Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Teaching Is Often Like Being a Gardener

Recently, I have had several people ask me if I would send them an email when I post a new entry here on my teaching blog.  I am more than happy to do that.   If you send your email address to Jhoyle@richmond.edu, I’ll drop you a note whenever a new entry goes up.   I will not sell your email addresses or send out spam.   You will only get an occasional note that I have added more of my thoughts to this teaching blog.

Many years ago I was called to serve on jury duty.   For an entire week, I hung out around the courthouse trying to stay awake.  I was bored to death and felt like the experience was the ultimate waste of time.  

At the end of that long miserable week, the judge called us in to dismiss the group.   He took a few minutes to describe all of the many things that the court had managed to accomplish during the week and it was amazing.   As I remember it, hundreds of cases had been settled while we, as the potential jury, waited to serve.   He thanked us and told us that the court system only worked effectively because we were present and available to hear cases.   After he finished, I think every one of us realized that we had served an important purpose.   By his speech, the judge had given us a very positive sense of accomplishment.   I cannot speak for the rest of that group but the week no longer seemed like a waste of my time.   I was glad that I could help.

I sense that students often view most high school and college classes as nothing more than busy work to be endured.   From the start, they seem skeptical.  Other than passing a test, they are unsure of the benefits.   They have no sense of accomplishment.   They cram the information into their heads so they can regurgitate it on periodic examinations (a process sometimes referred to as “bulimic learning”).  They do what they are told – not for any thrill of learning -- but only because the teacher hands out the orders.  

It is obviously easier to put in a first rate effort if you believe that progress is being made, that the work is worth the effort.  That is human nature.   Consequently, after the first class of the semester and then again after the first week or so of my classes, I like to send out an email to my students to describe what the class had managed to accomplish in such a short period of time.   The students are often amazed.   Learning and knowledge can sneak up on you while you are not looking.    I want my students to have pride in what they do, to feel good about the understanding they are gaining.   I want the experience to be worthwhile to them.   I ask for a lot of work from them.   It is easier for them to do that work when there is a clear payoff.

I want my students to feel great about the class and great about themselves.   I try to plant that seed as often as possible and I make sure to start early.

Here is an email that I sent out to my Financial Accounting students this past Saturday after the first week of classes.   We had been together a total of only 150 minutes at that point but I wanted them to start realizing how much knowledge this class has to offer.   I hoped that they would realize that their work was already paying off.   They HAD accomplished a lot in just one week.

I understand that many of you do not teach financial accounting so, as you read my email, you’ll have to think about what you might put in a similar note to students to get the pumped up early in the semester about the class experience.

To My Students

“I thought our first week together went great.   You came to class prepared.  You were willing to participate.   That’s what I want.  

“Most people come in to this class with an entirely incorrect view of accounting.   They believe it is mostly about making dull mathematical calculations that have no particular purpose, especially to them.   I wanted to start this semester by showing you a completely different view of financial accounting.  It is all about communicating monetary and objective information so that outside decision-makers can predict stock prices, cash dividends, and cash flows.   We never guarantee success but a good knowledge of financial accounting can truly increase your chances for success.   That’s a worthy goal.

“This should be important to you because you will soon be decision-makers.   You will buy or sell the ownership shares (capital stock) of corporate organization.   Or, you will let a company buy on credit.   Or, you will choose which organization to work for after graduation.   You are looking to spot financially healthy organizations.    You can make those decisions by flipping a coin but people who are really successful let the available information guide their decision-making.  

“We talked this week about accounting as both a language and as a portrait because the ultimate goal is to provide a vision or a likeliness of an organization.  The result is not necessarily accurate or correct or exact because that is often impossible and people don’t really need (or expect) that degree of precision.  We also compared financial accounting to natural sciences like biology or physics where the goal is to learn how nature works.   In financial accounting, we have to follow people-made rules (US GAAP – created by FASB) that provide the underlying structure.   This structure is absolutely necessary to make sure that people all around the country (and the world) are speaking the same language and can understand the data that is communicated.   When that happens, we say the financial information is presented fairly which means that it does not contain any material misstatements according to US GAAP.   “Material” is something of a size or significance to change a decision-maker’s decision.   “Misstatement” is something that is wrong, either an error which is unintentional or fraud which is intentional.

“We can disagree (and lots of people do) with specific rules in US GAAP.  But in the US, you must still follow those rules.   US GAAP is the basis for financial communications.   However, over time, many of these rules will change as businesses evolve or as accountants simply change their minds about the appropriate rules that should be in place.

