Thursday, February 4, 2016


Recently, I was invited by Dr. Shannon Orr (Bowling Green State) and Dr. Staci Zavattaro (Central Florida) to participate in an upcoming book project (to be published in 2017 by Palgrave).  They are asking 100 college professors to respond to the question:   What do you wish you had learned back in graduate school?

Isn’t that a fascinating idea for a book?   I must admit that I can hardly wait to read it myself and see what the other 99 have to say.  I am always in need of advice.   The question really breaks down to the ultimate life question:   If we had it all to do over with again, how would we do it differently?   That’s a question we should ponder now and then as we consider making changes in our present day life.  You can’t change the past but you do have some control over the present.  Thinking about the past might help us improve the future.

I spent several days considering what my honest answer might be.   Here is what I wrote.   Dr. Orr was kind enough to allow me to post this to my blog.   (So be sure and buy a copy of the book just as soon as it comes out.)

For the first 20 years I taught in college, I believed my role was the conveyance of information.  Essential subject matter resided in my head and needed to be moved into the heads of my students almost like boxes transported along a conveyor belt.   Successful learning depended on my ability to explain complex material.  I poured hours into creating beautiful lectures.   Students transcribed every word.  Content was memorized and then regurgitated back on tests.   Occasionally in class, I threw out a question that one of the more attentive students would immediately volunteer to answer.  The rest stuck to their note taking with dogged tenacity. That strategy had proven successful during their long slog through the educational system and was not going to be abandoned without a fight.

Class evaluations were good.   I won teaching awards.   Colleagues congratulated me on my success.   And, I was so dissatisfied that resigning was an ever present temptation.   Student learning seemed stuck in low gear.   My efforts appeared to accomplish nothing more than helping bright young people become stenographers.  

In 1991, I took a desperate leap of faith and switched to the Socratic Method.   I no longer conveyed information.   Instead, I asked questions every day for the entire period.   I followed James Thurber’s mandate: “I’d rather know some of the questions than all of the answers.” This change might have seemed rather spontaneous.   In truth, the need for radical change had been building inside of me for years.  I wanted to teach differently.

The transition was not easy.   The Socratic Method takes practice. Nothing is predictable.  No two classes are alike.  Absolute control is lost.   Years are required to appreciate its intricacies.  My class evaluations went down but, eventually rebounded.  

Every student receives a list of basic preparatory questions before each class.  But, it is the follow-up questioning that pushes them to a deeper level of understanding.  “Think about what we have discussed.  Now apply that knowledge to a more complex situation.”  Developing this type of logical reasoning creates an education worth having.  

I never ask for volunteers.  I award no points for participation.  I call on everyone every day and expect students to be prepared.   “I don’t know” is not acceptable.   “Figure it out” is my reply to a weak response.   The questions are the key.   They form puzzles that must be analyzed and solved.   “Why is it done this way?”  “What would have happened if the facts had been reversed?”  “If a different country had developed rules, what might they be?”   I constantly search for questions that force students to think more deeply.  That sentence is worth repeating:  I constantly search for questions that force students to think more deeply.

Virtually every college boasts of developing the critical thinking skills of its students.   Is this a serious objective or merely a standard line added to a website?   If serious, how do we fulfill that mission? After 45 years in the classroom, I worry that not enough faculty have considered the implications of this last question.   Lectures and the conveyance of information are not the answer. 

When I describe my conversion to the Socratic Method, I often encounter resistance.  Radical change is frightening.  As a visiting history professor once told me, “I see how it works for accounting but I don’t see how it could work in history.”   Socrates would surely have been mystified by that assertion.

Our planet faces a litany of problems that threaten its very existence:  pollution, racism, religious intolerance, disease, terrorism, poverty, dwindling energy resources, climate change, and many more.  I am convinced that only one possible solution is available:  improved education.   Colleges must produce substantially more high-quality graduates, people ready to tackle these challenges.  Conveyance of information will not save us.  Students must learn to think more critically.  They must be encouraged to delve into problems more deeply. 

What holds us back?  Teachers should be leading the charge for better education.

