Tuesday, May 7, 2013

WHAT WAS YOUR BEST?


 
In my previous blog posting, I talked about the creation of faculty learning communities as a way to generate conversation about various aspects of teaching/learning/education.   At that time, I brought up one of my favorite topics.   If you have read this blog for long, you are aware that I am a firm believer that the way you test will strongly influence the way your students learn.   If you want to create a different class environment, you need to test differently.

Therefore, in discussing faculty learning communities, I strongly feel that every aspect of testing should be a topic of serious conversation by people who want to become better teachers.

So, today, I have a question for you.   I would bet it is a question that you have never been asked before no matter how long you have taught.   And, I would argue that it is a question we should be asking all the time.   In fact, I think we should have a national contest built around this one question.   I believe the answers might well improve college education (which is not a small statement to make).

Here’s the question.   Think before you answer. 

Whether you teach history, political science, math, accounting, or the like, in your testing during the past semester (or academic year), what was the very best question you asked your class on a test?   If testing matters so much, then we should all have some really good questions that we are especially proud of having written.   Why did you feel that particular question was so good?

Excellent test questions set the tone for your class:   this is what I consider important, this is the way I want you to learn, this is the kind of thinking you should be doing, this is what I want from you rather than memorization.   Students need guidance – nothing guides them quite like what they believe will be on the tests.

Okay, so what was my best question for the past semester?   As most readers of this blog probably know, I teach accounting at the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond.    We have very bright students who are willing to do as much or as little as you ask of them.   It is all about asking.   In testing, I want them to know that I am going to ask them for a lot of serious thinking.

One of my courses is Intermediate Accounting II.   Most of my students believe that accounting is basically the memorization of set rules that they must apply to particular situations.   Many of them are left-brained and love the comfort of those rules.   They are not necessarily happy that I want them to think outside of the box.

However, my experience has been that, in real life, accountants are thrown into odd situations almost every day and must use all of their brain cells to figure out what is going on so that they can determine what response is needed.  

You can learn the rules for being a medical doctor but the actual application is much more stressful (and interesting).

On my first test this past semester, I wanted to break the students away from the memorization of rules.   So, when they opened the test, they discovered that they had an accounting client on the planet Kryptoplasm.   The businesses on that planet use a unique set of accounting rules (referred to as Krypto-GAAP).   I then presented a variety of situations and described the basic rules found in Krypto-GAAP.  I then asked the students to determine the impact of converting the financial statements prepared on that planet into financial statements that could be used in the US (based on US GAAP).   For each situation, they had to tell if reported net income would go up or down, whether the reported liabilities would go up or down, and so on.

The students had never seen anything like this which is what I wanted.  

What was I trying to accomplish?

--I wanted the students to read the questions carefully.   They could not anticipate the accounting rules on the other planet so they had to read the words and think about what those people were doing.   I think the ability to read and think through what you are being told is vitally important in solving problems.

--I wanted to downplay the importance of memorization.   No matter what you tell a student they will believe that they can prosper by memorizing everything you have said.   I wanted no questions that simply asked them to replicate a mechanical rule.

--I wanted them to make judgments as to which rules should have been applied.   By describing the weird things that were happening on this planet, they had to step back and think about how those events should be reported.   The problem was more than just manipulating numbers.

--Despite being set on a faraway planet, I wanted the students to be placed in a real life situation.   Having a client do weird things is no stretch of the imagination.   Too many tests have nothing to do with real life and reinforce the student’s suspicions that college classes are just student exercises.

Did I like the results?

Yes, in fact, I liked this question so very well that my second test used the same format (without warning the students).

Yes, in fact, the standard joke in my classes quickly came to be “what would they do in Krypto-GAAP?” which alerted the students to the fact that accounting rules are not set in stone but simply selected at a point in time and place as the most appropriate method.

Did the test question work?   I have no hard data but I do know that I had a really good semester in Intermediate Accounting II.   My students quickly came to be open to talking about accounting in interesting and theoretical ways.   We learned the rules but we didn’t become obsessed with the rules.   I think one of the major reasons why the semester went so well was because of the message that I sent out in that first test (and then followed up on in the second test).   This question helped show the students the kind of thinking I wanted them to be able to do.   The way you test is the way they will learn.

So, what was your best question of the past semester?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

LET'S ACTUALLY TALK ABOUT TEACHING


Assume someone offered you a million dollars to become one of the great college teachers in the world.  Given that much incentive, how would you approach the challenge?   Well, my plan would be to break teaching down into all of its many basic components and study each one very carefully – looking for ways to make it better.  I think you build a better machine by taking it apart so that you can analyze the individual pieces and try to improve each one.   However, over the years, I have never actually had anyone suggest this approach as a way of becoming a better teacher.   Improvement in teaching is more often talked about in generic ways.  

My thought is that you need to select one specific component of your teaching and then focus on it for a while.   How can I do this better?   In fact, there have been many semesters over my teaching career where I spent the entire time trying to improve one particular aspect of my teaching.   Then, the next semester I would choose some other component to study.

Okay, what brought all of this to my mind?

Andy Litteral, one of my friends and colleagues here at the Robins School of Business, gave a presentation two weeks ago describing a couple of “faculty learning communities” with which he has been involved this year.  An informal group of faculty members would meet periodically to discuss a general topic (use of the case-study method, for example).   They make presentations and discuss what they had discovered in their own explorations of the topic.   They can continue to meet for an indefinite period of time until the topic had been exhausted.  

I have long argued that many schools need to create a better forum to encourage faculty to discuss the subject of teaching among themselves.  Unfortunately, we often wait for an administrator to form an official committee (which can then turn into a lot of work to accomplish very little).  Perhaps the faculty should do this for themselves and forget the administration.

