Saturday, August 28, 2010

What Do You Really Want to Accomplish?

When is the last time you took a pencil and paper and wrote down (in a sentence or two) what you wanted to accomplish in your classes? Here, at the start of a new academic year, it might be a profitable way to spend 5 minutes. I always tell my students “if you don’t know where you want to go, any road will get you there.”

Probably, any time in the first 30-35 years that I taught, I would have written down something like “I want to help my students come to understand and appreciate financial accounting so they can use it in the real world to help make good decisions.” That is a worthwhile goal and every word is still true for me today. However, in recent years, I have become more and more convinced that I want to do more than teach students a bunch of stuff. Somehow I feel that there is another plateau to this teaching gig that I am not yet achieving. Could I be doing more?

So, as the 2010-2011 academic year begins, I have added a few additional words to my goal: “I want to help my students become smarter people.” Is that even possible? Colleges are all about creating better educated people. Can they also increase the smartness level of their students? I personally think it can be done but it takes a lot more time and energy.

How do you increase smartness? Whenever I consider such questions, I always go back to my favorite quote about learning—one that I reflect on virtually every day. In his wonderful book, What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain talks with one highly successful professor about his teaching style. “’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 puzzle the students; you tie them into knots. And, then you begin to help them untie those knots. What a glorious description of what education can be—learning that I think not only educates but can actually makes the student a smarter person.

Yesterday in class, we discussed two small accounting rules. My students could have easily “learned” these two rules in 5 minutes or less. Instead, we took the rules apart, piece by piece, looking for connections and contradictions trying to figure out their purpose and how they were supposed to achieve that purpose. After 50 minutes of questions and debates, I asked the students another question, one that seemed unrelated. The students were able to take the understanding they had developed and figure out how to use it to resolve this final question. That was my ultimate goal. They were able to figure out something new on their own.

Were they actually smarter people? Well, after just 50 minutes, they probably weren’t really any smarter. But, if we are able to create those puzzles and knots for an entire semester and work to figure out how to untie them, then, yes, I do hope they will become both educated and smarter by December.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Opening

In my previous post, I indicated that I believed teachers should do a lot less than 100 percent of the talking in class—especially on the opening day. Several people wrote to ask me how I do that.

I view every class as a conversation. So, how do you start a conversation? Most conversations begin with a question. “Do you come here often?” “Have you ever had better barbecue?” “What did you think about that baseball game last night?” “Do you remember the weather ever being this hot?” Questions are a natural conversation starter. You then reply based on the answer you get. A good question can lead to hours of non-scripted conversation. The same is true in class.

Therefore, I really think about my opening question. Where do I hope it will lead our conversation? I think it often sets the tone for the entire day. In fact, on the first day, you may well be setting the tone for the entire semester.

Okay, I teach accounting classes so my opening question probably cannot be about William Shakespeare or e. e. cummings. I have to start convincing some very skeptical students that my accounting class is going to be both beneficial to them and interesting. English majors, biology majors and the like are not always sure that this accounting stuff is worth their time.

In each of my three opening classes yesterday, I walked in, read out the roll, and then called on a student randomly and asked the following question. “I was listening to National Public Radio on Friday and heard a bit of news announced at 6:40 p.m. Day in and day out, more people probably pay attention to this piece of news than any other single news item in the entire world. The announcer said ‘Today the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 57.59 points.’"

My guess is that most people in the business community around the world had a pretty good understanding of what that meant. What is the Dow Jones Industrial Average? What fell? Why did it fall? Why should anyone care? And, what did accounting have to do with this?” I actually asked these questions one at a time as the conversation flowed back and forth.

The students were immediately intrigued. To them, it is like there is secret information out there in the real world that everyone seems to know and understand but they don’t. This is not about being able to pass a test. This is about avoiding looking embarrassingly dumb when you enter the real world.

