Monday, October 16, 2017

The Most Important Days of the Semester – Part Two

(If you would like for me to send you an email whenever I post a new blog entry, just drop me a note at and I'll add you to my list.)

On October 1, 2017, I posted the first of a two-part blog entry on the importance of the 2-4 days after the first test of the semester.  This initial essay included an email that I sent to my current students immediately after their first test.   My assumption has long been that students are most interested in how to do well in a course as they leave the first test.   The email encouraged them to consider two specific aspects of their post-test assessment. 

First, if they felt they had not done well, I made three suggestions about what might have gone wrong.   It is hard to improve without some identification of the problem.  Students who do not do as well as they had hoped should come up with an honest ending to this sentence prompt, “I did not do well on the first test because . . .”    A vague response does not do anyone any good.  As I said in that previous essay, most students simply do not spend enough time studying.

Second, I tried to get my students to put themselves into one of four categories (confident and ready to build on that positive first step, over confident and relaxed, unhappy but ready to take on the challenge to do better, and terribly discouraged and ready to give up).   Obviously, I am trying to encourage them (whether they did well or poorly) to put on a burst of energy and enthusiasm after the first test.   It is still early in the semester.   I never want any student to feel defeated and hopeless.

The second part of my strategy to help the students make positive changes in their approach to this course comes on the day I return the graded first tests to them.   I walk into class with the papers under my arm.  However, before I hand them back, I make a few specific points about possible improvement.

I did not record my opening remarks this semester but the speech below is my best memory of what I said.   It only took a few minutes but I wanted to encourage them to start looking at the course in a different way.   Remember – my only goal is to guide the students to better learning and that should lead to a better grade.  

“In just a few minutes, I will return your first test which is roughly 25 percent of your overall grade so you still have plenty of time to improve your average if you want or destroy it even if you did well on this test.   We have a long semester.  This is just the first test.   Whether you improve this grade is squarely up to you.

“I often tell students that learning only occurs at three points.  I refer to this as the learning triangle.  First, learning can occur during class.  We are together 150 minutes per week.  I want us to use each of those minutes wisely to enhance your knowledge of the subject.   To tell you the truth, most students (and I certainly include this class) typically do well during class.  No one falls asleep.   Everyone attempts to answer the questions as I pose them.   People take good notes.  Students can always do better, but I am not upset by the work you have done so far in class.

“The second point on the learning triangle is all the work that students do before they arrive at class.   I assign questions and you have to decide how much time and energy you want to expend to prepare answers to those questions.   Most students, and again I would include this class in this assessment, do fairly mediocre work when it comes to class preparation.  For most, there is simply not enough urgency to push them beyond doing as little as possible before class.   I honestly believe it is hard for any student to excel unless they do excellent work leading up to class – not mediocre work and not good work but genuinely excellent preparation.   Without good preparation, it is hard to pick up the subtle but key points brought out during class discussion.   You can only struggle to keep up with the main points.  Key little nuances are just missed. 

“The third point on the learning triangle is all the work that students do after class.   As I have said before, students invariably leave class with Swiss cheese knowledge.   It looks and feels solid but is totally full of holes.  To do well, you need to spend serious time after class filling in those holes.   For some, those holes are tiny.   For others, the holes are massive.   Either way, the reason I send you problems after class is to help you fill in the holes.   When I give a test, all I am trying to do is discover the size of the holes in your knowledge.  

"Most students are good in class, mediocre before class, and absolutely awful after class.   That’s the way it usually happens.

“Some students are mystified as to why their grades are not higher because “I worked so hard during class.”  However, that is only one of the three points of the learning triangle.  If you don’t get the grade you want on this first test, remember it is my opinion that it was the quality of the work you did before class and the quality of the work you did after class that led to the poor grade.  Work on those two and I think your grade can and will improve radically.  

“I am willing to help you improve your grade if you will come my office.  But, do realize that I will probably not be addressing our 150 minutes together each week.   Typically, that goes well.   If you want to do better, you have to start looking more seriously at the other two points of the learning triangle.

“If you twant a higher grade on our second test, you will need a grade higher than ‘mediocre’ on class preparation and a grade higher than ‘awful’ on filling in the holes of your Swiss cheese knowledge after class is over.” 

I never like to hand back that first test without telling students in advance “listen, if you like your grade, don’t make any changes in your routine.  If you don’t like your grade, you have time to fix it and here is some advice about where you need to start putting in more time and effort.”   I believe it is unfair (at least on the first test) to give a student a poor grade (and I give plenty of them) without providing some type of framework to help them see where they are coming up short and how to make amends.  

