Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Prime the Pump (What Does It Take to Become a Great Student?)

This website recently went over 146,000 total page views.  That is about 145,000 more than I ever expected when I began.    I want to take a moment this morning to thank everyone who reads these postings and shares them with other teachers.  Obviously, there is no real marketing of this site.  People tend to learn about it from other teachers.   Word-of-mouth.   So, thanks for sharing!!!  I sincerely believe that most teachers want to think more deeply about the art of teaching.   I hope this website serves as an occasional prompt for such thoughts.

This will be my 211th posting.   Several of these essays over the years have gathered more interest than others.   In terms of readership, here are the Top Ten in case you would like to check out some of the more popular postings.

--What Do We Add?  (July 22, 2010)
--What Is the Purpose of A Final Exam? (May 12, 2010)
--Introduction—Teaching Financial Accounting (January 7, 2010)
--Great Teaching—What I Learned from My Students (March 5, 2015)
--If I Challenge You to Become a Better Teacher, What Is Your First Response? (July 30, 2013)
--Fourteen Characteristics of Great Teaching (April 23, 2015)
--Conversation with Bob Jensen (October 8, 2013)
--What the Catcher Tells the Pitcher (August 21, 2011)
--A Good Suggestion (June 1, 2013)
--What Do You Really Want to Accomplish? (August 28, 2010)

Several of my most recent posts have dealt with becoming a great teacher.   I have always been fascinated by that jump from “good” to “great.”   I believe there are ways to make that jump successfully and I am not sure enough of us have that as our goal (in teaching as well as in other aspects of life).   Why stop at good?   Why not try for great?

But, today, I want to tell you something that you already know:   If you have great students, then becoming a great teacher is a much more manageable challenge.   Bright, energetic, and curious students are just easier to teach.   

Recently, I have been thinking about how I might get more great students.   I have almost no control over the quality of the students who show up in my class.   I cannot put a minimum SAT score limitation or a required GPA as a prerequisite for my classes.   I am responsible for teaching everyone who enrolls.   How can I turn more of them into great students?

I decided I would try to get my students for the fall to start thinking well in advance about what it means to be a great student.   I bet that few, if any, of them have ever really considered what it takes to be a great student.   If I can get them to consider the question, will that alone improve the chances that more of them will be great students during my course?  

Luckily, my students register in April for next fall and I have access to their email addresses.   I decided to try an experiment.   I wanted to encourage them to focus over the summer on what it really means to be great students.   I figured it could not hurt and it might have a positive effect on some of them.  

Below is an email that I sent a few weeks back to all of the students (I think it was roughly 60 in total) who have signed up for my class in the fall.   I have already heard back from a couple who seemed to be intrigued by the experiment.   Will this help?   I don’t know—that is why I am trying it.   If you’ve read this blog previously, you probably know that one of my teaching mottoes is:   Experiment, Evaluate, Evolve.

Email to students who are enrolled in my class for the fall semester:

Okay, I have your first assignment for the fall semester.   And, I dearly hope that you won’t go running away in horror and panic simply because I am giving you an assignment four months before the first class.   I actually think you will enjoy this assignment.   More importantly, it might make you a bit better as a student going into the fall semester.  That is a good goal.

In addition, I don’t want you to start trembling over the upcoming fall semester like some scared and frightened cat.   About two weeks ago, I gave the keynote speech at the Richmond College Senior Recognition Dinner.   One of my comments to the group was that Richmond would become a better educational institution when more of the students stopped being so timid.   At your age, a bold challenge should bring out the very best in you and not send you fleeing to drop-add.

That is one thing that you should demand of all your professors:   “Bring out the best in me!!!”

There are three steps to this assignment.

(1) – For many years, I have written a blog about teaching, primarily about how I teach here at the University of Richmond.   Over the years, the blog has had more than 140,000 page views.   A few days ago I wrote about the characteristics of great teaching.   I want you to read that blog entry because it will explain why I do some of the weird things that I do.   Reading should take you under five minutes.   I want you to read the whole thing but I want you to focus on 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 12.   Those are the ones that will impact you the most in my class in the fall.

