Thursday, August 20, 2015


As most people know, I am a full-time faculty member here at the University of Richmond.   Over the summer, Dr. Ronald Crutcher was named the 10th president of our University.   I was at one of the opening ceremonies for the fall semester this morning.   President Crutcher spoke and was kind enough to mention this teaching blog.  He said that he had been reading it since he was appointed to the position of president.   So, I want to wish President Crutcher a true welcome to the University of Richmond.   No matter how good you think we are, your job is to make us better.   Make it happen.

I was at a conference in Chicago last week and was part of two panel presentations on teaching.   In such wide ranging discussions, I inevitably talk about quite a number of ways to become a better teacher over the course of the next academic year.   Not surprisingly, I tend to give a variety of answers to questions depending on the direction of the conversation.  

But one of those questions has been on my mind since last week.   One person asked:   What is the most important piece of advice you can give to a college professor who wants to become a better teacher?  

That is a serious and very interesting question.   What is my most important piece of advice?  I feel like I should take a survey and analyze the answers that I receive.   In truth, I am not sure what answer I gave in Chicago.   On a panel, you tend to throw out answers without adequate thought.   Here’s the answer I would give now, after some consideration.

A person once emailed me “Great teaching does not come from years of doing it.   Great teaching comes from thinking about it.”   For example:   If you were the coach of a great college football team and had a chance to win a national championship, you would probably think about nothing else between July and January.   You would be obsessive.   You would eat, drink, and sleep football.   In your mind, you would break the team apart and consider each component and how to get improvement.   And, heck, the coach is just getting the team ready for a game.   Although football receives tons of attention, it really is just a game.  Unless you are related to a player or have a bet on the game, it really has no impact on anyone.   But the coach would think about little else for all those months.   Victory would be so important that the thinking would be natural.

In comparison, how much time have you spent thinking about your teaching over the summer?  How much have you talked with other teachers over these weeks and months?   How much will you think about your teaching over the coming weeks?   If the answer to these questions is “very little,” then you are probably aligned with a majority of teachers.   But that is never going to get you to greatness.   It is hard to improve without sacrificing time for a lot of thinking.   If you want to get better at anything, you need to invest a serious level of thought.

Thus, here is my answer.   My “most important piece of advice for great teaching” would be the following.   Very much like a championship football coach analyzing the team, break apart your teaching process into its smallest component parts.   You can probably come up with 10-20 “parts” if you try:   testing philosophy, homework assignments, structure of class, how much you will lecture, office hours, methods of communications, writing assignments, grading policies, attendance, getting students to be engaged in the class, and the like.   There are a lot of bits and pieces that make up “teaching.”  

Then, pick 2-3 of these pieces that you want to focus on during the upcoming semester and think about those 2-3 in every possible way that you can.   Don't spend minutes; spend hours.   How could you do each of them differently and how could that make your teaching more effective and efficient?   There are always alternatives.   What are they?

I believe it is difficult to improve “teaching.”   The topic is simply too broad.   On the other hand, I think everyone can select a couple of components of teaching and come up with serious improvements.   But only if you are willing to do some serious thinking about those parts.  You cannot fix the car.   You can only fix pieces of the car.   For the next semester, pick the pieces of teaching that you want to think about (possibly obsessively but not necessarily) and see what improvements you can uncover.   Then, the next semester, pick a couple of different components to think about and do it again.   I believe you will be amazed by how quickly your teaching begins to improve.

Once you pick what you what to think about find some colleagues who enjoy teaching and sit around and talk about these things.   We are all in this together.   We should be helping each other.   It is shocking how little some of us talk to each other about teaching.

So, what have I been thinking about this summer?

My students often do not seem to have a real understanding of what it means to be great students.  They tend to have their own way of approaching a class and, whether they seem to be getting an A or an F, they faithfully stick with that approach. 

This summer I have been thinking about the question:   How do I get my students to become better students?   If I can get improvement, they will be better for me but also better for all of their other teachers.