If you can get your students to make necessary adjustments, the first test can be the key step toward turning a mediocre semester into an outstanding semester.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Most Important Days of the Semester – Part One

I have long asserted that the most important days of any semester are the 2-4 days immediately after the first test.  So many good things and so many bad things can happen in this short period of time. They can make the semester more wonderful or they can ruin the semester.  It is the point where the group is of no importance but the individuals are of maximum importance.

Because of the importance of this period, I have started (as of this semester) doing two things.   I sent my students the following email immediately after their first test with the subject line “Please Read.”   I want to get their attention.   Then, a couple of days later when I get ready to return the graded exams, I take the first 5-10 minutes of class time to talk with them about my view of the learning process.   I will describe that talk in my next blog posting in a few days.

Email to my students:

I have not looked at the test yet but I will try to get an answer sheet to you tonight.   I will also try to return the tests to you on Monday. 

My only comment on the test (without looking at any of your papers) is that it looked like a test I would write.   I tried to cover lots of different stuff.   I tried to make every question tie back into our class in some logical way.   I tried to make some questions decently easy and other questions more challenging.   For those of you who have not been in my class before, this is what my tests look like.  Warning:  They will not magically become a lot easier.
I have taught for 46 plus years and I have always argued that the most important days in any semester are the 2-4 days right after the first test.   No other time comes close to being as significant to your grade. 

Until we have the first test, everything is just hypothetical.   You have no way to know whether you are studying too much or not enough.   You have no way to know whether you are catching everything or missing some things.   You have no way to know whether two hours between each class is too much or too little.   You have no way to know whether you should worry about the email problems that I send out or not.

Today, it all became real.   When you get your test back, it is important to self-assess.   What, if anything, do you need to do differently?   Most of you have been students for at least 16 consecutive years.   You might not be trained at much but you should be an expert at being a student.  Use that knowledge to determine what adjustments, if any, you need to make.   I felt that everyone was capable of making an A on this test.  If you didn’t, then you need to figure out what changes might be helpful.   Remember, whether good or bad, Test One is a relatively small part of your grade.  With adjustments, you can still do great.

If you didn’t do as well as you wanted, there are only three possible problems.

(1) – You didn’t study enough.   I don’t care if you study 23 hours per day.   You can always study more.   My guess is that 60-70 percent of students don’t study enough between classes.  That is a fact of life.   They are busy and the work is just not urgent.  This problem is the easiest one to fix.  Start keeping a study diary just to see how much time you are spending.  Lack of urgency is the biggest thing standing in the way of a good grade for most students.  Spend more time studying between classes -- that's always my first advice.

(2) – You didn’t study well.   You used techniques that have worked in the past for you but just didn’t work here.   A lot of students focus on the textbook and clearly I don’t focus that much on the textbook.   Try to come up with one different approach that you might use in your study routine – either on a day-to-day basis or for the next test.  Improvement requires change – it is just a fact.   Improvement requires change.   I'll say it twice.  Clearly, with all the material that I have sent you over the first 4 weeks, you have a lot that you can be doing.   Pick the ones that work best for you and focus on them.   You don’t need to do everything but you really need to do the ones that work.  One thing I would do is go back and read some of the paragraphs in the handout “How to Make an A in Professor Hoyle’s Class.”   That handout was all written by students just like you – who had all the problems you have and still managed to make an A.   What can you learn from them?

(3) – You had a bad day on the test.   It does happen.   People have headaches or a personal problem arises right before you walk into the class.   I think the first two are the most likely problems but bad days do happen.   If so, shake it off and start working on Test Two.

Please feel free to come by and talk with me about these three.   Students often think there is a magic fourth cause.   There is not.   If you didn't do well, it is probably one or more of these three.

The reason that I think this 2-4 day period of time is so important for a great semester is solely because of how you react to this test.   I watch students during these days very closely.  I want to see if there is any change – for better or worse.

It seems to me that there are four possible responses to your grade on Test One (when you get it back on Monday).   Everyone in class will fit into one of these four categories.   The only question is where you fit in. 

(1) – You were pleased with your work on Test One and that gives you confidence to push even harder for a good grade.   A lot of students who do well on test one get excited with the realization that they are capable of doing well in this course and they start working even harder/better.   Their class answers each day get better immediately.   Confidence is wonderful.