“I am pleased – that’s a lot of new information to absorb in such a short time period but I think you have done it.   Good for you.” 

I sometimes believe that the most important questions in teaching are the ones that we often ignore.   When is the last time that you asked yourself whether students have a sense of accomplishment in your class?   I think we would all agree that a sense of accomplishment is helpful for student work and retention.   So, how often do we set out to create that mindset?   In most cases, including my own, it is probably not often enough.  

Teaching is more than just the conveyance of knowledge.   Teaching is often like being a gardener who constantly works the soil, aerating and fertilizing and weeding, so that the crops grow strong and hearty.    One important aspect of this process is taking time to make sure your students really do feel a sense of pride in their own accomplishments.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


Greetings!!   I trust you are ready for a wonderful new school year.   At this time of the year, I always feel like I can leave my mistakes from the previous semester behind and start anew with refreshed hope and enthusiasm.  

To celebrate the new year, I wanted to discuss two words that I believe can make anyone a better classroom teacher.    Not immediately, but over the course of a semester or two.   I am not sure that anything works immediately.   Progress has to be slow and steady.


Word One

Back in August of 2014, I wrote a blog entry that mentioned the following article from The Chronicle of Higher Education.  

I just think the importance of confusing students cannot be over-emphasized and is worth a second look.

I define “lecturer” as someone who does 80 percent or more of the talking in class.    If you have read this blog over the past few years, you know that I was a lecturer for the first 20 years of my teaching career.   I eventually changed to the Socratic Method because I found lecturing to be frustrating.   One of my biggest irritations was that on those rare occasions when the lecture was especially clear, student learning would fall off.   I would explain some complicated topic and the students would all nod their heads in vigorous agreement and then they would fail my tests.   That just irritated me to death especially because I did not understand why.   That is the reason I am now bald.

In one paragraph, the article from the Chronicle explains why clarity does not work so well in education:

"It seems that, if you just present the correct information, five things happen," he said. "One, students think they know it. Two, they don’t pay their utmost attention. Three, they don’t recognize that what was presented differs from what they were already thinking. Four, they don’t learn a thing. And five, perhaps most troublingly, they get more confident in the ideas they were thinking before."

Confusion, within reasonable parameters, has the exact opposite effect on the students.   They realize they don’t know everything.   They start paying closer attention.   They start looking for differences between what they thought they knew and what is being discussed.   They start adding knowledge and understanding.   They begin to reject incorrect notions that they had previously held.  

Obviously, I don’t mean “unplanned confusion” where everyone winds up lost in the wilderness.   I mean “planned confusion” where you start attacking what the students thought they knew.    I tell my students that their knowledge is like Swiss cheese.   It looks solid to them but it is really full of holes and my role is to point out those holes so we can fill them.  

As a result, in my own classes, I have a common saying:   “I’m paid enough to ask you questions.   I’m not paid enough to give you any answers.”   That irritates the students because they are used to a system where clear conveyance of information has always been the goal.   But, from my vantage point, they learn a whole lot more and get better grades if I can get them confused.

Word One:   “Confusion” – as you get ready for the spring semester, don’t worry so much about being clear and understandable.   Plan some confusion.

Word Two

My Dean bought our faculty the book Make It Stick – The Science of Successful Learning.   I have not finished reading the book yet but one of their very strongest points is that learning is greatly enhanced by the process of retrieval.   The authors talk about this over and over.

I was so taken with the idea of retrieval that I sent the following note to my spring students along with several suggestions on how they could go about retrieving information on a regular basis.

“I have recently been reading a book titled Make It Stick – The Science of Successful Learning, by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel.   As you might imagine, I am always deeply interested in how to help people learn more effectively.   I have found this book to be very insightful.   One of the things the authors say frequently is that reading material over and over is not very helpful in getting it you’re your memory.  According to them, it is the retrieval of information that really solidifies learning.”

It is like exercise at a fitness center.   You put the information into your brain and then you pull it out and use it.   Then, you pull it out again and use it.   Every time you do this, the understanding becomes stronger.  

So, as I get into my planning for the spring semester, I am going to work on more ways to force/encourage my students to retrieve the information from their brains.   I am working on building that more into the class experience.   One of the questions I like to ask (which again often irritates the students – irritation is apparently one of my goals) is:   How did we answer this type of question just 48 hours ago – heck, that’s not so long ago, surely you remember how to figure this out.”  

Word Two:   “Retrieval.”  


