Sunday, February 28, 2010

Thinking About Teaching

Thanks for passing along our blog address to others who are serious about teaching.
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You may have seen the video below (it is four minutes long). It had a lot of impact on me when I was creating our new Financial Accounting textbook. The video was apparently created by the students you see and really made me think about the state of education today. As far as I am concerned, education is expensive and, too often, both boring and inefficient. I wanted to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. As a result, I helped design and create this new type of Financial Accounting textbook.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGCJ46vyR9o
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As I have mentioned previously, a few years ago I wrote a free on-line teaching tips book (https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~jhoyle/). I was lucky, a few people read it and told other people and then I got a very nice review in the Chronicle of Higher Education. As a result, I started getting emails from around the world about teaching. That was wonderful.

One day I received an email from a professor in London who said something like: “you don’t know me but I have read your teaching tips book and have a quote that I think you are going to love.” And, he was absolutely correct—this is one of my two or three favorite quotes about teaching. Whenever I give a teaching presentation, I always use this quote to explain what I believe is the true secret for becoming a better teacher. It is the best piece of advice that I can give any teacher who wants to improve.

"Teaching does not come from years of doing it. It actually comes from thinking about it."

I get pretty decent teaching evaluations from my students and I have won a few awards. Whenever anyone asks me how I managed to do that, I always say: “I think about this stuff a lot. Whether it is 6:00 a.m. when I wake up or 10:30 p.m. when I go to bed, teaching and my students and how to help them learn is always floating around in my head.”

So, today, I decided to tell you about what has been floating around in my head recently.

It seems to me that college education in my lifetime has focused on the conveyance of information. One content expert (the teacher) conveys information to a group of individuals who want (or are required) to gain a bit of that expertise. Despite what we might say, that process has not changed too radically in the last four decades since I was a college student.

However, with the Internet, Google, Bing and the like, information is readily available to most individuals at any time. It is hard to find a factual question that you cannot answer in less than one minute using a search engine. What then is the future purpose of a college education (other than the acquisition of a very expensive diploma)? If there is no longer a huge need for the conveyance of information from one generation to the next because it is so readily available, what are we doing? Don’t we need to know that before we even start the first class?

Do we who teach in college think about that question enough or just try to ignore it as best we can?

When I give teaching presentations, we work on developing “fly-on-the-wall” philosophies. What the heck is that? I ask the members of the audience to picture the course that is their favorite to teach. Then think of the final day of the semester when the students file out of the room for the last time. I ask each of the teachers to pretend they are a fly on the wall right above the door. If you were that fly on the wall, what would you want to hear from your students as they exited for the final time?

--The teacher sure conveyed a lot of information??
--I certainly took some great notes this semester??
--I memorized a lot of material so I could pass a test??

From my experience, a lot of teachers teach as if that is their goal. But, surely that cannot be the reason we became teachers. In 2010, doesn’t it have to be something more than that? And, if the answer is Yes, then what is the purpose of a college course?

I can tell you my own personal fly-on-the-wall philosophy but I am not sure that I am not ready for some change in it. So, if you have suggestions, let me know.

Here is my mine. On the last day of class, I would love to hear by students say:

“I never thought I could work so hard. I never thought I could learn so much. I never thought I could think so deeply. And, it was actually fun.”

What is yours?

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And, in closing today, one of my Financial Accounting students sent me the following link.

“I came across something that I thought was pretty interesting, it's not about accounting but for some reason I thought it might peak your interest.” http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

It's Exam TIme

I'm writing the semester's first exam for my fixed income class. As usual, I'm not looking forward to the grading (this time, I am NOT giving them any short answer questions - their answers are anything but). I'm hoping at least one of my students can come up with an answer like one of these:

21 seriously funny exam answers

For some reason I found this one (#18) particularly amusing. But you can choose your own:

Thursday, February 25, 2010

What Do You Need to Know?

Whether you are teaching history, biology, or accounting, there is always the question of how you wrap up a chapter or unit of coverage. Do you just stop or do you try to bring the material together in some type of logical order for the students?