(2) – You were pleased with your work on Test One so you start to relax and pay more attention to your other classes or your life outside of class.   The pressure is off and you cut back on your study time.  I am not a big fan of relaxed students.   The A becomes a B and eventually a C and you’ll be mystified as to how you lost the A.  If you were pleased, that is not a good reason to slack off.  Don't do it.

(3) – You were not pleased with your grade on Test One and that irritates you.   You know you are capable and you are not going to accept a poor grade without a fight.   You start to spend more time on each assignment.  You do the email problems quicker.   You spend more time in my office asking questions.   You don’t leave a problem until you understand the answers.   You take a serious look at the PowerPoint Flash Cards that I created.  Consequently, your class answers begin to improve as you start to truly learn this stuff.  Annoyance is not a bad motivator.  “I can do better and I will do better” is a great response.

(4) – You were not pleased with your grade on Test One and your confidence is devastated.   This always breaks my heart.   One test is just a small part of the semester.   I can look in the eyes of these students and read their minds, “See, I told you I wasn’t good enough to do this stuff.   This grade proves it.”   That is absolute nonsense.   Everyone in this class is capable of making an A or a B.   I believe that completely.   You might have to study more.   You might have to study better.   You might have to ask me more questions.   But there is no reason to surrender.   Have some faith in yourself and start getting better prepared for the next class.

That last sentence is the key.   You cannot get ready for the second test today.   The only thing you can do is get really ready for our next class.   Make it your goal:  “I will be the best prepared person in the room on Monday.”   That’s always the best first step toward an A.

Saturday, September 16, 2017


A few days ago, I posted some advice that I had given to my students about the amount of true study time they needed to invest to succeed in my class.  In that essay, I made the point that students need someone to give them some direction now and then.   That is one of the reasons many of them come to college.   I doubt that anyone disagrees with the idea that a college teacher can provide guidance to students about their study habits.  You might not do it but I do not suspect that anyone thinks it is a problem.

Today, I want to talk more about sharing advice with students.  This might be a bit more controversial.   I never take class time to give advice outside of subject matter.  Never.  However, I do use email to do so.   If I see or read something that I think students should consider, I put it in an email and send it to them.  Most of the time it is about a book or a movie that I think is worthwhile.  Is that part of my job as an accounting professor?   I personally think so but I do understand that some might disagree.  

As an example, here is an email that I sent to my students yesterday morning.   I hate to sound so much like a baby boomer but I think it is hard for anyone to understand the animosity in the U.S. today without some idea of how the country went from the solid backing for World War II to the country splitting controversy of the Vietnam War just 20 years later.  

Of course, as always, this is my style of being a college professor.  Teachers must figure out what works for them.  In many ways, I think that is the key to being an effective teacher.  Find out the style that works for you.   But, in most cases, some experimentation can help you in that quest. 

To my students:

I occasionally make recommendations to students because I want them to get a well-rounded educational experience.   Usually, it is something I have seen or heard that I thought was well done.  Here is one recommendation that is a bit different.

I believe three events over the past 100 years have had more impact on the United States than any others.   What we are today as a country has been greatly influenced by these events:   the Great Depression, World War II, and the Vietnam War.   (I will add 9/11 to that list and make the total four.)  I might argue that the Vietnam War had the greatest influence because it threatened to tear the country apart.   A lot of the hostility that we see in the country today was born at that time.   I still remember watching the television news when they announced that the Ohio national guard had started shooting and killing college students at Kent State.   Even in the odd times we live in, can you possibly imagine that announcement today?

Starting on Sunday night, the PBS (public broadcast stations) will have Ken Burns’ ten episode series on the Vietnam War.   Most college students really don’t understand the influence that the war has had on the people of this country.   I know you are busy.  But, if you have the time, it might be worth watching a few of the episodes.   It is truly a living history lesson.

If you watch and want to chat about it, come see me.   I always like to talk.   But, remember, when I was exactly your age, I knew that there was a decent chance that I would be drafted into the military and sent 12,000 miles away where I had a reasonably good chance of getting killed in a war that I did not understand.   Again, times are odd today but put yourself in that picture.   My guess is that it is not a picture that you can even create in your head.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017


I suspect none of us who teach probably appreciates fully how much guidance students need.   Every class is unique and has its own keys to success.  To us, who have been doing this forever, the way forward looks as clear as the yellow brick road that Dorothy was told to follow by the munchkins.  To the students, the path looks like an overgrown mile of swampland with no visible markers.   I realize that they look like adults but most students probably need guidance almost every step of the way.