When I talk with folks about teaching, they often seem to believe that massive changes would have to be made to get any improvement.   Nah, I don’t believe that.   I think if you focus on two simple words like “confusion” and “retrieval” for a semester you might be surprised by how much deeper the learning goes.



Monday, December 22, 2014


This will be my 201st entry on this blog.  That is roughly 190 more than I expected to write when I first began.   Over the years, the blog has had 130,000 page views and was recently named one of the top 50 blogs in accounting for 2014.   (http://www.accounting-degree.org/50-best-accounting-blogs-of-2014/)    Unfortunately, it was the only blog on the list that dealt with education.   I would honestly love to be reading 50 different blogs about teaching and learning.    At that point, I think college education could really begin to improve.   So, start a blog.   Share your opinions.   Share your questions.   Share your doubts.   Share your frustrations.   We need more of that.   You will never be able to estimate how much the blogging process can improve your own teaching until you start typing and posting.

As always, I want to pass along my great appreciation to everyone who forwards messages to colleagues about my various thoughts and ideas on this blog.   Any success here is dependent entirely on the many kind people who read these essays and discuss them around their own faculty coffee rooms. 

Some years ago when I first began to write about teaching, I received an email from a stranger in England.   That email has long since been lost but it said something like “You don’t know me but I have read several of your essays on teaching and believe you will appreciate the attached quote.”    How very correct he was.   Sadly, I don’t know who sent the email or even the origin of the quote.   But, I cannot possibly describe how much the following words have influenced me over the intervening years.  

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

As I get older, I am ever more convinced that we teachers don’t invest sufficient time thinking deeply enough about our classes, our students, and the learning process.   It is easy to get stuck on autopilot.    Every year is like the last one.   We understand when certain aspects of the experience are not going well but we avoid delving into those problems with the thought necessary to arrive at creative and effective improvements.   More and deeper thinking might just be the cure.

As we move toward the beginning of another year and the opening of a new semester, I want to urge all of us (you and me both) to spend some hours over the winter break just thinking about teaching.   Focused meditation can help us consider how we can make 2015 the greatest year of our teaching careers.

That is a reasonable and upbeat goal:  2015 the greatest year of our teaching careers.   Can we do the thinking that is necessary to make that goal a reality?   When I give presentations to educators and make such a bold suggestion, I often get a frustrated query in response:   “What am I supposed to think about?”

That is not a dumb question.   In fact, it might well be the real key – what should we think about?   “Go out and do some thinking” is so vague that it provides little helpful advice.   To help direct this thinking, I want to throw out 6 specific questions that you might ponder over the winter break.   Just some questions to bat around inside your head.  You are not looking for a right answer in general but rather the answer that makes the most sense for you.

Maybe most importantly, you are not trying to justify what you are currently doing but rather trying to figure out how your current practice might be improved ever so slightly.

(1) – How do you want your students to be different on the last day of class from what they are at the beginning of the semester?   Surely, there has to be some anticipated growth in each student or the class simply has no purpose.  For you, what should that change be?   Try to avoid giving a vague response.   To help faculty determine their goals, I like to ask the “fly-on-the-wall-question:”   If you were a fly sitting on the back wall of the classroom on the last day of the semester, what would you want your students to say about your class as they exit?   That will tell you a lot about the change that you want to see in your students as a result of your class.   Be careful how you answer this question because it should then become the guiding point for how you structure every aspect of your teaching.  If you want your students to learn to distinguish the music of Mozart from that of Bach by the end of the semester, then you build your class to create that outcome.   So, what outcomes are you seeking?   How should your students be different at the end of the semester as a result of your class?   If you want to become a master teacher, be bold when you set your goals.   If you have never considered this, I think you have missed one of the great questions in teaching.

(2) – How do you communicate with your students?   Most of us only meet with our students two or three times per week in a hectic classroom setting.    Those classes are often 4 or 5 days apart.   If you want to influence students, there has to be some method of conversing with students in a more efficient and timely manner.  How effective would any business be if the employer could only converse with employees for a few minutes 2 or 3 times each week?   In my classes, I use a lot of email.   I start sending emails about 6 weeks before the semester begins and do so on almost a daily basis once the semester gets going.   I ask questions, I direct students to interesting newspaper articles, I create puzzles for them to solve, I talk about what we covered in class, I give them review hints.   I tell the students that I will only send what I consider to be important emails but I do expect them to be read.   I cannot guarantee that they read every word but, at least, I have a way to provide direction and motivation on a daily basis instead of only 150 minutes each week.

