Monday, July 27, 2015

Start Now to Build Interest

Final Invitation:   If you are attending the annual meeting of the American Accounting Association this summer in Chicago, I will be participating in two different panel presentations on teaching on Monday, August 10.  One is at 2 p.m. and the other is at 4 p.m.   I would love to have everyone there as several of us chat about the challenges of becoming a better classroom teacher.  I think both presentations will be great fun.   I will be around for the entire conference so don’t hesitate to grab me if you have a question or a suggestion.

Please send an email to if you would like for me to alert you whenever I post a new essay on this blog.

If you have read my blog over the years, you already know that I believe communication between teacher and student is one of the most important aspects of good teaching.   You can increase both student enthusiasm and comprehension by careful communication.   You can avoid unnecessary battles and you can get your students ready for the coming semester before they even see your face.

I want my students to be convinced before they walk in on the first day that my class is a serious one but one that has great rewards.   If students are not convinced of the rewards, it is hard for them to put in the work that is necessary for success.

Here is the bigger part of an email that I just sent to my 46 students who are signed up for my Introduction to Financial Accounting course in the fall.   (I left out here some mundane class information about textbooks and the like.)   Read what I wrote to my students (almost all of whom are sophomores along with a few freshmen).   What am I trying to accomplish?   Figure it out and then do something similar yourself.

July 27, 2015

To:   Accounting 201 Students (for Fall Semester)

From:   JH

Back on April 23, I emailed you (and, for those of you who added the class after that date, I have already forwarded you a copy of that initial email).   In that email, I indicated that I would start sending you information about the class around August 1.    Since our first class is just four weeks from today (and since I just arrived home from Alaska), this is probably a good time to get started.   I will email you a few more emails over the next couple of days to help get us all ready for 8/24.

My goal in these emails is simple.   I want you to walk into class on the first day with some interest and enthusiasm.   I ask relatively little from you:   3-5 hours of work each week outside of class, some interest, and some enthusiasm.   That’s it.  You do that and I’ll make sure you have an absolutely great semester.   On the last day of class (December 4), I want you to walk out of the classroom and say “I never knew I could think so deeply.   I never knew I could learn so much.   I never knew I could work so hard.   And, it really was fun.”   Nothing would please me more than for you to say that this is the best college class you’ve ever taken.   If we work together, that’s a goal we can achieve.

For me, that’s what every college class should feel like.   In even simpler terms, I want to help you grow significantly over our next few months together.   And, surely, that is a goal that you would love to achieve.  This is your education.   The only person who is going to benefit from this work is YOU.   In most cases, college is your last formal education and will have to do you for the rest of your life.   Try to make every class a great experience.   Don’t be laid back.   Get excited about all that knowledge you can cram into your head.   You never know what might become very useful later on in life.   I like students who are excited about their own learning.   I am always put off by students who claim with some pride “I already know everything I am ever going to need to know for the rest of my life.   No thanks.   I really don’t need any more knowledge at all for the next 80 years.   It is just not worth my effort.”  Well, la de da.  

Okay, here is the real reason for this email.   I want to introduce you to Financial Accounting.   You’ll do better in four weeks if this introduction bounces around in your head a little in the meantime.

Let’s assume that a rich aunt leaves you $25,000 in her will with the stipulation that you must invest the money in the ownership shares of one business.   With that purchase, you will become one of the owners of the business you choose.   After three years, you can sell these shares of stock and you then get to keep all the money.   So, you are really in favor of making a good decision that will grow in value. 

You consume a lot of soft drinks so you decide to study two well-known companies:   The Coca-Cola Company and Pepsico.   You could buy ownership shares on the New York Stock Exchange of one or of the other and, hopefully, in three years they will have gone up in value so that they will be worth a lot more than $25,000.   We will discuss all of this stuff a lot more in detail over the first couple of weeks of class.   At present, I just want to give you a feel for Financial Accounting.  Information without a test.

You could make the decision about which company to invest in based on taste (“I like Coke better than Pepsi so I’ll buy shares of Coke”) or based on the color of the can (“Love those Pepsi cans so I’ll buy shares of Pepsi.”) or based on their television ads (“I laugh at those Coke polar bears so I should buy shares of Coca-Cola.”).   Probably not surprisingly, few very successful investors (the Warren Buffetts of the world) pay much attention to taste or the color of a can when investing big chunks of their own money.   So, what do they look at to help them make those decisions?

As my Financial Accounting textbook will tell you, this course is all about conveying understandable financial information so that decision-makers can make good decisions about an organization (most likely a business organization, in our Accounting 201 course).    Conveying understandable information.   Yes, it does sound very much like a language.

For example, if I tell you that your cousin just won $1 million in the lottery, then you can probably anticipate that your cousin is going to be much more prosperous in the future.   Why?   Easy – you know what the words “your” “cousin” “just” “won” “$1 million” “in the lottery” mean.  The information has been conveyed successfully from my head into your head through those words.  I said these words to you and you understood them and could then use that knowledge to make good decisions.  Success!!