I think one of the biggest challenges in college education (and I have said this often on this blog) is that students are under-prepared when they walk into class.   They are just are not ready for the depth of conversation that I want.  So, we teachers wind up guiding them using a long, boring lecture.   If they are not prepared, what else are we going to do?

I often accuse them of being prepared for a high school class.  The response is always, “I thought I was prepared so I stopped working.”   Of course, they really stopped just as soon as they possibly could justify it.   On a college campus, there are always more interesting things they can be doing as soon as preparation stops.  Quit preparing and go have fun.

Since I view that as real problem, I want to provide concrete guidance.  And, I want to do it early before they get into bad habits.   Here is an email (slightly edited) that I sent to my juniors this morning.   I won’t convert them all to better preparation with one email, but I’ll be surprised if I don’t get several of them more ready on Friday.  My advice sets a time goal for them.  No student can shortcut a time goal.  

There’s nothing magical here.  It is just a very ordinary email to my students.   But it addresses a specific problem by providing a solid goal.  I think it will help.

To:  My Students

We have now been together in Intermediate Accounting II for nearly three weeks.  The question I always get from students about this time is "how am I doing?"  We have not had a test so you do not really know.

The answer I give to this question is always the same -- if you put in 40 minutes after every class to review that previous class AND 80 minutes to get ready for the next class, you should be doing fine.   It is not 120 minutes -- it is 40 and 80.   You need to fill in the holes from the previous class AND make sure you are very ready to be part of the discussion in the coming class.

I always get a couple of questions in response to that advice.

Q -- What if I do all the studying and just get finished before I hit 40 and 80?

A -- 40 and 80 is a great habit to get into for my class.   Never let yourself off early.   That is too easy.   You've been a student for 90 percent of your life.   Look around and find more to do.   I gave you several pages of advice before the semester began.  Read it all again and see what I have suggested.  If you cannot find more to do, you need to become more aware.

Q -- What if I just spend 360 minutes every Saturday?   Does that work?

A -- Absolutely not.   If you went to a football coach and said, "I'm going to really practice hard for one game out of every 3," he would have a nervous breakdown (or chew your head off).   Every day is an individual component of this course.   I expect good stuff every day.

Students need guidance.  Figure out what they are doing that you don’t like and give them some good advice.   Don't just fuss about them.   Tell them what you want.   

Sunday, August 27, 2017


My first class of the new semester will begin this Monday morning at 9 a.m.   It is a junior level class and I have sent those students about 12 emails throughout the summer to get them ready.   I imagine they are either intrigued by all the emails or terrified.   Nevertheless, I do suspect that they will be ready to go to work.

One of the first things I will do on Monday morning is provide the students with seven pieces of advice that I think can be helpful.   I want to help them understand how to do well in my class, and I believe these seven pieces of advice can be very instructive.  Every teacher is unique and students need to know what works for you and your style of teaching.  Students certainly learn during the semester how to adapt to a teacher and do well.   However, I would prefer to get them headed in the right direction on the first day.  Plus, if they do better, my life is easier.  Definitely a win-win situation.

Here is the advice that I will give them at the opening session.

(1) – I have asked every student who has made an A in my class over the past few years to write a paragraph just to explain how they managed to be so successful.   They write wonderfully insightful directions on what to do in my class in order to make a good grade.  They literally learn what is required for success in my class.  I gather these paragraphs in a Word document that I share with my new students a few weeks before the semester starts.   Advice (1) is to go back and read several of the paragraphs again.   Those students learned what I wanted.  Their performances were excellent.   They figured out the secret.   I tell the new students to look for words of advice that seem to pop up frequently in these paragraphs.  Reading a few paragraphs will only take 5-10 minutes but these student hints can be invaluable.  Plus, I like the idea of letting every student know that making an A is more than a possibility.  

(2) – Almost invariably, students do not study enough time between classes.  There is little in life that I am more sure of than that.  They study “until the assignment is finished.”   Since they probably have something else more interesting to do, they dash through each assignment and then claim it is finished.   “I prepared” often means “I rushed through.”  I prefer students to study a set amount of time between every class and hit that goal before each class without fail.   My classes meet three times each week.   I suggest that my junior students study 2 hours between each class.  They can study more but at least two hours for every class should really help them be successful.   I suggest using two-thirds of that time to prepare for the coming class and one-third to go back and review the material from the previous class.   If they are going to study 2 hours each time, there is no benefit from rushing.  Okay, but what if they finish early?   Then, they should ask themselves an excellent question:  How might an A student use the remaining time effectively?  The mere exercise of figuring out how to use the 2 hours helps them judge what helps and what does not help.  Rushing to finish studying is a problem for almost all students.