We proceeded to have a wonderful conversation as the students worked out what the Dow Jones Industrial Average is and what its drop on Friday signified and how accounting information helps investors know which company stocks to buy and which to sell. The students were interested to learn that Alcoa’s stock with up .02 on Friday while DuPont went down .25 – what accounting information might have led to that shift?

At the end of the day, the students seemed to feel that this accounting stuff was actually pretty interesting and might be worth spending some time to learn. And, I had only done about 50 percent of the talking which is always my goal.

Okay -- here might be the important part of this post:
In the minds of many students, there is school and there is the real world and it is that divide that makes school seem unimportant. With my very first question on the very first day of the semester, I wanted the students to see that we were going to be studying something that really could be important to their lives beyond school. And, if you cannot establish that, right from the beginning, is there any reason to have the class?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Getting My Troubles Beind Me

Disclaimer: the following post may contain topics that are unappealing to those of a squeamish or overly proper attitude.

One of the problems with getting older is that things wear out. While I'm still relatively young, I've had a few irritating problems lately. One of them that's developed over the loast couple of years is a pretty nasty case of hemorrhoids (basically varicose veins in the butt). After all, I have a job where I sit down a lot. And while cycling doesn't cause them, it can aggravate existing ones.

So, last Friday, I went in for outpatient surgery. Of course, that meant that on Thursday I had to uses something like this to get all "cleaned out". For a far-too-detailed description of the "prep" process, check out Dave Barry's post here (while you're there, if you haven;t yet had a colonoscopy and you're due for one, get to it).

The actual surgery (early Friday afternoon) went fine - they gave some high quality drugs that completely knocked me out, and a shot that lasted until the late evening to numb things "down there". On the way home, we stopped at the drug store for some heavy-duty pain meds (Percocet), dropped me off at home, and then went out to pick up the kids.

Then the fun began. I spiked a fever (101.5) and by about 8:00, I was just about in the most pain of my entire life (and I've broken several bones, torn rotator cuffs, had multiple surgeries, etc...). Even on the max dose of Percocet, I thought I was going to (as my kids would say) "Start crying like a little girl".

Luckily, it didn't last long - by Saturday morning, I upgraded to as uncomfortable as hell, which was livable. And by today, I'm actually sitting up (albeit with an inflatable donut).

The only bright side is that I get to miss our all-day faculty retreat, since I can't sit for any amount of time. There's some irony there.

Hemorrhoid surgery 0r all-day faculty planning meeting? Let me think...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Send Them The Message

I watched a bit of a movie the other night (Where the Wild Things Are) and they had a classroom scene where the teacher stood in front of the group and did 100 percent of the talking while the students stared around the room in a mix of distraction, boredom, and random note taking. Education at its best(?) I watched a television show the other night (Breaking Bad) and they had a classroom scene where the teacher stood in front of the group and did 100 percent of the talking while the students stared around the room in a mix of distraction, boredom, and note taking. Education at its best(?)

I am convinced that you need to set the tone for the entire semester on the very first day. Right at the beginning, you need to send a signal for what you want and expect from the students. My recommendation for the first day would be to do a whole lot less than 100 percent of the talking. Make that a very high priority. Send the message immediately: In this course, you have to be actively involved.

As we all head toward the opening of a new semester, I will leave you with a quote that I have used before but it seems even most applicable at the start of a new academic year. “Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.” Education at its best!!!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

What Do You Tell Your Students?

Virtually all of the blogs that I have written over the past 8 months have been directed toward teachers. My goal has been to encourage teachers and give you folks something to think about that might stimulate a bit of improvement.

It crossed my mind this morning to wonder: who encourages the students? Being a student is not easy. They study hard and are constantly under pressure to do well on papers, tests, class presentations and the like. They are human; they need encouragement—especially when things are not going well.

Who encourages students? Well, I guess it should be their teachers. You need encouragement; you need assurance; you need positive feedback. And, so do they. If you genuinely want to teach students successfully, some small part of the job (I believe) must be to encourage them to do the work that is necessary.

Do we do that? Or, do we simply ignore that aspect of the teaching process and then complain when students don’t live up to our expectations?

