Sunday, June 13, 2010

Are Your Class Goals Nouns or Verbs?

A good friend of mine asked me recently what my goal was in teaching one of my courses (financial accounting). I think he expected me to list out certain topics and concepts that I wanted all my students to learn. I call these “noun goals” because they describe rules, computations, or the like that students should come to know. For example, I might want my students to be able to compute cost of goods sold using a perpetual LIFO system.

In truth, I don’t think I have a single “noun goal” because I am not certain what any of my students are going to need to know after they leave my class. I am not sure if some or even any of my students will ever need to compute cost of goods sold using a perpetual LIFO system. How can a topic be a course goal if most of the students may never need the knowledge?

I explained to my friend that I had a single goal for my classes and I call it a “verb goal” because it involves action. I will be perfectly happy if I can get all of my students (100 percent – not just the ones who need to know perpetual LIFO) to spend 5 hours per week outside of class thinking seriously about financial accounting and 3 hours per week inside of class thinking seriously about financial accounting. I believe that is reasonable and if I can get that kind of effort then my students will come to better understand and appreciate financial accounting –qualities that can have a very positive effect on them in their years after leaving my class.

For this reason, I’m not so obsessed with getting every bit of information covered. If my students don’t happen to cover every possible depreciation method, I don’t lose sleep. If my students don’t learn every characteristic of common stock, their lives are not ruined. If I can get them, though, to think seriously about financial accounting for 8 hours per week for 14 weeks, I think they will take away a huge amount of understanding and interest. I think that is how you get a student to say “wow – I never knew financial accounting could be so interesting.” And, that is what I want – it comes from having a verb goal and not from a noun goal.

How do you get students to think seriously about a topic? Isn’t that really the ultimate question for a teacher? Forget everything else. If I can get my students to think seriously about financial accounting, haven’t I won the battle? At that point, the class starts to be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

If you have read this blog before, you know that I rely almost exclusively on two teaching techniques. First, I ask a countless number of “why?” “how come?” “are you sure?” type questions. I believe questions are the driver for critical thinking skills. Second, I work constantly to puzzle my students. If I can present them with a puzzle, I find they are dying to figure out how to solve that puzzle.

Think of your classes for the fall of 2010. Are your goals nouns or verbs?

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