Here is the URL for the blog entry:


(2) – I want you to spend some time over the summer talking with someone (your parents, a trusted high school teacher, a friend, a co-worker, a stranger on a bus) about the topic:   What is the purpose of a college course?   At the University of Richmond, you have to take at least 35 of these courses.   What are they supposed to accomplish?  Surely, it is not so that you will memorize a bunch of trivia just so that you can pass a test.  Given the cost of the University of Richmond, that would be a darn expensive test.   Surely, it is not so that you can get a first job that you might well quit within the first year.   The goal has to be longer than the first few months after you walk across the stage at graduation. 

It is very hard to put a lot of work into a college course if you are not sure why anyone even takes a college course.   You are going to be stuck with me for a semester.   What am I supposed to do for you?   What do you want me to do for you?   In many cases, your parents are paying a lot of money for you to be in my class – why are they doing that?   What do they believe is the purpose of a college course?   You ought to ask them. 

(3) – Some time before the first class in the fall, I want you to write a short essay and email it to me.    Be sure to put your name on it and which class you are in.   In one paragraph (or more, if you wish), I want you to tell me what you believe are the characteristics of a great student.   You might well be a great student but, if you are not, you surely have known great students here at Richmond or in your high school classes. 

For you, what are the characteristics of a great student?

You’ve got four months.   I hope all three steps in this assignment intrigue you a bit.   I hope they tickle your curiosity. 

I am not sure what I am going to get from them.   I am not sure how I will use those essays.   But we will do something and maybe, just maybe, it will push a few more of my students to become great.   That would be fabulous.   I guess I will just have to wait and see what happens.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


Now and then, I come across some thoughts on teaching that I think are worth sharing.   That happened yesterday here at the Robins School of Business.   My email to our faculty and staff is below.   No matter what the individual jobs are here at Richmond, we are all in the education business.  This place exists, at least in large part, to maximize the knowledge, wisdom, and understanding of our students.   Passing information like this along to others can help keep teaching (and the thinking about teaching) alive as an important part of our culture.  

You can do the same thing in your building.   Whenever you learn something about teaching that you feel might also help others who face similar challenges, then pass it along.   Don't be timid.   Don't be shy.   

Email Note:

A friend of mine here at the University of Richmond passed along the following URL of a recent NPR discussion with Ken Bain.   Everything Dr. Bain says about teaching seems worth a few moments of consideration so I thought I would pass it along to everyone. 

As some of you might remember, Dr. Bain spoke on campus to the Richmond faculty about 8-10 years ago.   Several of us had the great pleasure of taking Dr. Bain and his wife out to dinner that evening (at the old Peking Restaurant) before his talk to the faculty.

As a true southerner, I try to have one story about everything.   Here is my one story about Ken Bain (which I have repeated countless times).   That evening, he spoke to about 50-70 faculty members.   About halfway through his talk, someone in the back asked:   “How can a person become a great teacher?”   Bain stopped immediately and responded:   “Oh, is that what you want to know?   Well, that is an easy question to answer.   I can tell anyone how to become a great teacher in just one sentence.   All you have to do is get your students to care about what you are trying to teach them.”   I continue to believe that is one of the most fabulous pieces of teaching advice that I have ever heard. 

Here is what he had to say recently on NPR:


As is often the case on the Internet, the comments after the article are random, amusing, and—at time—insightful.   

Thursday, April 23, 2015


In a March 5, 2015, blog entry, I posted the results of a survey that I had conducted.   I have 76 students this semester and they were each asked to identify the characteristics they believed exemplified great teaching.  I read and classified each of their responses.   I then ranked the various response categories by frequency.  

This essay generated heavy traffic.   It quickly jumped onto my all-time top five list in terms of the number of page views.   Readers of my blog apparently have a genuine interest in what students say about great teaching.   I hope you will consider doing a similar survey with your students just to see if the results are consistent.

Although I was fascinated by what my students had to say, they were clearly thinking about teaching from a student perspective.   That is hardly surprising.   However, having taught in college now for 44 years, the characteristics that I associate with great teaching are often different than what a student might believe. 

For the past several weeks, I have been working on my own list of characteristics that I connect with great teaching.  I started out to identify 8 essential attributes.   As I wrote, the number quickly jumped first to 10 and then to 12.   I have now settled on 14.  The more you think about the idea of great teaching, the longer the list seems to get.

