Before I get started today, here is a short 3 minute video that my university produced where I talk about great teaching. I was allowed to write the questions so it was interesting to consider what questions I wanted to address.
Since I first began writing this blog, I have virtually never repeated an essay. One of the primary reasons that I created this site is that it forces me to think of new things to say and do. It helps my teaching stay fresh. However, I loosely based the following essay on a posting I published back in 2012. I updated my earlier posting for two reasons:
(1) – Over the years, I have had more professors tell me that they adopted this specific idea than any other idea I have ever circulated (without a doubt). Teachers quickly recognize the benefit and like how it rewards good work and helps get new students ready for the upcoming semester.
(2) – It is a topic that is on my mind at the moment. I just sent out these emails a day or two ago. Very little I do as a teacher is more likely to make me smile. I hope you will get the same enjoyment from this as I do.
Over the past weekend, I graded final exams, read term papers, and computed averages and awarded course grades. In one course, 23.8 percent of the students made an A and in my other course, 21.4 percent made an A. I always want more outstanding work but these percentages were fairly typical.
After determining the grades but before I post them officially, I always email every student who made an A to let them know of their accomplishment. I have two goals for this email, two very specific goals. (I like to tell people that when it comes to teaching, I never do anything randomly.)
Each of my two courses was challenging. I pushed the students to be prepared for every class. I called on them in class every day and questioned them—often intensely—about the material at hand. The tests were hard. The semester was long. This was no picnic.
At the end, the A students had shown consistently excellent work. I had no doubt that they deserved the grade of A. Consequently, I really wanted them to know how proud I was of their work. I wanted them to hear it directly from me. I know they will get a formal report from the university that will show the grade of A but that seems so impersonal. Somehow that just does not seem to be an adequate amount of recognition. I want each of those students to feel very special.
I often think that the reason we do not get as much outstanding work as we want from our students is that we do not acknowledge personally those people who actually do outstanding work. Why work so hard if no one is going to notice? I think that is a sentiment that every person in authority should ponder.
No one knows more about how to earn an A than the students who just did it. Therefore, I want them to convey that message to my next group of students. Students do not necessarily take advice from professors but are often inclined to listen carefully to advice from their peers. Notice in my email that I ask them to tell me how they made an A. Be serious and be honest. Rell me exactly how you went about earning the grade of A in my class. I accumulate all that advice into a Word document that I forward to my next class of students. “Read this – it comes from my current A students. They will tell you how to make an A. Learn from them what you need to do to excel.”
Below is what I wrote and emailed a few days ago to my A students. I really would urge you to consider doing something similar. It might seem corny to you but I bet that it will not seem corny to the students. (I cannot tell you how many students have written back to me over the years to tell me how much they cried when they got my note about them making an A. I obviously never set out to make anyone cry but it does indicate how special the recognition of hard work can be to a young student. I often say that the world would be a much more efficient and effective place if we all gave out a lot more pats on the back.)
I get back some genuinely nice responses. Here is one that I got this morning. “Thank you so much for this kind e-mail. I have worked harder for your class than I have for any other class in my academic career, and it is so rewarding knowing that my hard work has paid off. Since September, I have had a small piece of paper taped onto my laptop with the goal “Get an A in Accounting” written on it. Taking it off in the coming weeks will be satisfying knowing that I met my goal but also bittersweet with the class being over.”
December 18, 2018
I am sending this note to you as one of the students who earned the grade of A this semester in our accounting course. Although 28 students took the course, only 6 (21.4 percent) managed to earn the grade of A. And, you did it – Congratulations!! On the first day of the semester, I told the class that it would take truly outstanding work to earn an A. And, you did outstanding work. That is never easy. You should be proud of yourself and your effort.
I very much appreciate the work that it took to excel in such a challenging class. Few classes on any college campus are as demanding as our Intermediate Accounting II course. From the first day of the semester to the last, we pushed through some complicated material: gift cards, bundling, callable debt, frequent flyer miles, bonds, leases, deferred taxes, pension plans, comprehensive income, earnings per share, statement of cash flows, stock options, and much more. It is quite a list but it takes a deep knowledge of such topics to truly understand how accounting works.
Even before the semester began, I said that I would throw out odd and complex problems and then help you figure out how to report them so that they would be fairly presented in conformity with accounting rules. You did the work that was necessary to achieve that goal. You didn’t let the challenge overwhelm you. I am proud of you and pleased for you. I sincerely believe that all 28 students who started the course back in August had the ability to make an A. But you were one of the few who managed to achieve the goal. In life, success comes from a lot more than just ability. It comes from taking on challenges and investing the time necessary to be outstanding. I occasionally get frustrated that more students don’t set out to excel. However, I cannot say that about you.
Go out and celebrate your accomplishment! Not many people can say they made an A in this course. It is always fun for me to have students who want to do well and then do the work necessary to make it happen.
As you will likely remember, I always ask students who make an A in my class to write a short paragraph or two directed to next semester’s students to explain exactly how you did it. I really believe this provides important guidance that can help the next batch of students do their best. You figured out what I wanted and then you did it. Many students never seem to catch on to my goals. It is always helpful when the A students at the end of one semester explain success to the next group of students: “Everyone can make an A in this class but you really have to do certain things.” Okay, what are those things?
I only ask two things as you write this paragraph: be serious and tell the truth. There is really nothing more I can ask of you than that.
Have a great holiday break. Spend time doing stuff that will expand your horizons and make you think more deeply. Read a good book, see a thoughtful movie, check out a museum. Those are the type of experiences that can change the rest of your life (for the better). Never let life fall into a rut. Open your mind and pour as much interesting stuff into it as you can. Hopefully, that is one of the lessons that you will take with you from our class.
Congratulations again. It has been a genuine pleasure having the opportunity to work with you.