Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Story For My Students -- Learning to Deal with the Unexpected

There are many times in teaching that a teacher needs to explain things to students. In many college classes, they are young people with limited experience. Occasionally, they simply don’t understand, especially when things are not as they have experienced them in the past. Part of my job as a teacher is to explain things beyond my subject matter.

There are stories that can sometimes help them come to a better understanding. I often have students come to my office after I return a test. They are upset that they didn’t make the grade they had wanted or expected. It is common for me to hear something like “I cannot tell you how hard I studied. In fact, I studied with Mr. A and Ms. B and I knew just as much as they did. We worked every question from class 8 times apiece. Yet, they made a 95 and I made an 83. What am I supposed to do?”

I guess this is on my mind because one of my students told me this afternoon that the 83 he got on a recent test was the first grade he had received in college under 98.

To the student, the facts are clear. He or she did the same work as Mr. A and Ms. B and they made significantly higher scores on the test. At this point, the world doesn’t make sense.

Here’s one story that I sometimes use in cases like this. “Assume you have two tightrope walkers. They both can walk a tightrope. It is a mechanical skill and they both can do it. But, for whatever reason, the first person is just more comfortable. Maybe, the first one practices more carefully. Maybe, the first one thinks more about the mechanics of tightrope walking. Maybe, the first one sits in his room at night and thinks of what odd things can happen and then dreams up a proper response. Or, maybe, tightrope walking just comes more naturally to the first person. Everyone has different abilities in life.

“So, both people are high up on the tightrope one afternoon and they both look great. Suddenly, a very unexpected and very harsh wind blows up. What happens?”

The student realizes the expected answer. “The first person hangs on and the second person falls off.”

And, my response is: “Yeah, exactly. As long as things go as expected, they both do fine. It is the ability to react to the unexpected that usually makes a difference in life between great and adequate and the same is true on tests.

“My guess is that if I had asked exactly the questions on that test that you expected, then Mr. A, Ms. B, and you would have all done great. Doing great when you are faced with the expected is not a big challenge.

“However, I want you to learn how to react to the unexpected. To me, that’s what will make you different out there in the real world. I suspect that you were not as well prepared for the unexpected as I wanted you to be. That is where you probably need to get better in the future. First, of course, you have to be able to do the expected. That goes without saying. Everyone knows that. But, then, if you really want to be great, you need to move on to the unexpected. You need to sit in a dark room (or you need to converse with Mr. A and Ms. B) and think about what unexpected things could happen on the test. If you never grow to the point where you can start dealing with the unexpected, then you are never going to flourish the way I want you to. And, you are capable of doing this. I’m not asking for the impossible. You can’t just be satisfied with being able to do the expected. It takes growth; it takes time. But you are capable.”

Does the story help the student? Sometimes, it does. Not always but certainly for some it makes sense and it pushes them to break through to a more in-depth understanding. I think too much of our school system (from kindergarten on) is geared toward teaching students how to face the expected. That’s fine and certainly necessary. But I don’t think any of our students are going to cure the ills of our world by limiting themselves to figuring out how to face the expected.

If they don’t catch on by themselves, sometimes a story can help.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


This blog went over 50,000 views a few days ago. Obviously, no one would have ever heard of this blog over the past 27 months if it weren’t for people like you who have spread the word. First, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I cannot tell you how very much I appreciate your helping out by telling other people about my writings.

Second, I’d like to ask you for a very personal favor. The second edition of my Financial Accounting textbook that I wrote with C. J. Skender (of UNC) came out today. (Today!!!!) I feel like I just experienced the birth of another child. I thought the first edition was good but I honestly think the second edition is great. It approaches the introduction of financial accounting differently because it is written in a Socratic Method style. It is the book that I have always wanted to write and I am thrilled with it. It covers what I think college students should learn in an introductory course. And, although I am obviously biased, I like to think it is written in an interesting and engaging style – using hundreds of real world examples.

After 41 years, I know two things for sure: (1) faculty members are often very critical of textbooks and (2) faculty members rarely change textbooks. I hear a lot of excuses for the tendency to stick with a textbook even if it is hated by all involved (the teacher and the students). I think adopting a bad textbook semester after semester is an awful educational practice, one that can only cause students to suffer.

