Tuesday, February 24, 2015


I would like to invite everyone to attend the Southeast Regional meeting of the American Accounting Association in beautiful Asheville, North Carolina, (near where I grew up) on April 16 to April 18.   At the meeting, I will be leading a panel discussion on the topic of “Becoming a More Effective Classroom Teacher.”   In fact, if you have any questions that you think we should discuss, drop me a note at Jhoyle@richmond.edu.

Here is the original proposal that was submitted for this panel to give you an idea of the thought behind our discussion.

In “What It Takes to Be Great,” in the October 30, 2006, issue of Fortune magazine, author Geoffrey Colvin makes the following assertion.   “In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly, and then stop developing completely.   Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness.”   In What the Best College Teachers Do, published in 2004 by Harvard University Press, author Ken Bain makes the following assertion.   “Great teachers emerge, they touch the lives of their students, and perhaps only through some of these students do they have any influence on the broad art of teaching.  For the most part, their insights die with them, and subsequent generations must discover anew the wisdom that drove their practices.”

If accepted, this panel will discuss the many assorted problems and challenges that experienced teachers must address in order to continue improving throughout their careers and, hopefully, “go on to greatness.”   The panel will look at teaching from a practical perspective including questions such as the following.  
--How does a teacher get students to prepare for class?  
--How does a teacher test in order to emphasis the development of critical thinking skills?  
--How does a teacher encourage all students to be engaged and interactive during class sessions?  
--How does a teacher stress thinking rather than memorization?

The panel is expected to include Lynn Clements (Florida Southern College), Scott Showalter (North Carolina State University), Eric Bostwick (University of West Florida), and Joe Hoyle (University of Richmond).  This group has decades of classroom experience, a wealth of knowledge that (according to Ken Bain) should be shared with other teachers.   What strategies have each of these teachers used over those years that have worked so very well?  What can other teachers learn that will help them to continue their own improvement?

I hope as many people as possible will join us and participate as we chat about teaching on the day to day level.   One of my long-term beliefs is that we don't have enough conversations about the challenges each of us face each day as a classroom teacher.   

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Prior to today, this blog has had 204 entries.   Over the years, the site has had over 134,500 page views (or roughly 650 views of each of those entries).   As always, thanks to everyone who passes along this link to other teachers who are interested in thinking more deeply about the day to day rewards and challenges of going into a classroom to help students develop and grow as human beings.   Thanks!!!

A few weeks ago my dean sent me a note containing a simple question:   Can anyone learn to become a great teacher?   Unfortunately, I did not have a great answer and did little more than ramble around in response.   It is a question that I have thought about often during the intervening weeks.   Is it possible for anyone to develop into a great teacher or is that goal only available to a chosen few?

What do you think?  If you have thoughts, I would love to hear them.

Let me start the conversation by asking a different question:   Can anyone learn to become a great coach in pro football?   In the NFL, great football coaches get paid millions.  It is truly an exciting profession.   You would think thousands of potential great candidates would be available.   And, yes, there are a few great coaches.   Both coaches in the Super Bowl this year probably qualify.   Bill Belichick of New England meets the definition as does Pete Carroll of Seattle.   They have been proven winners for a long time.   But there are not many other names that come leaping forward.  It is a big world and pro football is huge.   Yet I can come up with just two names of great coaches.   Several other people certainly qualify as good but the jump from good to great is always hard.   

In truth, it has to be difficult to get 50-60 individuals to play at close to maximum capacity over an entire season.   My guess is that guys like Belichick and Carroll probably spend close to 100 hours per week thinking about nothing other than how to maximize the potential of their teams.   And, even then, as Pete Carroll proved at the end of the Super Bowl, they can still do things that cause people to be critical.

Why are there not more great coaches?   I think it is especially difficult to be great when you are responsible for a whole group of people.   Every time you add another person to the mix, you increase the complexity of the process.   One person working by himself (or herself) can be great.   Bob Dylan, Pablo Picasso, Philip Roth, Maria Callas, Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare.   Yes, in each case, other people were involved with these folks but when things got truly serious they had to stretch themselves in order to succeed.   They didn’t have to stretch 55 other people.   Would Bob Dylan or Pablo Picasso have been great if they had been organizing and leading a large group of singers or artists?

Being a great football coach is tough.  But, is it easier to be a great teacher or a great football coach?