(3) – I suggest students come to the building 30-45 minutes early and sit outside the classroom with the other students and discuss the assignments.  Invariably, A students will tell me how important this last minute review was for them.  It refreshes the material in the students’ minds right before the discussion starts.  It allows them to use each other people to test out theories and answers.  The conversations provide different perspectives on complicated materials.  I love the dynamics of group learning.   I find that classes where the students work together informally are just better, happier, more efficient classes.  

(4) – I let them know that I do not know their grade point averages.  I do not know how they did in previous classes.   I have no bias toward any of them.  In my book, they all start out as potential A students.  I think that is how they should look at themselves.   I suggest they forget all previous grades and look at this course as an entirely new experience.   Too many students think of themselves as “C students” and then manage to live down to that expectation.  I wish I could hypnotize the students and embed the message “you are a bright student, very capable of doing great work with some energy and effort.”  I tell them to forget the past and focus on doing well this semester.

(5) – I let them know that I use what I refer to as “process goals.”  My process goals come from a definition of critical thinking that I got from   “Critical thinking is the objective analysis of facts to form a judgment.”   Therefore, I base everything we do in class on an “objective analysis of facts” to “form a judgment.”  In class we spend virtually all of our time studying unusual and weird situations.  They all have a call for action so our job is to come up with a viable response.  We objectively analyze the facts so that we can make some type of judgment.  Those are two clear and distinct steps.  Students seem to be used to “content goals” where they are expected to absorb (and often regurgitate) a certain amount of information.   I want them to understand from Day One why I present them with odd, weird, and unusual situations and then ask them to work out possible alternative solutions.   I find that the students are helped by having me stress those two steps and then push them through the process repetitively.   I think most classes should be an objective analysis of facts in order to form a judgment.  

(6) – One of the other big problems that students have is that they leave class with “Swiss cheese knowledge.” That means that the information learned in class looks solid but really holds quite a number of holes.   Perhaps the most important single step in doing well in my class is taking the time to fill in those holes rather than rush on to the next assignment.   I will talk with them about the kinds of exercises that I provide to help them turn Swiss cheese knowledge into real knowledge.  If your students struggle, Swiss cheese knowledge is often the problem.   If a student ever says, “I knew the material until the test and then I blanked out and couldn’t answer the questions,” what they are really saying is “I only possessed Swiss cheese knowledge and the questions exposed the holes in my understanding of the topic.”

(7) – Attitude is everything.  Over many years, the school process can wear students down so that they just go through the motions.   That makes learning tough (and boring).  I strongly suggest to my students that tackling a genuine challenge with enthusiasm and ambition is good for a person.  It is like aerobic exercise for the brain.  Our culture, I think, over-emphasizes winning and losing.  I believe the sheer enjoyment that comes from going after a genuine challenge with enthusiasm and ambition is vastly under-appreciated.  I tell them to do their best.  That alone provides significant benefit.

Okay, that is the advice that I will tell my students on the first day.   Probably none of them completely hear all seven of these pieces of advice.  However, I suspect most of them will hear 4-5 of the thoughts.   That alone can make them better students.

Those are my seven.  What list of advice will you like to give your students on the first day of this new semester?

How will you motivate them to get off to a great start at the beginning of this new semester?  If nothing else, begin to work on their "rushed preparation habits" and the problem of "Swiss cheese knowledge."  

Friday, August 18, 2017


I appreciate that many professors do not feel comfortable pushing their students beyond the subject matter of a college course.  I have no problem with that decision.   I have simply made a different choice.  I want to be more involved in the growth of my students.  That is why I got into this profession.  If I read a book, see a movie, or watch a television show that I think is worthwhile, I often email my students with a quick review, “I found this interesting for the following reasons.   You might want to check it out.  No points.  No requirement.  Just a suggestion.”  I am especially likely to send that type message if the thing that caught my eye is outside the sphere of my subject matter.  As a friend of mine recently said to me, “I want my students to be successful in living their lives, not just in accounting.”  I could probably write 100 pages on that one sentence.  What is within the responsibility of a professor?

Just yesterday, I sent the following email to the 28 juniors who will start my Intermediate Accounting II class in 10 days.  I really want my students to get off to a strong start.  I find messages early in the semester get more attention than those sent after months of working together. 