As Andy described it, the faculty learning community basically organizes itself (almost like a club) with the goal of examining a topic of interest and thinking about that topic more deeply.   Only people who were interested in the topic would join but each member was expected to be an active participant.  These community conversations apparently last until everyone feels that they have accomplished whatever is possible.    

To me, faculty learning communities seem like a great idea.  Obviously, such communities do not have to be about an aspect of teaching but they certainly can be.

After describing the workings of a faculty learning community, Andy broke the group that was present that day into teams of 5-6 faculty members.   He asked each to come up with one potential topic to serve as a foundation for a community discussion next fall.    That by itself was a great question – what would be a topic worth discussing?   What would you like to explore with a group of faculty members?

Being overly opinionated, I suggested that my group discuss one of my favorite topics:  student testing.   If you have read this blog for long, you know that I always argue that “the way you test is the way the students will learn.”   In my opinion, good testing has a very positive impact on student learning.

But what is good testing?   Where do you get your questions?   Should you reuse questions from year to year?   Should you give essays or problems or multiple-choice questions or a combination?     How do you test critical thinking skills?   Should you give partial credit?   Should you provide answer sheets?   Should final exams be comprehensive?   How do you handle students who complain that the grading was unfair?   What happens if a student misses a test?

To me, those questions are all vitally important to doing our jobs well and I would love to be part of a faculty learning community to simply focus on testing for a year.  I think that alone would make me a much better teacher.

But what other faculty learning communities could be set up around teaching?   Here is where you can break teaching down into its various component parts and analyze each one so very carefully.

--Everyone says classes should be interactive but how do you get all students (and not just an extroverted few) actively engaged in class conversation?

--Preparation is a key for learning but how do you get students to prepare before they walk into your classroom?

--How does a teacher actually go about preparing for a class?   What exactly does that entail?

--I am an accounting teacher.   How do I help my students learn to write better?

--Schools are supposed to develop critical thinking skills.   What exactly is critical thinking and how does a teacher develop that in a class?

--How do you teach classes of over 40 students?   How do you teach online courses?

--Educational technology is becoming more and more prevalent.   What works best and what doesn’t work as well?

Okay, I could go on forever.  But here’s the point:   If you really want to get better as a teacher, could you (yes, YOU) pick one of these topics or a similar topic and create your own faculty learning community at your own school?   I would think that if you selected any of these topics and got a group of 3-8 interested teachers together to chat periodically and make presentations of what they have done, the entire group would become better teachers in a relatively short period of time.
**

Added on May 4, 2013.   Someone sent me an article about a law class at the University of Virginia (http://www.law.virginia.edu/html/alumni/uvalawyer/f12/flipped.htm) and I couldn’t help but notice the following sentences about looking at every aspect of teaching the class in order to make each part better:    "I put all my materials and my course through an atomizer, and now I'm reassembling the bits in a whole new way," Verkerke said. "I've drawn the guiding principles for this new approach from research on teaching and learning, and from the insights of cognitive psychologists. The overriding goal is to harness the power of 'doing' to promote deeper learning for students."





Saturday, April 27, 2013

I HAVE A QUESTION FOR YOU

As I have mentioned, I will be giving a presentation in Anaheim in August at the annual convention of the American Accounting Association.   I will be talking about this blog (and, hence, some of my ideas about teaching) for 75 minutes.   (When it comes to teaching, I can easily talk for many hours.)

Over the last couple of years, I have written 166 entries on this blog.   I think some have been pretty good but others have been rather stupid.   In writing and in teaching, that is how it goes.   Perfection is never my goal.   I like to throw out a lot of ideas and hope that a reasonable number are helpful.

My idea for this presentation in August is that I will talk about some of the blog entries that have been the most helpful to teachers out there in colleges around the world.   However, I can only guess at that.   So, I would like to enlist some help from YOU.  

If you think that any of these 166 essays have been especially interesting or insightful, please let me know.   Just drop me a note at Jhoyle@richmond.edu and give me the title.

In teaching, you can usually look in the eyes of the students and know what is working and what is not working.    Writing a blog is different -- there are no eyes for me to study, no body language for me to try to interpret.    I do get email feedback occasionally but not enough for me to know which essays might have been most beneficial.  

If there are one or two of these essays that you think I should discuss out in Anaheim, please let me know.   I really would appreciate the help.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

WHAT MAKES GREAT TEACHERS GREAT?


Sunday morning, my wife informed me that there was an article in the newspaper that I was really going to find interesting.   My wife knows me well so I was immediately intrigued.   The article was by Charles F. Bryan, Jr. and was titled “What Makes Great Teachers Great?”  And, yes, I was certainly interested.

I found a lot about this essay to be very insightful.   I was especially interested to note that it was not written by a faculty member or by an administrator.   It was written by one of the leaders of a consulting firm.   Often, I believe, we get too close to college education to see it clearly.   I liked the idea here of having an outsider come in and study teaching with fresh eyes in order to provide his vision of what makes a great teacher.

Here, the author identifies seven common traits of great teaching.   So, I have an assignment for you.  Read about these traits and then give yourself a grade on how well you exemplify each of the traits.   A is Excellent, B is Good, C is Average, D is Poor and F is Failing.  

But don’t stop there.   Now, pretend that you are one of your current students – a typical member of your class.   For each of those seven traits, try to estimate what grade that student would give you.   Try to get into the student’s head and see the class from that perspective.

Average the two grades for each trait and make a list of the seven from highest to lowest.

Identify the two traits with the lowest overall average.  

Now you know where to spend some serious time if you (YOU) want to become a great teacher.   What can you do over the next 6-12 months to pull those two traits up?    It is always hard to improve if you don’t have a specific area or goal in mind.   “Try to become a better teacher” is such a generic goal as to be rather useless.     This exercise will direct your improvement to specific traits that need work as you move ever onward to become a great teacher.