Textbooks will never get better if professors aren’t open to new alternatives. That’s how the market system is supposed to work. Without real competition for adoptions, the products grow stale and stop being innovative.

Okay, so here’s the favor I am asking. If you teach financial accounting at a two-year or four-year college or in an MBA program, request a copy of the second edition of our Financial Accounting textbook and read one chapter. That’s all I ask. Don’t believe me. Heck, I’m biased. Read the buildings and equipment chapter (chapter 10) or the investments chapter (chapter 12) or the accounts receivable chapter (chapter 7). Or read the very first chapter where we talk about why learning financial accounting is important. Pretend you are a 19 year old college student. Could you read this book and understand it? Is it interesting? Does it cover what you want to teach?

Or, if you don’t teach financial accounting, if you know someone who does teach that course, forward this note to them. The book is published by Flat World Knowledge so the students get to use the book online for free. Yes, the students don’t pay $250 for this textbook. They can use the book online from day one for free. Why have them pay $250 for a book you hate and they hate?

Anyone who would like to receive a copy for adoption consideration should send a note to Becky Knauer at faculty@flatworldknowledge.com. It’s easy and quick. Be a wise decision maker – look at the alternatives.

And, in case you are interested, here is how the book opens. This sample provides a pretty good picture of the whole book. My goal was to catch the students’ attention right from the start and try to stimulate their curiosity. And, maybe most importantly, I wanted to push the real world into the students’ laps.

Question: In the June 30, 2011, edition of The Wall Street Journal, numerous headlines described the recent activities of various business organizations. Here are just a few:

“TMX and LSE Give Up on Planned Merger”

“Ally Financial Faces Charge for Mortgage Losses”

“HomeAway Jumps 49% in Debut”

“Ad-Seller Acquiring Myspace for a Song”

Millions of individuals around the world read such stories each day with rapt interest. From teen-agers to elderly billionaires, this type of information is analyzed obsessively. How are these people able to understand all the data and details being provided? For most, the secret is straightforward: a strong knowledge of financial accounting.

This textbook provides an introduction to financial accounting. A logical place to begin such an exploration is to ask the obvious question: What is financial accounting?

Answer: In simplest terms, financial accounting is the communication of information about a business or other type of organization (such as a charity or government) so that individuals can assess its financial health and future prospects. No single word is more relevant to financial accounting than “information.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

My Favorite Quotes About Teaching – Number Six

Let’s assume that you are a true baseball or soccer or basketball fan and you’ve just been appointed manager/coach of your favorite team. You are absolutely thrilled. Your goal is to win the world championship with your team. How exciting is that? How would you go about achieving this goal? My guess is that you would willingly spend hours analyzing every aspect of your team. You would try to think of how you could help each player reach their potential within the team to bring on the victories. You’d study everything about the game to help everyone do better. Heck, this might be so thrilling that you’d do all the work for free just for the opportunity.

Is winning a few sporting events in basketball or baseball more important than helping your students to learn? Of course not – we may occasionally forget how important our jobs are but we should never lose sight of what we are accomplishing. I would argue that you already have a much more important job than any big league manager/coach. They play games; you change lives. They entertain; you make a difference. They occasionally play big games; you have the chance to improve lives every day.

Do you treat your teaching with enough importance? Do you approach your teaching with the same seriousness that you might have for the preparation of a sports team?

Over the past few months, I have been writing periodically about my favorite quotes concerning teaching. I find that certain things people have said can make a difference in how I think about teaching in general and my teaching in specific. Few quotes (maybe none) have influenced me more than the quote for today.

About four years ago, my teaching tips book got some publicity and I began to hear from a few people who talked about their teaching and their thoughts on teaching. One day, I got an email from England. It was from a person that I did not know. The note said something like “we have never met but I have read your writings on teaching and I feel like I know you personally. Here is a quote that has meant a lot to me over the years. And, knowing how you think about teaching, I believe it will mean something to you also.” How true that was.

I don’t remember who sent me that email.
I don’t even remember who said the original quote.
However, I think about this quote virtually every day. I believe that it really does hold the key secret to being a better teacher.

"Teaching does not come from years of doing it. It actually comes from thinking about it."