I wanted to draw your attention to an article that was in the August 15, 2017, Wall Street Journal.  On page A11 is a long article titled "The Smarter Ways to Study."   Okay, many of the ideas are available with more explanation in the book I recommended earlier in the summer, Make It Stick, but this article is still interesting.  I agree with the author that many students underachieve because they rely (almost obsessively) on poor study techniques.  One section of that article in particular is worth repeating, "High-achieving students take charge of their own learning and ask for help when they're stuck, according to a 2017 study of 414 college students.  Students who performed better sought out extra study aids such as instructional videos on YouTube.  Those who asked instructors for help during office hours were more likely to get A's, but fewer than 1 in 5 students did so.”   ​I added the emphasis here because I believe this assertion is true.

This message is not going very far outside of my subject matter.  However, it does go beyond simply teaching accounting.  Notice several aspects of this note.

--I want to help students have the tools to succeed.  I am not relying on high school to have done this job.  Many of my students do know how to study well but certainly not all of them do.  I would prefer to address that problem now rather than after the first test. 

--I want this note to show the students that I am on their side.  I might be a demanding teacher but I try to make sure the message is clear that I am not the enemy.  One of my favorite sayings is, “We are all in this together.”

--Students can get more information from either the Wall Street Journal article or the book Make It Stick.  I am not doing the work for them.  I am just making a suggestion and pointing them toward the available resources.

--Students too often credit success and failure with natural talent.  “I am just not very good with numbers” is a lament that I have heard so often that it makes me want to gag.  Before the semester starts, I want my students to realize that their study habits might play a big role in their doing well.  I want them to forget about “talent,” “smarts,” “grade point average,” or “IQ.”  With the right study habits, they can all make an A. 

--From my perspective, the most controversial portion of this email is that I draw attention to the research findings that show that seeking help directly from the instructor is beneficial.  As the article indicates, a vast majority of students will accept a low (even failing) grade rather than getting assistance from the teacher.  That is nuts.  By including that sentence (and putting it in italics), I will probably get more students who come by my office for help.   That will take up my time.   For a busy professor, that statement creates a bit of a quandary.  I have chosen to include that information and even emphasize it.   However, that choice has a cost.   The assertion and the way I emphasize it might well improve the grade of several of my students this semester.  That is great.  But, it will likely take up some of my time.  Professors are very busy people.  In college teaching today, that is an extremely difficult choice.   

Friday, August 4, 2017


Over the years on this blog, I have written what seems like 10 million words.   Today, I get to talk with you about teaching using my real voice—Southern accent and all.   Bonni Stachowiak has created a wonderful website titled Teaching in Higher Education.   Her podcasts are one of the most interesting aspects of this site.  She talks with a variet of teachers about what they do and what they are trying to do.  She has developed a wonderful following and is doing great work to improve education.  

Bonni was kind enough last June to invite me to appear on a podcast to talk about getting students ready for success.   That, of course, is one of my favorite teaching topics.   You have to prepare students if you are going to maximize what they can learn.  The podcast was posted yesterday as colleges now get close to the beginning of the fall semester.

Below is the link to that podcast.   For 41 minutes, Bonni and I chat about getting students ready to walk into class and be successful.  Nothing to read.  You can just sit back and listen to us discuss college teaching.  As you probably know by now, when it comes to teaching, I am a person with lots of opinions.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017


If you have followed this blog for a while, you know that I try to use the summer to get the students ready for the fall semester.   I want everyone to be ready on the first day to take off and fly.  Time is short.  I want to use it all and use it effectively.  Consequently, I send periodic emails to my new students from May through August although I am never sure whether they pay close attention or not.  However, one email does seem to catch their attention.   

Last week, I cut and pasted one of the questions included on the final exam last spring into an email.   I then sent it to the new students to give them a feel for what they are going to learn this fall.  Most students do not understand in advance the purpose of a course.  A final exam problem gives them an illustration of what they will be able to do after we spend the semester working together.   The reality of seeing a question that the previous class had to work draws the students’ attention.  It is more real to them than almost anything else I can say.

In sending this email, I have several things I want to accomplish.

--I want it to be a question that they have a good chance of understanding.   If the question covers topics they have never heard of, it will sound like gibberish.  I do not want them to believe the course is about gibberish.    

--I want the question to be broad enough to illustrate the overall purpose of the course.  Why is the question relevant to the goals of this particular course?   