In some ways, it is easier to be a great football coach for one reason.   The teams keep score and everyone can agree on the winner.    The goal is simple and obvious.   And, there is only one goal.    No one seems to know exactly what the goal of a college teacher is.  More frustrating, no one seems to know how to measure whether a specific goal has been achieved.   Greatness is a very vague goal in teaching which is probably why few teachers seem to have great education as a primary goal when they enter the classroom each day.   Most coaches burn deeply to be great.   How many teachers have you met who really wanted to be great?

So, are there really any great teachers?   Maybe it is just a fantasy. 

I think a lot of teachers do a good (maybe great) job with the very best students.   That is an important role in college but, at some point, teaching brilliant students who are highly motivated provides a different type of challenge.  

I think a lot of people do a good (maybe great) job of teaching facts and figures.   Many people grew up in a system where memorization skills were highly valued and that priority flows through into their own teaching style.   Personally, in an era of Google and other Internet resources, I think education needs to be more than that.   But that is just my opinion.

I think a lot of people do a good (maybe great) job of entertaining students.   Such teachers are full of interesting and relevant stories.   That is fun and can be very informative but the emphasis is entirely on the story teller.   The student is merely a passive recipient of knowledge.  

I don’t really know if everyone can become a great teacher.   But I do believe that I know how some people might achieve that goal.

First, I think the teacher has to have clear cut objectives and those objectives have to be challenging.   If all Bill Belichick wanted to do was win the first game of the season, he would never become a great coach.   My guess is that he is a great coach because his one goal is to win the Super Bowl each year and everything he does is designed to achieve that goal.  

I have 77 students.   I want to push all 77 to go beyond what they thought they could do.   And, I want to do that every single day for the entire semester.  I am not out to teach 10 or 20 or 30.   I want to teach them all.   I want them all to learn how to work harder and think deeper.   I want to challenge each person to become better in some fundamental way over the course of the semester.   I know it sounds a bit odd but I want each student to be smarter at the end of the semester.  

Second, every action for the entire semester has to point toward your goal.   When Bill Belichick practices his team, my guess is that every minute is set up to push the team towards the championship.   I am in class with my students 150 minutes each week and every action is designed to help all 77 of them learn to work harder and think deeply.  

Third, students are rewarded for their work by grades and testing.   You cannot challenge people to leap tall buildings in a single bound and then give everyone an A whether they manage to make it or not.   If I want my students to work hard and think deeply, I have to test them in that way.   I cannot claim to teach the development of critical thinking skills and then test my students on memorization.   That simply will not work.  

Fourth, you cannot challenge students to be great and then not be available to help them when they need it.   It is not fair to go into class and tell students that you expect great things from them and then walk away and let them thrash around on their own.   You are the teacher; they are the students.   You have to hold office hours where you show students how to achieve what you want for them.   You have to answer emails that seek assistance.   My guess is that Bill Belichick and his assistants show players over and over exactly what they want from them.   They guide as well as push them.   You cannot challenge students if you are not willing to be there to help them grow into that role.

Fifth, I think you have to realize that most college students have already picked up bad habits before they arrive in your class.   That is not necessarily their fault.   They have been in the school systems for 13-16 years.    They honestly believe that an education means memorization and that cramming the night before each test is a good strategy.   Those techniques have always worked for them in the past.   In some ways, you almost have to break those habits before you can build new and improved ones.  I teach 20 year old students who have been in school since they were five.   For the most part, they are extremely well trained in a particular type of education.   “Highlighting” the textbook is one of their strongest skills (because all you need do is move a magic marker).   If you want students to think more deeply, you have to realize that this is likely a new request for them.   They probably cannot even comprehend what you want.   You will need patience and perseverance.   You will need to show them over and over.

Sixth, don’t get wrapped up in the reward system for teaching.    The complaints I hear from teachers are “no one around here cares about teaching,” “there is no reward or recognition for excellent teaching,” and “the administration only listens to the complainers.”   You should strive to be a great teacher (a) because you want to be a great teacher and (b) because your students deserve a great teacher.   If you must be rewarded or recognized in order to put in the effort, you probably will never get there.   Years later some students might realize how wonderful you were—how much you meant to them and their lives.   Other than that, you will probably never be properly recognized.   Do the work because it is important to you.   Don’t expect anyone else to notice.  

Can anyone become a great teacher?