 
(This article comes from the April 14, 2013, issue of The Richmond Times-Dispatch and is reprinted with permission from the newspaper)

Last year, our consulting firm assisted Hampden-Sydney College in developing a new strategic plan. Blessed with a dedicated faculty anchored in the liberal arts, Hampden-Sydney places special emphasis on teaching excellence.

Teaching excellence can be defined many ways. One student’s favorite professor may be another’s nemesis. Yet there are certain teachers and college professors who are universally regarded as gifted in their craft.

A surprising number of people who have achieved success in life credit teachers with having opened their minds to new concepts and opportunities.  As such “teachers are the most important people in our society,” argues Pulitzer-Prize-winning author David McCullough.

What then constitutes a “great teacher?”

Our work at Hampden-Sydney made me particularly interested in that question.  As a result, I interviewed a dozen current and former students from various schools, asking them to describe their favorite teachers or professors.

What made those teachers so good at their craft? The answers varied, but certain common traits emerged, seven in all.

Great teachers seem to possess most of the following qualities:

(1) Love of Their Subject. They love what they teach. That love is obvious and contagious, often rubbing off on students. Many of their students say, for example, “I really didn’t like history until I took his class. Now I love it.”

(2) Vibrant.They are enthusiastic and energetic. Their classes are vibrant and lively, usually punctuated with regular give-and-take with students. Here the teaching process is a two-way street.

(3) Up-to-date.Great teachers have complete command of their subject based on current scholarship, and they know how to present it in organized and understandable ways. There are no yellowed or dog- eared lecture notes in their classes. If they teach in technical fields, they stay up-to-date with constantly changing technology.

(4) Creative.They are creative and help students look at things from different perspectives. They challenge assumptions and help students learn how to think analytically and critically, and to see things in a different light. Virginia’s Standard of Learning testing requirements stifle creative teaching in public schools, according to many critics. A former high school principal, however, told me that the great teachers he knows have adapted to the SOLs and still do a superb job in the classroom.

(5) Demanding.Great teachers usually are not easy teachers. They keep their students on their toes and do not pander to them. Yet they attempt to bring out the best in their students without badgering or humiliating them.

(6) Relevancy.They have the ability to make their subject relevant so that students can see a connection to their own lives and the world around them.

(7) Trust.Their credibility is unquestioned, and they are trusted by their students, who sense that the teacher is honest, forthright and fair.


Great teachers have the ability to change the lives of their students. A friend of mine was drifting aimlessly in college, not sure what she wanted to do. Then she took an elective course in accounting with no real motivation in mind. The professor presented the subject in such an interesting way that my friend was hooked and eventually became an executive at a major accounting firm.

Hampden-Sydney College President Christopher Howard recalls when he initially refused to read “Huckleberry Finn” in high school. As an African-American, he was convinced that it was a blatantly racist and degrading story. But Howard’s English teacher persuaded him to give it a try. Initially reluctant, much to his surprise he found it to be a compelling story that took a scathing look at entrenched attitudes, particularly bigotry. Howard says that because of his teacher’s insistence, he was given a lesson on how to judge for himself and apply critical thinking, both of which serve him well to this day.

David McCullough not only has the rare trait of being a hugely successful writer, but also is one of the most compelling public speakers of our time. He attributes his success at the podium to modeling himself after his art history professor at Yale, whose classes were always packed to overflowing.

In reviewing the traits associated with great teaching, it could be argued that those same characteristics can be applied to any number of jobs outside of the academic world. Whether in sales, law, personnel management, the ministry, the armed services and, yes, even accounting, having enthusiasm, love of one’s profession, integrity, creativity and the ability to motivate others can serve almost anyone well.

People in professions outside the classroom, especially those in leadership positions, can also have a positive influence on those around them, and in that respect, they can be great teachers, too.


The author, Charles F. Bryan Jr., Ph. D., is managing partner of Bryan & Jordan Consulting. He is also president and CEO emeritus of the Virginia Historical Society.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

NICE NEWS and GREAT STUDENT ADVICE


I got the nicest email a few days ago from the president of the American Accounting Association:    I am happy to give you some great news: you have been selected as the recipient of the 2013 Innovation in Accounting Education award for your blog, Joe Hoyle: Teaching -- Getting the Most From Your Students. The award was established to foster innovation and improvement in accounting education through ‘significant programmatic changes or a significant activity, concept, or set of educational materials.’”

I was really thrilled.
 
As a result, I will make a 90 minute presentation on August 7 at the AAA annual meeting in Anaheim.   If you are going to be at that conference, I hope you will stop by.   

And, I want to thank everyone who reads this blog for helping to spread the word.   We have now had 78,000 page views over the years and my guess is that most of those hits came from you guys telling other folks about the blog.   So I believe that the above award should be shared with you.   Thanks!!!
**

For two days last week, Dennis Beresford – the former chairman of the Financial Accounting Standards Board – was on our campus.   He gave talks and presentations to several hundred of our students as well as over 100 members of the local accounting community.   It was a wonderful couple of days here at the University of Richmond. 

At one presentation, a student in the audience asked “What piece of advice would you give to us as college students?”   That was a very legitimate question to ask a person who has been so very successful in the business world and as a college educator. 

I did not try to write down every word that Mr. Beresford said in response but I did love his answer and I want to paraphrase it here.   He paused for a moment and then talked about students often being too interested in focusing on getting 120 hours of nothing but accounting.   He spoke about the importance of gaining a broader education and coming to appreciate classes outside of accounting and business.  

I wish I could have written down every word because it was a great answer.   I could not have agreed more to what he said.   A college education should be about creating a foundation for a thoughtful life rather than a quest for a first job.   Understanding accounting is, of course, important but college needs to be about more than just making sure the debits equal the credits.   If that is all a person wants to learn, life is going to be very dull.