Last summer I listened to a fascinating audiobook on my car’s CD player:  Wild by Cheryl Strayed.   With no practical experience, the author walked 1,100 miles alone through the mountains of California and Oregon along the Pacific Crest Trail.  One day, as I drove to campus, Strayed described her anxiety as she readied to begin the journey.  Not surprisingly, she lost her nerve and almost quit before regaining her composure.  In describing these emotions, she wrote a line that is so insightful that I pulled over to the side of the road so I could write it down.  

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.”

Shakespeare could not have said it better.  Those words have passed through my mind now for months.  We tell ourselves stories that can hold us back from changing our lives and the lives of our students.  Never expect failure.  Never fear change.  Never view students as incapable of serious thinking.  Never view them as lazy. Never feel that your teaching is unimportant. Never enter the classroom with low expectations.   Both fear and failure, to a great extent, are born of the stories we tell ourselves.

What do I wish I had learned in graduate school?   A complete list might stretch out like Rapunzel’s hair.  

I wish I had thought more deeply about the difference between conveying information and the development of critical thinking skills.  I wish I had appreciated fully the vital role every teacher plays in the future of our civilization. I wish I had developed more positive stories about myself and my work so that I would have been brave enough to experiment sooner.  Most of all, I wish I had come to understand that good questions create puzzles that lead students to think deeply, more deeply than anything I could possibly tell them in a lecture.  If I had understood all that, I could have made better use of those first 20 years in the classroom. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


Last week, the School of Professional and Continuing Studies here at the University of Richmond held its opening meeting for the new semester.   I was asked to give what I would describe as a keynote speech to kick off the semester.  Often, when I am asked to speak in this way, I will present some type of Power Point slide show where I discuss a topic like “My Top Ten Favorite Teaching Tips.”   In truth, I can do those programs fairly quickly and often with good results.

However, I decided that I wanted to do something different this time.   Our world has become so cynical and sour.   Every politician with a microphone will stand in front of a crowd and spew anger and hatred.   The news channels do not help as they debate the pros and cons of every single political decision often deriving people who are trying to do their best.   I fully realize that people in every community can be frustrated but I am tired of the sole political statement being:  “I am mad and I am going to tell you about it.” 

Plus, I often believe that teachers are just under appreciated, especially by themselves.  Without teachers, we would have no doctors or lawyers or engineers or accountants.

I decided to use my microphone time to talk about the excitement and thrill of being a teacher.   Sure, I could have stressed the bad days that happen in the classroom (and we all have those) but I wanted to talk about the wonderful influence we can have over so many people, especially young people.   I am glad they pay me for this job but I might well do it even if I wasn’t paid.  I love the thrill of making a difference.  Don’t you?   I can’t see how anybody would not love being a teacher.

In case you would like to watch that speech and judge whether I was really positive and optimistic enough, you can check out the URL blow.   The first nine minutes are announcements.  I start speaking after that.   Eventually, I ask the group to answer a question.   I’d love to know how you would have answered that question.

If nothing else, fast forward to the very end where I read a couple of sentences from a famous book.   Those words are worth hearing.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


If you have read this blog for long, you know I began using the Socratic Method in my accounting classes way back in 1991.   I often get questions about why I started and how I use the Socratic Method.   I always tell people that it is hard to explain unless you are there to watch the process.    People simply don’t believe that you can teach complex accounting theory by firing hard ball questions at the students.  

I was asked last fall to discuss the Socratic Method at a faculty forum here on campus and give a demonstration.   I wasn’t sure how well that would work.   But I talked for a while and then I, along with nine of my students, did a bit of a typical class using this approach.   It normally runs more smoothly in a real class environment but it worked fairly well in this artificial setting.

In the presentation, I do put a focus on the book and the movie that forever changed how I taught my classes.

If you are interested in the possibility of using the Socratic Method (for accounting or any other topic), the URL for a video of this presentation can be found below.   You might decide that it is something you want to try.   On this blog, I am always stressing the three E’s:   experiment, evaluate, evolve.   Perhaps this could be the basis for an experiment.