I doubt that any teacher is able to hit the target on all of these characteristics.   For me, that is the point.  This is a target list of attributes that you and I can work on as we seek to grow better as teachers.   “Always be moving forward” is a good motto.   Work hard every day to get better as a teacher.  Ultimately, the goal is not to become great.   The goal is to become better each day, each week, each semester.   Strive to get better and, eventually, you will become great.

Here is my own personal list that serves as my target for greatness.

(1) - Great teachers are ambitious; they truly want to become great.   I do not think anyone ever becomes great at anything by accident.   To be great, people need deep desire burning in their stomachs.   This desire pushes them constantly to do the (often tedious) work that is necessary.   Great teaching requires a lot of time and energy.   It is hard for anyone to expend all that effort unless they are driven and passionate about becoming great.   If you are happy being average, you will never be good.   If you are satisfied being good, you will never be great.   A former student once told me:  “Most people care more about the success of their favorite sports team than about their own success.”   No wonder the world has so many problems.

(2) – Great teachers work to evolve.    No matter how much you love it, teaching can become repetitious.  Even the best lesson plans eventually start to feel stale.   Over the years, it is easy to slip into complacency where you start settling for “good enough.”   I often write that teaching should have an underlying rhythm:   experiment, evaluate, evolve, experiment, evaluate, evolve.   Don’t be afraid to try new things.   Peter Drucker once wrote:   “People who don't take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year. People who do take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year.”

(3) - Great teachers spend an awful lot of time on their teaching.   As mentioned above, I have taught now for many years.   I always assumed the job would get easier over time as I came to understand more about teaching.   It actually gets harder as I see more ways that I can help my students to learn.   If you are looking for short cuts, you will probably never be a great teacher.   You might become a popular teacher but, if you are not willing to invest a lot of serious time, you are unlikely to reach your potential as a great teacher.   Someone once told me “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.”   If you want to become a great teacher, break the process down into its smallest component parts and then think about how each one of them might be improved.   That takes time.  

(4) - Great teachers manage to convince students to be prepared for class.   In some ways, I have no better suggestion than this.   If you want the quickest way to improve your teaching, this is the way to do it.   From my point of view, student preparation is the idea that underlies the flipped classroom.  If students prepare adequately prior to class, the teacher can create a wondrous level of education during the classroom experience.   Without preparation, students can do little but sit and copy down notes.   That is not education.   That is stenography.  Students are often reluctant to do any work in advance for fear that it might be a waste of time.   I once had a student tell me quite openly “I never saw any reason to prepare before class if the teacher was simply going to tell me what I needed to know.”   I believe you have to show students exactly what you want them to do in advance and then make sure they understand how that work is beneficial to them.   Required preparation has to have a payoff in class.   The better the student understands the payoff, the better the preparation will become.

(5) - Great teachers test students in such a way as to emphasize critical thinking rather than memorization.   I often argue that the weakest part of our educational system is the testing.   As I have asserted frequently on this blog, how a teacher tests is how students will learn.   If you rely on a test bank that asks for memorization, students have no reason to do any higher level of thinking or learning.   They simply assume you want them to memorize if that is how you test them.   In an age where Google can answer millions of questions almost instantaneously, recall has become less important.   More college-level questions need to ask “why?”   I sometimes refer to that as "21st century questioning."    In recent years, I have started allowing students to bring a page or two of notes with them to each test.   The main reason is that this technique forces me to write questions that go beyond memorization.   With notes available to the students during the test, I have to come up with better questions in order to test their critical thinking skills.   Yes, writing good test questions takes practice but have some faith in yourself—you will get better and better at it over time and that alone will make you a better teacher.   Your students deserve questions that you write and not questions pulled from a test bank created by an anonymous party who might well know nothing about good education.

(6) - Great teachers engage students during class.   Students love to day dream.   They will stare around the room as if those walls and windows are just fascinating.  Students need to be actively engaged in the learning process or they mentally drift away.   Whether you ask them questions or have them use clickers or have them break out into small groups or do free writing, you need some method every day to bring their attention into their own learning.   Too much education is:   (a) teacher lectures, (b) students copy down the material obsessively, and (c) students desperately try to memorize it all on the night before the test.   No thinking is needed anywhere in that entire process.   Great teachers get the students involved each day in every class.

