Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Dismal States

If you're like me and stuck in the latest round of global warming (we're getting 8-10" - as usual, I blame Al Gore), you can use a chuckle. Here it is.

Every state is "special" for one reason or another. So, someone with far too much time on their hands put this together - the United States of Shame. Enjoy.

I will add that the Massachusetts distinction is absolutely correct.

HT: Ace of Spades.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Dealing With The Truth

Before I start today, I want to repeat something I wrote recently. I have been creating these blog entries now for 54 weeks and, in that time, we have had 28,634 page views. That is fantastic but it is something that could never have happened without your help, without your passing along the URL to other folks who might be interested in teaching. So, once again, thank you for telling your friends about this site as well as you neighbors, relatives, coworkers, enemies, casual strangers, and even aliens from another planet. This blog goes nowhere without your help.

In the well-known movie “A Few Good Men,” the Tom Cruise character yells “I want the truth!” and the Jack Nicholson character responds “You can't handle the truth!” Great line.

When it comes to teaching, college professors will often assert that they want the truth about what is happening in class but I’m not sure they can handle the truth.

I was reminded of this exchange this morning in the Doonesbury cartoon in my Sunday newspaper. A college math professor (with a bow tie and suspenders, no less) is explaining “a very complicated proof. You can’t possibly track it without fully concentrating.”

Then, beginning to sound much like Tom Cruise, the professor starts getting to the very heart of the problem many of us face in college education today. “And yet it is perfectly obvious to me that most of you are either online or texting right now. Which is puzzling because on a pro-rated basis, the lecture you’re not listening to right now is costing you or your parents $175. So I’d love to know – what’s the thinking here? Why are you so happy to receive nothing for your money?”

Hmm, I wonder if he really could deal with the truth. Easy to ask the question but not so easy to deal with the answers if people start telling you the truth.

Isn’t it fascinating that a Sunday morning cartoon could cut so close to the heart of college education these days? But, does this guy really want the truth? Could he handle the truth if the students began to stand up and tell him the truth? Now, wouldn’t that be a fascinating cartoon. One by one, the students stand up and say “Sir, I’m not paying any attention to your lecture because . . .” and they give him the truth. (As an aside, if you have never watched the video made by the Kansas State students about education, you really owe it to yourself to watch it

it’s at that point that you begin to hear the truth from students.)

When it comes to education and our classes, how many of us really want the truth that much? The problem for our all of us is that if we are given the truth, then we feel some moral obligation to take action. It’s easier (as the cartoon professor does) to just imply that the students are to blame. I hear that all of the time when I am out and about giving teaching presentations.

What do I think the truth is? Here’s my guess at the truth. I believe that students underperform in classes for one or more of three basic reasons.

(1) – they feel no sense of urgency (“I’ll defer thinking about this stuff until I have to”)
(2) – they are bored
(3) – they are lost and have a sense of hopelessness

If you can solve all three of these issues, your school will build a statue of you and put it in the quad.

For better or worse, these are issues that a teacher can address. You are not a helpless victim. But you have to want to improve before you are willing to take real action. And, you must realize that these are complicated issues that can only be addressed over a period of time by some careful thought and planning.

I’ll talk about urgency today and defer student boredom and being lost to some later time. If you can add a tiny bit of urgency to any class, I think you will see immediate improvement.

When I chat with people about any goal they are trying to achieve in life, I often hear lines like “I have trouble getting started” or “before I know it, I’ve wasted an amazing amount of time.” If you can add in a bit of urgency, most people begin to get up off the couch and get moving. A bit of urgency goes a long way in getting people to work. Without a sense of urgency, there are just so many more interesting things in life to do.

Okay, most of you who read this blog will be teaching a class in the next couple of days. How have you inserted urgency into the equation so that your students are more likely to prepare for class and then pay close attention during class? If your answer is that “I expect my students to prepare and pay attention in class,” then I have a bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan that I want to sell you.

I can give you two quick ways: one that I use in my classes and one that I don’t use. However, think of ways that your own teachers added urgency.

(1) – I teach by means of the Socratic method so each day I give my students 3-10 questions they should be able to discuss at the next class. Then, as soon as they walk in for the next session, I start peppering them with questions based on those original “conversation starters.” If students are absolutely sure they will be called on, it creates a sense of real urgency – they are more likely to prepare and pay attention. It really does work. It removes the general student feeling that they are just there to take notes. They know that they will be put on the spot.