I am told that this video will not run on Internet Explorer but will work on Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox.

Sunday, January 10, 2016


My classes begin tomorrow morning for the spring semester.   I just sent my students one final email to make sure they understood what I wanted from them.   I figure I might as well let them know upfront.   Here is what I told them:

Tomorrow morning at either 9 or 10:30 a.m., we will meet and Intermediate Accounting II will begin.  Over the past few weeks, you have received quite a number of emails from me talking about this class – why it is important and what it takes to do well.   By now, one question should be rattling around in your brain:   What does this guy really want from me as a student?   Clearly, this class is not exactly like other classes and the teacher is not exactly like too many other teachers.   What am I looking for from you over the course of the next 3 1/2 months?

Last year, in downtown Richmond, my wife and I went to a play (Equivocation) about William Shakespeare.   At one point during the first act, a young actor comes up to Shakespeare and asks (or almost pleads):   “You said I was brilliant.  Did you really mean that?”   Shakespeare looks at him for a long time and finally responds:  “You are brilliant, at your best.”   I leaned over to my wife at that moment and whispered “that’s what I want to tell each of my students.   That is the essence of my teaching.” 

I am convinced that you can be brilliant over the course of this semester.   But I am equally convinced that you are only going to be brilliant on those days when you are at your absolute best.   That is my one and only goal – to bring out the best in you.   You don’t know what your best really is.   I don’t know what your best really is.   So, we both have to push and challenge and work and debate and argue in order to get you to a point where you are at your best.   No matter what I do in class, whether it seems funny or mean or insightful, I have only one goal:   To bring out the very best from you (not the person beside of you or the person behind you or the person on the other side of the room from you but just YOU).   And that’s because I am convinced that you can be truly brilliant, not average or mediocre or even good but truly brilliant, but only when we are able to work together to get the best from you.   My guess is that you’ve had enough average in your life.   Surely, you are sick of mediocre.   The world has a lot of troubles.   It needs more people willing to step up to the challenge and be brilliant.   Isn’t it time for you to see what you can actually accomplish when you are at your very best?

I look forward to starting to work with you tomorrow morning.

PS – Here’s a movie clip that you might enjoy.   It has one of my all-time favorite quotes:  “It’s the hard that makes it great.”​

Tuesday, January 5, 2016


I am giving a speech on teaching tomorrow evening here at the University of Richmond.   I look forward to it with great anticipation.   There is a genuine thrill in talking with teachers about teaching.   It is a wonderful way to get the new semester off to a great start.  

As always, I am a big believer in preparation – both my own preparation and that of the audience.   For this program to go well, everyone needs to spend some time and be ready.   To get that process started, I sent the 105 participants a message about an email that I had recently received.   I asked them to read the question that I had been sent as well as my response.   Then, I asked them to add one additional tip to my response.   What did I leave out?   What more should I have suggested?   What other idea should have I have given this young person?

Okay, I have the same question for you.   Read the question.   Read my answer.   Tell me what else I should have added.   That's your assignment.

I received the following email from a person whom I did not know and will likely never meet.   But, I appreciated her question and the sheer interest she had in reaching out to a stranger for advice.  

“I am a TA for Organic Chemistry at Ohio State University. Over the past several semesters, I have become very interested in teaching, and I started reading your blog a few weeks ago. I have found it incredibly helpful and insightful, and your passion for teaching is admirable. I was reading through your blog post about teaching tips for the new semester, and I would love to hear yours (at your earliest convenience, of course).”

Thanks so much for writing about my teaching blog (have you seen my Teaching Tips book -- it is also free on the Internet).   I'm always delighted to hear from teachers, especially new teachers.   From my perspective, it is one of the most thrilling and rewarding careers that you can have.   Enjoy every day.

As far as advice for you as you begin the spring semester, I could probably write three thick books of advice and honestly believe that each new idea was even more important than the previous one.   But, having said that, here are a few that I view as absolutely essential.

--Figure out how to get your students to prepare before they walk into your class.  99.9 percent of students are under-prepared when they enter the classroom each day and that sets a severe limit on what any teacher can accomplish.  There are a lot of ways to get students to prepare (threatening bodily harm might be one) but student preparation in my mind is the number one key to great teaching.  Without that, everything is a challenge.

