Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Stepping Stones

When I wrote my free on-line teaching tips book (https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~jhoyle/), I compared the education process to walking across a pond on stepping stones. The student is trying to go from ignorance to understanding and the teacher plays many roles in this process. Two of the most important are (a) placing those stones in a logical sequence that best guides and promotes the learning and (b) helping the student get from one stone (concept) to the next—especially in areas that can be difficult for a person with limited (often very limited) knowledge.

Early in the semester, at least in my Financial Accounting class, I do a lot of thinking about sequencing. In an introductory class, students know little or nothing. They can get lost and frustrated very quickly and lose interest or confidence. I believe that many textbooks do not do a particular good job in the sequencing of material in the early chapters. In general, here is the sequencing that I have been trying to establish in my first week-and-a-half of classes this semester.

--Every student is a potential decision-maker when it comes to organizations because you work for, invest in, or do business with them.

--A lot of financial information is available to help you make wise decisions about those organizations.

--The more you understand that financial information the more likely it is that you will make wise decisions.

--Accountants have devised a structure known as US GAAP so that everyone uses the same reporting rules. This structure is hugely important in helping decision-makers to understand the information they are seeing. Communication of information is much more successful when we all speak the same language. As much as anything else, this course is about coming to understand that language--US GAAP (as well as IFRS, the international standards).

--A significant portion of the information is designed to report the assets, liabilities, revenues, and expenses of an organization. There are other things to report but those are the major ones. Those four are so essential to our understanding of an organization and its financial health and prospects that we take our time in class and make sure there is no confusion. Why is a building an asset and an employee is not (according to rules)? What exactly is meant by the term "revenue?"

--The information has to be presented in some organized form. We use financial statements for that purpose.

Okay, after four days, I am satisfied that my students are beginning to make it across the pond on those stepping stones. At least they have made a start. Tomorrow, we will look more closely at financial statements. They have been looking at Kroger's statements on line -- just picking out the parts they understand.

In addition, we will try to move the process along a bit more by introducing transactions and just talk about a few basic transactions and what actually changes in each one. This is another one of those places where students can stumble so we’ll start using those three magic words that are always helpful in education: practice, practice, practice.

That’s the sequencing that I have built into our new Financial Accounting textbook and into my class. However, there are many potential sequences that you can follow. But it is helpful to think about your sequence. Don’t sequence randomly unless you are trying to promote confusion. What is your first step, what is the second step, and so on? Is there anything in that sequence that might really frustrate or lose your students? If so, is there anything you can do to help them successfully move forward?

Anticipate where the problems will be. Being able to spot the potential difficulties and guide the students through them is certainly one key to a successful learning experience.

I hope we have a great day tomorrow and I hope you and your classes do as well.

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