After Mr. Beresford’s talk, I started thinking about how to encourage my students to develop that kind of attitude.   I certainly want my students to learn lease accounting and pension accounting but I also want them to appreciate art, literature, and the like.   How do you push a student to go outside of his or her comfort zone?

Luckily, registration for the fall semester is coming up so the selection of courses is on everyone’s mind at the moment.   I quickly wrote a note to our seniors graduating in accounting and asked each of them to hit reply and tell me the name of the best course they had ever taken at the University of Richmond outside of the Robins Business School.   I explained what I wanted to do and asked them to identify that special, non-business course.

Almost immediately, a long list of courses started pouring into my email account.   Several students listed multiple courses they would recommend.   I had not asked for any type of explanation but many of the students wrote out glowing comments about a particular course and what they had learned.  

To me, the list was thoroughly fascinating including such courses as Hebrew Prophets, Justice in Civil Society, The Propaganda State, Minds and Machines, Leadership and Economic Policy, Thomas Jefferson and Revolutionary American, Introduction to Film Studies, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Lincoln, Saints and Sinners in Muslim Literature, Elementary Symbolic Logic, Introduction to Environmental Studies, and Global Women Writers.

The list was so interesting that I was ready to go back to college and take many of the courses myself.

Then, I sent an email to all junior accounting majors here at the University of Richmond.   I started by discussing what Mr. Beresford had said.   Then, I added the entire list of “best courses” and explained that some other student just like them had picked each of those courses as the very best (outside of the Business School) that they had taken in four years here.  I strongly encouraged them to look at those courses and consider whether one or more wasn’t worth taking in the coming fall semester.

Did I change any minds?   I certainly hope so.   Students often need a little encouragement to explore going outside of their comfort zone.   But, from my experience, most of them do not need very much encouragement -- a little goes a long way.   This whole experiment probably took no more than 45 minutes of my time.   But I might have gotten some of our Accounting students to broaden their education a bit.   And, that, I think, is a worthy goal.   Just like Dennis Beresford suggested.



Monday, March 25, 2013

Student Loans Are Diving Underwater

The student loan market has a lot of factors that seem to say "Stay the heck away!": they're relatively easy to qualify for, college costs have increased far more rapidly than general consumer prices, we now seem to feel that EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE A COLLEGE EDUCATION. ELEVENTY!!!, and most importantly, the job outlook for many (most?) college grads is to put it mildly, pathetic.  

This graph from the Washington Post piece points out some evidence that we might be seeing the beginning of the next "bubble pop".  Although they're a fairly small part of the overall consumer loan market, student loans are more likely to be 90+ days past due than any other loan class.  And the percentage is growing pretty rapidly. 
 












Luckily, the Unknown Daughter gets free tuition at Unknown University.   We still have a half-dozen years until we have to shell out for college, but it'll take a lot to justify her going somewhere other than to my (fairly low-cost) school. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

But I'm Not Dead

It's been almost a year since I last posted.  And a lot has happened at Unknown University since then.   I'm waiting to hear from the University P&T Committee and the Provost on my tenure case (I've made it past all the other hurdles - department, college peers, college P&T committee, and dean).  So I've been keeping a low profile since then regarding the blogosphere and trying to get stuff done.

Since the last post, the Unknown Baby Boy (a.k.a. KnuckleHead) has turned 4.  He is a lunatic, and a great deal of fun (despite the occasional head butt to the package).   The Unknown Daughter (a.k.a. Future Ruler of the Universe) is finishing up 6th grade.  She's planning on going to a 1-week computer camp to learn HTML this summer, so the blog might actually end up looking good.  On the down side, she just let slip that she's sweet on a young man, so it starts.  Looks like I'll have to buy a large knife to sharpen with e demented grin when he comes a-callin.
 
Oh, and I had a minor heart attack just before Christmas - no damage to the heart muscle, and I've been back riding since about 2 weeks after.
 
I'll resume regular posting once the tenure stuff is resolved.  Lots of stuff to catch up on. 

I the meanwhile, here's something completely unrelated to academia (I just found it funny).  It's John Cleese's remarks at Graham Chapman's funeral.  Now THAT is a eulogy.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

WHEN PIGS FLY



In my previous blog entry, I responded to a student from Florida who wrote in about the potentially devastating results of a bad first test.   As often happens with me, I have spent a lot of time since then thinking about how I could better prevent my own students from being trapped by the results of that first test.   I do not want my students to come to accept that they are just C or D students and have no possible way to improve.   I too often hear “well, I made a low C on that first test; I guess I’m destined to do poorly in this class.”   That’s nonsense.   I want them to fight back.   One test grade is just one test grade.   But, we are all human and much of our self-image is based on what happens to us right now.  A lot of success in life comes from having confidence and a bad first test grade can kill anyone’s confidence.   How do you avoid ruining a student’s confidence as a result of a bad first test?

I am giving my second test next week so I sent out the email below to my students today.   I am hoping that it will encourage some of them to show me a better side to their abilities.    As you can see here, I want to show them that failure is not pre-ordained.   Success is not impossible.   I am trying to get it into their very young heads that they do have control.   They have the ability to do better.   We’ll see what adjustments I get.

To:   My Students

I was pleased by how you came back from Spring Break. Often students walk back in after a week off and seem to have forgotten 2 months’ worth of material (especially if they have sun tans). On Monday, though, virtually everyone was prepared (pretty well) and ready to go. I was pleased.

Consequently, I head into these last few weeks of the semester quite optimistic. As I have said before, I don’t have many students who seem obsessed over making an A (maybe less than usual) but I have more students than usual who seem very capable of making an A. I like that – my job is to push you to get there.

You have two examinations, two papers, and a comprehensive final exam left in this course. That is about 75 percent of the grade. How you do in this course very much depends on how you do from here out. There are no guarantees in life but if you give me an all-out good amount of energy, you should be happy with the results.

