Sunday, February 23, 2014



Professional photographers sometimes talk about the “decisive moment.”   It is that one essential point in time when the photo needs to be taken to capture the true essence of the events that are taking place and the people that are involved.   

I strongly believe that there are decisive moments in teaching and learning.   If you make the most of those decisive moments, the students can learn much and learn deeply.   If you miss those moments, learning becomes more of a superficial affair.

One such moment is immediately after the first test of the semester.   It is still early.   There is still plenty of time to make great things happen.   However, the students are all unsure as to whether they are doing enough to satisfy the teacher’s expectations. 

If the first test is complex without being unfair, the teacher will have caught the students’ attention.   “This is the kind of learning that I want from you.”   Making that clear is so very important.   Make sure the students know what you are looking for from them.

Students, though, are often confused.   They have had dozens of teachers over the years who taught in a variety of ways and with a wide range of expectations.   They will not necessarily respond to the first test as you want.   Some, for example, might be overwhelmed and have the tendency to simply give up.   Others may cast around aimlessly trying to figure out what they should be doing differently.   They need GUIDANCE.   That is where a teacher can create miracles.   Provide that guidance.

In my Financial Accounting class, I gave my first test last week.   Roughly half the students made an A or B with the rest making lower grades.   Obviously, it was the lower half that I wanted to address.   I didn’t want to lose them or discourage them.   I just wanted to guide them so they could do better.

I wrote them the following email.


To: Accounting 201 Students

From: JH

You will get your first test back today. As is always the case, some people will be happy/thrilled/excited. Some people will be less than happy.

If you are unhappy, the question you should ask of yourself is “what should I do differently?”

I’m not sure what happens to smart students in high school but they often arrive in my class believing there are short cuts to learning, tricks that enable good grades to be made with less effort. Nah, I think that is a fairy story.

Here are some things that you might consider. I know these will not all apply to everyone but a few of these might apply to you.

1 – Procrastination is the biggest enemy you have. Students (humans) put off work until the last possible moment and then hurry through the work in a rushed manner. Then, the work is not high quality. Don’t procrastinate on your class preparation. Do it as early as possible and take the time to do it right. This would be my number one recommendation (and probably my number two and three recommendation also). I occasionally walk around the room before class and notice your notes. It is surprising how often a student will have a list of our questions sitting there followed by one or two words. To myself I think, this is a student who is preparing like he really wants to make a D. Jotting down a couple of words is not preparation. Make a conscious decision to become the best prepared student in class.

2 – Read the book. Few students actually read the book. They might skim the book looking for answers to a question but they never sit down and read the book so they miss the entire thought process. Each chapter will take 60-90 minutes. The chapters are written to open the world of business to you. You should find a comfortable chair each week and actually have the self-discipline to read the chapter. You are not looking for random answers. You are looking to understand the material. That comes from actual reading and not just random skimming.

3 – Watch the opening video for the chapter and the closing video. I made those to point you toward what is really important. That will save you time and help you focus on the big stuff.

4 – I send out problems on a regular basis and put answers on my door (and occasionally make a video). You should work those immediately and, if you don’t understand the answer, come see me as soon as possible. Missing a question and then not seeking a better understanding is the kiss of death at test time.

5 – One of my top junior students comes to my office three times each week with a list of questions. Those questions come from class, from the reading, from the homework. She never leaves the office until she is comfortable that she understands. She is a tenacious student which is my favorite kind. Is it a coincidence that she is also one of the top students? Of course not. She should be your role model.

6 – I have suggested that you study together, especially in the 30 minutes or so before class. I occasionally watch those dynamics. Often, it is one student talking and the other 8 students writing down what that student says. That is not studying together. That is a waste of time (except for the one student talking). Studying is when everyone exchanges ideas and thoughts. Be very careful. It is easy to think “I sat with those other students for 30 minutes studying.” Were you really studying or just taking notes of what someone else said?

7 – I am a big believer that life is simply a game of trial and error. You’ve had a test. A pretty good percentage of the class did quite well. If you did not do so well, what did they do that you did not? You are not a robot. You can change. Make adjustments. You have plenty of time to make an A in this course but you have to learn from this first test.

Just a final note. Reading this list and doing these things are two different things. Pick a few and do them.

Thursday, February 13, 2014


As I sit here working on this blog entry, the view out my window looks like a scene from the movie Doctor Zhivago. Hope it is warm and sunny wherever you are today.
I gave my first introductory accounting exam yesterday (before the snow storm). Send me an email at if you would like a copy. I am not a fan of test banks but I do think professors should exchange their tests just to get ideas for what might work. One of my favorite blog entries is from January 31, 2010: “How You Test Is How They Will Learn.”

Anyone who has read this blog for long already knows that I am not a fanatical user of modern technology. I have never once used Power Point in a class. Never. I do not allow computers to be open during class (too much temptation to play games or text message). I am more interested in what students can do with their minds than I am in what they can do with a computer.

However, I do make extensive use of email. I am sure that some of my students would say that I am an obsessive user of email. I believe in a lot of honest and open communication between teachers and students. I must average over one email per day for the entire semester. There are just a lot of things that I think students need to be thinking about outside of class.

As I have discussed before in this blog, I also produce audio files for my financial accounting course to help those students who are more audio learners. They are able to listen to a series of questions and answers that guide them through the material in each chapter.

Plus, my Financial Accounting textbook (written with C. J. Skender of UNC) has 68 videos that I made that approach the material from various directions.

So, I do use some technology despite my claims to avoid technology. I like to think that I pick and choose what I use based on what I am trying to accomplish. I have long admired the work of the Kahn Academy and their scratchy homemade looking presentations that students can study outside (and sometimes inside) of class.

Last week, one of our technology gurus here at the University of Richmond told me about a new app for my iPad called “Explain Everything” that cost $2.99. I downloaded it and he gave me a 15 to 20 minute lesson. Even with my limited knowledge of technology, I picked up the basics relatively quickly. One thing for sure: the more you practice with this app, the better you get at the process.

I am not yet exactly sure how I am going to use “Explain Everything” but I am certainly going to try to use it. I can see real benefits. For my first efforts, I used it after a couple of classes to help my students better understand what we had covered in class. Students often leave class with a loose, vague understanding of the material. They need some efficient way to help them solidify that knowledge in their heads. To me, how that time after class is used is often the difference in real understanding and disorganized knowledge. I think this type of presentation can help.

In the future, I am also going to use it occasionally before class to help students be better prepared. I wonder, for example, if a class will go better if I provide a 5 minute “preview of our upcoming class” the day before. Maybe yes, maybe no. But I’d like to see.

I honestly do not know how this app will work but I want to practice and see. So far I have invested $2.99 and 15 minutes of time on one lesson.

Here are two presentations that I made for my students right before our first test. I picked out end of chapter material from the textbook that we had not discussed in class and simply walked them through the answers. I am trying to take out some of the mystery.

I apologize for the primitive look of some of this but I am learning through practice and still have a long way to go. “Explain Everything” seems to have an infinite number of tools that you can play with.

And, here is an entirely different type of presentation that I did just to learn more about the available tools.

Try it. I think you might well find it quite helpful.