Notice that this information is called “financial” information because it is stated in terms of money (“$1 million”).

But, here, you don’t care about your cousin.   You are trying to decide what to do with the $25,000 your aunt left you.   Should you invest in Coca-Cola or in PepsiCo?   We could look at this in a couple of ways.

a.   You could ask questions about each of the two companies and then compare the results:   “which company has the most debt?” or “each company is holding a lot of bottles of soft drink, waiting for them to be sold.   How much has the company spent on those soft drinks being held?”  or “how much cash does the company have and where did the company get all of that cash?”   If you are the curious type (my favorite type of student), there are probably an infinite number of questions like these that you could ask with the answers helping you gain the knowledge needed for a wise decision—which company is the best one for you invest your money in.

The purpose of this course is to make sure you know what information is available and what that information means.

b.  You could also examine the information that is made available by the company and decide which company looks better and has the brighter future.   For example, I just looked up The Coca-Cola Company through Google and found out that, on December 31, 2014, the company had accounts receivable with a net realizable value of $4.466 billion.   What in the world does that mean?

Well, as we will find out in a few weeks, that is actually a very easy question to answer once you know the rules that underlie financial accounting.   Knowing the rules helps you understand the information.

Is that important?   Is that interesting?   Is that helpful?   I certainly think so.  It is the type of information that everyone in the business world already knows.   You cannot compete with them without a basic level of knowledge to help you make wise decisions.   Unless you are going to live on a desert island for the rest of your life, then, yes, this is very helpful, important, and (I think) interesting information.  

In many ways, this course is teaching you a new language.   It is like learning Spanish except here no one worries about how you pronounce the words.  

I tell people that I speak three languages:   English, Southern, and Accounting.   I can convey information and understand information in all three.   I think that is a great skill to have and that is what you and I together are going to explore starting in just four weeks.

Okay, let all of that float around in your mind for a couple of days.   I am trying to plant the seeds that we will raise up during the first couple of our class meetings starting on 8/24.

Monday, July 6, 2015


Repeat of My Earlier Invitation:   If you are attending the annual meeting of the American Accounting Association this summer in Chicago, I will be participating in two different panel presentations on teaching on Monday, August 10.  One is at 2 p.m. and the other is at 4 p.m.   I would love to have you there as several of us chat about the challenges of becoming a better classroom teacher.  If you are interested, grab me after the panel presentations and we can continue the discussion.  


I have written several times over the years about my basic distrust of student evaluations.   Based on the ones that I have seen, here are some of my issues:

(1) – Students are not encouraged to spend enough serious time considering the questions and their responses.   Some students clearly give an appropriate amount of thought and make helpful observations.   Many students appear to dash off their opinions as if they were late for dinner.   “Good guy” doesn’t really provide much helpful feedback.
(2) – It is easy for too much of the evaluation process to be based on mathematical numbers that are hard to interpret.   If I go from 4.28 on a specific question in the fall to a 4.21 in the spring, does that mean I am getting worse or maybe just more demanding?
(3) – A teacher’s popularity has some impact on evaluations.  I am not interested in popularity.   I am interested in how well the person motivates and guides students to learn.  
(4) – Most of the evaluations that I have seen have so many questions that I think the individual questions quickly lose their impact.   I do not think a lot of students have the inclination (and possibly the ability) to draw fine distinctions between various aspects of teaching over a long range of questions.  It always interests me as to how many students give the same numerical grade to a teacher on virtually every question.
(5) – The evaluations that catch people’s attention are the outliers, the ones where the students either love you or hate you.   Those people have strong opinions that can receive too much weight when judging the quality of the education.   It is easy to ignore the feelings of the great mass of students in the middle whose opinions—although just as valid—are often more muted.
(6) – Evaluations really have two purposes and I think that duality causes a problem.   Student evaluations are supposed to help provide feedback to the teacher so that he or she can improve in the future.   That seems reasonable.   In those cases, the teacher should want to hear the bitter truth so that changes and improvements can be made.   However, evaluations are also used by administrators who must make salary, tenure, and promotion decisions.   Then, the professor wants every response to be as positive as possible.  

Okay, it is easy to be critical but how would I do student evaluations differently if I were suddenly made king?   Here are some of my thoughts on the topic.   I believe this is a conversation that we should be having.   My ideas clearly have some practical flaws but, at least, they are a start toward doing something more creative.

I would view student feedback for a teacher as a separate goal distinct from student evaluations used by administrators.   I think you always create a problem when you try to kill those two birds with that one stone.