I thought about this as I was writing an essay this morning to distribute to people who are studying to take the CPA Exam. I fully understand how much encouragement they need but I don’t always have the same insight on the struggles of my own college students. So, I think I will also share this essay with the students who will start my class this coming Monday.

Teaching has to be more than an effort to convey information. That makes education sound like a robotic process. And, neither teachers nor students are robots. Think about how you encourage your students in their difficult times. Here is one way that I plan to do it.

“I have been reading a book ('Mao’s Last Dancer') about a Chinese peasant boy who works incredibly hard and eventually becomes one of the top ballet dancers in the world. A lot of the book focuses on his early training when he moves quickly from extreme poverty to a national dance academy where he is pushed to learn ballet—something he does not even understand at first.

“In the book, he talks about how difficult it is to learn each dance movement. He is shown a new step or a turn and his first reaction is ‘I cannot possibly do that. Someone else may be able to do it, but not me.’

“And, sure enough, for the longest time, he cannot master the new move. He tries and fails, he tries and fails, he tries and fails. However, what really sets this young man apart from the other dancers in the academy is that he keeps trying even though he continues to fail. The other dancers practice three times each day (in a building without air conditioning) but he practices six times each day (at times breaking into the studio at night so he can practice alone). The other dancers are satisfied with being okay; he wants to be great. His desire is as large as his talent. His desire may be more important than his talent.

“So many times, after he has failed and failed and failed with a new dance movement, he’ll have a break-through and suddenly he can do it. It just happens—almost without warning. With enough practice, one day he can actually do what he had originally thought was impossible.

“The word that I really like in that story is ‘break-through.’ That is the way learning, especially when you are dealing with a very difficult topic, usually happens. Learning is just full of epiphanies. You miss the question, you miss the question, you miss the question and suddenly you have a break-through. Without warning, you see how the pieces fit together to form the correct answer. Once you catch on, the process frequently seems rather simple: ‘Why did I not see that before now—it is obvious how it works.’

“But that is just the way learning often works—you have to miss and practice, miss and practice until eventually you’ll have your own personal break-through and you will find that you have mastered the concept. That is a wonderful feeling. In learning, there is little that feels better than that quiet pause followed by ‘Oh, I see it now.’

“In learning, too many people give up too quickly. They never reach the ‘break-through’ point. The work is too hard or the failure is too devastating. They don’t have enough confidence to keep pushing or they don’t want success badly enough. They walk away saying ‘I just cannot do this.’

“Here’s what I want you to know: Those frustrations are normal; they are no reason to quit. Failure is a natural part of getting to success. Yeah, it is tough to miss questions but that is just the way the learning process works. If you keep plugging, if you keep pushing yourself, you will have a break-through and suddenly you’ll say ‘Oh, I see it now.’ And, that is going to feel great!”

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What Does The Class of 2014 Know?

When I was an undergrad (yeah, I know - a long time ago), I would often roll my eyes when a professor made a cultural reference that was about 30 years before my time. Now I increasingly find myself in the clueless professor's shoes. It's not surprising, since I've lived almost 3x as long as incoming freshmen.

Every year, Beloit College publishes a "mindset" list for the incoming freshman class. It lists some of the "cultural touchstones" are a part of the class's lives (who were mostly born in 1992). Here are some of the items on this year's list that stood out:

4. Al Gore has always been animated.
12. Clint Eastwood is better known as a sensitive director than as Dirty Harry.
27. Computers have never lacked a CD-ROM disk drive.
53. J.R. Ewing has always been dead and gone. Hasn't he?
64. Having hundreds of cable channels but nothing to watch has always been routine.
Read the whole thing here - interesting stuff, and it'll make some of you shake your heads at how the world has changed in such a short time.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Listening to Former Students

I like listening to my former students, especially the ones who seem to be doing well out there in the adult world. “Was your education lacking in any way?” “How could I have better prepared you for life after graduation?” “Am I doing anything in my classes that is just a waste of time?” It is hard to make improvements if you don’t have a good assessment of your own strengths and weaknesses. And, who understands them better than students who have gone through your class and are now out in the real world.