Yesterday in class I did something new (even after 39 years) which seemed to work well. I posed the following question to my students:

“Assume you are desperately looking for a summer job. A local business calls you in and says that the person who monitors their accounts receivable is going to be on leave over the summer and they need someone to take care of those accounts for a couple of months until that person gets back. They want to make sure that the accounts are appropriate because they have an August 31 year-end and need to have everything ready at that time so financial statements can be prepared.

“A person comes in to interview you for this job and asks one simple question: ‘I know you have had a course in financial accounting. What exactly do you know about accounts receivable and its reporting?’ You really want this job because it pays well. How do you respond?”

The idea of interviewing for a summer job is one that students understand immediately. So, suddenly their knowledge has a purpose. I was impressed; they quickly rolled out a long list of things that they knew about accounts receivable.
--It is reported on the balance sheet at net realizable value—the amount of cash expected to be collected.
--Reporting is not exact because of the uncertainty of collection; however, the balance should be fairly presented according to US GAAP.
--The accounts receivable balance is normally reported as a current asset because collection is expected in a short period of time.
--An allowance account is established for reporting purposes since (at the time of estimation) you do not know the identity of the accounts that will prove uncollectible.
--Because of the matching principle, the expense needs to be estimated and recognized in the same period as the revenue.
--The estimation can be made using the percentage of sales method or the percentage of receivables (aging) method. Any logical method works; these are just two different ways of making an estimate.
--The percentage of sales method estimates bad debt expense (both are on the income statement); the percentage of receivables method estimates the allowance for doubtful accounts (both are on the balance sheet).
--Writing off an account as uncollectible reduces the allowance and the receivable balance but does not affect the expense. It was recognized previously in the period of sale.
--A subsidiary ledger is used to maintain the balances owed by individual customers.
--The average age of accounts receivable can be calculated in order to monitor whether collections are speeding up or slowing down. If slowing down, actions can be taken to encourage quicker payment.

This exercise took approximately five minutes and it helped (I think) the students get an overview of what we had covered. On one sheet of paper, they had a summary of everything that they needed to know to (a) impress a person interviewing them about a summer job and (b) make a good grade on their upcoming test.

One thing I particularly liked about this exercise was that it did not come from me; the answers came from the students. In education, I always prefer anything that encourages the students to think about the material.

There are many ways to wrap up a chapter. This is an approach that you might try at some point in the future to help bring it all together.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Professor's Epic Email Response To a Tardy And Entitled Student

Like most faculty, students coming late to class bothers me - it disrupts the class, interrupts my train of thought, and in general causes a negative externality. In previous years, the problem seems to have gotten worse - in some classes, 15% would wander in after class has started. So this semester, I borrowed a page from a colleague's book. He teaches law for our B-School, and is a former partner for a major Wall Street Law firm. He's very formal in class, is known throughout the school as a fantastic professor, and a bit of a hardass (formal, but a hardass).

So now, whenever a student walks into class late, I merely stop talking in mid sentence. I then quietlty wait until the student is seated. At this point, they're usually embarrassed. I continue waiting they have their book AND pencil out. Of course, the spotlight on them makes them extremely uncomfortable. I don't ream them, don't make any faces, comments, or do anything else - merely ask "Are you ready now?" Then I take up right where I left off. It's kind of fun, and I don't have to come off like my usual sarcastic self. It seems to work pretty well - late arrivals have really dropped off this semester.

But this guy (Scott Galloway at NYU) just throws them out if they come in late. A student got the treatment recently and sent him a (to my ears) somewhat entitled email. Galloway give him an epic reaming.

Read the responses - they're classic (particularly the David Mamet references). If you have any favorite techniques for dealing with late students, feel free to share.

Of course, as they say in the ads, "your mileage may vary".

HT: Craig Newmark (who gets it)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

I'm Still Here

As several readers have noted, I haven't been posting much lately. Mostly, I've been working - trying to get ahead in my classes, working on research, and in general keeping a low profile. So, here's a brief update on things.