As I have written in the past (see, for example, my blog posting titled “Congratulations!!” on May 2, 2012), at the end of every semester, I email each student who makes the grade of an A in any of my courses to let them know of their success.   That is a true pleasure.   I pass along appropriate congratulations.   For me, that pat on the back is important—those students did the work and made the grade.   The final grade should not be an anonymous reward.   They deserve a word of praise.   Then, I ask those same students to write a paragraph on how they went about making that grade of A.   I eventually accumulate all those responses and pass them along to the next class to serve as guidance.   I want each new group to understand, right from the beginning, how to succeed in my class.  

Beyond that, those essays provide me with a peek inside the workings of my class.   What do students of mine have to do to earn an A?   How much time must they spend?   Where do they need to invest their energy?   What types of activities and learning strategies proved to be beneficial?   You cannot ask a C student what it takes to make an A because they obviously don’t know (or don’t choose to pursue that goal) but you can ask an A student what it takes to make an A.   I read each of those essays very carefully—often many times.   I try to figure out what I like about the answers and what I don’t like.  

If one of my main teaching goals is for every student to earn an A then I want to know what it takes to reach that achievement.   If one of those students talks about working just 30 minutes per week and still gets an A, I need to consider making the course more demanding.   If a student talks about making an A without ever reading the textbook, I should think about whether that is consistent with my educational goals.  

I want every student to make an A.  I am interested in what it takes to achieve that mark.   That is feedback that I have found very helpful over the years in assisting me in the evolution of my teaching.  Each semester, I read numerous essays that basically say “here is what it takes to be a successful student in Professor Hoyle’s class.”   Am I happy with what I hear or do changes need to be made? 

However, that does not provide adequate information for administrative decisions that must be made.   So, if I were king, I would also have a formal student evaluation process.   I would give every student in every class one assignment at the end of each semester.   I would ask them to turn in those responses directly to the school’s administration.  

The one assignment for the student evaluation would simply be:   “Please discuss this course and this teacher as to how much they have helped to improve your critical thinking skills during this past semester.   Please give as many specific examples as possible.”   Okay, there might be a few exceptions such as a studio arts class or a basic language class but I believe the underlying goal of a vast majority of college courses should be the development of critical thinking skills.   The student evaluation would start with a formal definition of what the school means by critical thinking skills and then make the assignment.   This approach addresses the central issue in the educational process in college. 

If a teacher can help a student develop his or her critical thinking skills, then I believe most everything else will take care of itself.   That is certainly my number one goal in both my financial accounting and intermediate accounting classes.  

Administrators get the information they need for salary decisions and the like by studying these responses.   Read 75 student essays on whether a teacher helps develop critical thinking skills and you (or anyone else) will have a good understanding of the teacher’s success.   It is not about popularity.   It is not about entertainment.   It is not about numbers that have a questionable meaning.   The student is the one who benefits from the class.   When it comes to critical thinking skills, what development did that student experience?   And, of course, they need to give as many specific examples as possible.

Okay, one immediate question is going to be:   How will the administrators be able to use this information?   Here is what I would suggest.    First, I think that at most schools about 20 percent of the teachers are excellent, about 60 percent of the teachers are average, and about 20 percent of the teachers are poor.  That is just my perception based on what I’ve seen over the past 44 years.   You can easily change those percentages if you wish (possibly 25:50:25 or 30:40:30) but, unless you teach in Lake Wobegon, please don’t tell me that all of your teachers are above average.   That is nonsense.   A few teachers are excellent, a few teachers are poor, the vast majority of teachers are average.

The administrator reads all of these essays and judges the faculty member to be Excellent (let’s say 20 percent), Average (60 percent), or Poor (the final 20 percent).  We could argue about this but I imagine 80-90 percent of the faculty will fall into one of those three groups fairly easily. 

After making this judgment, the administrator writes up an evaluation for each faculty member.

For the teachers in the Excellent group, the administrator congratulates the faculty member and describes why this person qualified for the top group.  The administrator also points out any possible improvements that were noted.   “Excellent” is different than “Perfect.”   Improvements are always possible.

For the teachers in the Average group, the administrator describes why that decision was made, pointing up both the good and bad areas that seemed to be mentioned most often by students.   Then, the administrator makes as many suggestions as possible on future efforts that might move the teacher from the Average group to the Excellent group.   That is the one fundamental goal.   That should always be discussed:   How can the teacher move up into the next highest level?

For the teachers in the Poor group, the process is much the same.   First, why was the evaluation made in this way?   Second, what needs to be done to move into the Average group?   The process should always be based on describing (1) what the evaluations indicated and (2) how the teacher can get better.

Two evaluations:
Student feedback to teacher:   How did you make that A?
Student feedback for teacher evaluations:   Please discuss this course and this teacher as to how much they have helped to improve your critical thinking skills this semester.

Would that really work better than the system we have?   I honestly do not know but I do think it is time to have that conversation and start experimenting to see if better evaluations are even possible.   I just think, for the systems I have seen, improvement is needed.