(7) - Great teachers challenge students and then are available to help and encourage.   When I was a student in college, I had teachers who bragged that they were going to give bone-crushingly complex examinations.   And, then, many of them were never available to help me come to understand the material.  I often say “don’t challenge a student to leap tall buildings in a single bound if you are not going to help them learn how to fly.”    We have all heard of the non-aggression pact in college teaching:   The teacher will not be too demanding of the students if the students, in turn, are not too demanding of the teacher.   I think great teaching requires the exact opposite philosophy:   If the teacher is going to push students to achieve great outcomes, the teacher needs to provide the assistance needed to attain those results.  Last week, the senior class at the Robins School of Business named me the school’s “Most Challenging Professor.”   Is that a compliment or is that a put-down?   I think it is an opportunity.   If I can challenge the students AND then help the students conquer those challenges, that is what I want to accomplish.

(8) - Great teachers are effective at communications.   Great teachers always have something to say to students:   look closely at this material, think about this problem, be careful with this issue, don’t get fooled by this question, make sure you have studied this case before class, etc.   How does all of that information get conveyed to the students?   Although there are many ways to communicate to students, I make extensive use of emails.   I start the process two months before the semester begins in order to set the tone for the class.   I like to explain how I teach and why.   I want to “sell” the students on the importance of the material even before the semester begins.   As part of this process, I tell my students that they will need to check their emails every day.   I usually email them once a day on the average and I fully expect them to have read those emails.   That certainly might seem obsessive but my students usually walk into class each day already knowing what I expect of them and with all the background information that I think is necessary for their success.   I am trying to stack the deck in favor of success.

(9) - Great teachers help students fill in the holes in their knowledge.   As I have said previously in this blog, students do not know what they do not know.   They usually over estimate what they understand.   I occasionally laugh about their “head nodding disease.”   If I explain a complicated concept in class and do a good job, I can look out into the classroom and every student head will be nodding up and down in agreement.   They are able to follow what I am doing and believe that is adequate.   However, I sometimes point out that they have “Swiss-cheese knowledge.”   Their understanding looks solid but it actually is riddled with holes.   Because they followed the conversation in class, they don’t realize the weaknesses that exist in their knowledge.   Many days after I leave class, I will send my students a question to answer or a problem to solve and it always starts the same way “if you understood what we covered today, you will be able to work this problem and get my answer.   If you don’t get my answer, you still have work left to do before your understanding is solid.”   Students are often amazed to discover that they cannot work a problem that looks simple.   Those holes in their knowledge get in the way.   My goal is to help them find those holes and then fill them in.

(10) - Great teachers teach all the students.   I think this is one of the hardest challenges that any teacher faces.   It is one that I struggle to attain.   How do you push the top 1/3 of the students to achieve great things without leaving the bottom 1/3 lagging far behind?   How do you focus enough time on helping the bottom 1/3 of the students without boring the top 1/3 and holding them back?   Every student is a human being who deserves a legitimate shot at a great education.   How do you maximize the learning of every student?   For me this is especially difficult because I have 76 students this semester and I truly want all 76 to have a wonderful educational experience despite a wide range of abilities and interests.

(11) - Great teachers know what they really want to accomplish.   It is easy to say “I want to teach the subject matter to my students” but is that really what you want to accomplish?   On the last day of the semester, how do you want your students to be different than they were at the beginning?    For the last few years, I have said that I want my students to walk out of the last class of the semester saying “I never knew I could think so deeply; I never knew I could learn so much; I never knew I could work so hard; and it has been a lot of fun.”   That is a goal that seems to work for me and guides every action I take each day.   But every teacher has to come up with a goal that works for them.

(12) - Great teachers teach beyond the topic.  I know I will have people who disagree with me on this one but I think a college class needs to be about more than the subject matter.   I want all of my students to have fulfilled and meaningful adult lives.   For me, that goes beyond teaching accounting.   During the semester, my students write essays on the best book they have ever read.   They get extra points for going to the theater or to the opera.   I want them to remember my class as more than just an accounting class.  I recently read a Wall Street Journal review of a movie titled Seymour:  An Introduction.   The movie is about the concert pianist and teacher Seymour Bernstein.   In the review Bernstein is quoted as saying (and you can substitute your subject for the word “music” here):   “The most important thing that music teachers can do for their pupils is to inspire and encourage an emotional response—not just for music but, more importantly, for all aspects of life.”   I could not agree more.

