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.