Tuesday, December 31, 2013

TEACHING IN JUST TWO WORDS


 
I am delighted to report that last week this blog went over 100,000 page views since its inception.   That is certainly a dream come true for me.   Many thanks to everyone who has been kind enough over the years to mention this blog to all of the teachers around you.   As a new year begins, please continue to let people in the education profession know that I try to post my thoughts on teaching 2 or 3 times each month.   Thanks!!!

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About 10 days ago, I released my new book on Amazon:   Don’t Just Dream about Success:   Stack the Odds in Your Favor.   As the title clearly implies, I believe that everyone can become more successful more of the time by following certain tactics.   Proceeds from the sale of this book go to finance CPA review for FREE, the website (www.CPAreviewforFREE.com) where candidates can prepare to pass the CPA exam without having to spend a fortune.   I simply do not believe entrance into the accounting profession should be limited to people who can afford to spend $2,000-$3,000 for preparatory materials.   I am not trying to be a rebel or a missionary but I do not think barriers should be set up that basically keep out people who are poor.   For five years, we have been getting 500,000 hits per year on that site.   We need help in financing this project so I wrote this book for that purpose.

You can locate both the Kindle and paperback version of Don’t Just Dream about Success:   Stack the Odds in Your Favor by going to www.Amazon.com and doing a search for “Hoyle Success.”   The book is available for under $9.00.

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One quote that I discuss in my new Success book comes from the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi.   In that particular chapter of the Success book, I write about failures that arise because of our tendency to make things in life too complicated.   That is an attitude that can prevent us from achieving our most important goals.   Keeping things as simple as possible is usually the best strategy.  

Coach Lombardi said:  “Some people try to find things in this game that don't exist but football is only two things—blocking and tackling.”

So, in today's blog entry, as we are all looking forward to a brand new year, I want you to think about success in teaching (or whatever else you seek to accomplish during 2014) and try to narrow that success down to just two words.   Just two.  For once, let’s keep things truly simple.   Becoming a great teacher should be a simpler task for you.   As a new year starts, I think focusing the whole process of teaching on just two words might help us all get more comfortable with what it really takes to succeed. 

What would your answer be if I asked you to describe “Becoming a Better Teacher” in just two words?

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this question and quickly came up with dozens of possibilities.   Here are just three of the words that I considered at first.  They are all extremely important but I didn’t think they were the MOST important.

--Caring.   It is easy for teachers to get annoyed with students.   Students tend to be lazy and forgetful and seem to set terrible priorities.   Hang around the faculty lounge and you will hear so much fussing about students that you wonder why anyone teaches.   But, if you are going to teach well, you have to be able to look out at those faces and care about those people.   They cannot just be random and anonymous.   These are human beings who will be better off in life if you can help them learn and think.   You can make a difference in their futures.   Superficially, everyone seems lazy and dull.   But, get to know them and they are, for the most part, wonderful people.   If you are not happy with your teaching, one place to start is to ask yourself a tough question:   Do I really care enough for these students so that it makes a difference to me whether they learn or not.

--Time.   Every job, everywhere goes better with the investment of an adequate amount of time.   We live in an incredibly busy society.   Thousands of things seem to call for our attention and time.  Procrastination is not just a student problem – it affects us all.   I know you might not want to hear this but if you want to be a better teacher then spend more time at it.   Class preparation can take 5 minutes or 5 hours.   When I am busy, it is easy to seek shortcuts and magic pills and try to get by with 5 minutes.   I hate to disappoint you but there are no shortcuts or magic pills.   If you invest only a little time, don’t be surprised if class seems disorganized and the results appear trivial.   Add time to every teaching task and you will become a better teacher.

--Thinking.   Teaching often comes down to thinking versus memorization.   Students prefer memorization.   Teaching based on memorization is just easier.   I have long been convinced that the enormous amount of criticism that college education faces today goes back to one issue:   We tend to teach little other than memorization.   Of course, if you have read my blog for long, you know that I think this goes back to testing.   If you test memorization, students will memorize.  If you test critical thinking, students will work to become better thinkers.   Give open book tests or open notes tests and you will force yourself to get away from testing memorization.   That will make all the difference in the world. 

Okay, those are all great terms for teaching.   I would have been happy with any of those three.   But, in the end, I thought two other terms were really the most essential for me.   I realize you might disagree.   If so, please leave a comment below and provide your own two word answer to this question.

--Motivation.   I don’t know whether this is good or bad but I do believe that the best teachers are motivators.   In some way, they convince their students to do exactly what they want them to do.   As the old saying goes, some use carrots and some use sticks but most use both carrots and sticks depending upon the student and the situation.   Whether you have 5 students or 500 students, the issue is whether you can convince those students to do what you believe they need to do.   So, as a new year starts, ask yourself the following questions:   (1) do I honestly know what I want my students to do, (2) if they do what I want them to do, will they learn what I want them to learn, (3) how have I motivated my students in the past and how well has that strategy worked, and (4) as a new semester begins what adjustments should I make that might improve the motivational aspects of my teaching.   If you don’t attempt to motivate your students, then don’t be upset if they don’t do what you want them to do.

--Explain.   It is such a simple word.   But, in teaching, it is so important.   Students don’t know the subject.   It is not that they are stupid.   It is that they are uneducated.   You do know the subject.   You have to explain it to them.   Many times you have to explain it to them many times.   It is always going to seem clear to you because you have been thinking about the material for years if not decades.   To them, it is brand new.   I looked up the word “explain” at www.dictionary.com and the first definition was:   “to make plain or clear; render understandable or intelligible.”   Yes, that sounds to me a lot like excellent teaching.

