On Friday morning, April 8, 2016, I will be speaking at the Ohio region meeting of the American Accounting Association on the topic of “Perspectives of High-Quality Teaching.” If you are in the Cleveland area, I hope you will show up. I would love to meet you and chat about teaching. Here’s the URL.
I am teaching three classes this semester—two Intermediate Accounting II classes and one Financial Accounting class. I have 78 students. I realize that some of you teach hundreds but, for me, 78 is a fairly large number. That provides some challenges when trying to get each student to do outstanding work.
I always give three tests every semester and a final exam. I believe that gives the students a chance to show me what they have really learned. After the first two tests, I usually have a good group (50-60 percent) who are doing well and have an excellent chance of getting an A or a B (hopefully). They are strong and talented students who put in the work consistently for every class.
But I have another group (40-50 percent) who do not seem able to break through. In some cases, the students are simply not working. In other cases, accounting does not come easily to them. We all have different talents. In truth, though, a vast majority of my students are working relatively hard and seem more than capable of making an A or B. Well, then, what assistance can I offer this second group of students to help them move from C’s and D’s to A’s and B’s?
In many ways, isn’t that one of our most important jobs—helping students who are struggling to figure out how to become outstanding? And, isn’t that where the victories are the most satisfying? Getting a bright, hard-working student to make an A feels good but I always realize that they could have probably done it without me. I don’t deserve too much credit. Getting a student who has a C or a D with only 3-4 weeks left in the semester to make an A or a B seems like teaching at its best.
So, I take it as a personal challenge to get my “under B” group to do better. First, you have to get them out of a “C” mentality. After two low test grades, it is easy to become discouraged and start to think of yourself as no better than an average student. That’s nonsense. That’s absolute baloney. Everyone can do better. I am convinced of that. I like to remind them that they still have well over half of their grade to be determined. In my classes, the last regular test and the final exam make up approximately 57 percent of their overall grade. Although the semester seems to be drawing to a close, they are not even at half time yet as far as their grade is concerned. They still have plenty of time left to make an A or B but they do need to make some adjustments and they need to make them immediately. I need to impress on them that they can do better but there is some urgency. Without urgency, change is tough.
As probably everyone who reads this blog knows, I use the Socratic Method. My class is filled with questions that the students work to answer. I am training them (I hope) to learn how to “figure out” answers for themselves. My giving them answers and information is not nearly as beneficial as them getting the information and figuring out the answers for themselves.
When a student comes by to ask for help here in this last month, I like to ask that person to start writing one test problem after each class. I want to see one problem that they think I might ask on a test based on the material we covered. I want them to start focusing on how the material can be turned into questions. In the book Make It Stick, the authors assert that students often over-estimate what they have learned. I think that is probably true. I also think it is true that students focus on answering the questions they have already seen and not on the questions they are going to see.
What I find fascinating is that, even after having two of my tests, students often write poor questions. For the most part, they simply take the questions that I ask in class and change a few words or numbers. I think that is how many of them have been trained in high school. The teacher says something. The student writes it down. The student hands it back on the test. The student gets an A. That does not work in my class. I ask them to take material and do something different with it. I sometimes think that the reason they are not making an A or B is that they don’t truly understand how they are going to be tested.
When they send me their questions, I often point out “that sounds like what I asked in class. I’m probably not going to ask that same question again. What would that prove? How could I twist the question to make it different and see what you really understand?” Usually, on a second (or maybe third) attempt, the questions start looking like one of my test questions. The student starts making a break through—not on the answer side but on the question side.
At that point, when they start to understand the nature of the questions they are going to see, then coming up with legitimate answers becomes a more realistic goal.
If you are having students who do not seem to be able to “break through” into the A and B range, you might try that. After every class, ask them to write a question that you might ask on a test. Then, if they do not do a very good job of that, help them see what more you might be expecting from them. Get them to focus on the questions before they worry too much about the answers.
I sent my Financial Accounting students a practice problem this morning. Sure enough, I took what we had done in class and added something a bit different. I challenged them to “figure it out.” And then I tried to make the point more clearly: “And, as you are getting ready for the third test start asking yourself two questions: (1) Can I do the standard problem? (2) How can the problem be extended to make it more challenging? That's when education gets exciting.”
Maybe focusing on the questions will help your C and D students move up to A’s and B’s here in the last few weeks of the semester. That’s a victory for everyone.