Sunday, March 7, 2010

Two Essential Questions

Before I get started, I wanted to mention that I chatted this past week with Professor Steve Teeter of Utah Valley University by way of e-mail. In the course of that conversation, I read his teaching philosophy on the Internet. I was impressed by it and he was kind enough to let me pass it along. I really like the idea of the community of teachers sharing such thoughts. Here is Professor Teeter’s teaching philosophy:

“An education is not a true education unless it is real, that is to say useful in a student's life outside the classroom regardless of the field they go into. I believe in students coming first and having the right to a great education - an education that encompasses a balance of academics, real-world exposure, high expectancy from themselves and from me their instructor, rigor, and an environment where students have the opportunity to succeed and be the best they can be. If we can help our students succeed, they will thirst for more success which will, in turn, benefit our college, our community, and our society."

I especially liked his comment that students have the “right to a great education.” I think colleges and universities often seem to believe that students have the right to an average education or that a few exceptional students have the right to a great education. I have 82 students this semester and I would love to believe that they all have the right to a great education in my class. That is not an easy goal (in fact, it is probably an impossible goal) but I do think it is a worthwhile goal. If a student walks into my class, regardless of why they signed up for the course, it might well be their only chance in life to learn financial accounting. It is now or never. I want that experience to be as close to great as I can get it. Not for one, or a few, but for all of them.

I sometimes think we make the educational process too complicated. The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi always seemed able to keep things simple. One of his best-known sayings is: “Some people try to find things in this game that don't exist but football is only two things - blocking and tackling.” Being successful often goes back to being good at the very basics. Once the basics are solid then a person should be able to build on them and accomplish great things.

I believe the same thing applies to teaching. No matter whether you lecture or use PowerPoint slides or work problems or (as I do) use a Socratic approach, I think creating a successful class goes back to helping students come up with satisfactory answers to two basic questions:

--What should I learn?
--Why should I learn it?

Virtually all college students have the ability to learn the material at some moderate level. But they have to know what is expected of them and why they should do the work. Very few students are absolutely incapable of learning.

When things break down, it is often—I believe—because of a problem with one of those two basic questions.

If you have students who understand the answers to those two questions, it is likely that they will do well and you and they will both be pleased with the outcome. Students have a shortage of time; they are extremely busy. From my experience, they seem willing to allocate sufficient time to courses but only if they understand what they should be learning and why they should be learning it.

In financial accounting, as you cover accounts receivable, bad debt expense, inventory, FIFO and LIFO, depreciation, contingencies, and the like, the answers to those two questions are not necessarily obvious to students. So, always ask yourself:

--Do your students know what you really want them to learn and understand?
--Do your students know why they should care enough to do the work that is necessary to learn the material?

If you are struggling with a class, one possibility is that the students do not have a good answer for one or both of those questions. They are confused about what you want from them or they don’t believe the benefit is worth the effort that is required.

Or, you can see it in the opposite: When a class is really going well, it is frequently because students understand what you are looking for from them and honestly believe the effort is worthwhile.

Students taking any course often perceive the information as a massive and jumbled blob. That was what it looked like when I was in college. For most of them, it is all new stuff that comes at them at high speed. Patterns and connections that are so obvious to the professor can seem like the Da Vinci Code to students.

For that reason, when I get to the end of chapter, I occasionally ask my student to tell me what I specifically want them to know. We will make a list on the board as they suggest one item or another. After a student makes a suggestion, I will ask a different student whether he or she agrees with the inclusion. If so, I then ask what I think is a key question: “Why would I care enough about this item to include it on a test?” I am surprised by how often students seem mystified by my query. I don't think they've ever thought about the material like that.

If a student responds, “I have no idea” I know that I have not done a good job of explaining the importance of that item. I need to do better or I need to consider whether I should continue to include that material in the course.

While we make this list, I am able to re-emphasize what I felt was important and why. I don’t want my students to view financial accounting as a giant blob to be memorized. Instead, I want them to see it as a logical system that can be understood and that understanding can help them be good decision makers as they go through their lives.

It goes back to making sure we have the simple things, the very basics, under control. If so, then there is no limit to what we can accomplish in class after that.

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