Last weekend, I was visiting relatives. Probably as a consequence, I wound up spending a lot of time watching basketball. Nothing much is accomplished by watching other people being active but it allowed me to kill time.

During those games, I heard two things that I found interesting. The first came from a coach and the second from a player.

The coach has been in a hard-fought game and his team had rallied and won. He was clearly excited and thrilled. The television announcer asked him how his team had managed to do so well at the end of the game. His response was something like this: “We called our players over and told them that if they were going to win, they quickly had to become the best players on the court.”

If you seriously want an A, at some point, you have to be one of the very best students in the room. Being an average student in the room is fine and dandy but that will just get you a C. You cannot earn an excellent grade by being mediocre. If you are serious about being ambitious, then at some point (tomorrow, for example), you have to step up and be one of the best students in the room. And, that takes a serious level of preparation. You cannot become one of the best students in the room by making changes after you get there. The changes have to be made before you get there.

In the other game, one team had been behind by something like 7 points at halftime but came back to win by about 10. After the game, the announcer was talking to one of the winning players who commented: “We came out in the second half ready to make the adjustments that were necessary in order to play better. The first half showed us what we had to do differently and, in the second half, that is what we did.”

I don’t care what grade you made on the first test. I want to see you make a real improvement on the second test. But, to do that, you have to start being one of the top students in the room. You cannot sit there and let other people shine. There has to be a fire in your belly (not during the test but rather during the daily class experience) that pushes you to be great. That greatness will carry over to the test.

And, you have to make adjustments. If you made 74 on the first test and continue to prepare and study in the same manner, I would expect you to make about 74 on the second test. In many ways, the first test has one purpose:  to help you figure out what you need to do differently. What did you learn from that first test?

We have our second test next Monday. I’ll leave you with a story from about 4-5 years ago. I had a woman in class who was never prepared. I could ask her virtually any question in class and get a blank stare. Not surprisingly, she made a D on the first test. I figured she would catch on but, sure enough, her preparation remained abysmal. She was clearly doing no work to get ready for the learning experience of class. On the second test, she made another D. I could see where her grade was heading.

She then came to my office in near hysteria. She had a job offer and absolutely could not make a D or F in my class. I mentioned (as kindly as I could) that she was never prepared for class. Her response was typical of a lot of students: “There’s no need for me to prepare because I pay close attention in class and write down everything you say so that I can learn it later.”

She seriously thought that writing down the answers was the same as learning to figure things out.

I challenged her to do an experiment for just one week. I wanted her to spend as many hours as it took (a gazillion maybe) but for that one week I wanted her to be the best prepared student in class. “Humor me,” I remember saying, “I’m an old person.” My only advice was: Be the best prepared person in class each and every day.

When she walked out of my office, I mumbled to myself “I suspect that’s going to happen when pigs fly.”

At the next class, I purposely asked her the very first question and I made it really complex. And, much to my surprise, she gave me a legitimate and thought out answer. I waited a few minutes and asked her a second question and got an equally good answer. For the rest of the semester, she was the best prepared person in the room, every day. She made a solid A on the third test and one of the highest grades in the room on the final exam. She did not get a D for the semester. She wound up with a very strong B. She did not get the A only because she waited too late to make the needed adjustments.

She has gone on to have a very solid career in public accounting. She made the adjustments needed to become the best prepared student in class and that made all the difference.

If you were happy with your grade on the first test, please ignore that story. It is not important. However, if you were upset over your first grade, read that story a second time. That was her but it can also be you.



Tuesday, March 5, 2013

HOW WOULD YOU HAVE ANSWERED THIS QUESTION?



I think college education would improve rather quickly if students would start asking more questions about the process. For most of them, it is their one and only shot at a college education. What they learn and then know for the rest of their lives is dependent on how well that process works. It is not something that they should take lightly. The efficiency of the process might be important to the teacher but it is essential to the lives of the students.

Personally, I believe transparency is a good idea. Plus, what a teacher does should be able to withstand a little scrutiny from the students that are involved. If I cannot explain why I am doing something, I probably need to rethink it.

However, we tend to train our young people to be very obedient – to do what their elders tell them to do without asking any questions. I have often speculated that I could walk into a college class and start giving nonsense assignments about Martians and the North Pole and most students would fall right in line and do exactly as they were told. Obedience is nice but I’d prefer for my thinking students to start asking questions.

Of course, some faculty members treat student inquiries as rude behavior much like W. C. Fields’ famous retort: “Go away kid, ya bother me.” That type of response will train any student to sit and be quiet.

I was pleased, therefore, to get a question recently from a college student about the educational process. Here is the question that was sent to me and below that I will give my response. However, before you read my response, stop reading and determine how you would have answered this question? I’ve got my answer but what is your answer?

From the student:

Dear Professor Hoyle, I am a 3rd year accounting major at University of Florida. I love reading your blog and even though I am not a teacher, your writings have tremendously helped me improve, both as a person, and as an accounting major.

I remember a story I read a long time ago and it gave me an idea which I want to share with you. “The story goes that Milo, a famous wrestler in ancient Greece, gained his immense strength by lifting a newborn calf one day when he was a boy, and then lifting it every day as it grew. In a few years, he was able to lift the grown cow. The calf grew into a cow at about the rate that Milo grew into a man. A rather freakish man apparently, since grown cows can weigh over 1000 lb. The point is, the calf grew old along with the boy.”

At UF, most of our accounting courses have 3 exams; 2 midterms and 1 final, thus each exam covers around 4-5 chapters. I understand that our accounting professors want to improve our critical thinking abilities during the course of the semester but I feel that bombing the first exam puts many students at a disadvantage and they have to end up dropping the course (even though they still might be able to bring their grades up eventually).