As usual, I've been juggling a couple of projects. One is (finally) just about done - it's been going on for a couple of years now, but the end is in sight. With luck (and, more important, some discipline), it should be done in the next couple of weeks. And then it'll get sent out to the Journal of Banking and Finance (not a top-tier journal, but pretty good). Then I work on another piece that will get sent to Financial Management (about at the same level).

Meanwhile, I'm also working on an accounting piece that will be sent to the Journal of Accounting, Auditing, and Finance. SO, with a bit of luck, I should shortly have three pieces under review at pretty decent journals.

Meanwhile, in the last two weeks, I've received three papers to review, so it;s time to start working on those. It's odd - nothing for a year, and then three in a week. Ah well.

While this is going on, I've been teaching (of course). Last semester, I had three "preps" (a "prep is a unique class you must prepare for - so three preps means three separate classes), of which one was a new one. This semester, I have only two preps, and neither one is a new one. So, I've actually been getting things done.

Finally, things have been good in the Unknown Household. Unknown Baby Boy is crawling, and starting to make words - so far, he does "Da Da" and a pretty good imitation of an explosion (what can I say - he's a Boy Child). The Unknown Daughter continues to impress everyone with her writing skills (she recently described her mom and friends as "overly garrulous"), and has been reading up a storm.

Enough for now - my data awaits.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Jello Knowledge

If you are a college teacher and would like to request a desk copy of my new Financial Accounting textbook, go to the following URL and you can see where to click.

http://www.flatworldknowledge.com/printed-book/90996
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In my financial accounting class yesterday, we introduced accounts receivable. We walked through bad debts, the allowance for doubtful accounts, recording the estimation, and the like. It went extremely well; the class seemed to catch on to the concepts. They had what I call “head nodding disease;” for everything we talked about, they nodded their heads in agreement and understanding. That always scares me to death.

I think the learning process often breaks down at certain critical times. If you want to improve a student’s performance, you have to identify and attack those points. Right after class is one of the most critical.

Students frequently complain that they knew the material until they took the test and, then, almost by magic, their understanding vanished. I refer to that (even to them) as “jello knowledge.” Jello knowledge looks solid but if you try to build on it, the level of understanding proves to be squishy and unstable.

Even under the best of circumstances, students leave most classes with nothing more than jello knowledge. Things looked clear and simple to them in class so they assume they have a solid understanding. Yesterday, my students really seemed to believe they knew how to account for accounts receivable. Unfortunately, that is often just an illusion. In reality, during most classes, they kind of see how everything fits together. They know enough to be guided by a teacher through the topic but they don’t know enough to do it themselves. That is a big difference.

They have to learn enough to be able to do it themselves.

I tell my students that the most important period in their learning is the few hours immediately after class. They walk away with jello knowledge. If nothing further happens, even that understanding will quickly become less stable. However, if they take proper action, that jello can become rock solid understanding.

I push them to go back through their notes immediately after class and organize everything. They are looking for holes where their understanding is weak. I also suggest that they try to come up with 5-10 questions to summarize what we did in class. Despite its reputation, accounting is often more verbal than numerical and I want them to understand that verbal side: Why is an allowance for doubtful accounts necessary? Is bad debt expense recognized when the sale is made or when the uncollectible account is discovered? What balances are affected when an account is judged to be uncollectible? Creating verbal answers to basic questions is a great way to gain solid understanding.

Finally, I often send my students a problem immediately after class with the admonition: “work this one immediately. Don’t wait; do it right NOW. If you can get my answers, then you probably have today’s class under control. If you cannot, then you have some work left to be done to get your knowledge solidified.”

(I often get the response: "well, I thought I knew this until I tried that email problem you sent.)