(3) – How do you get your students to prepare for class?   I have always argued that the secret to an effective classroom environment is student preparation.   If students are prepared, they can participate in a meaningful way.   There is no limit to what can be accomplished in class.   If students are not prepared, all they can really do is take notes that they subsequently memorize.   They are just observers.   They cannot participate.   The quickest (although not easiest) way to improve your class is to convince your students of the wisdom of walking into class prepared.   Most students (and, by that, I mean virtually all students) go through a middle school and high school system that puts little or no emphasis on class preparation.   Therefore, in college, you face a group of students who have little idea as to why they should prepare for each class and how to go about doing that.   I guarantee that if you can increase student preparation in your classes, you will be amazed by the improvement in the learning process.

(4) – How do you test to avoid memorization and, instead, emphasize the development of critical thinking?   Often, in this blog, I have stated that students will learn based on how they are tested.   If you want to develop critical thinking skills, you have to convince the students that such skills are necessary for success on their tests.   As most of you probably know, I am not a big fan of student evaluations.   However, the one question that I look at religiously is number 8 (at the University of Richmond) which is something like:    Compared to other college-level courses you have taken, how well did this course call upon your ability to think critically and analytically?   I would bet that the results of that question are highly influenced by how well my tests emphasize critical thinking skills.   Over the past decade, I have worked more diligently on my testing than on any other part of my teaching.

(5) – What do you do after class to help students solidify the knowledge that they have obtained in class?   I am always amazed by how quickly understanding leaks out of the minds of my students.   I am currently reading an excellent book titled Make It Stick – The Science of Successful Learning (by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel).   One of the earliest things I marked in this book was the line:   “One of the best habits a learner can instill in herself is regular self-quizzing to recalibrate her understanding of what she does and does not know.”   How can you help students do that self-quizzing so that they can jumpstart the amount they know and understand?   How can you help them build on what they learn in class rather than have it leak out of their minds?   How much direction and assistance do you give students after they leave your classroom?

(6) – How do you convince your students that they are capable of learning the material in your class and that this knowledge is worth the effort?   In life, attitude is everything.  If your students are convinced that they are stupid or if they believe the material has no positive value for their lives, a quality educational experience is going to be impossible to achieve.   Conversely, if you can instill a high level of confidence, every student can become a star.   It would be wonderful if all students walked into our classes with a deep curiosity and an openness for learning and a huge belief in themselves.   That works great in theory but not in practice.   Many students appear on the first day fully expecting to feel stupid and bored.   That cycle needs to be broken if the class is going to be a success for every student on the roll.

Six questions and no real answers.   But they are well worth considering before you walk back into the classroom in January.   Can you come up with a new and improved answer for one or more of these over the next few weeks?   Remember that teaching should always be about “experimentation” and “evolution.”

Do that and I am convinced that 2015 really can be the greatest year of your teaching career.

Happy holidays!!!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014



A good friend emailed me a few days ago and asked for some suggestions on writing a test.  Students were mostly getting good grades on her tests but she wasn’t sure that they were learning as much and as deeply as she wanted.

I think testing is a teaching topic that we do not talk about frequently enough.   Too often, we are probably afraid of exposing our weaknesses.   Few people are trained to write good test questions.   She was creating an accounting test but I believe the basic discussions around testing are pretty much universal across the various disciplines.   Here were the thoughts that I sent to her.

Rule 1 – Testing is just about the most important thing a teacher does each semester because it sets the tone for the students.   It tells them what you really want and expect from them.   If you test memorization, they will learn to memorize.   If you test mechanics, they will learn nothing but mechanics.   Think about what you want them to learn and then test that way.   Here’s where you need some type of mission statement – “I am teaching my students to  . . . “

Rule 2 – Because it is so very important, never turn your testing over to a busy grad student in some unknown college in some unknown place.   That is who writes most test banks.   For what you know, those people might well know less about excellent teaching and testing than my cat.    If you were a basketball coach at one of the local universities, would you turn the practice sessions over to the janitor because you were uncertain about running them?   That is nonsense.   But you turn your testing over to someone who doesn’t know your school or your class or your students.   Learning good testing takes some practice but you can always do it better than the grad student at an unknown college in an unknown place.

Rule 3 – A test has one major purpose – to differentiate the A students from the B students and so on.   Differentiation is the purpose.    And, of course, to have the students believe that your differentiation was fair.   1/3 of the questions should be workable by the A, B, and C students but not the D and F students.   1/3 of the questions should be workable by the A and B students but not the C, D, and F students.   1/3 of the questions should only be workable by the A students – that is how they prove they are A students.   That is how you make them feel good about themselves.

