Tuesday, May 7, 2013


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


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


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


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


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.