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.

Saturday, September 1, 2012


We completed our first week of school yesterday.

I always believe that this is an important juncture. Is the class going to fall into a lethargic mediocrity or begin to take off? We only have about 14 weeks. If we are going to have something great, we need to start building on that almost immediately. If you begin to lose student enthusiasm, you may never get it back.

So, this morning, I wrote my students a note to make sure they each understand what it takes to be good in my class. The goal is not to cram the night before the test. The goal is to understand the material today so that you can answer more questions tomorrow. I’m hoping they’ll buy into that as a goal worth taking seriously.

Here’s the note that I wrote to my students in Intermediate Accounting II.

“I thought we had an excellent first week. That’s what I want and that’s what I want every day and every week. Success is never earned by an occasional good day of work. I want you to be consistently excellent.

“I have three pieces of advice now that you have gotten a feel for this course.

“First, I hope you see that what we are doing every day is helping you to see how to think about and answer new situations, problems, and questions. In that way, when you get to each test, you will have already been trained in analyzing and answering questions. You should be ready for whatever I throw at you. To do this, it is essential that you spend an adequate amount of time preparing for class. If you are not spending 60-90 minutes preparing for every class, you are probably shooting for a C. That’s just a fact. Put a clock on it and see how much time you are devoting.

“Second, when I ask a question on Friday, I expect you to know what we did in class on the previous Wednesday. We are constantly adding to what we have learned so I have to make the assumption that you know what has been covered. When, I ask in class on Friday ‘how did we answer this type of question on Wednesday?’ and I get blank stares, that is not a good sign. That’s not what I want or expect. Therefore, after every class, spend 20-40 minutes going back over and organizing the material from the previous class. We’ll never get anywhere if we are constantly having to relearn the material.

“Third, you should always be looking for connections. Everything is tied together. I realize that this is different from what you are used to in school but you are bright folks and you are capable of making those connections. You are just a few months away from working in the real world. Consequently, you don’t need a ‘copy and memorize’ course. You need a ‘think about this and figure it out’ course. When we determine, ‘a loan is shown as a noncurrent liability if it has been refinanced (zero chance of paying a current asset) or if the company has obtained a noncancellable agreement to refinance (zero chance of paying a current asset)’ and then I ask ‘What is the precedent we can take from this rule so that we can use it when we are deciding whether any other liability should be reported as current or noncurrent?’ I believe you can make that connection and figure out the answer. The connection is there -- pointing the way for you.

“Okay, it’s easy to bail out and say ‘you haven’t told me so I don’t know.’ Baloney, you can figure it out.

“This is not an intro course. It is a very very very difficult course. However, I believe that every one of you folks has the ability to make an A. Why then do I usually have only 18-20 percent of the students earn A’s. That’s easy to answer: Most students do not spend 60-90 minutes preparing for EVERY class and 20-40 minutes reviewing after EVERY class. Therefore, they never really learn to analyze and make connections and answer questions. But that’s a talent truly worth having.

“I am not na├»ve. I do realize that this course can be hard. Your attitude toward that degree of challenge is important. It is easy to give up. But, to quote Tom Hanks: ‘It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.’

“It’s the hard that makes it great. I couldn’t have said that better myself.

“In fact, go watch Tom say those exact words:”