I want them to walk into my first class (next Monday) having spent time considering what it means to be a great student.   They are all smart enough to do well in my class if they will just make the smart decisions that seem to come so naturally to great students.   Over the summer, I have sent them several emails on this topic (I will talk more about this experiment at a later date).  Here, I want to talk about one particular experiment.

One of my beliefs is that poorer students tend to procrastinate and then have to rush around at the last minute to complete assignments and often have poor results.  Without sufficient time, nothing ever goes well.   I believe great students tend to procrastinate less so that they have adequate time for excellent work.   Think think think – how can I reduce procrastination.

I wanted to influence my students so I sent them the following email about two week ago.

Notice here that I am trying to make several points that will encourage immediate action and less procrastination:
--This material is important because it is relevant to the world around us and to what we are going to cover in class.
--Knowledge is not just something school students accumulate for a test.   It is a big help to successful business people who can make immediate use of it.
--There is a big difference between wanting to make an A and wanting to be successful in the business world.  I don’t think enough students ever make this distinction.   It is an important because this distinction impacts how a student approaches the learning process.
--Students often don’t realize what they really want.   I am trying to help them see through all their talk to determine their true goals.   “If you put the work off until the test gets close, you don’t want knowledge.   You want a grade.”   I think self-awareness is helpful.   After you have self-awareness, then you are in a better position to make improvements. 
Here’s the email I sent:

“It is amazing to me how often I will read something in the newspaper about a topic that we will be covering in Intermediate Accounting II (Accounting 302).   I am always reminded that if you are going to be successful in the world of business you have to know what is going on.

“Attached is an article from the Wall Street Journal a few days back about sales leaseback arrangements.   You will see this article again in class because we are going to be talking about these arrangements (probably around October 15).  

“If your response is:  ‘I want to make an A.  I'll read this article when it gets close to when I must know it for class’ then you are probably going to be a very good college student.   If your response is:   ‘I want to be a successful business person so I am dying to read it right now’ then you are probably going to be a successful business person.   Success is more than simply working for a grade.

”From my experience, it is important to know which one of those goals is YOU.   My experience is that half of the students in 302 want to be great students and half want to be successful business people.   Don't fool yourself.   You are adults now.   It is important, I think, for you to know what your real goals are.”

Will this help my students become more aware of how a great student approaches material in order to become a successful business person?   I think it can help some.   And, if I make similar points during the semester, by the end of the course, I am hoping that I have helped all of them not just to learn accounting but also to learn what it means to be a great student, one who will graduate and go out into the real world and achieve true success.  If I can help them get rid of procrastination, a big step has been taken toward making them great students.

Well, that is what I have been thinking about over the summer.   What have your thought about?   What epiphanies have you come up with about your teaching?

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Here Is Your Assignment AND Words from a Legendary Teacher

My next set of classes starts on Monday, August 24.   However, I emailed my students their first assignment back on April 28.   I did not want them to waste their summer.   More importantly, I wanted to start having a positive influence on them as soon as possible.   The assignment had several parts culminating in their writing a short essay on the characteristics of a great student.   I just wanted them to think about what that meant.   I’ll write more about the results of that assignment during the fall when I see whether it had any impact on the students.

Today, though, I want to give you an assignment to complete before your fall semester begins.   When I put on teaching presentations, I often begin by instructing my audience to do the following exercise.  Standing in front of all those teachers, I ask every person to close their eyes.   (I always warn them that they cannot fall asleep.)  

“I want you to think through your years in school—start with kindergarten and go all the way through high school and college.   Think about all those dozens of teachers and pick the one teacher who had the most positive influence on your life.   It could be a fifth grade reading teacher or a high school biology teacher.   It could be a college math teacher or your kindergarten teacher.   Think about all those teachers and pick the one who stands out to you as having the most positive influence.   I find most people can settle on one great teacher fairly quickly.