Here is my real answer.   There are a few days when I think I am a great teacher.   There are other days when I am pretty awful.   No one is great every day.   The secret is to work to get better.   The real question should be:   Can anyone get better as a teacher?   And, I think the answer to that question is a resounding YES.   Forget about being great.   Work on becoming a better teacher.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Time to Get Better

If you have followed this blog for long, you know that one of my primary recommendations is that every teacher should work to get 5 percent better every year.   If all of us could manage to improve by just 5 percent during the next 12 months, imagine how much more effective our educational system would become.   I think 5 percent is a realistic goal.   It would not take radical change.   If every teacher truly pushed for a 5 percent improvement, our schools and students would benefit in unbelievable ways.

As we start each new year, I like to step back and think about how I might achieve my 5 percent improvement.   This is my 44th year as a college professor and I am no longer a young person.   However, if I am not willing to push myself to improve, then it is probably time for me to retire.   Because I really do not want to retire, I am actively working on my 5 percent.

Are you?

As I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, I have been reading Make It Stick – The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel.  I usually find that such books have some good ideas.  Not all will work for me but some should.   Here are a couple that I liked and have already tried this semester in my quest for 5 percent improvement.

(1) - As a coauthor of both an Advanced Accounting textbook (McGraw-Hill) and a Financial Accounting textbook (FlatWorld), I am always perturbed by how poorly students read textbooks.   Students often seem to go into a trance when they read a textbook and cannot recall even basic information.  Too often, reading turns into the mere marking of passages with a highlighter so that information can be found later if needed.   Such reading does not increase comprehension so it really fails to fulfill its purpose.   Students just note sentences that might prove to be important.  I want students to come into class already knowing something about what the book says.   

In Make It Stick, the authors recommend that students read a passage (a paragraph, perhaps, or a full page) and then look up and explain what they have just read.   This recall process helps to cement the material in the student’s mind and, of course, it forces the student to evaluate what is most important.   Finally, the recitation requires the student to organize the material in some logical way.   Retrieve, Evaluate, Organize.   Yeah, I bet that is helpful.   On page 30, the authors talk about a study that found that “the best results were from those spending about 60 percent of the study time in recitation.”  Read and then recite (or as I say "explain").

I told my students:   “Don’t read the chapters twice.   Read them just one time.   But after every page, look up and talk about what you have just read.   Pretend you are explaining the page to a friend who is in the class.   When you finish, go on to the next page.”   I don’t know how many of the students have followed the advice so far but I will bring up the idea again after our first test when some of them might be more open to the suggestion.

(2) – As I have written before, a lot of this book is about the importance of retrieving information to make understanding better.  They even quote Aristotle “exercise in repeatedly recalling a thing strengthens the memory.”   That makes sense.   I think we all understand that.  

For that reason, I have worked on two things this semester.   First, as often as I can, I walk back to my office right after class and send my students a quick question or problem that always begins “If you fully understood what we talked about in class today, you should be able to work the following problem right now” and then I set out a quick problem that I view as a grade A level question.   As I often do, I try to put it in some type of puzzle form to make it more intriguing to them.   I'm not testing their memory.   I include some check figures.   I want to challenge them to retrieve the information from class almost immediately just to organize and solidify their knowledge.  

Second, I have also returned to my CPA Review roots this semester.   I have suggested that students make 3-10 flashcards after every class.   A question is put on one side with a short answer on the other side that they can review over and over to provide a structured method for the mental retrieval exercise.   The authors of this book point out that students don’t know what they don’t know because they tend to overestimate their knowledge.   That is dangerous; that holds them back.   The flash cards give them a way to judge for themselves what they really do know and what they don’t know.

(3) – And finally, one of my favorite thoughts from this book (page 43):   “We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier; but the research shows the opposite:   when the mind has to work, learning sticks better.   The greater the effort to retrieve learning, provided that you succeed, the more that learning is strengthened by retrieval.”   This semester, I’ve tried to introduce complexity earlier in the process.   Historically, in my classes, the material gets harder and harder but only very gradually.   This semester I’ve tried to throw complexity at them earlier and then help them work their way through the issues.   I do not know, quite yet, whether this is a good idea or not but I like the way it feels.   I have clearly caught the students’ attention with some of the questions.   I guess the key point in the above quote is “provided that you succeed.”  


Will I reach my goal of 5 percent improvement in 2015?   I certainly hope so.   I would really hate to think I had reached a plateau where my teaching ability had stalled out.   I am not quite ready to retire.