If I boil teaching down to two words, for me they are "motivation" and "explain."   As I start teaching again in 2014, I am going to keep those two words more firmly in my mind.   When faced with the goal of “Becoming a Better Teacher,” what two words come to your mind?   Keep in simple.

Monday, December 2, 2013

CREATING A FINAL EXAMINATION


“Too often, we settle for dreams that merely scratch the surface of our abilities and then wonder why we are dissatisfied with the results.”

From the book:   Don’t Just Dream about Success:   Stack the Odds in Your Favor

By:   Joe Hoyle (to be published in January 2014)

 
Returning from Thanksgiving break, virtually all college teachers start looking forward to creating and then grading final exams.   It is a necessary part of the job but it is also an event that can impact the education of each student rather significantly.   Below is a rewritten version of a blog entry that I posted 3 ½ years ago.   I thought it made a good point back then.   I believe the same thing today.

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Why do you give a final exam to your students?
What do you hope to accomplish?
 
I have talked with many professors over the years and their strategies for final examinations vary greatly from one to the next.  Here are several typical strategies:
--It is a comprehensive three-hour examination on the material from the entire semester with a major grade component.    This seemed to be the strategy most of my teachers employed when I attended college back in the 60s.
--It is a one-hour test covering just the material since the last hourly exam with no added weight in comparison to other tests.
--It is basically ignored because the student’s work for the entire semester should be more important than what they can do on one day at the end of the semester.
--It is a little harder than a one-hour test but a student can only improve his or her grade; the final exam cannot hurt the course grade.

I do know that as I walk through our building during final exam week most students seem to leave well before the time limit is reached. I am not sure that many final exams are still three hours in length.

I have always been interested in the final exams that are given by some law school professors.  The entire grade for the semester is based on what the student can do on the final exam questions.  Nothing else counts.  The rationale is that, if you are going to be a lawyer, you need to be at your very best every day that you walk into court no matter what is thrown at you.  There can be no down days.

However, I am teaching 19-20 year old sophomores and juniors in college and not 25-30 year old law students.  I am afraid that I would have students facing nervous breakdowns if I put the entire grade for the semester on the final exam.

So, what are my goals for a final exam? Psychologically, what am I trying to accomplish?
---I want students to stay emotionally involved with my course all the way through the last day of the semester.  I am not interested in them quitting early.  Thus, the final exam has to count enough to make it worth their time to keep working.  In my classes, the final exam is roughly 35 percent of the overall course grade.  I have found that this is enough to keep them emotionally involved until the very end.
---I want students who do poorly on the first (and, even, second) test of the semester to have a chance to improve their grades.  If a student makes a C or a D (or an F) on the first test, it can be very disheartening.  It is easy to lose hope.  I do everything I can to keep them from giving up.  I like to be able to say “if you can show me that you can learn this material, you still have a lot of your grade left to earn on the comprehensive final examination.”  Nothing pleases me more than for a student to make a low C or a D on the first test and then come roaring back to make an A for the course.  That is hard to do unless the final examination has a pretty serious weight attached to it.
---Likewise, I don’t like students who do well on the first test to get complacent and think they have an A in the bag.  I want to be able to tell them:   “Good job on this first test but you need to realize that there is a lot of semester left and you need to keep up this level of work from beginning to end.”
---I want students to understand the material well enough that they can still answer questions from throughout the semester at the very end.  If we cover a topic in September, I think they should be able to answer a reasonable question on that topic in early December.  Because I want to stress understanding more than memorization, I don’t think that is too much to ask.

As a result, I do give a comprehensive final examination and I do grade it and that grade (for better or worse) counts roughly 35 percent of the overall course grade.  In my introductory financial accounting course, I want the first student to leave after 2 hours and the last student to finish at 3 hours. I like it when about half stay virtually the whole time.
 
For intermediate accounting, I want the first person to finish in three hours but everyone else is relatively close to being finished. The material in that course is so complicated that I don’t see how a final exam can take much less than three hours.

In writing the exam, I line up all the topics for the entire semester on a sheet of paper and pick one pretty much at random (deferred income tax assets, for example). I then ask myself—if one of my students is at a job in six-months and this topic is raised, what should I expect an A student to be able to remember after five minutes of review?  In all honesty, I would love to ask “what should I expect an A student to be able to remember immediately” but I don’t think that is realistic.  Students forget material quickly (even accounting). 42 years of teaching has shown me that students never remember quite as much as I might hope.

Based on the answer to the question of what I want them to remember in six months, I write a problem to test if they hold that level of knowledge.  I never want to ask an easy question because that proves nothing.   But, there is little reason to ask an impossibly hard question.   Writing a question that no one can answer will not provide me with any usable information.   
I estimate how long that first question will take the A student to answer and go back to my list and select another topic for another question.   When I have filled up my time allotment in this way, I quit.  

However, I then immediately construct an answer sheet.   I do not want to get to the final exam site and discover that a question cannot be answered because of missing information or that a typo is going to throw the students off track or that several questions are really easier than I had anticipated.   It is hard to fix a final exam once the test has been distributed.   The answer sheet is essential because it allows me to evaluate each question as well as the entire exam.   I cannot even guess how many mistakes over the years I have resolved in advance because I force myself to create an answer sheet.

Setting up the final exam in this way keeps the students (I hope) thinking about my course all the way until the end of the semester. I want accounting to be on their minds until the semester is completed.   And, it gives them a reasonable last chance to make up for any poor grades they might have earned during the semester.

What’s your philosophy? Why do you give a final exam?   How do you set it up?