--Communicate with your students early and often.   For example, I've already sent a couple of emails to my students ​ and my first class is not for nearly three weeks.   During the semester, I send emails to the students roughly once a day.   But, I work to make those emails worth their time.   I give practice problems.   I give study hints.   I talk about interesting developments that I read in today's paper.   I occasionally talk about books I'm reading or movies I've seen because I want my teaching to go beyond just accounting.   If you limit your interaction with students to 150 minutes in class each week, it is difficult to be a great teacher.

--Teach by using puzzles.   That, I think, is one of the most missed paths to great teaching.  I don't know anything about your field (organic chemistry) so I cannot give examples but think about questions that begin:  "Why would it work like this?"   "How might this be different in a science fiction story?"  "What happens if we do something backwards?"   "If X happens, what is most like to happen next and why?"  Everyone loves puzzles.  They make you think and reason.   Any boring class can become immediately engaging through the use of puzzles.

--Students come to learn based on how they expect to be tested (or graded).   No matter what you tell them, if they believe you are going to test their memory skills, all they will do is memorize.   The hope of developing their critical thinking skills will then fly out the window.   One way to avoid this problem is to give open book tests (I actually allow my students to bring in three pages of notes to every test which forces them to make decisions as to what they should include).   Open books tests are good for you because they will force you to learn to write good test questions and that will make you a better teacher.   They are also good for the students because they will quickly understand that you are not going to test them on memory since you are allowing them to have access to notes or books.

--I don't know how big your classes are but, if possible, never say more than 50 percent of the words in class.   Teachers are hypnotized by the sound of their own voices.   Teachers love that they can easily fill up the passing minutes with their own words.   Students let the teachers rattle on because they like to sit and daydream.   Force your students to do half of the talking.   I do that by using an intense Socratic Method where no student can hide.   But there are other approaches that work.   Teachers feel an obsession to convey information.   Get over it--there are books and videos that do that.   Use the class for talking—especially student talking.  

--Follow the three E's:   Experiment, Evaluate, Evolve.   You are never going to stand out by doing things the way everyone else does them.   Try new things each week or each month just to see what works and what does not work.   This is especially important as you get older and the age gap between you and your students gets wider.   Most teachers experiment less as they get older.   They settle into a comfortable rut.   You should experiment more as you get older to keep things fresh for you and your students.

--Care for your students.   These are real people and not robots.   Yes, they can be lazy.   And, yes, they can be annoying.   But this is their one chance at learning this material.   Whether you are good or bad as a teacher, you have a big impact on their lives.   Care enough for them to push them to be great.

Hope this helps.   One warning:   Sometimes you have to read a lot of ideas to find one that really helps you.

ADDITIONAL TIPS THAT MY AUDIENCE FOR TOMORROW NIGHT SENT TO ME (I challenged these folks to add one tip and I got loads – here are a few that I received, selected somewhat randomly)

--Establish a class culture of respect and provide a safe environment for sharing diverse opinions.

--Make each class real, relevant and riveting.   Find examples of the subject matter you're teaching, and weave them into every class to help students connect with the content. Tell stories and share examples.

--I give students "mini cases.”  The case is related to the topic for the class and presents a hypothetical situation in a company. The students work in small groups to develop a response and then report that to the class.

--Be willing to fail and open to learning from failures. Risk-taking is not well-rewarded in academic circles because failure is seen as an ending rather than a transition. Be willing to try, fail, and admit failure to students. And be willing to let students fail at certain aspects of the class without earning a failing grade in the class.

--Captivate the students with good openers, words of wisdom, useful tips.   Collaborate often because we learn from each other.  Celebrate all accomplishments and "understandings"... no matter how small

--Differentiate your instruction based on students’ readiness for the content, their interests, and the different ways they approach learning.   This is the most challenging aspect of teaching and requires you to get to truly know your students as individuals.  Remember that your students are very much alike in some ways and very different from each other in many ways. 