So, about 30 minutes after class yesterday, I sent the following problem out by email. What I want is for them to take the time, before the jello knowledge gets squishy, to use this problem to truly gain a solid understanding of what we covered.
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Email to my students:
(1) - Let’s assume you produce financial statements at the end of 2009 and report Sales of $600,000, bad debt expense of $24,000, accounts receivable of $400,000, and the allowance for doubtful accounts of $28,000 (a credit balance).

In 2010, you make credit sales of $800,000. You make cash collections of $500,000. You discover that accounts of $31,000 actually prove to be uncollectible.

You are getting ready to make financial statements at the end of 2010. You estimate that 4 percent of credit sales will prove uncollectible. On your balance sheet, what is the allowance for doubtful accounts?

Okay, if you really followed and understood what we covered today in class, then I think you should be able to get this answer. It is: the allowance for doubtful accounts will be reported as $29,000. If you cannot get that with a reasonable amount of effort, come see me.

(2) – Do problem (1) again. Leave everything exactly the same except assume that you estimate that 7 percent of the ending receivables will prove to be bad. On the 2010 financial statements, what is reported as bad debt expense?

We did not get this second approach finished in class today but if you read the book carefully, you can figure it out. If you do, the bad debt expense will be $49,830. If you cannot get this, wait until after class on Monday and try again. If it still doesn’t work, see me.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

When Do You Cover the SEC?

When a person decides to write a textbook for an introductory course, determining the content of that book becomes a serious responsibility. For probably 90 percent of the students, this will be their one and only exposure to the subject matter. What you include and exclude will—to an extent—determine the knowledge all of those people will carry with them after college. If you leave out a topic, literally thousands of students may never gain any knowledge of its significance.

I have always believed that everyone who takes a financial accounting course should develop some general understanding of “the world of accounting” by the end of the semester. I believe that an educated person needs to understand the role of the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the independent audit function. I don’t want to beat the topic to death but I feel that a financial accounting course has to be more than just the creation and analysis of financial statements.

Up until this year, I have used a best-selling financial accounting textbook that covers the SEC on page 19 of chapter one. How mystifying (and boring) the SEC and independent auditing must seem to a college sophomore on the first or second day of class. I'm surprised that they don't go running out of the room. At that point, when my students are having trouble comprehending the nature of an asset, I cannot even imagine trying to cover the SEC in some engaging fashion.

So, when C. J. Skender and I wrote our financial accounting textbook (for FlatworldKnowledge), the placement of “the world of accounting” was something that we puzzled about for a considerable period of time. Finally, the decision was made that we would introduce decision making, transactions, GAAP, financial statements, journal entries, and the like in the first five chapters. Then, before we started looking at the reporting of specific asset accounts such as accounts receivable and inventory, we would devote one chapter to the accounting world. That was chapter six.

Today was the day we started coverage of that material. I was extremely curious as to whether the students would start yawning or actually get interested. I knew that I could teach it to them (they can memorize virtually anything) but I wanted them to actually be interested in this world.

I started off with two questions: (1) how would the world be different without the SEC and independent auditors and (2) what exactly is the objective of the independent auditor and how does he or she achieve that objective? I posed a number of other questions but those were the core of our conversation.

I cannot tell you how pleased I was. Whereas, in the past, I have had to push these topics down the throats of my students, most of my class time today was taken up by the students asking me how things actually function. At one point, 7 of the 25 students had their hands raised to ask something about how “the world of accounting” works.

It is an introductory course. No one expects a 19 year old to be an expert on the SEC but, to my way of thinking, they need to understand the business world: what makes it tick. When the SEC is criticized in the news or when a CPA firm is sued, I want them to have some understanding of what is taking place. I had always found coverage in chapter one to simply be over their heads. But, clearly, as least for my 25 students today, coverage in chapter six, after seeing transactions, GAAP, financial statements, and the like, worked out great.

My wife used to teach first grade and she always said that you cannot teach a child to read until they are ready to learn to read. I feel the same way about the SEC and auditing; you cannot introduce those topics to students until they are ready to learn them.

Monday, February 15, 2010

How Hard Should the First Test Be?