--I want the question to sound interesting.   “What the heck should we do in this situation?” is always a question that makes students think.   Test questions can be boring or interesting.   Interesting is better for learning and for the students' attitude.  

--I am not trying to scare them.   The question can not seem impossible.   I am trying to create a sense of wonder and excitement about the learning they will do.

--Where possible, I assure them that a vast majority of students last semester got the question correct.  “You can never do this” is not helpful.   “I am going to show you how this problem works so that you will be able to do it well and make a good grade” is very encouraging.

--Somewhere in the email, I always include two sentences:  “You are not in this alone.   I am here to help.”  No matter how I pitch the course, I want that message clearly conveyed.  Although I am demanding, I want the students to know that I am on their side and we will be working together.  I am not the enemy.  I am on their side.  

--I try to start the teaching process by drawing their attention to specific elements of the question.   Why did I include this information?   What is the point of that fact?  How do these two factors fit together?   I want them to start deconstructing the question to see what is involved and what is being asked.

--I do not include any answers.   At this point, my purpose is to show interesting questions.  The purpose of the semester is to arrive at logical answers.

There is something real about an actual final exam question that seems to awaken each new group of students to the possibilities of the semester.   For the teacher, it provides an opportunity to show a complicated and challenging goal (“you will see this”) while reassuring the students they will be able to answer this question by the time of their final exam ("you will learn this").   It is a positive and engaging way to introduce the new semester.

The learning process is much more effective if you can make points to the students over the summer.   A good question from the previous final exam is one way to begin getting them ready for the new adventure.

Monday, July 17, 2017


During a semester, teachers do not always have enough free time available to make radical class improvements.  Consequently, as I have said often in these blog postings over the years, the summer is a fabulous time to work on the upcoming learning process.  Frequently, this advice has focused on the students.  How can you get them especially well motivated for an outstanding class in the fall?  Today, however, I want to address you as the teacher.   I want to make a suggestion for a simple experiment that I hope you will try between now and the first week of class.

Creating a great educational experience is impossible unless you have a clear idea as to what success should look like.  What do you really want to happen?   “By the last day of the fall semester, I want to have a great class but I really do not know what that will look like,” is a ludicrous statement.  However, many teachers really do not know what that great class would look like.  They have just never considered it.  

I believe college teachers should merge their class goals and their basic teaching philosophy to form a mental model of the type of learning environment they hope to create over the course of a semester.  I refer to this as “my desired reality,” what I want to see happen on the final day of class next fall.  In sports, athletes often talk about the importance of mentally visualizing an upcoming competition.  Prior to a tennis match or football game, the athlete will sit quietly and envision exactly what he or she hopes to have occur.  The athlete makes this mental picture as vivid as possible by “walking” sequentially through each desired step of the coming contest.  The athlete wants to have a sense of how the actions will feel when everything goes just perfectly as planned.  In your class, what does designed perfection look like?  Decades ago, a popular book titled Psycho-Cybernetics (by Maxwell Maltz) described the potential benefits of this type of visualization. 

For me, creating an organized structure for my class is difficult without a clear picture of my desired reality.   How do I envision that last day of class each semester?  Everyone has their own dream ending but here is mine.

I see myself walking into the classroom on the last day of the semester.  The students are in their seats, attentive and ready to go to work.   I select a student at random and ask that person to address a particular question about the topic assigned for that day.  There is no hesitation.  The student gives a reasonable, thought-out response to my query.   The student has obviously read the assignment and, moreover, has given the issues being raised serious consideration.  The answer is not superficial.   The student has thought about the topic.  The student is not afraid to be incorrect.  The student is not worried about being the subject of laughter or ridicule.  In that room, a feeling of mutual respect exists between the teacher and the students as a group as well as among the individual students.  This is a team effort.  I ask a second student to comment on the answer presented by the first student.  The second student has listened carefully to the previous response and begins to discuss, question, and elaborate on specific points that were covered.  The student compliments the first student for answers that were well conceived but is also willing to criticize the validity of specific points as long as the first student is not personally degraded.  A third student raises a hand to defend an assertion made by the first student.  A fourth student raises a hand to pose a question in hopes of clarifying an answer that was offered.  A fifth student raises a hand to compare the current issue to ones we have discussed earlier in the semester.  And, so it goes.  Every student in the room is engaged in the conversation and the exploration of the topic.  No one asks "will this be on the test?"   Understanding is the goal and not memorization.

