Tuesday, February 23, 2016


If you have read this blog for long, you know that I have two interconnected goals.  

--The first is that every teacher should strive to become 5 percent better each and every year.   Never stand still.  Always push yourself to find some area of improvement.  

--The second goal is to Experiment-Evaluate-Evolve.   It is that active level of experimentation that leads to improvement.   No improvement is possible without making some change.   You should always be able to look at your current situation and point to specific changes that you are trying and evaluating.

If I stopped right now and asked you “what experiments are you trying this semester that might make you 5 percent better,” could you identify one or more? 

Experiments work better if they are directed at identified problems.  

After nearly 45 years in the classroom, one thing continues to irritate me.   I have many bright young people in my classes who have never learned how to become great students.  They are good at note-taking and they are good at memorization but they struggle when the learning goes beyond that level.   They don’t know how to respond.   How can a 20 year old who has been in school for 15 of those 20 years not know more about efficient learning?   That is an issue that seems to hold back many, if not most, students in college.   I don’t understand why we don’t exert more energy to help students learn how to become better learners.

There are a number of excellent books on the market that tell teachers what their students need to do to be better students.   Go to Amazon right now and you’ll probably find dozens.   But they all seem to be targeted at the wrong audience.   It should be the students who read and study such books rather than the teachers.  

So, last semester, around December 10, I emailed the 55 students who were going to be taking my Intermediate Accounting II class this spring.   This class is known for being particularly challenging.   Most students enter wanting a good grade but with a great amount of trepidation.  

In my email, I explained to the 55 students that I wanted them to become better students so they could be more successful in my class.  That seemed reasonable.   I also pointed out that they would probably have some spare time over the winter break.   I then offered to give them up to three bonus points on the first test of the spring semester if they would read the book Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel.  Read the book -- get three points.

On the inside cover of "Make It Stick" is the following description:   “Drawing on recent discoveries in cognitive psychology and other disciplines, the authors offer concrete techniques for becoming more productive learners.”   Wow, that’s exactly what I want for my students.   The description goes on to say “many common study habits and practice routines turn out to be counterproductive.  Underlining and highlighting, rereading, cramming, and single-minded repetition of new skills create the illusion of mastery, but gains fade quickly.   More complex and durable learning comes from self-testing, introducing certain difficulties in practice, waiting to re-study new material until a little forgetting has set in, and interleaving the practice of one skill or topic with another.”  

I think that is an understanding of learning that every college student should consider.   I was willing to offer bonus points just to see how many students would read the book and what the impact might be.   It was an experiment.

Fast forward three months.    Our first test was last week.   Of my 55 students, 20 said they had read less than 20 percent, one said he had read 20 to 50 percent, 7 said they had read 50 to 80 percent, and 27 said they had read 80 percent or more.   Roughly half the class claimed to have read roughly the entire book.   Interestingly, 63 percent of the top 16 students on the test (before the bonus points were added) said they had read at least 80 percent of the book.   Only 22 percent of the bottom 9 students claimed to have read that much.  

Of course, it helped that I gave them the assignment over a long holiday and offered points for a course that already begun to scare them.  It is hard to motivate students by being too easy.

Did the students tell the truth in their self-assessment?   It was only a couple of points; I accepted their word.  They are adults.   They know the rules.   I suspect that 80 percent or more told the truth.  To me, the potential benefit of the experiment far outweighed the risk that some student would falsely get 3 extra points on a single test.

More importantly, did the reading help them?   Has the book changed their behavior?   Do they now understand more about the science of learning?   I’ll wait until the end of the semester to ask them about those questions.   Unfortunately, we have lost several days to snow so it is hard to compare the test results so far this semester with that of previous semesters.

Here’s what I want to happen:
--I hope that the very assignment of this book helps to open the students' eyes to possible improvements in how they study.   Most students never seem to question how they go about learning.   It is like breathing—they just seem to do it without thought.   I wanted to raise the question:   What works in learning complex material?   I do wish that effective and efficient learning was a topic more stressed in middle school and high school.
--I hope the students threw out some of the study habits they have relied on in the past.   Cramming over the 48 hours just before a test is one “study” habit that I would love to outlaw.  Why spend time doing something that does not help?
--I hope the students considered some new study techniques that they might never have considered previously.   In that way, this voluntary assignment might well have a long lasting benefit.

I don’t want my students to learn just accounting.  That has never been my goal.   College education should be more than that.  I want them to become more successful students.   In the world after graduation, when a teacher is no longer around to provide guidance, that efficiency in learning might well be more important to them than anything else I can teach them.

Will I do this same experiment again next fall?   I am still evaluating.  I like the idea.   I would like to figure out how I could make better use of it.   I guess it is still in the planning process.  

I will leave you with a line from page 226 of Make It Stick:   “Students generally are not taught how to study, and when they are, often get the wrong advice.  As a result, they gravitate to activities that are far from optimal, like rereading, massed practice, and cramming.”  

Yeah, I agree.  Let’s start introducing the students to better practices so that they can become the capable students who will make our jobs much more interesting and easier.   Sometimes all it takes is three bonus points.

Thursday, February 4, 2016


Recently, I was invited by Dr. Shannon Orr (Bowling Green State) and Dr. Staci Zavattaro (Central Florida) to participate in an upcoming book project (to be published in 2017 by Palgrave).  They are asking 100 college professors to respond to the question:   What do you wish you had learned back in graduate school?