A couple of days ago, I posted the previous blog (below) about pushing students to go beyond the right answer and encouraging them to address the more important issue: why is a certain answer the right answer? Today, I got an email from a student who was in a couple of my classes 3-4 years ago. She started out at the University of Richmond and finished up at Wharton and seems to have done well since graduation. I respect her opinion. Here was her response to that post—I especially liked her last sentence (although it is probably a run-on sentence).

“The right answer only counts for so much. In my experience so far in life, you rarely have to come to an ‘answer’ that you submit to someone and then wait and see if it's correct or not. All of the situations I've found on the job to date involve either working with a team, or data you got from someplace, or ideas you generated. You then form a hypothesis or explanation and describe to people why your 'answer' makes the most sense. One of the competencies I have the most difficulty with is thinking outside the box. One of the reasons I think I have trouble is because in school we got so much training in coming to the correct answer, but really being able to examine that answer and explain why it is correct and be open to others helping you develop it further is so much more useful.”

I like her words: “You then form a hypothesis or explanation and describe to people why your ‘answer’ makes the most sense.” Okay, here is my challenge to you and to me both: As you get ready to enter the fall semester of 2010, is that what your students wind up doing in your classes?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Getting The Right Answer Is Not Enough

I start my classes again in 9 days. Even after 39 years, I am always tense as to what I want to say to my students on the first day. They have been in school for 15-16 previous years and, unfortunately, some of them expect every class to be more of the same. A few (maybe more) start off with a poor attitude. I am a big believer in first impressions. I want to get the class off to the perfect start. I want the students to realize that I want something different from them. They are college students, more should be demanded of them. But, if all you’ve ever been asked to do is memorize, it is hard to believe there is something more that the teacher might want.

I got a note today from Steve Markoff, a friend of mine who teaches at Montclair State. He told me about a book where computers were programmed to come up with the perfect move each time in various backgammon situations. The book, then, tries to help the reader figure out why each of those moves was the right one. The computer starts you off with the right move—you have to analyze the situation and figure out why it is the best possible answer.

Steve’s comment was something like “That’s what I want from my own college students—to go beyond just getting the right answer and be able to tell me why it was the right answer.”

Then, I knew what I should tell my students on the first day of the fall semester. From my perspective, too many classes focus on getting the right answer as the ultimate goal-that leads to memorization. I want my students to focus on understanding what is going on and why. How do I convey that desire? Simple—tell them: “When you get the right answer, you are half way home. You still need to be able to explain to me why it is the right answer.”

I think that is an understandable goal-one that will help my students know, right from the start, that I’m stressing something more complicated than what they might have expected.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Involvement

One of my favorite pastimes at any AAA convention is to visit the poster sessions where teachers from around the country talk about their classroom innovations. It is always impressive to me to see how many teachers are working to figure out new and different ways to encourage interest among students along with a deeper level of understanding.

One of my favorites last week in San Francisco was work done by Mary Michel at Manhattan College. I have a saying (that I stole) that I think applies to all students:

“Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.”

But, let’s be truthful, it is always a whole lot easier to tell students information than it is to involve them in learning. Anyone can lecture and the students will take notes. Involving students is much more challenging and requires teachers to do some serious thinking about their goals for the learning experience.

Dr. Michel starts off her Advanced Accounting class by having the students gather into groups and search for a set of financial statements from a company in a foreign country. Then, they must look for a set of financial statements from a comparable company located in the US. Car companies or pharmaceutical companies are good examples that should work well. The students have a set of foreign financial statements and a set of domestic financial statements. They must then find critical differences between the two as well as their similarities.

Okay, Dr. Michel could easily just tell the students the similarities and differences and they could write them down and memorize them. That’s not learning. That is note taking. I believe there should be a rule in education: “never tell students anything that they can find out for themselves.” In other words, get them involved and the learning will be so much more meaningful.

