Friday, August 18, 2017

BEYOND SUBJECT MATTER



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

HERE IS MY REAL VOICE



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

LET'S START AT THE END


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.