When I give teaching presentations, people will often ask me how they can become better teachers. They want concrete suggestions – talk more, talk less, use more PowerPoint, use less PowerPoint, work more problems, work less problems, yell a lot, don’t yell at all, test a lot, never test. The problem is that all of those do work for some people at some times but none of them work for everyone all the time.

The one thing that does work consistently (I believe) is thinking carefully about your students and your classes and your teaching and how things are going and what changes you need to make. In other words, improvement comes from seriously analyzing the infinite number of variables that make up a class over the course of an entire semester.

It is easy, especially after teaching for a few years, to go on autopilot. I have known teachers (heck, I have been a teacher) who could teach pretty well and never really think about that they were doing. At times, a teacher can come to function more like an actor repeating the same lines over and over on the stage with predictable results.

In my own teaching, I want to try to analyze every single aspect of the learning process on an ongoing basis so I can do better. I want to stay off autopilot. For example:
--What is my overall goal for my students by the end of the semester?
--What did I ask my students to do today? Did those assigned tasks further my overall goal or were they just busy work? What did they require of the students? How did they change the students’ perceptions and understanding?
--How well did my students perform today? Did they live up to my expectations? If not, what went wrong and how could I have gotten a result I liked better? Were the assignments too easy? Were the assignments too hard? Did I challenge each student enough or too much?
--Is every student improving at the pace that I want? If not, can I make adjustments to get better results from specific people?
--Are my students focusing on memorization or are they improving their critical thinking skills? How am I changing them? Is that what I want? How can I get them away from memorization and more into thinking? Too much education focuses on memorization - how do I get my students away from that?

I could go on and on but you get the point.

If I were a coach and wanted to win a championship, these are the kinds of questions that I would address every day. Why then don’t I think more about my teaching on a regular basis? If I believe that teaching is so important how do I stay off autopilot? How do I keep my teaching fresh?

There is not a good answer to these questions. Or, perhaps, each person has to find their own answer to each one. I want to help my students grow and mature. A good class can help them in so many ways. How do I do that? Hopefully, I think about my teaching in a serious and in-depth fashion much the same way as I would if I were appointed the manager/coach of a great sports team.

The next time I give a teaching presentation (Louisville and Savannah – both in May) and someone asks me how to become a better teacher, my truthful response is going to be: "Teaching does not come from years of doing it. It actually comes from thinking about it."

Go out there and do some thinking.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Free Advice

I read an article in the newspaper this morning as I sat in my favorite deli having lunch. I came back to my office and wrote the following email to my 51 juniors.

We have about 2 ½ weeks left together. I have a point I really want to make before you move on. It's free advice so you can take it or leave it.

I realize that you have already registered for the fall semester (but I also realize that the drop-add period will be available for quite some time). If you have a chance, go to today’s Wall Street Journal (April 5, 2012) and read the story on Page B-1 (“Wealth or Waste? Rethinking the Value of A Business Major”). It is quite interesting. I often think students select their nonrequired classes with almost no thought.

I occasionally have students who ask me why I teach solely through questions, why I don’t like to give answers, why I push students to go to the opera, why I ask about their best teachers and best books, why I give points for going to art museums. I think the fourth paragraph of this WSJ article kind of explains why I do things my way.

So, what’s my advice for you? I think Accounting or other undergraduate business majors are great. However, I think it is important not to get obsessed with piling business courses on top of business courses on top of business courses. I advise sophomores. I’m always taken aback by how many of them only want to take B-school courses as if that is the secret to a well-lived life. They should read the article in the WSJ.

Here’s my advice. Most of you have another year here. Wander through your dorms and ask the better students (the ones with those 3.5 GPAs and above) to tell you which of their teachers taught them to really think, which of their teachers truly inspired them, which of their teachers opened their eyes to the world. Then, in your last year here, make sure you take as many of those teachers as you can. I honestly don’t care what they are teaching. It is not the course that is important; it is the teacher. Don’t be so frightened that you’ll wander out of your comfort zone. In fact, push yourself out of your comfort zone. When you get to me an old person (like me), you can be cowardly. Young people should be more adventuresome.

You can fritter away your last year here or you can use it to grow into the kind of adult you want to be. The teachers you sign up for in the fall may make all the difference in the world.