Is there anything you absolutely have to tell your students? Or, can you get them involved so that they will find the knowledge out for themselves? I have a saying that my students hear often and never really like: “I only get paid enough to ask questions; I don’t get paid enough to answer questions.”

I don’t like telling my students anything. I like figuring out ways to get them involved so they can find their own answers. I always love talking with teachers like Dr. Michel who have managed to create ways to successfully get their students involved in the educational process. They just inspire me to do a better job.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Find the Variables That Lead To Experimentation

I have recently been writing about some of the wonderful people that I met at the American Accounting Association annual meeting in San Francisco. On this past Wednesday, I participated in a panel discussion on blogging: how is it done and why do we do it? I talked for about 10 minutes about my blog and the enjoyment I get in writing about teaching and hearing from my readers about their teaching.

On the panel, I was sitting beside of Tom Selling who has the incredible blog The Accounting Onion (http://accountingonion.typepad.com). When I returned to my seat, he handed me a sheet of paper where he had written a few sentences that he had penciled while I was speaking. I thought his words on self-improvement in teaching were so neat that I wanted to pass them along to you. (Thanks – Tom – this was one of those moments where I said “Gee, I wish I had said that.”)


“Teaching is highly idiosyncratic. The process of self discovery through experimentation is integral to self-improvement. It is inherently experimental.

“Does talking about teaching make you a better teacher? Yes, because it helps you decide what variables to change in your next experiment.”


So, go find another teacher who shares your passion for helping students to learn. Offer to buy that person a cup of coffee if they’ll just sit and chat with you about teaching. Use that conversation to start thinking about the variables, the things you can change in your teaching, and then go experiment to see where improvement can be found.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Rejuvenated

I am writing this week from the annual meeting of the American Accounting Association in San Francisco. On Monday, I had one of those wonderful experiences that I so enjoy, the type that always seems to rejuvenate my teaching spirits. I had a long conversation with a person who really knew and understood how to be a great teacher. I find, in colleges, that there are not enough times when you sit down with another teacher and just talk about teaching: What works? What do you do in this situation? How do you handle this topic?

I had never met David Marcinko before Monday but he is on the faculty at Skidmore. As soon as we sat down and started talking about Financial Accounting, it was clear that Professor Marcinko had spent a lot of serious time over the years thinking about teaching. How do you get students engaged? What should you cover in the first chapter to interest them and not turn them off? When do you introduce Accumulated Depreciation without confusing them?

Teaching can be a lonely profession. Professors will talk about their research until the cows come home (a wonderful Southern expression) but it is often hard to find someone who will talk with you about teaching (other than whining about their students). Sometimes it seems like a mark of weakness to open up about the difficulty of getting students to work and learn. I was amazed, even our 39 years, as to how energized I felt about teaching after I walked away from our conversation on Monday.

Maybe, if you are feeling a bit down about being a teacher, finding a colleague to talk with on a regular basis might just be the remedy.

Monday, August 2, 2010

I Was Impressed

I am at the annual meeting of the American Accounting Association in San Francisco. I thought, if I saw something interesting while I am here, that I would write about it.

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to have a long conversation with Presha Neidermeyer, Associate Professor of Accounting at West Virginia University. She was telling me about all of her many trips to Africa to take her students to places like Uganda and South Africa to work with the not-for-profit organizations there. We typically think about accounting professors sitting in a classroom teaching sleepy students about debits and credits. Dr. Neidermeyer is going way, way beyond that. She takes small groups (“I like to be able to load them all up in a van, if I have to”) and goes to the country and helps out some of the NFPs there. She talked specifically about one organization that did micro-lending and how her students helped them organize their forms so they could become more efficient.

Can you imagine how her students benefit from that experience? A lot of college students go to Italy, Australia, or the like for a semester in school there. This is something entirely different, an accounting experience in a third world country.

She has even co-authored a book on the impact of HIV-AIDS in Africa. Impressive!!!! The conference is off to a great start for me.