(2) – If I had a class that was too large for the Socratic Method, I would change my strategy. At the end of each and every class (the last five minutes), I would ask the students to write out answers to one or two questions that were covered in the preparation work or within the class discussion. Those answers would count X percent of their overall grade. You will be surprised by how carefully students pay attention if there is a grade effect added at the end of the class. Suddenly, this material has an urgency to it – some question is coming up in just a few minutes that has to be answered.

A related issue to urgency is grading. If all of your students know they are going to get either an A or a B, why should they ever feel a sense of urgency? I truly believe there has to be some possibility of making below a B in a class or students will have no reason to be concerned at all. I usually give 50 percent A’s and B’s in my classes but I also give 50 percent of the grades that less than that. The fact that a student is not going to get an automatic A or B in a class does, I believe, push them to feel a bit of urgency about the material.

What’s the truth? In your case, I don’t know what the truth is. But if you feel that your students are underperforming, one issue to address is “urgency.” Students are human beings; without a sense of urgency, there is just not much reason to get up and do those things that need to be done.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Englisizing The Paper

I'm in editing mode. Lately, I've been working with a couple of coauthors who are very, very good theorists. Their game theory/math chops are so much better than mine that I try not to discuss it. In addition, one of them is very connected with the top people in the accounting area (he was the other's chair, which is how we met).

They just dropped about a 40 page current version of a paper we've been working on for quite a while. The logic of the paper flows soundly, and the empirics are solid.

Unfortunately, neither of my coauthors has English as a mother tongue. So, I'm in charge of "Englishizing" the paper.

Oh my!

Update: I may have given the wrong impression (at least, based on a comment by Bob Jensen). My colleague and I have been working on this paper for quite some time, and we've all been involved with most parts of the paper (with the exception of the game-theoretic part, which is admittedly not my strength). My contributions have been primarily in the designing of the tests (my colleague is a game theorist, not an empiricist) and in the final editing of the paper.
Since I did my early education at Our Lady of the Bleeding Knuckles Elementary School (and yes, they did use the curtain rod), I received pretty good training in the fundamentals of what I call the "micro" part of writing.

Monday, January 17, 2011

I Don't Work Well Under Deadlines

"I don't work well under deadlines. But without them, I don't work at all."

I heard that line about 15 years ago from my dissertation chair, and it's stuck with me.

In the last three weeks, I've sent off three papers to conferences.
  • For one, I had to edit abut 40 pages or so. My coauthor (who is a theorist and non0native speaker) wrote the first draft. It's a good idea, but the writing needed a lot of work. We sent it off to the American Accounting Association Meeting. We also sent it off to a regional conference, because the school whee one of my coauthors works at counts these things.
  • A second is a paper that's been floating around for a while. It needed one final going over before submitting to a journal. We realized a week ago that the initial version had been submitted to the Financial Management Association (FMA) conference and rejected a year ago. This version has a lot more stuff in it and is much more polished. However, I hadn't gotten around to making the last few changes to it. So, I finished them and sent it off to the FMA conference. Now it just needs a little more work and we can submit it to a journal.
  • A third piece involved a paper we'd talked about with a graduate student. It involves a cross-breeding of his dissertation data and a previous paper done by the coauthor from the paper above. We got the dataset from the student with ten days to go before the deadline, and I started writing things up while my other coauthor started the data analysis. Somehow, we produced a 30 page paper with decent results in that time. It also got submitted to FMA. It still needs work, but I think we can have a journal-submittable version in a month or so.
Final tally - three papers submitted to 4 conferences in a span of about 2 weeks, followed by 12 hours of solid sleep.

Now I need to finish edits on a short piece that has a conditional acceptance. There's no deadline looming, but I'm in the groove from the last couple of weeks, so I'm here at the College on MLK day.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The $10 Million Question

There is an old question that teachers sometimes ask their students. In fact, I have asked it of my students on occasion. A student will come in and say “I just cannot seem to do well in your course. No matter what I try, nothing seems to work. I’ve tried everything and I keep getting bad grades. I just cannot do it.”

The teacher’s response is straight-forward “If I offered you $10 million, could you make an A in my class? You make an A and you will get a check for $10 million.”