(13) - Great teachers set high standards but also encourage the students who are struggling.   One of the hardest but most important things a teacher can do is to challenge a student to be great but also encourage them whenever they stumble.   When faced with difficult problems, it is easy for students to become discouraged and lose confidence.   But if they do not stumble now and then, they are probably not being pushed to maximize their potential.   I always think about this when I return the first test of each semester.   In my classes, approximately 80-85 percent of the students do not make an A on that first test.   How can I keep that 80-85 percent from thinking of themselves as stupid and not capable of success in my class?   How do I convince them that they can do better?   We all have a self-image that is very fragile.   How do I help a student turn a 67 into a 94?   Or, in different words, how do I keep students who make 67 on that first test from simply giving up on themselves?   I cannot think of a more important and personal aspect of great teaching.

(14) - Great teachers realize that each teacher must develop his or her own individual style.   No one wants teachers who are clones of other teachers.   Each person must be willing to explore ideas and figure out what works best in their classrooms.   In other words, take everything that I say and everything else that you hear about teaching with a bit of skepticism.   Teaching is a path where each person must find their own best way.   Ten great teachers will have ten entirely different styles.   Go find the path that works best for you.

Okay, what should I have added to this list?   What should I have left off the list?   What should I have changed?   Great teaching—how does a person get to that goal?  

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


As I have mentioned on my last two postings, I will be part of a panel discussion on April 17, 2015, in Asheville, NC, at the Southeast Regional Meeting of the American Accounting Association.   I am thrilled to be joined by three great teachers:   Lynn Clements of Florida Southern, Eric Bostwick of the University of West Florida, and Scott Showalter of North Carolina State.  

We are planning to have a simple conversation about some of the most basic issues in teaching.   I am very much interested in knowing how other teachers deal with the challenges that I seem to face every day in my classroom.   I have long believed that we need a more open exchange of ideas if college education is going to improve as it must.

I am not sure what questions we will end up discussing in Asheville but here are ten that we are considering.  

How would you answer each of these questions?   There are no right or wrong answers here but these are wonderful questions for each of us to consider as we work to help more of our students become better educated and more deeply thinking individuals.

(1) – (This first question here is directed toward accounting education but it probably applies to almost any academic area from history to Shakespeare to philosophy.)   Any time there is a student comment about an accounting course, the initial response is that the topic is extremely dry.  Many students seem to walk into accounting classes on the first day with the firm belief that they are going to be painfully bored by the material (which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy).   ("Accounting is going to be sooooo dull.")   How do you make your classes interesting and enjoyable for your students?  

(2) – I write a blog about teaching and I recently reported that I had surveyed my students on the characteristics of great teaching.   The number one characteristic according to my students was:  “Great teachers motivate and inspire students.   They set high standards and challenge their students to reach those goals.”   One student wrote “Any teacher with a degree can teach, but it takes a great teacher to get into the hearts of his or her students and inspire them.   Great teachers inspire their students to do great things.”   Okay, how do you motivate and inspire your students?

(3) – Every book on teaching will tell you that the best learning comes about when students are actively engaged.   However, many students seem to prefer to sit very quietly and take notes (or daydream).   I sometimes refer to them as stenographer students.   How do you get students to be engaged and interactive in class?

(4) – I once wrote an essay titled “What do you want on your tombstone?”   In this essay, I asked teachers how they wanted to be remembered by their students.    How do you want to be remembered?  

(5) – What is your biggest challenge as a teacher?

(6) – I am a big believer that a teacher should always know what he or she wants to achieve in a class or the class will tend to drift around in a random fashion.   Think of your favorite course to teach.   How do you want your students to be different on the last day of the semester?  What impact do you want to have on your students?

(7) – I obsessively believe that one of the most important keys to a great class is student preparation.   If students walk in unprepared (as they often seem to want to do), there is only a limited amount that they can add to class discussion.   Almost by definition, they are limited to being quiet and taking notes because they don’t come in with the knowledge needed to make a legitimate contribution.   How do you get students to prepare before arriving at class?  

(8) – I have often said that "the way you test is the way students will learn."   For them, every day is preparation for the next test.   Schools often claim that their primary goal is to help students develop critical thinking skills.   But, testing is often based on memorization so students tend to focus on memorization.   Some of the students probably learned this strategy in middle school and high school.   In this age of Google, memorization has few benefits.  How do you test your students?   Is your testing geared toward critical thinking skills?

