Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Teaching Is Often Like Being a Gardener

Recently, I have had several people ask me if I would send them an email when I post a new entry here on my teaching blog.  I am more than happy to do that.   If you send your email address to Jhoyle@richmond.edu, I’ll drop you a note whenever a new entry goes up.   I will not sell your email addresses or send out spam.   You will only get an occasional note that I have added more of my thoughts to this teaching blog.

Many years ago I was called to serve on jury duty.   For an entire week, I hung out around the courthouse trying to stay awake.  I was bored to death and felt like the experience was the ultimate waste of time.  

At the end of that long miserable week, the judge called us in to dismiss the group.   He took a few minutes to describe all of the many things that the court had managed to accomplish during the week and it was amazing.   As I remember it, hundreds of cases had been settled while we, as the potential jury, waited to serve.   He thanked us and told us that the court system only worked effectively because we were present and available to hear cases.   After he finished, I think every one of us realized that we had served an important purpose.   By his speech, the judge had given us a very positive sense of accomplishment.   I cannot speak for the rest of that group but the week no longer seemed like a waste of my time.   I was glad that I could help.

I sense that students often view most high school and college classes as nothing more than busy work to be endured.   From the start, they seem skeptical.  Other than passing a test, they are unsure of the benefits.   They have no sense of accomplishment.   They cram the information into their heads so they can regurgitate it on periodic examinations (a process sometimes referred to as “bulimic learning”).  They do what they are told – not for any thrill of learning -- but only because the teacher hands out the orders.  

It is obviously easier to put in a first rate effort if you believe that progress is being made, that the work is worth the effort.  That is human nature.   Consequently, after the first class of the semester and then again after the first week or so of my classes, I like to send out an email to my students to describe what the class had managed to accomplish in such a short period of time.   The students are often amazed.   Learning and knowledge can sneak up on you while you are not looking.    I want my students to have pride in what they do, to feel good about the understanding they are gaining.   I want the experience to be worthwhile to them.   I ask for a lot of work from them.   It is easier for them to do that work when there is a clear payoff.

I want my students to feel great about the class and great about themselves.   I try to plant that seed as often as possible and I make sure to start early.

Here is an email that I sent out to my Financial Accounting students this past Saturday after the first week of classes.   We had been together a total of only 150 minutes at that point but I wanted them to start realizing how much knowledge this class has to offer.   I hoped that they would realize that their work was already paying off.   They HAD accomplished a lot in just one week.

I understand that many of you do not teach financial accounting so, as you read my email, you’ll have to think about what you might put in a similar note to students to get the pumped up early in the semester about the class experience.

To My Students

“I thought our first week together went great.   You came to class prepared.  You were willing to participate.   That’s what I want.  

“Most people come in to this class with an entirely incorrect view of accounting.   They believe it is mostly about making dull mathematical calculations that have no particular purpose, especially to them.   I wanted to start this semester by showing you a completely different view of financial accounting.  It is all about communicating monetary and objective information so that outside decision-makers can predict stock prices, cash dividends, and cash flows.   We never guarantee success but a good knowledge of financial accounting can truly increase your chances for success.   That’s a worthy goal.

“This should be important to you because you will soon be decision-makers.   You will buy or sell the ownership shares (capital stock) of corporate organization.   Or, you will let a company buy on credit.   Or, you will choose which organization to work for after graduation.   You are looking to spot financially healthy organizations.    You can make those decisions by flipping a coin but people who are really successful let the available information guide their decision-making.  

“We talked this week about accounting as both a language and as a portrait because the ultimate goal is to provide a vision or a likeliness of an organization.  The result is not necessarily accurate or correct or exact because that is often impossible and people don’t really need (or expect) that degree of precision.  We also compared financial accounting to natural sciences like biology or physics where the goal is to learn how nature works.   In financial accounting, we have to follow people-made rules (US GAAP – created by FASB) that provide the underlying structure.   This structure is absolutely necessary to make sure that people all around the country (and the world) are speaking the same language and can understand the data that is communicated.   When that happens, we say the financial information is presented fairly which means that it does not contain any material misstatements according to US GAAP.   “Material” is something of a size or significance to change a decision-maker’s decision.   “Misstatement” is something that is wrong, either an error which is unintentional or fraud which is intentional.

“We can disagree (and lots of people do) with specific rules in US GAAP.  But in the US, you must still follow those rules.   US GAAP is the basis for financial communications.   However, over time, many of these rules will change as businesses evolve or as accountants simply change their minds about the appropriate rules that should be in place.

“I am pleased – that’s a lot of new information to absorb in such a short time period but I think you have done it.   Good for you.” 