If the student is honest, they usually respond “Well, yes, for $10 million, I would do absolutely nothing but studying night and day for your course and I imagine that I could make an A. I am not sure that I could make 100 but I could get an A. I would become obsessed for $10 million.”

The response from the teacher is obvious: “So, your problem in my class is not ability. It is only a question of motivation. If you could become motivated enough, you could make an A.”

It is a great story because so much of it is true. In the initial discussion with the student, there is the implication that the student cannot do well WITHIN THE CONFINES OF WHAT THE STUDENT IS WILLING TO DO. The student is not willing to say it but he (or she) is willing to study X hours or put in Y effort and when that doesn’t get the desired grade, the student becomes frustrated. Students are usually willing to put in a little more time but what they are looking for are tricks that will get them a better grade with about the same amount of energy or effort. And, when things don’t work, it is always relatively easy to simply fall back on “I just cannot do this stuff.” It is always easy to give up.

Okay, let’s turn the tables. I often give teaching presentations and a few (actually, quite often, many) of the participants will complain that the students simply won’t learn regardless of what they do. No matter what they do, they are disappointed in the results and often get student evaluations that seem too low.

I’ve never done the following at a presentation but at some point I’m going to try it. “Let’s assume that some rich graduate of your school walks in one day and offers to establish a $10 million teaching prize. At the end of the coming school year, every student will be asked the following question ‘rate each of your professors on the quality of what you learned in each of your classes this semester.’ The professor with the highest rating will be given the $10 million prize.” (Let’s assume that no one cheats and bribes the students.)

Would you want to win that prize? Oh, of course, unless your school pays better than mine, $10 million would be an incredible amount of money—much more than most of us make in two lifetimes.

Key question 1 – could you win that prize in your school? What I hope your answer would be is “for a chance at $10 million, I would certainly give it a try. For one year, I would do whatever it takes to get my students to learn and learn deeply. I would become obsessed with student learning.”

Key question 2 – what would you actually do in hopes of winning that $10 million teaching prize?

Once again, I don’t think this is a question of ability. I think all teachers can be great. I want to repeat that thought: I believe all teachers can be great. I think it is a question of motivation. For a shot at $10 million, I think every teacher would do things a lot differently than they do today. (For example, I bet class preparation time would go up significantly. I think a lot more time would be spent on writing and grading tests.)

I think one of the real weaknesses in college teaching today is that there is no real motivation for trying to be great. Yes, we all have personal pride and we all understand the importance of what we do. But, it is tough to rely totally on internal motivation.

But $10 million would be a whole lot of external motivation. So, here is the question that I want you to ponder—if there were a $10 million teaching prize offered at your school, what would you do differently in hopes of winning that award? Make a list of everything that you would do differently.

That list provides you with an automatic roadmap for becoming a great teacher, for becoming the kind of teacher that students talk about 20 years after graduation. That list tells you how you can become the best teacher in your building. There are no secrets to being a great teacher—look at your own list.

Then, try a few of those things starting today. You don’t need to start with all of them. Be satisfied with a few changes. See if they actually do work to make you a better teacher. You have to become a better teacher first before you can become a great teacher.

It is not a question of ability. People give me scores of excuses for not being the best teacher in their building. Forget those excuses. You’ve got to get over that. If someone offered you $10 million to become the best, what would you do?

Then, decide what part of that list you are willing to do first and get started.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Toilet Training the Unknown Baby Boy

This post is further proof that child rearing rots your brain. I'm actually posting on a finance blog about toilet training my kid. Ah well, it give me a break from madly working on the paper I'm trying to finish for the FMA deadline - I already sent one, but this one is insurance.

The Unknown Baby Boy (a.k.a. "Knucklehead") isn't toilet trained yet. He turns 2 in late March, so we're in no rush - if we make it to the warm weather, we'll probably use the time-honored approach of letting him run around outside with no pants on (yes, trees will be involved, and let the neighbors beware).