(9) – In every aspect of life, good communication is important so that everyone is on the same page.   Do you have any particular ways that you communicate with your students?

(10) – Students often leave class each day thinking they know the material.   I recently read a book that stated that students almost always over value what they know.   I tell my students that they actually leave class each day with “Swiss-cheese” knowledge.   It looks solid but it is really full of holes.   How do you help students realize their knowledge has holes and then how do you help them plug those holes?

Would love to see you in the audience in Asheville helping us come up with answers to these ten essential questions.   

Thursday, March 5, 2015


How do we ever get better as college teachers?   Albert Einstein has been quoted as defining insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."   What can we do differently as teachers in order to improve our results?   How can a college teacher go from being average to being good and then move from good to absolutely great?   

I think that is a legitimate goal for any professor.   From my own observations, not enough teachers make significant improvements over time.   Average teachers tend to stay average while good teachers tend to stay good.   I believe every teacher should push toward greatness.   I often tell my students that the secret to success is to experiment, evaluate, and evolve.   The same, I believe, is true of college professors.   Try something new and see how it works.   Experiment frequently.   You CAN get better in the classroom.   With continued improvement, before you know it, people around your campus will start pointing you out as a great teacher.  

When I give teaching presentations around the country, faculty members often come up to me seeking some type of secret key to unlock the mysteries of excellent teaching.   They truly want to be better teachers but they seem mystified by how that goal can be achieved.   They sometimes seem to be looking too hard.   They often appear to be trying to spot a tiny sparrow in a huge forest.   I really do not think the characteristics that lead to great teaching are that mysterious.    Perhaps it is not the complexity of great teaching that is the problem but rather its simplicity.  

To provide a new perspective for my thinking, I recently asked my students to identify characteristics that they associate with great teaching.   I was curious.   They have been in school for most of their lives.   They have surely had great teachers as well as some awful teachers.   What were the differences?   What makes one teacher so wonderful while the next person struggles every day?   Perhaps if I can identify those differences, I will know where to put my efforts in the future.

I have 77 students this semester (about 2/3 of them are juniors and the rest are freshmen).   I received a fascinating variety of responses to my query, almost all of which were well considered and explained.   Here is the actual assignment that I gave.   Then, below, is a catalog of the responses that I received.  

What do you think?   Do you agree with my students or do you think other attributes need to be considered?   Can anyone become a great teacher by following the advice of my students or does some other talent come in to play?   Hopefully, I will soon provide my own list of teacher characteristics that can help guide a person to greatness.

And, if you surveyed your students as I did, what would they say?   Why not try it?


I have a very short assignment coming up that I want you to spend some time thinking about in advance.  

Yesterday in class, I mentioned that learning to lead and direct other people in an organization is one of the skills that often helps people succeed in the world after graduation.  I have seen many B students over the years do especially well after graduation because they had both deep understanding AND great leadership/guidance skills.  

Most of you have not yet been in too many organizations for long periods of time so you probably have not picked up too much directly about leadership/guidance skills.  As you move on, that is an observation talent that you should stress.   Figure out who knows how to lead and try to determine how they do it so well.  

However, there is one type of leader/guide/mentor that you do have years and years of direct experience watching:   your teachers.   Since kindergarten, you have been in a group of students each year led by teachers who take those individuals and guide and lead and teach.   My guess is that some of your teachers were great – everyone in class seemed to move forward with rapid speed and enthusiasm.   Other teachers were probably pretty bad and just confused and bored the class.  Nothing much was ever accomplished.

When I was in high school and college, I studied my teachers carefully.   I was fascinated by how some of them managed to convince 30 kids to become so interested and excited in things like chemistry and Shakespeare while others seemed to have the reverse effect.   In fact, in college, I gave each of my teachers a grade when the semester was over.   They gave me a grade so I figured it was only fair to award them a grade.   I had just two teachers in college that I truly believed deserved an A (I was a tough grader, even back then).  One was in Business Strategy and the other was in American History After 1900.   They were completely different types of teachers and they were both magnificent.

I think you can learn a lot about leadership by considering all of the teachers you have had over the past 15-16 years.  I think that type of thinking is good for you and your future.  

