Monday, August 26, 2013

Teaching Mistakes -- Do Any Of These Apply to YOU?

Periodically, I list the entries on this blog that have gained the most readership over the years.   I am not always sure why these postings have become so popular but you might find a few of these thoughts to be especially interesting as you start a new school year.

(1) – What Do We Add? – July 22, 2010
(2) – Introduction – Teaching (Financial Accounting) – January 7, 2010
(3) – What Is the Purpose of a Final Exam – May 12, 2010
(4) – What the Catcher Tells the Pitcher – August 21, 2011
(5) – A Good Suggestion – June 1, 2013
(6) – What Is the Best Book You Ever Read – June 23, 2012
(7) – The Future Is Now? – August 13, 2012
(8) – How You Test Is How They Will Learn – January 31, 2010
(9) – A Note to My Students – January 15, 2012
(10) – We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us – May 22, 2012


I was hunting through some old materials this morning and found the following paragraphs that I had written a number of years ago.   It is a list of what I think are five big teaching mistakes.   You can see that I even count them down heading toward Number One.    I thought these thoughts might be helpful as colleges open their fall semesters across the country.   You might disagree with me completely but the thinking process and the debate are what I am seeking more than conversion.   Some of what I write (here on this blog and other places) seems to get stale with age.   But, I thought these words still apply just as well in 2013 as they did when I first wrote them.  


Mistake Number Five:   Overreliance on Power Point Slides.    I never use Power Point slides in my own classes but, if I did, I would make sure to ask a question on the student evaluations each year about whether students liked my usage or not.   I certainly understand how they can be very handy (especially since textbook publishers even create them for you) as a way of organizing material.   However, I think they send a message to students that you are simply going to read Power Point slides to them as they sit there in the semi-dark trying to stay awake.   Okay, I know that most teachers will say that they throw up the slides and then discuss the material but I have heard way too many students say “that lazy guy just reads Power Point slides to us that he didn’t even take the time to produce.”   The way you view the process and the way your students view it might be radically different.   Plus, I am not certain that it is easy to use Power Point slides to create active interaction with students.   If the slide provides the information, where is the conversation, where is student thinking?    My recommendation – just ask your students on their evaluations:   “Should the professor use Power Point slides more or less or the same amount as now?”   If a lot of students say “less,” I would pay serious attention to that advice.   If they say “more,” then go for it.

Mistake Number Four:   Failure to Engage Students with the Material.   College teachers often seem to have a belief that students bring an active curiosity and desire to learn with them to class.   If (when) that proves false, they appear to be mystified.    “Why do they take my class if they don’t want to learn the material?”    Well, they must take 30-40 courses to graduate so they have to sign up for something.   Over my four decades in this business, I have had a few students who walked in with an “I am dying to learn all about Intermediate Accounting” attitude.   But, a vast majority of them walk in with a neutral attitude; they need to be convinced that they are not wasting their time.   After spending 80 percent of their lives learning stuff like the state capitals, the periodic table, how to outline a sentence, and the Pythagorean theorem, many students have had the joy of learning mashed out of them before they get to you.

How do you engage students?   One possibility is to link the coverage to some personal benefit – how will their lives be better for knowing this material?   “Learn it because I say so” doesn’t hold too much power over the young people of today.   Or, show the student why you find the material interesting.   If you have read this blog for long, you know that I’m a huge proponent of trying to puzzle students.  Why is it done this way?  What does this accomplish?  Why was this action taken?   If you simply assume your students are truly curious about the Pythagorean theorem, you may be upset when they fall asleep in class or seem more interested in texting than in learning.

Mistake Number Three:   Writing Tests that Reward Memorization.    We all have heard that the purpose of college is to help develop critical thinking skills.   That is a great and worthy goal.   But students will learn based on how they expect to be tested.   If you base your tests on memorization (“name the four criteria for a capitalized lease”), you can forget about developing critical thinking skills.  If you want students to go beyond memorization, your tests have to go beyond memorization.   “If the US had not made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, what are possible impacts on the growth of slavery in this country?”   Okay, that may lead to an answer that is hard to grade but it allows students to demonstrate their understanding and thinking.   If they expect to be tested in a certain way, their learning will be directed in that same way.  Textbook publishers often provide test banks.   Those questions are primarily designed to test memorization.    You set the tone for your entire course by the way you test your students.   Work to write thoughtful questions and you will be surprised by how much more thoughtful your students will become.  