“Now, I want you to identify the three characteristics that stand out in your mind about this person.   If you had to describe this teacher by his or her characteristics, what would you say?   Was the person kind, gentle, mean, depressed, etc.?   This teacher certainly stood out in your life—what enabled them to be such a force in your life?  What made this teacher great?

“Teachers often tell me they are not sure what characteristics lead to great teaching.  That is absolute baloney.   You have just identified the three characteristics that, for you, are basic to great teaching.   And you probably did it without too much problem.   This is a simple exercise to help you identify the characteristics you believe lead to great teaching.

“Our goal here today is to help you move closer to becoming a great teacher.   So, take the three characteristics that you just identified.  Think about your own teaching.   For each of these three, award yourself a grade:  A, B, C, D, F.   How well are you doing?   For example, if you felt that the great teacher in your life became great by being sweet, then how would you grade your own teaching when it comes to being sweet?

“To become great, you have to work on getting better.   That is just common sense.   Take the three grades you just gave yourself.   Unless you awarded yourself three A’s (which probably means you are an incredibly easy grader), what can you do over the next 12 months to move those grades higher?  That is the key.  How can you improve over the next 12 months.   For me, that is the secret to improving as a teacher.   Find the standard you want, measure yourself honestly, consider how to make improvements.    And, then, go do it.”

Next, in these teaching presentations, I have the members of the group open their eyes and we discuss their great teachers and the characteristics that made them great.   Listening to everyone talk about these teachers is a wonderful experience.   Try it in your next faculty meeting.   I am a big believer that the mere act of talking about great teachers will help you become a better teacher.

Therefore, I want to finish up this blog posting today by talking about a great teacher.   Interestingly enough, this is a teacher that I never had and probably never spoke with in my life.   But I am convinced that she was great.

I grew up in the 1950s in a small blue-collar furniture town of about 1,000 in the hills of North Carolina.   My high school graduating class was roughly 100 and, as I remember it, 25 percent of the graduates were married and about 10 percent already had children.   It was a fabulous place to grow up with wonderful people but it was not the most cosmopolitan place on the planet.  

However, our high school band was fabulous.   The band seemed to have a consistent excellence that really went beyond the place and size of the school.   I have no musically ability at all so I had no idea how that consistency was maintained.   The band director was Kathryn Siphers.   I did not know her at all but she seemed to be a quiet and serious person—one who appeared able to coax the best out of those high school musicians year after year.     In hindsight, I wish I could have set in the room and watched her lead and guide those young people to get such great results.   It must have been a fabulous example of great teaching.   I think I would have learned a lot.

She died at the age of 62 in 1986.   That is a long time ago.   My little home town now has a Facebook page and it is amazing to me, how many times former students bring her name up and talk about her in glowing terms.   Just today, one person wrote about her:   “I think I cried harder at her funeral than any other one I have ever been to” and another person responded “Her influence was unlimited.”   After nearly three decades, people talk about her as a very real presence in their lives.   Ms. Siphers truly meets my definition as a great teacher.   Even after 44 years in this job, that is still a goal I am working towards.  

When she died, a colleague wrote about her in the local newspaper.   I think this will tell you more about what it means to be a great teacher than anything I can think of to say.

“Ms. Siphers was more than a band director.   She was a teacher’s teacher.   In her philosophy on teaching, she wrote, ‘Teaching is my life.  I have been given one talent to use.  This talent has made it possible for me to teach many children music.  I believe in music as an exalter of the human spirit, as a life-giving force in education.   My challenge is to lead students into genuine and permanent love and understanding of beautiful music.   I believe if a teacher is to be successful, one must grow as one works.  One must be enthusiastic and untiring in efforts to get the work done.   Constant planning, working, evaluating, examining of materials and teaching procedures must be made.  For me, teaching is exciting.   It is an obsession, but a magnificent obsession.’”

There is nothing I could possibly add to those sentiments.