Rule 4 – If you use a test bank, always realize that most test banks are for sale on the Internet.   The students often buy them for practice purposes.   No test bank is absolutely safe as far as I know.

Rule 5 – Always be willing to curve.   I tell my students that I grade the tests and then I assess what is excellent work, good work, average work, and so on.   I next curve those tests (and only those tests) that deserve to be an A so that they get an A.   That is where my professorial judgment comes in to play.   I decide what is excellent, what is good, and so on.   If I judge a 78 to be excellent, I curve that to an A.   If I judge a 95 to be good (a different test obviously), I curve that to a B.

Rule 6 – I am a big believer in the wonder of puzzles.   Where possible, I try to write test questions that are basically puzzles.   I also believe where possible that questions should resemble real life.   These are 20 year old adults – they are old enough to vote and old enough to go to war.   Don’t make test questions look like test questions from their high school days.   Make them look like real life with some kind of twisted puzzle logic.   Questions that incorporate “what if” are usually good as are questions that ask “how would this have changed” or “how would you decide between these two options?”  

I recently gave a test in Financial Accounting and another test in Intermediate Accounting II here at the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond.   If you would like to get a copy of either of those tests (just to see what I do), drop me a note at Jhoyle@richmond.edu.


Because I am writing above about puzzles, here is a quick story that I liked.   A good friend of mine recently gave me the book Mindset – The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck.   I opened the book to the first page and was fascinated to read the following which seemed to have come directly from my own experience:

“When I was a young researcher, just starting out, something happened that changed my life.  I was obsessed with understanding how people cope with failures, and I decided to study it by watching how students grapple with hard problems.   So I brought children one at a time to a room in their school, made them comfortable, and then gave them a series of puzzles to solve.   The first ones were fairly easy, but the next ones were hard.   As the students grunted, perspired, and toiled, I watched their strategies and probed what they were thinking and feeling.   I expected differences among children in how they coped with the difficulty, but I saw something I never expected.

“Confronted with the hard puzzles, one ten-year-old boy pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips, and cried out, ‘I love a challenge.’   Another, sweating away on these puzzles, looked up with a pleased expression and said with authority, ‘You know, I was hoping this would be informative.”

Yeah, puzzles can make class and teaching a whole new ball game.

Monday, October 13, 2014


In my previous blog posting, I talked about motivation – are you a football coach or a scout leader?   I received several emails asking how I motivate students under either of those approaches.   Well, no motivational style works perfectly on every occasion but I think you need to (a) really communicate clearly to your students at all times and (b) sell the course to them.    Every course and every friend and every club is demanding every minute of a student’s time.   Why should they pick your course to focus their attentions?   I think that is where communication becomes vital and I think that communication has to have some element of marketing in it.   If you believe in the importance of your course, then you need to help them understand what needs to be done.

Consequently, here is an email that I sent to my students today.

To:   Accounting Students

From:   JH

At the beginning of the semester, I made the comment that a successful class is like a dance that is well done.   If I do half of the work and you do half of the work, then we can accomplish great things.   But if either of us does less than half of the work, then the dance is never going to go very well no matter how much the other party is working.      

You have every right to assess whether I (or any other teacher) is doing half of the work.   If not, you should complain.

And, in the same manner, I periodically assess how you are doing.   We are on fall break.   It is a good time for an assessment.   Our second test is in just a few days.   I know how you did on the first test.   I’m really interested now in where you are heading on our second test.

My guess is that you view this class as a class—maybe a little more important or a little less important than others, but really nothing different than a class.

I view this class as an opportunity.   It is one where you can add some knowledge to your brain that might prove helpful one day.   It is an opportunity that might make you a bit sharper at some time in the future, more astute, a better decision-maker, a wiser and more successful person.

So, over the last couple of days, I have gone over the seating chart, person by person assessing whether you are making good use of this opportunity.    Are you doing your half of the dance?   Truthfully, as a whole, I am pretty well pleased.   No group is perfect but a number of you are clearly doing your half.   In general, I have few complaints.   Unfortunately, we live in a specific world and not in a general world.

Here’s how I kind of assess students when I am thinking about each one of you.