Mistake Number Two:   Most Teachers Talk Way Too Much.    Teachers get nervous during silences.   They feel uncomfortable.   Consequently, they rush in to fill up the quiet with words and words and more words.   The less the teacher talks and the more the students talk the better.   The teacher should guide the conversation and make sure everyone gets involved.   After that, the less said by the teacher the better.   However, that is hard to do.   The students would much prefer for you to do all the talking because then they can turn their brains off and just write down what you say.   Don’t let them play that game with you!   Push them to talk.   I use the Socratic Method so I just call on them in rapid fire fashion but you can push them to talk in many ways.   If you have read my Teaching Tips book at   you know that I believe in the 50-50 Rule.   That is the teacher should never do more than 50 percent of the talking.   Push your students to do their 50 percent.

Mistake Number One:   Failure to Force Students to Be Prepared for Class.   In my opinion, the single biggest factor in having a great class is the preparation level of the students.  If they are not prepared, what can they possibly add to the class?   They can just write down notes.   But, when they are well prepared, they can add ideas, suggestions, a different perspective, and the like.   A class with well-prepared students can be a true joy as the conversation and the thinking range throughout the topics under consideration.   To me, that is education at its very best.   That is why I became a teacher.   (Later comment:   this, of course, is now well-known as a “flipped classroom” – I should have made up a cute name for it when I first came up with the idea.)

How do you get students to prepare for class?   First, I think you have to be very specific as to what you want them to do.   Don’t just throw out vague assignments.    College students do not do vague very well.   They ignore vague.    Tell them exactly what you want them to do.   Second, make sure the subsequent class actually incorporates that assignment in some way so students do not feel like they were being asked to do busy work.   I remember being infuriated in college when I would spend hours on an assignment that was never mentioned by the teacher in any way.   I certainly did not make that same mistake twice.   Third, don’t hesitate to be confrontational if the assignment is not done to your satisfaction.   College students are adults.   If they had an assignment at a job and did not do it, they would face the wrath of the boss very quickly.   You don’t have to treat them like delicate flowers.   If you give an assignment that you use in class and students are not prepared, talk to them about the need for doing the work.   I never scream and yell at my students but I certainly let them know if I feel they have not upheld their half of the class work.   I often stop students as they leave class with “you did not seem prepared today and I fully expect better from you at our next class.” 

If you want to see an improvement in your teaching, pick one of these five and work on it for awhile.  Or, pick a different one that you think applies to you.   But you do have to make an effort to work on it.   Just contemplating mistakes doesn’t do you or your students any good.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Before I get started today, I want to send out a big Thank You to all the readers of this blog.   Several days ago, we went over 90,000 total pageviews.   When I first started writing these essays, I would have bet a gazillion dollars that I’d never get 5,000 pageviews.   And, I would not have gotten to even that lower mark without folks like you passing along good words about this site.   Thanks – I would have probably stopped writing years ago except that the traffic remains strong and actually seems to grow over time.   You provide the energy.   I continue to be convinced that people really do like to think and talk about teaching because it is both extremely important to our lives and our future and a whole lot of fun.


A new school year is starting.   For me, it will be my 43rd year in the classroom.   I have written before that I believe every teacher should consider the “teaching personality” that you want to have with your students.  This is a great time to reconsider that question.    Do you want to be a fiery pulpit pastor who inspires everyone to do better with their lives or do you want to be a kindly nurse who helps everyone get well?   Do you want to be a coach who pushes everyone toward a winning grade or Socrates who prods student thinking with careful questions?   Those are all legitimate teaching personalities but you probably cannot be all things to all students.    You have to choose.

I think contemplating the idea of a teaching personality is important because, without one, it is easy to simply become a mechanical conveyor of information.   Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492.   Raleigh is the capital of North Carolina.   There’s nothing too exciting about that.   It doesn’t even sound terribly important.   I would argue that many teachers let themselves fall into a classroom role that really doesn’t seem important.   They then wonder why students aren’t inclined to do what they ask.   Maybe it is not the students’ fault but the personality you are projecting.

As I have mentioned previously, I was out in Anaheim, California, a few weeks ago at the American Accounting Association annual meeting.   I was sitting at a table one morning with several excellent teachers and this question of “who are you in the classroom?” came up.    It was an interesting conversation because several people knew right away their personality model while others seemed mystified by the question.

