out in the real world and compete with the sharks. Thus, if I beat on you, it is only because I want you to work hard and learn something of value.

- Don't build up excuses: "I'm not good at numbers." "I don't do well in hard classes." "I don't understand business." You are simply giving yourself permission to get a poor grade. Once you have permission, it becomes acceptable to you. I don't know of any talent or skill (other than hard work) that is really necessary for this class.

- Don't assume that because you have a certain average in school that you will maintain that in this class. Some students who have high GPAs just assume that they will get a good grade in this course. Likewise, some students believe, because they have low GPAs, that they are destined for C's. If you will put out the energy, everyone can get an A. Everyone!!!!