--Enthusiasm.   There is little that is worse in teaching than to walk in to a classroom and have students who clearly would prefer physical torture over your class.   The body language tells it all:   “I hate this and I am going to hate it no matter what you try to do.”   The view from my perspective can sometimes be disheartening.   Fortunately, most students give the teacher the benefit of the doubt and that is more than fair.

--Consistency.   One of the hardest things for any student to do is to be ready to go each and every day.   It is the rare A+ student who walks in every day ready for the debate.  Many students believe that being prepared 2 days out of 3 is darn good but that’s just a 66 percent average and that’s a D.

--Interest.   Some students take notes like they are majoring in stenography.   They have no interest in the material but they are going to copy it down word for word so they cram it into their brains.   Other students actually express an interest in what we are discussing.   You can just see it in their faces.   I guess they are less judgmental.   They step back and try to figure out why the material might be interesting or, at least, important.   That doesn’t mean they are going to major in it.   They just try to look beyond the curtain to see what might be interesting to know.   College material is not an obstacle course to be survived but rather an adventure in learning.

--Ambition:   I have said before and I’ll probably say again, I think the world needs more ambitious people and that should start with young people like you folks.   Too many people settle for average/mediocre from the time they are young until the day they die.   I am always interested in seeing who truly wants to do well just because they want to do well.   Anyone can do well if they have some external force applying motivational pressure.   It is only the chosen few who have the “fire in their bellies” that enables them to motivate themselves just because they want to be winners.

--Preparation, Level One:   Okay, I give out daily sheets with questions.   Many of those questions really come directly from the assigned reading.   I am always interested in seeing how many students are at least willing to go to the trouble to read the text and answer those questions.   There is really no thinking involved.  It is just a matter of being persistent enough to locate the material in the book.   I am always ready to pull out my hair (?) when a student can’t answer a question that should have taken 5 minutes to find.

--Preparation, Level Two:   This always shows the students who probably should think about becoming a major.   It is all about taking material and going beyond just the basics.   How does the answer to one question lead you to the answer to a second, much more difficult question?   In many ways, that is the essence of this course.   Can you take basic material and use it to answer new and more challenging questions?   That is the one aspect of this course that takes an entire semester to develop.   If we do it right, that is the skill that will become stronger and stronger over the next weeks.

I could assess students on other things but this, to me, is pretty much what education is all about:   enthusiasm, consistency, interest, ambition, basic preparation (Level One), and more in depth preparation (Level Two).   Give me those and we’ll have a dance that even Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers couldn’t have beaten.

Thursday, October 2, 2014


The Aspen Institute Business & Society Program recently asked me to write a blog entry on educational innovation.   You can check out my thoughts on that topic at:


A new school year has begun.   I hope your classes are all off to a great start.  

One of the discussions that I have with myself at the beginning of every new school year is about my role as a motivator for my students.   Over the years, I have had a number of conversations with college professors who adamantly assert that student motivation is not their responsibility.  Their feelings certainly have some validity:   “These students are adults.  By this time, it is their responsibility to provide their own motivation.   If they don’t want to learn the material, then they should not be in my class.   In fact, I am not sure they should be in college if they are not interested.   I am not going to treat them like third graders who have to be coaxed into learning arithmetic, geography, and the like.  I am here to explain the materials and help them understand the complexities but I am not a cheerleader.   That is not my job.   When a student signs up for my class, they are saying that they are willing to do the work necessary because they want to learn the material.   It is not my responsibility to be a motivator.”  

In an ideal world, I might well agree with that philosophy.   In that world, students would walk into class ready to learn and constantly beg to be pushed further.  

At least in my class, it is not an ideal world.   My students are very bright but they have a number of other classes as well as job interviews and a wide array of extracurricular activities.  The fact that I actually want them to learn and understand the material can get lost in the helter-skelter existence of a college student.  

And, to tell the truth, every college teacher is a motivator in some way simply by their mere presence in the classroom.   Some teachers might motivate students to stretch themselves beyond their abilities.   Others might encourage the students to do little or no work.   Teachers cannot disassociate themselves from motivation.   Instead, they can decide how they want that motivation to impact the students and their work.  

I always believe that two different types of motivation are available for college professors.   I refer to the first as the “football coach.”   The professor walks into the room and starts pushing students onward.    “I want everyone to learn this material; therefore, I am going to tell you exactly what I want you to do and will expect you to do it.   I have designed every step that I want you to follow and I will push you to do them all and do them well because I want to see great results.”   Picture a football coach like Bear Bryant of the University of Alabama or Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers.   By pushing with enthusiasm and conviction, they motivated their players to greatness.