I sometimes believe that the most important questions in teaching are the ones that we often ignore.   When is the last time that you asked yourself whether students have a sense of accomplishment in your class?   I think we would all agree that a sense of accomplishment is helpful for student work and retention.   So, how often do we set out to create that mindset?   In most cases, including my own, it is probably not often enough.  

Teaching is more than just the conveyance of knowledge.   Teaching is often like being a gardener who constantly works the soil, aerating and fertilizing and weeding, so that the crops grow strong and hearty.    One important aspect of this process is taking time to make sure your students really do feel a sense of pride in their own accomplishments.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


Greetings!!   I trust you are ready for a wonderful new school year.   At this time of the year, I always feel like I can leave my mistakes from the previous semester behind and start anew with refreshed hope and enthusiasm.  

To celebrate the new year, I wanted to discuss two words that I believe can make anyone a better classroom teacher.    Not immediately, but over the course of a semester or two.   I am not sure that anything works immediately.   Progress has to be slow and steady.


Word One

Back in August of 2014, I wrote a blog entry that mentioned the following article from The Chronicle of Higher Education.  

I just think the importance of confusing students cannot be over-emphasized and is worth a second look.

I define “lecturer” as someone who does 80 percent or more of the talking in class.    If you have read this blog over the past few years, you know that I was a lecturer for the first 20 years of my teaching career.   I eventually changed to the Socratic Method because I found lecturing to be frustrating.   One of my biggest irritations was that on those rare occasions when the lecture was especially clear, student learning would fall off.   I would explain some complicated topic and the students would all nod their heads in vigorous agreement and then they would fail my tests.   That just irritated me to death especially because I did not understand why.   That is the reason I am now bald.

In one paragraph, the article from the Chronicle explains why clarity does not work so well in education:

"It seems that, if you just present the correct information, five things happen," he said. "One, students think they know it. Two, they don’t pay their utmost attention. Three, they don’t recognize that what was presented differs from what they were already thinking. Four, they don’t learn a thing. And five, perhaps most troublingly, they get more confident in the ideas they were thinking before."

Confusion, within reasonable parameters, has the exact opposite effect on the students.   They realize they don’t know everything.   They start paying closer attention.   They start looking for differences between what they thought they knew and what is being discussed.   They start adding knowledge and understanding.   They begin to reject incorrect notions that they had previously held.  

Obviously, I don’t mean “unplanned confusion” where everyone winds up lost in the wilderness.   I mean “planned confusion” where you start attacking what the students thought they knew.    I tell my students that their knowledge is like Swiss cheese.   It looks solid to them but it is really full of holes and my role is to point out those holes so we can fill them.  

As a result, in my own classes, I have a common saying:   “I’m paid enough to ask you questions.   I’m not paid enough to give you any answers.”   That irritates the students because they are used to a system where clear conveyance of information has always been the goal.   But, from my vantage point, they learn a whole lot more and get better grades if I can get them confused.

Word One:   “Confusion” – as you get ready for the spring semester, don’t worry so much about being clear and understandable.   Plan some confusion.

Word Two

My Dean bought our faculty the book Make It Stick – The Science of Successful Learning.   I have not finished reading the book yet but one of their very strongest points is that learning is greatly enhanced by the process of retrieval.   The authors talk about this over and over.

I was so taken with the idea of retrieval that I sent the following note to my spring students along with several suggestions on how they could go about retrieving information on a regular basis.

“I have recently been reading a book titled Make It Stick – The Science of Successful Learning, by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel.   As you might imagine, I am always deeply interested in how to help people learn more effectively.   I have found this book to be very insightful.   One of the things the authors say frequently is that reading material over and over is not very helpful in getting it you’re your memory.  According to them, it is the retrieval of information that really solidifies learning.”

It is like exercise at a fitness center.   You put the information into your brain and then you pull it out and use it.   Then, you pull it out again and use it.   Every time you do this, the understanding becomes stronger.  

So, as I get into my planning for the spring semester, I am going to work on more ways to force/encourage my students to retrieve the information from their brains.   I am working on building that more into the class experience.   One of the questions I like to ask (which again often irritates the students – irritation is apparently one of my goals) is:   How did we answer this type of question just 48 hours ago – heck, that’s not so long ago, surely you remember how to figure this out.”  

Word Two:   “Retrieval.”  


When I talk with folks about teaching, they often seem to believe that massive changes would have to be made to get any improvement.   Nah, I don’t believe that.   I think if you focus on two simple words like “confusion” and “retrieval” for a semester you might be surprised by how much deeper the learning goes.