Wouldn't it be better if there were more exams and each exam was incremental? Hypothetically, the first exam covers only 1 chapter, the second covers 2 chapters, third covers 3 chapters and so on. Do you think this approach would still be useful in developing the critical thinking ability of students? Or is it going to defeat the purpose of “uncertainty” and just train the students on how to get better at taking the exam?
**

Okay, that is a very legitimate question. I think every teacher has had students who bombed the first test and then either dropped the class or just gave up. However, there are many reasons why a student might do poorly on a first test. They might have had one or two other tests on the same day. They might have been sick or a personal matter could have come up as a distraction. Most importantly, maybe they just needed that first test to gain an understanding of what the teacher wanted from them.

Given the importance of grades, how much emphasis should we put on the outcome of that first test?

Stop and think about it – this student clearly seems troubled by the approach that most of us use.
**

Here’s my answer to this question. When I initially got the email, I responded with a slightly different version but I’ve thought about it since that time and have done some editing. In truth, though, I’m actually much more interested in your response.

To the student from Joe Hoyle:

Thanks for the very insightful question -- and I really love the story of Milo. It is amazing how well a story like that can make a person's point so clearly.

You are obviously right -- a student can be devastated by a first test grade and either drop the class or stay in the class but just give up. Neither reaction is what a teacher really wants.

From a practical side, the problem is that the student and teacher often have different views of a test. For a student, it is extremely stressful and the grade is tremendously important -- potentially impacting careers and jobs and the like. One bad test grade can literally change a person's life. That is not an overstatement.

For a teacher, a test is a pain in the neck. They can be difficult to write and they are time consuming. Grading can be excruciating and coming up with a precise grade is hard to do (unless a teacher just has infinite confidence in their testing and grading abilities). Plus, every day that you give a test takes a day away from the learning process.

And, after the teacher gives the grade, he or she may have to endure student after student arguing about the validity of the grade.

Any time you have an event that is essentially important to one side but painful to the other, you have the potential for a problem. My bet is that most teachers would prefer to give no tests at all. Even if your suggestion is better for the students, it puts more work on the teacher -- time the teacher probably doesn't have because of other class work, research, and committee assignments. (If you are a student who has bombed the first test in an important course, that justification probably does not seem very satisfying.)

Isn't this a strange world where the good of one side is often a problem to the other?

I have friends who give periodic quizzes for just the reasons you mention and that seems like a reasonable approach. However, again, how much class time do you want to allocate to testing? And, how much time does the teacher want to allocate to writing and grading and discussing tests?

I don’t know if you know what a test bank is but test banks have become popular because they allow the teacher to outsource the testing process to someone who knows little or nothing about your class. The test is just as important to the student but requires less thought and work by the teacher.

Here's what I do. I teach 50 minute classes three times per week. Although this schedule has become much less popular over the years, I think having more repetition makes for better learning. In addition, having more classes makes it is easier to set aside additional days for testing.

I give three tests during the semester and a comprehensive final exam. In my Intermediate Accounting II class, I also require three short papers. With this system, each of the hourly exams counts 20 percent of the student's final grade.

When we come to the first test and the students are beginning to panic (some seem ready to have a nervous breakdown), I try to reassure them – “Whether you do great or whether you do awful on this first test, it is only 20 percent of your grade. This is just a first step in showing you what I want you to learn. If you have a problem, you've got plenty of time to make adjustments and get the grade up.”

I want to give my students a chance to see how I test. The grade on that first test is still important -- it is 20 percent of the overall grade -- but I don't want to crush their spirit if they have a bad day. I want them to focus on a longer term goal. I want each student to be great by the last class. I have no other objective. I think having a first test that counts 20 percent is a good way to push my students toward that goal.

But it is important for them to realize that if they do not do well on that first test, then they must make adjustments. If a student makes a 59 or 67, that better be a wakeup call that changes are necessary.

Every semester I will have students who bomb the first test but still make an A in the course because they wake up and say “this old guy is not kidding, he really does expect me to think about this material and learn it.” And, they immediately become better students and save their grades.

Those are often my favorite students because they didn’t quit or give up. That made adjustments and learned what I wanted them to learn.   They had time to do that and they made good use of that opportunity.  I wish I had more students like that.



Monday, February 25, 2013

CREATING A TRUE SENSE OF URGENCY

I received the following email from Dennis Beresford about my previous blog posting.   In that earlier essay, I had indicated that I expected my students to study before each class as if a quiz were scheduled even though no quiz was going to be given.   I want them to motivate themselves to do the work rather than leaving the motivation up to me as the teacher.   It is their education.   They should care enough to have the discipline needed to do the work.

I have long argued that students will always do much better in any class if they feel a sense of urgency.   The only question is whether that urgency needs to be externally driven or whether the students can be expected to create it for themselves.  

As many of you will know, Professor Beresford served as the chairman of FASB (Financial Accounting Standards Board) from 1987 until 1997.   Since that time, he has been the Ernst & Young Executive Professor of Accounting in the J. M. Tull School of Accounting at the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia.   Over the years, he has held an unbelievable number of other prominent positions in the business and accounting world.  

Professor Beresford writes here about his own undergraduate education and the method by which his accounting professor at the University of Southern California created that essential sense of urgency in his students.   I only have a few quick comments.

(1) – I would bet that the students walked into Professor James’ class each day extremely well prepared and, as a result, learned a ton about accounting.   He certainly understood motivation.   I just hope that none of the students had a nervous breakdown.  

(2) – Although this method of teaching seems a bit harsh, do note that it successfully created one of the most influential accountants of the past 50 years:   Dennis Beresford.   You cannot argue against that outcome.   I do not know what happened to all of the other students after graduation but this method worked extremely well in one case.