So, at some time in the next couple of weeks, I am going to ask you to write a short paragraph (1-5 sentences, let’s say) on the question:   What are the characteristics of a great teacher?   I want you to think about that now so that when I give the assignment, it will only take a few moments to actually write down your answer.    Consider the teachers you have had who were great – a 4th grade teacher, for example, or a high school math teacher.   What made them truly great?   And, just in case you are wondering, this is NOT about me.   You can (and probably should) grade me if you want but you need to wait until the semester is over to figure out whether I am an A or an F.  

I also hope to use your thoughts as I get ready for a teaching panel discussion that I will be leading in April.   The group wants to talk about becoming a better teacher and your thoughts should be helpful.

I think this is a super assignment and I hope you will take it seriously.   You will be in leadership roles before you know it and I want you to think about how YOU can be the best leader since George Washington.  

So, start thinking now and I’ll ask for your answers in a week or two.



I read all 77 responses carefully.   Some students wrote a few sentences while others wrote pages.   Some picked one specific quality to discuss.   Others wrote about 4 or 5 individual characteristics.   I tried to categorize each quality that a student mentioned.   Many talked personally about teachers they had experienced over the years in glowing terms.   The essays were often touching.  

The results are listed below.   I realize that some of the categories could have been reconfigured.   Because of the open nature of the question, clear cut distinctions were not always possible.   Some categories could have been merged.   Others could have been separated.  However, I do not think that really affects the overall information value.   If you read the categories and a few of the comments that I have included, you should get a good picture of the results.

Maybe most importantly, does any of this surprise you?   Are you shocked by how students describe great teachers?   A teacher cannot be all things to all students but working on these characteristics is not an impossible mission.   I might not be able to play basketball like LeBron James but I can probably teach my classes with a little more passion for the subject.

(1) - Great teachers motivate and inspire students.   They set high standards and challenge their students to reach those goals.  (33 of my students mentioned this characteristic in their essays.   Below are a couple of typical examples.)
--A great teacher is one who aims to inspire—inspire students to feel passionate about learning.
--I love being challenged in the classroom, and feel rewarded at the end of the year every time I have excelled in classes that took a lot of work and effort.
--Any teacher with a degree can teach, but it takes a great teacher to get into the hearts of his or her students and inspire them.   Great teachers inspire their students to do great things.
--As someone who is very competitive, I get the most out of classes in which teachers put some pressure on me to do well.
--They are tough, and challenge their students without bullying them. Great teachers push students to think for themselves and come at problems in new ways.
--If I am willing to explore relevant knowledge by myself after the class, 95 percent of the time it is because the teacher makes the topic so attractive that I desperately want to know more.

(2) – Great teachers are passionate and enthusiastic about the material they are teaching. (26 of my students mentioned this characteristic)
--My most inspirational professors here at Richmond have demonstrated why they love the subject that they teach and conveyed this love for the subject to me.
--Great teachers are those who are enthusiastic and passionate about the material that they are teaching, and exhibit this passion to their students.
--A teacher can never be great if they do not show their passion for whatever they are teaching.
--The teachers that I remember as having an impact on my life were the ones who were excited about the subject.   Not the kind of excited where they made up games to make the subject interesting, but the excited where they felt the subject was truly worth the time to learn.  
--Passionate teachers are great teachers because they aren’t just teaching for a salary,
--When a professor is enthusiastic about a subject, students suddenly get excited and actually want to learn the material.
--A great teacher is someone who can communicate a passion about a subject and, in turn, can inspire the student to care about the subject.   I desire to be inspired, not to be lectured.

(3) – Great teachers engage their students in the learning process.  (25 of my students mentioned this characteristic)
--When a teacher can thoroughly engross and maintain the focus of the class, I have found that it can be more impactful to a great learning experience than even a deep knowledge of the subject.
--Their ability to transfer their knowledge to their students in ways that are interesting, intriguing, and easy for students to understand.
--I cannot think of a single time where I enjoyed or became impassioned by the subject of a class where all the teacher did was lecture the students every class via Power Point slides or other means.
--They are able to create a fun, engaging, yet challenging environment and inspire students to want to learn more.
--They find ways to get the class engaged and interested.   They don’t just read off of Power Points and lecture you, they grab your attention, make you think, and find ways to relate the material to your everyday life.
--A great teacher will not only give students the tools and the fire to explore a subject on their own, but the teacher will then keep the students engaged in class.

