Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Time to Think Differently

One of the great benefits of teaching is that the summer is available.   We can do research and writing.  Or, we can work to improve our teaching.   “How can my next class be better than my last class?” is a great question to ponder during the summer break.   You have had a couple of months of break – how often have you addressed that question?  

I am a strong proponent that everyone needs to learn to think differently about the challenges they face.   If you think like everyone else, you will wind up being average by definition.   In my book Don’t Just Dream about Success:   Stack the Odds in Your Favor, I devote an entire chapter to the challenge of learning to “Think Differently.”   Here is just one of the suggestions that I put forward in that book:

“’How could this have been improved?’ is a great question to consider throughout your daily wanderings.   It stimulates critical thinking.   Let your mind expand to consider the widest possible range of answers.   Except for the Ten Commandments, nothing in life is really carved in stone.   Almost any service, product, or arrangement can be helped by a bit of innovative questioning.   I have no proof, but I suspect that the employees at Apple, Google, and Amazon spend more time seeking out better questions and fewer hours defending the status quo.”

“Defending the status quo” – in most operations, there is too little time spent thinking differently and way too much time spent defending the status quo.   I think that is true for teaching just as it is for many other things in life.

So, recently, I was thrilled to read the book Think like a Freak by Levitt and Dubner who had previously written Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics.    I won’t try to boil down Think like a Freak into a few sentences but the authors argue (as I do in my book) that we are too quick to accept the status quo without question.   They stress asking better and better questions and then analyzing all available data to figure out the actual results and what caused them.   They write about taking traditional thinking apart—piece by piece—so that innovative alternatives can be tested.   All of that seems to be inherently obvious but it is very easy to accept “traditional wisdom” and be accepting of the status quo even when the end results are not as hoped.   Is your teaching being saddled by the traditional wisdom and the status quo?   In their book, these authors had two words that I liked especially:   “experiment endlessly.”  

When is the last time, you seriously experimented with your class organization and structure?

I liked Think Like a Freak so much that I wanted to share its wisdom with my students.   I believed they could learn something of value that might carry over into the fall semester and make them better students.   Here was the question I needed to address:    How could I encourage my students to read this book during summer break?   The writing style is lively and fun and the topics (how can a person break the world record for eating hot dogs?) are amusing and insightful.  But students are not inclined to read a serious book during their vacation time.

I wrote my junior students for the fall and told them about the book and why I had liked it.    I figured that would get their attention.   Then, I told them that I would give each person who read the book over the summer 2 ½ extra points on our first test in the fall (out of three tests and a final exam) if they had read the book by that time.   Therefore, they weren’t reading the book for fun.   They were reading the book to earn extra credit on the first test in a difficult course.   That provides motivation.   That is enough points to be helpful to their grade but not enough points to guarantee too much of an improvement.  

Since that time, I have heard from approximately 1/4 of the students who talked about reading the book and how much they were enjoying thinking about thinking.   Here’s a note I got yesterday:

I have been reading the Think Like a Freak book that you had recommended, and this has surely helped me view general problems (even personal ones) differently. I really believe that by the end of the book, I will be able to think through problems more efficiently, and hopefully use it toward the accounting problems this fall. 

Is that kind of insight worth 2 ½ points on one test?  I certainly think so.   Reading is always good for people.   I think this particular reading can be especially helpful to the students which might make them more successful (and my life somewhat easier) in the fall.  I am more than happy to give up those 2 ½ points for that potential benefit.

What are the lessons that I think can be learned from this particular experiment?

--Never stop trying to get your students to do things that improve their chances of reaching your goals for them.   Do not feel confined to the few months that make up a semester.   Many of these students are working hard for me, well before the semester even begins.

--College students need a little push.   They are human beings.   They have a lot of things that need to get done in their lives.   If you ask them to do something without a reward, it probably will never get done.   We all know that.   They are too busy or get distracted and, pretty soon, the time has passed and the opportunity is lost.   Give them a push. 

--Even a small amount of motivation can get good results.    For 2 ½ points on one test, a number of them will read a book that might change their entire way of thinking.   You do not have to give away the bank to get students to do work.   But, it is extremely helpful to have a specific reward system in order to provide a justification for doing the work requested.   It does not have to be much but it does need to be some.