I gave my first test in Financial Accounting on Friday (if anyone wants to receive a copy, send me a note at jhoyle@richmond.edu). I thought it was a very challenging test and I am reminded of the psychological impact of every first test. I give three tests and a final exam during a semester because I want students to have plenty of opportunity to show me what they have learned. However, I understand the special importance of the first test. It can shake the confidence of the best student. It can bolster the confidence of the most timid student. If I make the first test too easy, I worry that my students will feel that I have set the bar fairly low and that less work will be necessary to succeed. If I make the first test too hard, I worry that my students will feel overwhelmed. Everyone likes a challenge but only as long as they feel that success is not impossible to achieve.

What are my goals on any test? I want the students to feel it was fair. I want the students to realize they could have worked every question with a proper level of knowledge and thought. I want to cover a wide range of material so I get a legitimate view of what they know. I want to be able to clearly differentiate the students with excellent knowledge from those with good knowledge, poor knowledge, and so on.

But, for the first test, I want a bit more than that. I want to show the students the level of understanding that I seek. In many ways, the first test is a road map to the students for the rest of the semester. “This is the kind of understanding that I believe equates to an excellent level of knowledge.”

I once took a course in basketball coaching. The teacher eventually became an NBA head coach and then a television analyst. I remember him talking about the first practice: “You set the tone for the entire season at the first practice. Always remember: it is easy to get easier; it is hard to get harder.”

I follow that approach. So, my first test on Friday was pretty darn difficult (I thought). However, giving out all D’s and F’s just to make a point does not seem fair. I want to be challenging AND encouraging. For that reason, I gave a very hard test and then I applied a pretty steep curve. I wound up with 16 percent A’s, 40 percent B’s, 32 percent C’s, and 12 percent D’s. Today, I will go into class and we will chat about how they can grow from this experience. It is only a small part of their grade and if they learn what I’m looking for, there is no reason they cannot do better on the second test. I will be thrilled if they walk out of class today and say “now I see what he wants and I can do that with sufficient work.”

I want the first test to be a real challenge but I do not want it to ruin their confidence level.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Essentials

I believe that every course—whether Accounting or Zoology or anything in between—contains a number of true essentials that all students should learn (and learn well). Once a student knows these essentials, they can serve as building blocks to help that student develop a deeper and more complex understanding. Without an adequate knowledge of these essentials, it is really hard to learn anything more complicated. Students who struggle in my course often do so because their knowledge of the essentials is shaky.

Therefore, in my class, I strongly push knowledge of the essentials. To do this, I suggest that my students make a list of “three second questions” for every chapter. A “three-second question” is one that is so basic that they should be able to read it, count to three, and give the answer off the top of their heads. In fact, I suggest that they make these into flash cards, with a “three-second question” on one side and the answer on the back. Then, as they study, they read the question, count to three, and give the answer. I don’t want them to look up the answer; I don’t want them to think about the answer; I want them to know the answer. This is a question that is so essential that they really should be able to give the answer off the top of their heads. I have found this to be a great way to help them solidify their knowledge of the essentials.

To aid them further, I strongly suggest that their answer cannot be longer than 10 words. If they cannot edit the answer down to 10 words, I suggest that they need to break the question into two or more questions. Students often want to answer every question with a long essay. This exercise is about knowing the essentials. To me, an essential should be 10 words or less in most cases.

Students often make scores of these flash cards and will ask each other the questions to see if they can respond in three seconds. Obviously, I want them to know much more than the basics. However, when my students have those essentials down pat, I find that going into deeper and more complex territory becomes much easier for them.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

An Epiphany

By now, everyone who reads this blog probably understands that I teach by means of the Socratic Method. I give a list of 3-8 questions one day which serve as “conversation starters” for the next class. In addition, our brand new Financial Accounting textbook (published by FlatWorldKnowledge) is written entirely in a Socratic Method fashion. A question is posed followed by an answer followed by the next logical question and so on.