--Remember the power of active engagement, which allows students to interact and reflect on the content.  This type of learning increases meaning and understanding.  It provides an opportunity to communicate with others in order to share perspectives and experiences.

--Part of each student's grade is participation in class. I give them class labs that they have to solve and each student must participate. Also, I assign each student (prior to class or during the first night of class) to write a one page paper on their expectations of the class and me. This allows me to evaluate their writing ability and it helps me design sections of my class.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Starting a Marketing Campaign

As I have said occasionally on this blog, one important step in having a great class is selling the class to the students.   If they are not convinced that the sacrifice is worth the reward, even the best teacher will have trouble getting the strong effort from them that is needed.   Most college students have had plenty of classes over the years that seemed like a total waste of time.   They often start each new semester with that cynical expectation.   As early as possible, I want to begin selling them on the vital importance of what we are going to be doing.   I want to create that positive mindset.  I want them to anticipate something special.

Thus, although my classes do not begin until January 11, I have already sent out an email or two just to introduce myself and start building momentum for the semester.   This morning, I sent out the following email message to my future Intermediate Accounting II students.   I want the students to understand that I am not looking for them to sit calmly in their seats taking notes.   I want them to be very active participants in the learning process.   More importantly, I want them to have a completely different view of the learning process.   Learning is not a punishment to endure.   Learning is exciting.   Learning is not an obstacle to fight past.   Learning is a journey to be cherished.  

One email is never going to change the mindset of all my students but, hopefully, they will now begin to think about the possibility that this class will be different in a positive way.   I will have tickled their curiosity.   Of course, I still have to make the class different and challenging and unique and interesting and rewarding.   But, if I have opened their minds to that possibility, the chances of success for everyone has already gone way up.

To:   Intermediate Accounting II Students

From:   JH

Happy Holidays!!   Hope you got the GPA from the fall semester that you wanted.   The system that I always want to see is:   You work very hard and you learn a lot of amazing things and you get very good grades.   I trust that worked for you. 

About this time each semester, I receive a number of emails from future students who pose a question like this:   “I understand your class is challenging and I understand you have different goals than some of the other professors.   What can I do now while I have some free time so that I am ready to do my best when the semester begins?”  

Good question.   In many ways, I don’t care much about the amount of accounting you already know.   In my class, C students can (and often do) become A students.   With some effort, all of this accounting stuff can be learned.   It is neither rocket science nor brain surgery.    Although it is nice if you have a 4.0 GPA, it is not a requirement for doing well in Intermediate Accounting II.

What do I want from you?   I want a raging curiosity about how the world works.   I want enthusiasm and energy.   I want a willingness to put in an hour or so of study each and every day.   I want to see a genuine excitement about learning and education.    I want to see you set priorities rather than simply march ahead in a random fashion.   I want you to decide what success means to you and then go full speed ahead to make that success happen.   I want you to take control of your life rather than have it take control of you.  

I am not nearly as interested in students who seem bored by everything they don’t already know.   I am not wild about students who find an endless variety of excuses for not working.   I am not excited by students who want to give up the first day they are asked a question that requires them to think rather than spout a memorized litany. 

As odd as this might seem, I really do want you to walk in to class each day excited to be there, excited by what you might learn.   I want you to learn this material so deeply that you will come to the point where you won’t need me—where you have a true understanding so that you can figure out new and unique problems by yourself.   That is what college is supposed to feel like.
If this intrigues you, let me make a suggestion.   If you go to the following URL, you will find a speech that I gave a few years ago about what I wanted from my students.   Because you are going to be in my class, you might find it “educational.”   You can skip the first ten minutes or so.   That is just a bunch of introductions.   Watch the speech.   

At the end, I pose a question and ask the crowd for an answer.   How would you answer that question?

Monday, December 7, 2015


As I try to mention every now and then, if you want me to send you an announcement whenever I post a new blog entry (about 20 times per year), send me an email at

My good friend Bob Jensen passed along the following URL a week or so ago:

The related story talks with one of the authors of the book Taking College Teaching Seriously:   Pedagogy Matters!    The story begins with an interesting assertion:   “The call to increase the number of U.S. adults with college degrees and improve college completion rates across the country has only grown louder in recent years.  But relatively little has been discussed about the actual teaching that occurs inside the thousands of lecture halls, labs and classrooms on college campuses.”  