The “football coach” version of motivation can be very successful.   Think back to all the great teachers you have known over the years and I would expect some, possibly many, to have followed this strategy.   The teacher provides the ambition and the energy and views poor grades as losses to be avoided.   The word that I often associate with the football coach-teacher is “demanding.”   They demand the best from their students and push them forward to achieve that goal. 

Why are there not more college teachers who adopt the football coach approach?   It is a lot of work and takes a considerable amount of energy and some students resist being pushed along even if it is for their own good.  

The other type of classroom motivation that I see is the “scout leader” approach.    This person has a lot of patience and will work carefully with students for hours to make sure they understand the material.   However, the scout leader wants the education to be student-centered.   The goal is for the student to do the work because the student has come to see its importance and not because of being forced.    The scout leader views the role of the teacher as one of guidance.    “If you want to learn this material, I will be glad to help you in every way I can.   I’ll show you why the material is important but the decision to actually do the work has to be with you as the student.    It is your life.   I can show you how to start a fire but, after that, you have to decide whether you want to practice enough to actually be able to start a fire.”

Once again, if you think about the great teachers you have known over the years, almost certainly some have been scout leaders.    They will often be described as “kind” and “caring.”   They are patient guides who enable a student to be successful if that is what the student chooses to do.   There is often a love of learning that is conveyed from teacher to student.

Okay, here are a few questions to ponder.  

--If you were a student in college once again, which type of motivation would you prefer?   Did you like professors who pushed you toward success or professors who guided and enabled you but left the decisions about what path to take up to you?
--In your building, who is the best football coach teacher and who is the best scout leader teacher?   It is good to have role models who can show you how a particular approach can be used to achieve success.
--If I asked your students whether you are more like a football coach or more like a scout leader, what would they tell me?   Self-assess.   What kind of motivator are you?
--How satisfied are you with your motivational strategy?   Is it working as you would like?   Are you getting the results that you want?    That is the ultimate question.   If the results are not what you want, how can you tweak your motivation?   Do you need to push more or guide more?   How do you motivate?

Interesting questions to consider by any teacher.

When I talk about motivation at presentations, someone in the audience will invariably ask me whether I am a football coach or a scout leader.   My response is always the same because I have thought about this for many years.   Teachers in college have very limited time to accomplish their goals.   In a normal semester, I am only with my students for 150 minutes per week for about 14 weeks.  I have to get my students up and running very quickly.  

I start out each new semester as a football coach.   I tell the students exactly what I want them to do and demand that they comply.   I want my students always well prepared for class so I require preparation.   I want my students to develop stronger critical thinking skills so I prepare tough questions that I require them to work in order to reach logical solutions.

However, almost from the first day, I begin to slide over toward the scout leader model.   I want the students to become more responsibility for their own learning.   I only want to be a football coach for the first few weeks.   Gradually, I move into more of a guidance model.   The transition cannot be too quick or the students will become confused.   However, with practice, the pushing and demanding can morph into guiding and enabling.  

For me, teacher-centered education is okay to get the group started well but needs to become student-centered education by the last part of the semester.   I want each student to get off to a great start and that is easier for me to do as a football coach.   By the end of the semester, I want the students getting actively into their own education—not because I demand it but because that is what they want to do.  

But that is just how I like to work.   You have to decide for yourself whether you are suited for the “football coach” model or the “scout leader” model or possibly something in-between.   If any person is going to walk into a classroom as a teacher, some level of motivation (either for good or bad) is going to take place.    You ought to consider what type of motivation is best for you and for your students.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


I will be leading a 75 minute discussion on teaching (“Coaxing More Excellence from Your Students”) starting at 10:40 a.m. on Saturday, September 27, 2014.   The presentation is part of the 2014 North Carolina Education Forum at the Embassy Suites near Raleigh, NC.   If you are in the area, I hope you will consider attending.  You can get more information at www.ncacpa.org.


The September 6-7, 2014, issue of The Wall Street Journal had a great article on teaching:   “Four Ways to Spot a Great Teacher.”    It is on page C3 and I would urge you to read it.   Here, I just want to address the four highlights to whet your appetite.   The author (Dana Goldstein) talks about the importance of teaching and how a parent (and I suppose a student) can recognize great teaching.   Here are the four keys as well as my own observations.