When this process works perfectly, it is because of the questions. You must ask the proper question in order to create an environment for discovery. How do you develop those questions? Don’t the questions have to be something more than “when did Columbus discover America?” or “who won the Civil War?”

I had never thought much about the creation of questions until a few years ago. Then, I had an epiphany. I was reading the wonderful book “What the Best College Teachers Do” by Dr. Ken Bain. Dr. Bain and his team selected a group of outstanding college teachers from around the country and shadowed them for a period of time to discover their secrets. I was reading along and came to page 40 where I found this marvelous passage: “One professor explained it this way: ‘It’s sort of Socratic . . . You begin with a puzzle—you get somebody puzzled, and tied in knots, and mixed up.’ Those puzzles and knots generate questions for students, he went on to say, and then you begin to help them untie the knots.”

You get somebody puzzled, and tied in knots, and those puzzles and knots generate questions for students and then you begin to help them untie the knots.

I cannot think of a better description of what I think a teacher should strive to do. Puzzle students, tie their thinking into knots, and then help them untie the knots.

College teachers often view themselves as conveyors of knowledge/information. If that is the case, then a pure lecture works fine. You convey knowledge; students try to catch it as it flies by. However, if you want understanding, curiosity, interest, and enthusiasm, you have to go beyond that. And, I think the “secret” to working on a higher level is in the idea of puzzling the students, tying their thinking into knots, and then helping them to solve those puzzles.

Let me give you an example. Next week, in my Financial Accounting class, I will start talking about accounts receivable. As far as I can tell, most accounting teachers tell their students to read the chapter and assign one or more problems to work. The students then search (often desperately) through the chapter for a reasonable facsimile and try to duplicate that process to solve the homework assignment. In class, the problem is worked and the students make corrections. How do you rate the learning that occurs? Is it much different than learning to change the oil in your car? Ask yourself: does that process generate understanding, curiosity, interest, and enthusiasm?

Here’s how I might go about starting a discussion about reporting accounts receivable. (My quick answers are included in parenthesis. I obviously don’t give the answers to the students.)

1 – Your company sells 1,000 toasters near the end of December 2009, for $60 each. All $60,000 of these sales are made on account and collection will be in three or four months. A balance sheet is produced on December 31, 2009. What do outside decision makes really want to know about those accounts receivable? (The amount of cash the company will collect.)
2 – What is the problem with what the decision makers want to know in the above question? (Uncertainty—the accountant can only guess at the amount of cash that will be collected.)
3 – Accountants are known for being obsessively accurate. Will the reported number be accurate? (It is only an estimate; no one expects an estimate to be accurate. Things like exactness fly out the window when you start making guesses.)
4 – If the number is not accurate, what is it? (A fair representation according to US GAAP. In other words, the reporting follows the rules.)
5 – If there are $60,000 in accounts receivable, how can you report any other number on the balance sheet? Doesn’t it have to be $60,000? (The company sets up an allowance account to reduce the asset by the amount that is anticipated as being uncollectible.)
6 – Assume you know that $2,000 of the $60,000 will prove to be uncollectible in 2010. Two customers will die, leave town, go bankrupt, or the like. That is an expense for the company. Should the $2,000 expense be recognized in 2009 or 2010? (In 2009. Expenses are recognized according to the matching principle. Revenues from the sale of toasters are recognized in 2009 so any related expenses [such as the bad debts] must also be recognized in 2009.

Okay, I could go on and on but you probably get the idea. Here is my challenge to you on a very cold and snowy Wednesday: are you puzzling your students enough and tying their thinking into knots? Are you helping them solve those puzzles and untie those knots? If not, you might want to consider that strategy as a way to increase their understanding, curiosity, interest, and enthusiasm.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Is This Really Worth Learning?

It is helpful for a teacher to look at school from the perspective of a student. From the time they first enter kindergarten, each teacher will tell the students that this new subject is truly important for them to know. However, not every subject can possibly prove to be immediately significant to every student. Consequently, they learn to be skeptical (very skeptical). From algebra to zoology, students are told that everything is important but often there is no evidence of that in their own world. That is why teachers often must fall back on grades as an artificial way to force importance: “this material is important to you because it is going to be on a test and affect the grade you will get.”

