Monday, April 5, 2010

What's The Payoff?

Remember you can read the brand new Financial Accounting textbook that I wrote with C. J. Skender by going to It is free, online. Why not read it or let your students know it is there and ask them to look it over as a supplement?

If you have read my blog, you already know that I am somewhat obsessed with the importance of student preparation for class. In fact, my students would probably say that I’m “totally obsessed” with the importance of student preparation. I do not see how a teacher can accomplish much if the students have done no preliminary work. At that point, all they can do is sit quietly and take notes. That is not education; that is stenography.

Like most professors, I assign several pages for them to read prior to each class and give them some questions/problems to prepare so that we can hold a legitimate discussion/debate. However, most students have a lot of calls on their time and they will look at any such assignment and automatically calculate “what’s the payoff for me? What is the real benefit that I will gain by using my time to do this work rather than an assignment from another class?”

Obviously, the theoretical answer is that it makes the learning process go better in class. And, that alone should be enough. Unfortunately, “better learning” is pretty nebulous. My students seem to need a more solid payoff. I fear that too many teachers before me have given them assignments with no eventual payoff and they have learned to be cynical. We can argue all day as to whether it should be like that but I think it is human nature. Many students have to know the answer to the question—“how do I benefit from doing this assignment”—or they will simply not do it.

So, here is a technique that I find helpful on occasion. Wednesday, we will start covering liabilities in Financial Accounting. One topic that I like is “gift cards” because (a) students understand the concept very well, (b) a great many companies seem to sell them, and (c) the handling takes some thinking but it is certainly understandable to most students.

For Wednesday, I asked my students to read pages 294 to 296 which cover gift cards (including an illustration about Best Buy’s reporting of $479 million as “unredeemed gift card liabilities”) along with two embedded multiple-choice questions to provide feedback about their understanding. I could explain this liability to them and they could take notes but then the learning is dependent on me. Thus, my assignment was simple: Assume I’m the president of a company that sells gift cards and you are the accountant. Read these three pages in the book and tell me everything that I need to know (as president) about the financial reporting of gift cards. Assume I am a curious president and I really want to know how the reporting works.

They can do that and it puts the responsibility on them. Plus, it is a realistic sounding situation. They like that. They can all envision something like this happening.

In class, I will play the role of the president and start asking them questions as if they were the controller. I am betting that with 4-6 questions asked to 4-6 different students I can help navigate the group successfully through the topic. That is how I like to run my class. The answer comes from them but with my guidance. But it requires them to do some preparation/thinking in advance.

How do I know they will prepare: (a) they see from the nature of the assignment what they are expected to do (I have tried to eliminate any ambiguity) and (b) they can see that I’m going to be calling on someone to provide me with the information I seek (it might be them). I have tried to show them that there is a positive payoff from doing the preparation: when I call on them, they will be capable of responding without looking like they are totally lost. Students do not like to appear dumb. Plus, they have a sense that this is the kind of experience that they might encounter in the real world after graduation. If they see what they are expected to know and understand the payoff, most will put in a reasonable effort to have a decent response ready.

If you are not happy with student preparation in you classes, ask yourself what the real payoff is for your students and whether that payoff needs to be improved. If they don’t see the payoff, students are not inclined to do the preparation.

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