“Great teachers:   Have active intellectual lives outside their classrooms.”   Most college websites will tell you that the primary purpose of a college education is to enable each student to live a well-rounded life after graduation.   We really don’t want students to be only accounting majors or only history majors or only biology majors.   They need to get more from college than that.   A happy, satisfied life necessitates an appreciation of many things:   art, theatre, politics, literature, and the like.  That is why we have general education requirements.

Students should see that same broad intellectual interest in their college teachers so they will want to emulate it in their own lives.   Why teach theatre appreciation if the faculty don't appreciate the theatre?    When I go to plays on campus, I am delighted to see my students but I’m also thrilled to see my fellow teachers.   
I am always a bit concerned if I mention a well-known book and fellow academics seem totally oblivious.   Elizabeth Kolbert, the author of The Sixth Extinction is speaking on our campus this year.   I will encourage my students to attend but I hope the other faculty members are also drawn to hear what this well-known author has to say.

Let the students know that you have a life outside of your discipline.  In The Wall Street Journal article, there is a wonderful statement:   “In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois, who once taught in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Tennessee wrote that teachers must ‘be broad-minded, cultured men and women’ able to ‘scatter civilization’ among the next generation.”   Now, that is a goal worth having.

“Great teachers:   Believe intelligence is achievable, not in-born.”   I tell my students openly and often that I have a goal for them that goes well beyond the understanding of accounting.   I want them to become smarter.   I believe if you challenge students and push students to figure stuff out for themselves, they will actually become smarter.   Okay, I’m not going to turn anyone into Albert Einstein or Sherlock Holmes but I do believe that turning lazy thinking into critical thinking makes students smarter.   That, to me, is another goal worth having.

“Great teachers:   Are data-driven.”   Occasionally, teachers will tell me that they are doing something innovative in a class.   I naturally ask:   Well, is it working?   Often, the response is “I have the feeling that it is.”  

Hmm.   I do understand that many teachers have a strong intuition about what works and what doesn’t work.   But, I really hate to leave assessments totally to intuition.   We live in the era of computer technology which allows us to analysis “big data.”   Intuition is rarely the only answer.  We can often get some measure of proof about results beyond intuition if we set out to get the data and then take a hard look at it.

What data do I look at in assessing my classes?

---I have said many times on this blog that I pay very little attention to my student evaluations.   That is not entirely true.   I do look at one particular question that appears on our evaluations here at Richmond:    “Compared to other college-level courses you have taken, this course called upon your ability to think critically and analytically:”   Okay, we can argue all day about whether students are capable of making this assessment accurately.   But, by the time they get to my class, they have been in school for 16 straight years.   Given that, I think “strongly agree” is a whole lot better than “strongly disagree.”   If this particular number falls for a class of mine, I want to do some thinking about why that might have happened.   For me, that is data that is important.

---Our students take a senior survey right before they graduate and we also do alumni surveys about every 2-3 years.    I want to take a serious look in both cases at what former students thought about my classes.   I can always rationalize away the problems that I might spot.   But I hope I don’t do that.   Where weaknesses are noted, I want to think seriously about whether changes are needed.   It is easy for any teacher to say “I know best; everything that happened was great regardless of what the students later say.”   Or, the teachers can actually think about this data and what it might be telling them.

---A vast majority of our students at Richmond take the CPA Exam within a year of graduation.   NASBA furnishes us (for a fee) with passing rates.   I teach Intermediate Accounting II.   I like to see high passing rates on the material I teach.   I am absolutely not “teaching to the exam” but I still think a reasonable high pass rate is a good goal.   If we don’t get that high passing rate, I immediately consider whether changes need to be made.   Again, I think about what the data might be telling me.

“Great teachers:   Ask great questions.”   Well, if you’ve read this blog for long, you have heard my obsessions about asking questions in class and using the Socratic Method.   I think great teaching is most often built around puzzling the students and that is best accomplished through carefully crafted questions.  

Today in class, I spent a few minutes demonstrating how a problem could be worked in what I viewed as a very logical way.   I explained each step carefully to indicate what I was doing.   After I finished, I smiled at the students and said “Okay, that's great but the method that I just demonstrated is not allowed.   It is viewed as wrong.   Despite how wonderful it looks, it cannot be used.   I need for you to tell me why that is.” 

The class then spent the next few moments taking apart what I had done to explain to me why it was not theoretically allowed.   At the end, I think they understood.   In fact, I think they understood much better than if I had simply told them the right way, step by step, in the first place. 

In my mind, carefully crafted questions asking things like “how can you do this?” and “why do you do this?” are fabulous as a basis for learning.

Great teaching – in these troubled times for education, we need more of it.