For that reason, when they enter your class, in the back of their mind is the gnawing suspicion: accounting rules are probably not very important regardless of what the teacher is going to tell me.

I try to, at least, put a dent that skepticism as quickly as possible. After the first couple of classes, I ask my students to make a list of the top ten intellectual achievements of the 20th century. A list quickly develops that is usually topped by landing on the moon, the development of penicillin, the creation of the modern computer, the Internet, the invention of the airplane, and the like.

I then read to them the following quote from the Wall Street Journal of August 13, 2001 (which is now found in Chapter Two of our Financial Accounting textbook):

“When the intellectual achievements of the 20th century are tallied, GAAP should be on everyone's Top 10 list. The idea of GAAP—so simple yet so radical—is that there should be a standard way of accounting for profit and loss in public businesses, allowing investors to see how a public company manages its money. This transparency is what allows investors to compare businesses as different as McDonald's, IBM and Tupperware, and it makes U.S. markets the envy of the world.”

The students are just floored. How could anyone place accounting principles on the same level as penicillin and walking on the moon? It is so ludicrous as to be intriguing. So, I put forth one simple question: “assume that the United States had no accounting rules at all. What would be the result?” The conversation that follows is always fascinating.

Students are pretty good at figuring out this author’s logic:

--Without standards, it would be difficult for decision makers to either trust or understand the information they received from an organization.
--Without trust and understanding, people would be much less likely to provide financial resources to these organizations.
--Without financial resources, corporations could not grow to any significant size and they could not develop so many of the things we take for granted today such as computers, airplanes, and automobiles.

Okay, it is a stretch to say that the evolution of civilization depends entirely on GAAP. But, for students, this is an eye-opening conversation. Something that most of them had never heard of two weeks earlier (GAAP) apparently has a essential place in society that was totally unknown to them. Maybe they do need to learn about these accounting principles. Maybe they really are important.

That’s what I want. I’m not trying to convince them that GAAP is more important than penicillin but I am trying to convince them that GAAP is important enough that it is worth their time and energy to learn. If I can convince them of that, I feel that I am much more likely to get them to do the work necessary to learn the material. And, that, to me, is half the battle.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

You Can Teach Old Dogs New Tricks

Beside of my computer, I keep a magazine article from the October 30, 2006, edition of Fortune. The article is titled “What It Takes to Be Great.” I have one small part of that article circled and I read it frequently: “In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly, and then stop developing completely. Yet a few do improve for years and even decades.”

I want very much to be in that second group and not in the first. I want to be the type of teacher who never stops developing. I know plenty of teachers who continue to teach exactly as they did 5, 10, 15 years ago. I have taught now for 39 years, I want to keep improving. My guess is that you would not be reading this blog if you didn’t share my goal of getting better.

One of the neatest things I learned about teaching happened a mere 3 years ago. Did not occur to me for 36 years and then, suddenly, I came up with an idea that has helped my students.

Every day I give my students assignments for the next class. I try to make those assignments reasonable but I also want the questions to stretch the thinking of my students. Why ask them who is buried in Grant’s Tomb? What good does that do them?

Moreover, I want them to walk into class with those questions on their minds. I want some real thinking done before class. I want the students to be ready to discuss the points immediately.

So, about three years ago, I started urging all of my students (who could) to meet outside of the classroom about 15-30 minutes before class to discuss the questions for the day. Now, about 20 minutes before every class, there is a small roar as about 2/3 of my students sit clustered together trying to come up with the answers for the questions we are going to discuss.