(3) – Faculty members often complain that students have changed over the years (they have gotten soft and lazy).   From this account, maybe it is not the students who have changed but rather the faculty members who have changed.   Perhaps faculty members were once more willing than today to put these kinds of demands on their students.

From Professor Dennis Beresford:

“I enjoyed your latest teaching blog, ‘There Will Be No Quiz.’  It reminded me of my own experience at USC where the professor who taught my two Intermediate classes and one Advance class had a policy of never announcing any of his exams (except for the final, of course). Yes, I meant to say exams and not just quizzes. So we came to class each period not knowing whether we would have a lecture and discussion of homework problems on the assigned topic or the entire period would be devoted to an exam. He announced this policy at the beginning of the semester and the students would start to anticipate an exam if we hadn’t had one for some time. But we never knew whether it might be in the fifth week, the seventh week, or so on. I can’t recall if we know how many interim exams we would have during the semester but I believe it was at least a couple before the final.

“Most students were aghast at this policy but I actually thought it was great. That’s because I was never a ‘study all night before the exam’ type of guy. I worked my way through school and almost always spent at least 20 hours at my outside job. But besides that it’s always been my approach to keep up to date with my classes or other obligations. I figured that if I didn’t read the materials and work the problems while they were fresh in mind I was losing the opportunity to take advantage of what I had heard in class and wouldn’t be able to ask timely questions to reinforce the material right away. I’m sure there were times when I went back to try to review things for an exam but not too many. I just tried hard to learn things well the first time around so I wouldn’t have to re-learn them again later. That served me particularly well in Professor James’ classes and it’s worked pretty well throughout my career too!”

 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

THERE WILL BE NO QUIZ


 
If you have followed my blog postings over the years, you know that I have several obsessions about teaching.  

(1) – I believe in having a lot of communications with my students.  Whether it is love, marriage, or a college class, things go better with communication.   To the teacher, everything makes sense.   Too often, to the students, everything is a mystery.   I want to cut out as much of that mystery as possible.  I think students respond well when they understand what is expected of them.

(2) – I believe in honest and frank communication.   College students are adults.  I never see any reason to feed them a bunch of nonsense.   If you aren’t going to tell them the truth, you would be better off not to have the communication.   I think you should stress the good as well as the bad.   No one wants to get praise all the time and no one wants to hear how bad they are all the time.

(3) – I believe a lot in motivation but I think the core of motivation has to come from inside the student.   I am not going to go through life with each student and serve as their personal cheerleader.   At some point, they have to be willing to work hard because they want to achieve their own success.   For better or worse, I think our society uses too much external motivation on students as they are growing up.   Schools, teachers, and parents do so much pushing that students never have to consider (a) what they want to achieve and (b) how to do the work to get there.   Many students have the unspoken motto:   “Why push myself when someone else will do it for me?”

(4) – I want my students to become good at being students.   I am always amazed by how little so many students know about becoming good students.   When they leave my class, I obviously want them to know accounting but I also want them to walk away knowing how to be better students.

I gave a very hard test last week in my Intermediate Accounting II class.   I knew it was hard and I meant for it to be hard because the material was hard.   The class had been doing well but not as well as I might have liked.   I wanted more from them than I was getting.   You can always tell students that they need to work harder but every teacher says that (and often does not really mean it).   Those warnings just bounce off most students.

Between the time that I gave that test and the time I gave back the graded exams, I had several points that I wanted my students to consider.   In that limbo period, they are very open to suggestion.   They often realize that they did not know the material as well as they should have and want to know how to do better.   The test has caught their attention.   As a teacher, you need to make use of that opening.   So, I wrote them the following email.   I wanted to communicate with them before the grade came back and got them distracted.  

In many ways, the note is about having the discipline and the ambition needed to do the necessary work.

My students are 20-21 year olds.   I don’t want them to do any work just because I have threatened to give them a bad grade.  I want all of the students to do the work because they want to do well.   I want them to do the work because they have that fire in their belly to succeed.

I didn’t get through to all of them but I believe that I did get through to some of them.   As the teacher, open and frank communication of your goals and reasoning can be awfully helpful.

Email:
“I have not graded any of the tests yet and am not sure when I will grade them. They might be great or they might be horrible. I have seen plenty of both over the years. But, as I have said before, this test is only 20 percent of the grade. You’ve got time to move the grade up if need be.

“However, I want to assess how the class has done so far. And, to be honest, it is sometimes difficult for me to tell. I listen to answers and try to speculate as to what those answers tell me. Sometimes I am pretty sure I know what’s in your head but often I don’t.

“But, given that disclaimer, here’s my assessment. To date, I really haven’t seen anyone who seems truly obsessed with making an A. I usually have one or two students for whom the desire to make an A in this class is a burning passion. And, they usually make it. I haven’t seen anyone with that type of desire (or have not seen them yet). On the other hand, no one seems completely lost. Usually by now, I have a few people who seem to be desperately trying to fail. I clearly have not seen that.

“My guess is that most of you prepare each day for class like making a B or a C is fine. In truth, that is a decision you have to make. You are an adult.

“My one irritation is the number of times I find myself saying ‘we did this 48 hours ago – what did we do then?’ and then I get a look from you like we actually did it 48 years ago. There is always a connection between the classes. No matter what you made on the test today, the better you make that connection, the more likely it is that your grade will go up. In fact, the test was just one big interconnected problem.

“Want advice? Here it is. And, I have already given it to you before. Prepare for each class like I’m going to give you a very serious quiz in class that day. Of course, I am never going to give you that quiz but you have to prepare like I am. That is not easy.

“But, if you must have some outside person motivate you by giving you a quiz, then you probably won’t do much better than a C.

“People who prove to be successful (in school and after) find some way deep down in their dirty little hearts to motivate themselves to do the necessary work without having to have someone threaten them with a quiz.