Do you agree or disagree with that statement?   I think that very assertion is worth a discussion.   My tendency is to mostly agree with the statement based on what I have seen as I go out and about.   But there are some wonderful exceptions.   For that reason, I found the comments at the end of this story almost as interesting as the story itself.   In colleges, do we discuss teaching a little, a lot, none, or what?   What do you think?

Thanks to Bob for sending that along.

As I have mentioned previously, I led a couple of teaching programs here at the University of Richmond recently.   In the most recent, I began with one of my all-time favorite quotes about teaching (a quote that I have mentioned in this blog a number of times over the years):  

“Great teaching is not about the number of years you do it.   Great teaching is about the amount of time you spend thinking about it.”

Whenever I bring up this sentiment, I get very little resistance.   It has a common sense appeal that people like.   But, never once, over all these years that I have been doing this, has anyone ever raised his or her hand and asked the perfectly obvious question:   “So, what do you think about when you are thinking about teaching?”   If “thinking about it” is so darn important, shouldn’t someone address the issue of what thoughts we should be pondering?   Do we get hung up admiring quotations or do we actually consider their implications?

I raised that very question in my presentation.   And, then I told a story about one of the things I think about as I consider how I want to teach my classes.    When my older son was a senior in high school, he did extremely well in his art classes and decided that he might want to attend the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).   Over my winter break that year, we scheduled a trip to Providence, Rhode Island, to tour the campus.   As luck would have it, the area was recovering from a huge snow and ice storm.   On Friday, January 7, 1994, we were spending our last day on the campus before heading home the next morning.   As we walked across campus in the snow and ice, we saw announcements that the students were putting on a presentation of videos that had been made in some of their classes.   It sounded fascinating so we came back to campus that evening for the show.  Because of the bad weather, we arrived early and wandered around in one of the classroom buildings to kill time.   In a computer lab on the basement level, we found a young student working at a computer monitor.   We asked her what she was working on and she was ever so enthusiastic to show us.   Okay, this is nearly 22 years ago when computer programming was primitive.   She had been working on designing a stick figure on her monitor that could toss a ball and then catch it.   And, sure enough, as we watched, the stick figure did exactly that.   The student was so thrilled.   She told us all about how hard she had worked that entire day and how exciting the whole process had been.   Her enthusiasm for the exercise was contagious.

As my son and I walked from the room, I turned to him and asked the question:   “I wonder how many of my accounting students work this hard on their Friday evenings?”

To which my son replied, “Better still.   How many of your students get that excited about learning accounting?”  

We both laughed but I have thought about that conversation for over two decades now.   How can I get my students so interested in financial accounting that they will gladly work on Friday evenings and be ecstatic when they finally manage to solve the assigned problem?

It is very easy for me to rationalize and say “well, she was doing computer programming and I’m teaching accounting” but is coming to understand the essence of financial reporting truly more boring than getting a stick figure to throw a ball?   Or, do I just assume that my students will think it is boring and, therefore, I accept that as inevitable?

Since January 7, 1994, I have spent a lot of time thinking of ways to make my coverage interesting/engaging/intriguing.   As far as I’m concerned, it should be a pleasure to learn how the world of accounting works and not drudgery.

What have I learned from all this thinking?   There are lots and lots of things I could bring up but if I had to list just one thing, it would be this:   Excitement in education is all about the questions.   The questions you ask your students (in class and on tests) have to be interesting.  They have to be challenging.   They have to be worth the effort.   They have to be puzzling.    Focus on the questions.

If all you do is provide some type of rule or fact or process and then ask the students to memorize it, no student is ever going to be excited about your class.   Think about the questions.   What questions can you throw at them that will make students stop and wonder?   What questions can you ask that will puzzle them enough so that they will truly want to work out the answer for themselves.   

That has been on my mind now for an awfully long period of time.