In my desired reality, the classroom experience is a guided conversation in which we, as a group, explore a particular topic.  The students are asked to prepare in advance and they do so.  They are asked to think and they do so.   They are asked to listen and they do so.   They are asked to respond and question and they do so.  They are asked to get involved and they do so. 

The teacher is asked to guide, prod, and encourage and does so.   Both groups are expected to enjoy the give and take process that leads to thinking and learning.  The daily class experience is an intriguing exploration and not dreary torture.  Speaking strictly for me, this is an educational experience worth having (if it can be created).

Of course, this is just what I want.   What you want for your classes can be entirely different and even more valid.  The decision is up to you.  However, no one reaches the goal if it has not been envisioned in advance.

Can any desired reality come true?   Two things are absolutely necessary.   First, I have to know what I want to accomplish.  Any teacher who does not have a firm grip on what that last class session is supposed to look like will never get there.  Second, from the time I start communicating with my students, everything I do has to help achieve this reality.   Students will never conform to the reality you seek without clear guidance.   This vision is just a daydream if you are not willing to “guide, prod, and encourage” your students in that direction.

It all starts with a clear understanding of your desired reality.

So, here is your (obvious) assignment.   Take some time and think deeply about the last day of your fall classes.   What reality would you like to see on that day?   When you walk into the last class in November or December, what would be the best outcome that you could possibly want?  Take some time and write it down.   That helps to make the goals more concrete.   

If you can dream it, you can create it.

Once you know the reality you seek, start asking yourself how can you start moving your students to that point by the end of the fall.   Make good use of your summer.    

Friday, June 2, 2017


Last week, I sent an email to my students about making good use of their summer.  I suggested that they read a book that Bill Gates had recommended in Time magazine, Business Adventures by John Brooks.  I was clearly trying to serve in a mentoring capacity by recommending an activity that was never going to be on the students' test.  I hope some of them take me up on the assignment.

I liked that idea so I posted a short discussion of it on this blog (May 28, 2017).   We seem to have difficulty in getting everything covered in a four-year education.  We need to find ways to increase what a student can learn during the college experience.  Making good use of summer is one place to start.

My friend Bob Jensen (retired teaching legend from Trinity University) sent me a note about his own version of this summer assignment.   In all honesty, I liked his idea better than I liked my idea.   We live in a time when things evolve so rapidly that our students need to be ready for a changing world.   Bob's suggestion recognizes that challenge and how to address it.

I passed it along to my students as a follow up email.   I really hope some of them will take me on this idea also.   It really could make a difference in their lives.  Here is how I introduced his suggestion to my students.

To:   Accounting 302 Students

From:   JH

Last week, I sent out an email suggesting that you follow the advice of Bill Gates and read Business Adventures by John Brooks over the summer.  I am a big believer that the main problem that college students suffer from is procrastination so I hope you didn’t put that suggestion in the “think about it later” file.  Do it or don’t do it but don’t defer it to death.

As some of you might know, I have long maintained a teaching blog where I discuss how I teach my classes.  So, I posted a discussion of that particular book recommendation.  The posting has already been read by several hundred followers. 

A friend of mine named Bob Jensen responded with what I thought was a fabulous idea.   Dr. Jensen is retired from Trinity University and is a genuine legend in education.  I always pay attention to what he has to say but I thought this was an especially good idea.   I’m going to pass it along directly to you.   I have not tried any of the links he lists but I am sure Google can get you there if need be.  I just thought this was a genius idea for how to spend some of your free hours over the summer.  Talk about making yourself more marketable.  

​From Bob Jensen
“That is a good post. However, my number one recommendation would be for students to take advantage of summer months to learn how to code.  Coding is not something we stress in accounting curricula, but I read recently that ‘if you know how to code you will never be unemployed.’  That is generally true even if you must work at home.

“Coding is becoming a skill increasingly important in virtually all disciplines, even accounting.

“Here are some of the free services for learning how to code (just a sampling of the many alternatives)

Free Code Camp ---

Bob Jensen's World Library Links at
Khan Academy Computer Programming ---

DevArt: Art made with code ---

Learn How to Code for Free: A DIY Guide for Learning HTML, Python, Javascript & More  ---

Python Programming Language ---

Learn Python Programming Language with a Free Online Course from MIT ---

Free eBooks on Computer Programming from O’Reilly Media ---

CS For All: Introduction to Computer Science and Python Programming ---

“I used to teach Fortran (loved it) and Cobol (hated it) but times have changed and left me in my retirement dust.  Recommend that virtually all young folks learn how to code in the newer coding ‘languages.’"