Historically, I have given one answer to that question but on that morning I gave a different answer.   People are entitled to change/evolve over time.   My comment was that I viewed myself as “half drill sergeant” because I push each of my students almost unmercifully to succeed.   In the military, the drill sergeant is in charge of turning weak civilians into strong soldiers who can survive in combat.   That requires the sergeant to get in their faces and drive them to go beyond what they ever thought they could accomplish.   My goal is to turn students (who come to me knowing little or nothing about accounting) into people who can go out into the business world and be successful.   I don’t want half of them to reach that goal.   I want them all to make it through.   During the semester, that drive is on my mind all of the time.   I feel, in a nutshell, that my responsibility as a college teacher is to push my students to succeed in learning and understanding.  

However, I also view myself as “half cheerleader.”   Yes, I demand great things from my students but I also try to help them believe in themselves and their ability to succeed.   I am not out to crush their spirits.   I want to drive them but I also want to encourage them and show them how to succeed.

Drill sergeant.

Only speaking for myself, I would not want to be one without the other.   Being only a drill sergeant seems almost sadistic.   Being only a cheerleader seems almost useless.   But, if I can successful merge those two personalities, I can push everyone forward.   I don’t care if the students like me or not (I have enough friends).   I do care, though, if they do not make the progress that I think they are capable of making.    Some need more drill sergeant.   Some need more cheerleader.   My goal is to figure out what I can do to help each of them learn and understand and make use of the information we cover.

However, keep in mind:   That is my teaching personality.   It works for me.   You are a different person.   Your goal should never be to become me.   Your goal should be to become the kind of teacher that YOU want to be.  

So, before the 2013-2014 school year gets started in a few days, think about the teaching personality that you want.   What do you want to accomplish and what type of personality is most likely to get you there?

Who are you as a teacher?

Friday, August 9, 2013


I try to write all of these blog essays myself.  However, a good friend of mine, James Lang at Assumption College, has just published a new book (Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty) that I think is excellent and innovative and I wanted to recommend that you consider reading it.   (Here, in the name of full disclosure, I will admit that he includes a couple of pages on my approach to teaching but that is only a very small part of the book.)

On his own blog, Jim posted the following description of the book.   I thought he did a great job of explaining what he had done.   So, I am simply including his words directly.   If you are looking for a thoughtful book on teaching and education, I think this is a great choice.


By James Lang:

Just around two years ago, the editor of my last book with Harvard University Press told me that she had been to a conference about teaching in higher education and heard a lot of discussion about the problem of cheating on campus. Everyone was looking for solutions. She wondered whether I might have an interest in tackling the problem in a book for the Press.

I wasn't sure how I felt about it, but you don't get too many offers like this as a writer, so I agreed to think about it. She drove out to Worcester and we had a lovely lunch together at the Sole Proprietor, my favorite seafood restaurant. By the end of the conversation, I was convinced enough to at least do some reading and put together a proposal. I went to the local public library, checked out three books on cheating, and brought them with me on vacation that following week.

After reading them, I had some vague ideas about how I might like to approach the problem, and the book, and so I put together a proposal, which the Press accepted. As I then really dug into the research on cheating over the next few months, I began to see things differently. The more I tried to understand why students were cheating, the more I became convinced that the problem of cheating revealed some fundamental flaws in the ways we structured and taught courses in higher education. I abandoned the structure of my initial proposal and struck out in an entirely new direction.

By the spring of 2012, I had settled on my approach to the issue, which was to argue that research on human learning and research on cheating were both pointing us in the same direction in terms of how we should be designing and teaching our courses, and so the heart of the book became an argument about how we can learn from academic dishonesty how to build better learning environments. Christopher Hager, a Trinity College professor who read an advanced copy, captured this well with his very kind blurb for the book: "James Lang has written a smart, original, well-researched guide to 'building better learning environments' framed as a guide to avoiding academic dishonesty."

The heart of the book, then, is essentially an argument for how we can teach our students more effectively--and, in doing so, reduce their incentive and opportunity to cheat. Around that basic argument are two shorter sections: first, a brief tour through the history of cheating, both in higher education and beyond, as well as an overview of the statistics on cheating in higher education today; and, in the final part of the book, some arguments about how and why we should tackle the problem of cheating from the broader campus perspective.

So if you have any interest whatsoever in the question of why students cheat, or how they do it, or what to do about it, you should buy this book! But I hope the book will appeal to all teachers, even those who teach at the secondary and elementary levels, as it also reviews recent research in learning theory and uses that material to make the case for how we should be building learning environments for all of our students. Finally, if you are interested more broadly in the present and future state of higher education, I hope and think you will find the book of interest, as it explores how the root causes of cheating may extend deeply into the structure and nature of the way we do business on campus.

In any case, that's the story of
Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty.


The book is available on Amazon through a search of the title.