Isn’t that a fascinating idea for a book?   I must admit that I can hardly wait to read it myself and see what the other 99 have to say.  I am always in need of advice.   The question really breaks down to the ultimate life question:   If we had it all to do over with again, how would we do it differently?   That’s a question we should ponder now and then as we consider making changes in our present day life.  You can’t change the past but you do have some control over the present.  Thinking about the past might help us improve the future.

I spent several days considering what my honest answer might be.   Here is what I wrote.   Dr. Orr was kind enough to allow me to post this to my blog.   (So be sure and buy a copy of the book just as soon as it comes out.)

For the first 20 years I taught in college, I believed my role was the conveyance of information.  Essential subject matter resided in my head and needed to be moved into the heads of my students almost like boxes transported along a conveyor belt.   Successful learning depended on my ability to explain complex material.  I poured hours into creating beautiful lectures.   Students transcribed every word.  Content was memorized and then regurgitated back on tests.   Occasionally in class, I threw out a question that one of the more attentive students would immediately volunteer to answer.  The rest stuck to their note taking with dogged tenacity. That strategy had proven successful during their long slog through the educational system and was not going to be abandoned without a fight.

Class evaluations were good.   I won teaching awards.   Colleagues congratulated me on my success.   And, I was so dissatisfied that resigning was an ever present temptation.   Student learning seemed stuck in low gear.   My efforts appeared to accomplish nothing more than helping bright young people become stenographers.  

In 1991, I took a desperate leap of faith and switched to the Socratic Method.   I no longer conveyed information.   Instead, I asked questions every day for the entire period.   I followed James Thurber’s mandate: “I’d rather know some of the questions than all of the answers.” This change might have seemed rather spontaneous.   In truth, the need for radical change had been building inside of me for years.  I wanted to teach differently.

The transition was not easy.   The Socratic Method takes practice. Nothing is predictable.  No two classes are alike.  Absolute control is lost.   Years are required to appreciate its intricacies.  My class evaluations went down but, eventually rebounded.  

Every student receives a list of basic preparatory questions before each class.  But, it is the follow-up questioning that pushes them to a deeper level of understanding.  “Think about what we have discussed.  Now apply that knowledge to a more complex situation.”  Developing this type of logical reasoning creates an education worth having.  

I never ask for volunteers.  I award no points for participation.  I call on everyone every day and expect students to be prepared.   “I don’t know” is not acceptable.   “Figure it out” is my reply to a weak response.   The questions are the key.   They form puzzles that must be analyzed and solved.   “Why is it done this way?”  “What would have happened if the facts had been reversed?”  “If a different country had developed rules, what might they be?”   I constantly search for questions that force students to think more deeply.  That sentence is worth repeating:  I constantly search for questions that force students to think more deeply.

Virtually every college boasts of developing the critical thinking skills of its students.   Is this a serious objective or merely a standard line added to a website?   If serious, how do we fulfill that mission? After 45 years in the classroom, I worry that not enough faculty have considered the implications of this last question.   Lectures and the conveyance of information are not the answer. 

When I describe my conversion to the Socratic Method, I often encounter resistance.  Radical change is frightening.  As a visiting history professor once told me, “I see how it works for accounting but I don’t see how it could work in history.”   Socrates would surely have been mystified by that assertion.

Our planet faces a litany of problems that threaten its very existence:  pollution, racism, religious intolerance, disease, terrorism, poverty, dwindling energy resources, climate change, and many more.  I am convinced that only one possible solution is available:  improved education.   Colleges must produce substantially more high-quality graduates, people ready to tackle these challenges.  Conveyance of information will not save us.  Students must learn to think more critically.  They must be encouraged to delve into problems more deeply. 

What holds us back?  Teachers should be leading the charge for better education.

Last summer I listened to a fascinating audiobook on my car’s CD player:  Wild by Cheryl Strayed.   With no practical experience, the author walked 1,100 miles alone through the mountains of California and Oregon along the Pacific Crest Trail.  One day, as I drove to campus, Strayed described her anxiety as she readied to begin the journey.  Not surprisingly, she lost her nerve and almost quit before regaining her composure.  In describing these emotions, she wrote a line that is so insightful that I pulled over to the side of the road so I could write it down.  

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.”

Shakespeare could not have said it better.  Those words have passed through my mind now for months.  We tell ourselves stories that can hold us back from changing our lives and the lives of our students.  Never expect failure.  Never fear change.  Never view students as incapable of serious thinking.  Never view them as lazy. Never feel that your teaching is unimportant. Never enter the classroom with low expectations.   Both fear and failure, to a great extent, are born of the stories we tell ourselves.

What do I wish I had learned in graduate school?   A complete list might stretch out like Rapunzel’s hair.  

I wish I had thought more deeply about the difference between conveying information and the development of critical thinking skills.  I wish I had appreciated fully the vital role every teacher plays in the future of our civilization. I wish I had developed more positive stories about myself and my work so that I would have been brave enough to experiment sooner.  Most of all, I wish I had come to understand that good questions create puzzles that lead students to think deeply, more deeply than anything I could possibly tell them in a lecture.  If I had understood all that, I could have made better use of those first 20 years in the classroom.