There are so many things I like about this and, other than suggesting and encouraging them to do it, I don’t do anything. Here are just four things I like especially:

1-The students actually enjoy sitting there chatting with each other about their accounting assignments. Who could not like an idea that helps the students find the material more enjoyable?
2-The students walk into class with all of the material fresh on their mind; I don’t have to take 10 minutes to remind them of what we are doing.
3-The students form a community; they learn from each other and they learn to help each other. I think that is something all classes should strive to create. They actually become a team.
4-The students don’t want to feel stupid in front of their peers so they actually seem to prepare more before these sessions.

Okay, but the questions do have to challenge them to think or there is no benefit from the meeting. That is the real key.

For example, on Monday, I want to spend a little time talking about the role and purpose of the SEC. I don’t want to spend much time but I do think (especially in these current economic times) that every person who has had an accounting class should understand something about the SEC. But that can be a deadly dull topic in an accounting class. So, here is the question that I will pose for them to consider. After they sit and talk about this question before class, I doubt there will be much left for me to do. I think they will hash it out for themselves and I’ll just make sure they get all the points that I want them to have.

(Question 10) – Read Section One of Chapter Six of our Financial Accounting textbook. Assume you have a roommate who has never been inside of the business school. The roommate looks at you one day and says “I keep hearing all about the Securities and Exchange Commission on the news. What the heck does the SEC do and why is always in the news and why should I even care?” What would be your response?

And, I came up with this idea after I was officially an old dog.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Please Note

I have enjoyed all of the conversation that has been generated by the January 31 posting “How You Test Is How They Will Learn.” If you want to read the comments or chime in, just click on “Comments” at the bottom of the post. I think a lot of professors fail to consider adequately what a significant impact their testing strategy has on student learning. I’m always interested in people’s thoughts, especially when it comes to tests and grades. Feel free to let us know your thoughts.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Should You Teach Debits and Credits?

Just a Reminder: If you want to review our new (free, online) Financial Accounting textbook, you can go to http://www.flatworldknowledge.com/pub/1.0/financial-accounting -- check out how a textbook can be written entirely in the Socratic Method (and watch my videos).
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I started discussing debits and credits yesterday with my students. I hope to complete the coverage tomorrow.

I know some great teachers who believe that double-entry bookkeeping should not be taught in a financial accounting class. They feel that the focus needs to be solely on understanding the information that is reported. I know other equally great teachers who believe that no person can claim to have taken a basic financial accounting course without some understanding of debits and credits.

When an author sets out to write any textbook, a lot of critical decisions have to be made. For financial accounting, one of the first is: should bookkeeping with its debits, credits, journal entries, and T-accounts be covered? You cannot have it both ways—the topic is either there or it is not. The construction of the rest of the book hinges on how you answer that question.

From my own experience, I believe the use of journal entries (with their ancient system of debits and credits) is an effective way to visualize the impact of a transaction. I readily acknowledge that a person can teach the course successfully without any mention of mechanical record-keeping. However, there are so many times in my own classes where I will say “let’s see if we can figure out what is happening in this case by constructing a journal entry.” And, I find myself saying that most often when the students get stuck trying to understand the event. They don’t need a journal entry to help them understand what accounts change when a receivable is collected. But the exchange of vehicles, for example, or the write off of an uncollectible account appear easier for them “to see” if a journal entry can be set up in debit and credit form.

Publishers often market books as being preparer-based or user-focused. Okay, that is often a type of code for how much time and energy the book spends on the mechanical aspects of accounting. But I think that is the entirely wrong argument. A financial accounting course should be about understanding financial information that is created using US GAAP (or IFRS). If that understanding can be enhanced by some coverage of debits and credits, that is fine by me. I am only interested in aiding my students to understand what the reported numbers mean and how they were derived. For many of them, a few debits and credits can prove helpful.

I can be a perfectly good car owner and not know a thing about how a 6 cylinder engine works. However, I can probably be a better car owner if I do have some knowledge of pistons, plugs, valves, and the other mechanical stuff. An accounting course should not be about debits and credits (I completely agree to that) but they can, I believe, help students understand the effect created by a financial transaction.

What do you think? I'd be interesting in knowing. Jhoyle@richmond.edu