It's a time-honored tradition for guys to make a game out of their "liquidity management" (hey - it's a finance blog, so I have to at least make a pun in that direction. Some people advocate using little targets for the little guy when training (he can;t write cursive yet, so that's out...). But Sega has taken it to a whole other level. They've come out with game (called "Toylets") that's currently in selected locations in Tokyo where you can play video games by peeing in a urinal. Here's a short article:
In the early ’90s, Sega held 65% of the US video game console market, had millions of fans, and was considered one of the premier creators of modern gaming entertainment. Today, they are helping you play with your pee. The Japan branch of the multinational company recently announced that they are testing their Toylets male urinal video game at select locations around Tokyo. Toylets uses a pressure sensor located on the back of the urinal to measure the strength and location of your urine stream. A small LCD screen above the urinal allows you to play several simple video games including a simulator for erasing graffiti and a variation on a sumo wrestling match. At the end of a game, the screen displays advertisements.

... the four types of video games on the Toylets include:

“Mannekin Pis”: a simple measurement of the urine produced.
“Graffiti Eraser”: where you move your urine back and forth to remove paint
“The North Wind and Her”: a game where you play the wind, trying to blow a girl’s skirt up. The stronger you pee, the stronger the wind blows.
“Milk from Nose”: A variation on sumo wrestling, where you try to knock the other player out of the ring using the strength of your urine flow (shown as milk spraying from your nose). The record of your pee is saved and used as the opponent for the next player. So the game is sort of multiplayer. Toylets even lets you save information onto a USB drive! I fear the MMORPG that will arise from this.

Read the whole thing here.

To quote George Takei, Oh my!

I need some metal floss. Now back to work.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Getting Ready To Start Classes

I'm still in the midst of hurriedly putting a paper together for the FMA deadline (Friday). So, it's pretty much been reading articles, writing, reading, writing, rewriting, rewriting, etc...

But during my breaks, I try to put a bit of time in on my next semester's classes. I'm teaching Investments again after a couple of years' break, so I'm redoing my syllabus (it['s a new edition of the text, too).

When this happens, my thoughts invariable turn to teaching (not just WHAT to teach, but HOW and WHY). Here's some good advice on the HOW: don't use Dilbert's approach to answering students' questions:

That is, unless you're tenured and don't care about evaluations. Of course, if you're tenured, you might often feel the need to use to respond to many of your colleagues. At least, that seems how it works in a few cases I've seen.

Ah well - I'm done with my workout and time to get to work (and it's not even 6:30 yet). Somehow, I've become a morning person over the last few months - The Unknown Wife works out at the Y from 6-7 with a friend (the friend has time constraints. So, if I'm going to get mine in , I have to be at the Y by 5 when it opens. This means getting up at 4:30 - I know at least one of my readers (Gerry) would approve.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Here We Go Again

My classes begin anew on Monday and, although I have done this now for 40 years, there is still a real sense of nervous anticipation. One of the great (and maybe scary) aspects about college teaching is that no matter how good or bad one semester is, you have to start all over again with each new class. Whether I was the greatest teacher in the world in the fall or the very worst, that has nothing to do with the young people who will walk into my classroom on Monday at 9:00 a.m. I cannot rest of my laurels. But, I am also not held back by the mistakes I have made. On Monday, everything starts over. It is a brand new semester.

Where do I want to focus my attention on Monday?

Last summer, our school hired a new dean. About two months into the fall semester, she asked to attend one of my classes. We picked a day and time and she showed up and sat in the back. It was an introductory class full of sophomores.

I was lucky. The students that day were great. They had prepared themselves for the discussion and immediately got into the give and take of a Socratic Method class. I barely did anything that day as they debated and argued about the wisdom and rationale for various accounting standards. I posed a question or two and then directed traffic as they hashed out the particulars.

At the end of the class, the Dean was extremely kind as she commented: “Wow, that was impressive. How did you manage to do that?”

My response was just the first thing that popped into my head: “I have spent every minute in this class for the past two months training these students in how to learn and how to think about this stuff. You are just seeing the result of that training.”

Here is my Day One advice to every teacher who reads this blog: Train your students to do what you want them to do. I want my students to prepare, analyze, debate, and be able to justify their decisions. On Day One, I start training them to do these things. Trust me, students do not do these things naturally. If it is going to happen, you have to train them. They have been well trained before they get to you to take notes and memorize.

This goes back to one of my fundamental questions about education. Are we (a) teaching subject matter or are we (b) teaching students how to learn and think, with our subjects serving as a focal point for that process? My goal, at least for the last decade, has been to train my students (to prepare, analyze, debate, and be able to justify their decisions) so that—by the last day of class in April—they are capable of studying an entirely new issue on their own (something they have never seen before) and then coming up with a viable and reasonable resolution on their own.