Okay, that is one way I thought differently about the upcoming semester.   What about you?   What kind of innovations have you considered?   What kind of experiments might help your students to work harder and learn more?   That is one of the benefits of summer—you have time to come up with a great answer.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Letting My Students Know What I Want From Them

On Tuesday (July 15) at 11:00 a.m. I will be hosting a 35 minute webinar on “The Flipped Classroom.”   I am doing this program in connection with my Financial Accounting textbook (coauthored with C. J. Skender of UNC).   However, I hope to keep the textbook marketing down to a bare minimum because I really am interested in talking about the flipped classroom.

I would love for you to join me if you can.   You can register in advance at:


Below is an email that I sent out this evening to all of my students for the upcoming fall semester.   I am trying to plant a seed in their minds about what I want from them in the fall.   I always believe that a semester goes better if the students know before they ever meet you what you want from them.   They don’t have to waste important classroom time trying to figure out what you value.   As you can see, I just tell them.


To:   My Accounting Students for the Fall Semester

From:    JH

For a number of years now, I have maintained a teaching blog on the Internet where I discuss my teaching and classes and whatever else is on my mind about my students and my job.   I’ve had over 115,000 page views over the years so a lot of people have read about my teaching of accounting here at the University of Richmond.  

This evening, I was doing some work in my files and uncovered a posting that I had written for that blog on July 9, 2010—almost exactly four years ago today.   As I read the post, I immediately realized that this was an excellent idea but that I had not been following my own advice.   I sent out the note in the summer of 2010 but had not done so since that time.   (Sometimes it is easier to give advice than it is to follow it.)  

I thought it was good advice in 2010.   I think it is still good advice in 2014.   (I hope all the students in-between were not harmed too badly by my failure to send out a note like this one.)

Five Great Characteristics (blog entry, July 9, 2010)

I am not sure that any student knows what a professor really wants from them.   My guess is that if you sent a note to your students for the upcoming fall semester and simply asked—what do you think I want from the students in this class—you’d get some simplistic answers like “learn the material” or “pass the tests.”  

Is that really what you want?   It sounds so dull.   No wonder students find education boring.   No wonder they often put out less than an excellent effort.

If that is not what you want from the students in your class, why not tell them?   First, you’ll shock them by your honesty.   Second, you’ll take an immediate step toward having them think differently about your class.   You might even move them closer to what you really want.  

I had a very interesting class last spring.   Okay, I didn’t have that many A students but the class was just very lively and really got into learning about accounting.   I looked forward to working with them and I think everyone got a lot out of the class.  

I wanted to encourage my upcoming fall class to be just as lively.  Maybe it had never occurred to them.   So, I sat down a few weeks ago and tried to figure out what characteristics I really wanted from my students.    As a result, I sent the following short note to all of the students who have signed up for my fall class.

“I had a great class last semester.   It was a lot of fun.   The students were active, engaged, curious, questioning, and thoughtful.   When you have students like that, it is unbelievable the amount that can be accomplished in a class.   My wish for you and the upcoming semester is that you’ll wind up demonstrating those same five characteristics.”


If you could get a class that demonstrated those five characteristics, wouldn’t you be able to accomplish an almost unlimited amount?   Notice that I did not include “smart.”   It is nice to have smart students because it makes the job easy but if teaching is really what you want to do in this life, aren’t you better off to have active, engaged, curious, questioning, and thoughtful students than smart ones?   Smart students probably don’t really need you.

Why did I tell these five characteristics to my new students?   Simple—I wanted them to know walking in the door on the first day that I wanted to them be alive and use their brains.   I don’t want them to sit there and mindlessly take notes.   I want them to know that I have different expectations.   I want them to get excited about their own education because if they get excited, there is no end to what they can accomplish.  

I wanted them to know what I wanted even before they had ever met me.

Okay, if you can send emails to your fall students, why not think of the characteristics that you would like for them to display in your class?   Then, provide them with that list.   It should be no secret.  

You may want characteristics that are totally different from mine.   That is fine.   But, if you really want your students to demonstrate those characteristics, give them a head start.   Just tell them.