“I do not want to motivate you. Heck, no. I want you to motivate yourself.

“I might change my mind once I’ve graded this test but I’m not at all unhappy with the effort to date in general. Yes, I would always be glad to see more students shoot for an A.  I’m an ambitious person and I like ambitious students.  But that is not the real point. What I want is not important. The point is whether you are satisfied with your effort and how you will adjust it going forward.

“We will not have a quiz on Monday. I guarantee it. The secret is:   Can you walk into class having prepared like there was going to be one?

“See you Monday. Have a wonderful weekend.

“No quiz.”

 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

THE LEARNING TRIANGLE


I began giving teaching presentations about 10-12 years ago.   As I have said many times, I enjoyed that experience immensely because it forced me to spend serious time thinking more deeply about my own teaching.   I cannot begin to guess the number of times in the last few years that I have asked myself:
--What really happened in class today?  
--Why didn’t this work?
--How should I have changed what I did?
--What was wrong with that particular question?
--Why did the class seem unorganized?
--How did I manage to confuse so many students in that discussion?

All those questions eventually led me to begin writing about teaching and now I am up to over 250 pages.   And, I am still asking questions and still learning.

One of the very first teaching concepts that I ever developed for myself was “the learning triangle.”   I remember standing in front of 100 or so brilliant professors one day a number of years ago in one of my very first presentations trying to explain how the learning triangle could help their students to become more efficient.

I was reminded of this today as I contemplated giving my first test on Friday.   My guess is that a lot of the teachers who read this blog will also be handing out their first test around now.   I always believe the first test presents a good time, every semester, to stop and contemplate whether the students are progressing as you would like.   Are changes needed?    After the semester is over, there is nothing you can do to fix problems.   Why not consider making adjustments after looking over the results of the first test?

In sports, I am always impressed by basketball and football coaches who make halftime adjustments and get their team to suddenly play better.   Teachers should consider doing the same thing.   If the coaches can do it, so can you.

That brings me to the learning triangle.   Simply put, I believe that student learning is most affected at three specific points.  
--The first is how well students prepare before they walk into class.  
--The second is how efficiently the class operates.  
--The third is what the students do following the class to help organize and solidify their understanding. 

If a class is not going well, if a teacher needs to make some adjustments, then improvement in one of those three points of the triangle should help.  

Too often, we focus solely on the classroom experience.   For example, you might ask a veteran professor to observe your class and make suggestions.   And, in truth, a class can be a disorganized mess if the teacher has not spent sufficient time thinking through the step by step structure of the 50-90 minutes that make up most classes.   For example, if class coverage is not sequenced logically, the whole experience really can seem like an effort to herd cats.

However, I have long been a believer that the most benefit can be gained by focusing on the other two points of the learning triangle:   class preparation and the organizing and solidifying of understanding immediately after class.  

Class Preparation:   From my experience, a vast majority of students walk into class each day under-prepared to learn.  They have not been told what to do to ready themselves for class.   Or, they have not seen sufficient reason to exert much effort prior to entering the room.   I often raise this question and I think it is worth considering:   If students are not well prepared, what are they capable of doing during your class other than sitting like lumps taking notes?   You cannot ask a student to have a thoughtful discussion of Hamlet if the student merely skimmed the play.   You cannot ask students to provide insight into recent politics if they have not checked on the news in two weeks.   The kinds of discussions and debates that make college education so very wonderful are absolutely impossible if students walk into class under-prepared.   At that point, Socrates himself would throw up his hands.

What is the solution?   (1) Give the students very clear cut instructions on what you want them to do in advance.   Do not be vague.   Tell them the exact pages to read.   Point out the questions that you want them to answer.   Make the assignment a challenge but make it one that they can complete in a reasonable period of time.   (2) Make sure the assignments are reasonably interesting.   Ask good questions that make the students think and want to know the answer.   Don’t make learning a drudgery.   All topics can be enjoyable if they are approached in the right manner.  (3) Tie the subsequent class to that assignment in some very clear way.   If you tell a student to read the first 10 pages of Chapter 6 for class and then you never mention those pages, don’t expect the student to pay any attention the next time you give an assignment.   A student will label an assignment as “busy work” if you do not convince them otherwise.   The assignment has to tie into class in some important way.   (4) If a student does not do the preparation that has been required, you have to call them on it.   I send emails to students saying things like “I expect you to do better at our next class” or I call them to my office to find out why I am working so hard and they are not.  

Trust me – if you can increase the level of student preparation, you will be startled by how much more interesting class will become.   A lot of the burden of teaching is trying to figure out how to help unprepared students to learn.   And, that is never fun.

After Class.   No matter how smart your students are, they will leave every class with a brain full of disorganized material.   They simply cannot absorb college-level information quickly enough in class.   I always tell them that the knowledge will seep out of their brains in record time if they do not do some work very quickly after class.  

One of the best exercises is to simply ask them to write out what they learned in a couple of paragraphs.   Because words, sentences, and paragraphs are all sequential, this writing helps them to figure out how the pieces should go together.    A one page synopsis titled “What We Covered Today In Class” can be a great help to any student.   Or, perhaps you can provide some review questions or a practice problem.   
 
Since I teach accounting, I often send out an email almost immediately after class with this admonition:  “If you learned what I wanted you to learn today, then you should be able to work the following problem in 30 minutes without looking at your notes.   The answer is $385.   If you get that answer, you probably have a good handle on today’s work.   If you cannot get $385 in a reasonable period of time, come by and you and I can talk about what you missed.”  

To use an old cliché, teaching is not brain surgery.   I can promise you that if you figure out how to get your students to prepare better before they come to class and if you can figure out how to help them sort and organize the material after class, the learning will improve rather dramatically.   

And, you and the students both will enjoy the class more.

To make a halftime adjustment, focus on the points of the learning triangle.