Consequently, when I think about Monday’s class, I am not particularly concerned about beginning to teach the students my subject matter. We’ve got a long time for that. However, I am very concerned about training them to learn how to learn, training them to do what I believe will help them to understand why this material is important, how it works, and why it works in a particular way.

Will it work on Monday? Who knows. Every semester is new. More importantly, training students is an incremental process that takes patience. If we can make a small first step or two on Monday, then I’ll be pleased.
One other quick comment. Last night, we ordered some Chinese dinners that I brought home from a wonderful little restaurant in a place called Bon Air, Virginia. My fortune cookie fortune was “People will live up to your expectations of them.” What a wonderful fortune for a teacher to get right before the start of a new semester.

I have great faith in my students. When I walk in on Monday, I will fully believe that those faces starring at me are going to be the greatest students that I’ve ever had. I expect, by the last day of class in late April, that they will have learned an incredible amount about financial accounting. When it comes to education, I am just a complete optimist. Oh, I realize that we won’t leap tall buildings every day but I do think those students are going to be just wonderful and that together we are going to create a dynamic and engaging learning experience. We will accomplish much and actually enjoy the process. (And I get paid for having so much fun.)

People will live up to your expectations of them.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Take a Moment to Relish What You Did

This morning I received an email from one of my favorite former students who is spending this year studying in Europe. Not surprisingly, she asked the traditional question: how was your semester?

After 40 years at this job, my initial reaction was to write back: “Oh, you know, same old same old. Been there, done that.”

After a few seconds of reflection, I realized that I didn’t like that attitude. I needed to change my tune. If that is the way I view my work, then maybe it is time to find a different job. I could make a lot more money being a banker or a lawyer and still be able to say “same old same old” about the work.

Being a teacher is the most wonderful job in the world. It gives you the opportunity to affect dozens of lives every day when you walk into the classroom. There is never an unimportant moment. An opportunity like that should not be taken for granted. When a semester concludes, every teacher should pause and celebrate what they have been able to accomplish. We might all be better teachers if we focused more on the importance of what we do.

This past semester, I worked with 64 students in my three classes. There were about four of those students who seemed determined to learn nothing. No matter how I coaxed and threatened, they wouldn’t do any work. They wouldn’t try; they wouldn’t even pretend to care. As a friend of mine says about teaching: “you can’t save them all.”

But that left 60 students who did try and, hopefully, learned a lot. Not too many of them made the grade of A but they worked hard and gained (I believe) a considerable amount of knowledge. And, hopefully, they came to think a little deeper. And, they learned the importance of adequate preparation. And, they got a bit better at analyzing issues and coming up with reasonable solutions.

Think about that – I had a positive influence on the lives of 60 college students. I would like to believe that they walked away from my class better off than when they first entered back in August. Those 60 students will always know some things about my subject matter because we worked together. As a teacher, I changed their lives.

If you truly stop and think about it, that is a great feeling. It is one of those “Wow!!” moments that doesn't happen often enough in life.

Moreover, when you think about it that way, you begin to realize what a huge responsibility you accept when you become a teacher. Your job is to change the lives of your students. Whether you do the job well, adequately, or terribly, you impact those students – you help to establish what they know that they will carry with them throughout their lives.

In teaching, I think we sometimes get depressed because we fixate on those (hopefully, few) students who won’t try despite our best efforts. We don’t spend enough time thinking about what we do accomplish. Teaching becomes such a regular part of our daily lives that we can start taking the whole process for granted.

Don’t do that!! Every teacher who reads this blog has the chance to change the world by impacting dozens, perhaps hundreds, of lives every semester. You help your students become more knowledgeable, better able to function in the adult world.

Name me one other profession that changes more lives than the teaching profession. Yes, there are professions that get paid better. But, I don’t think there is any profession that is more important to our society. Where would all the doctors, lawyers, accountants, scientist, ministers, engineers, and the like be without teachers? Without teachers, we would all still be living in caves.

So, take a moment to think about the lives you changed this past semester—the number of students who are different solely because of your influence. You have helped to open up the world to the people who were in your class. You have challenged those students to do better, make more of themselves, have higher aspirations. You have shared the joy of your subject matter with them.

What did you accomplish in the fall semester? You helped to make the world a better place because you are a teacher.