(4) – Great teachers have effective teaching styles.   They are organized and well prepared for class.  (20 of my students mentioned this characteristic)
--Laying out information and sequencing lessons in a unified and coherent manner not only improves learning but also helps students retain what they learn much better.
--What comes out of his mouth makes sense
--Using an effective structure, no class time will be wasted to repeat any knowledge and students will be able to observe the logic of his thinking. 
--Relying on a textbook is lazy.   It shows no deeper understanding of the material that would qualify someone to teach.  
--They are clear with their explanation, and if a student asks them a question, they will explain in a way the student may understand better.
--Those teachers who make their classes seem like conversations or story telling do their job the best.
--Great teachers push their students to find answers and evoke curiosity rather than simply telling them.  

(5) – Great teachers are invested in the success of their students (16 of my students mentioned this characteristic)
--The professor ran a study session every Tuesday evening from 6:30 until everybody had left.
--The ones who have the ability to leave an imprint in our hearts and minds forever -- those types of teachers are the ones that truly care about their students.
--Some of my best teachers have been ones who have been invested in my work in their classes as well as in me as a person.   I love when teachers want to get to know me outside the classroom, and who really do seem to care whether I do well or not.
--Knowing all of our names and calling on us during class, and being friendly with us but not being our friend.
--A good teacher will truly be vested in their students’ performance and will want to see their students actually succeed.
--The best teachers were the ones who were truly devoted to my learning inside and outside of the classroom.   They were dedicated to my growth as a person.  

(6) – Great teachers take an interest in their students and care for them as people (14 of my students mentioned this characteristic)
--I specifically remember him helping me before our first test at 2 a.m. when most teachers would have been long gone from campus.
--A good teacher truly cares about the student.
--They cared about students and would do whatever they could to ensure their students receive a good education.
--First and foremost, I believe that a great teacher is someone who truly has the best interests of their students at heart.

(7) – Great teachers are able to connect with students personally. (7 of my students mentioned this characteristic)
--It is important for a great teacher to have close connections with students both in class and after class.
--I think a great teacher is someone who tries to relate to his or her students and connect to them on a deeper level than mere surface conversation.
--She created a community in which everyone in the classroom belonged.

(8) – Great teachers are able to adapt their class style to teach all of the students.   (6 of my students mentioned this characteristic)
--I had had a lot of teachers, especially at a young age, who seemed to only teach to the ‘smart’ kids.
--A good teacher treats different students with different abilities with different methods, just as Confucius did.
--Great teachers change their lesson plans according to their current class.   Great teacher prepare different modes of learning for their students.  

(8) – Great teachers are able to communication with their students. (6 of my students mentioned this characteristic)
--Excellent and effective communication is everything.
--They communicate exactly what is expected of students on both a daily basis and semester basis.  
--Great teachers are good at communication skills.

(8) – Great teachers are approachable. (6 of my students mentioned this characteristic)
--These teachers made it known that their students could approach them any time with any problem, and they were genuine about it.
--Knowing that a teacher truly wants you to seek their advice further encourages students to do so.
--My favorite teachers have been available for help and questions, supportive of success, and encouraging of further education.

(11) – Great teachers have patience. (5 of my students mentioned this characteristic)
--A great teacher should have patience to teach students and explain stuff to students, instead of ignoring students’ confusion. 
--A great teacher has patience.
--He should be patient when students are asking questions.  

(12) – Great teachers have empathy for students and understand the importance of encouragement.  (4 of my students mentioned this characteristic)
--It is still important that a teacher encourages students despite a poor grade and shows them they still believe in their success.
--A great teacher recognizes true effort when he or she sees it and makes sure that it is rewarded.

(13) – Other characteristics that were mentioned by my students.
--Great teachers require students to participate and allow them to make mistakes.   (3 mentioned) 
--Great teachers are willing to do the necessary hard work.  (2 mentioned)
--Great teachers teach students how to learn.  (2 mentioned)
--Great teachers are honest with their students.   (1 mentioned)
--Great teachers focus on reinforcement.   (1 mentioned)
--Great teachers are knowledgeable about their subject.   (1 mentioned)
--Great teachers have years of teaching experience.   (1 mentioned)
--Great teachers teach others to become great teachers.   (1 mentioned)
--Great teachers like to be challenged.   (1 mentioned)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


I would like to invite everyone to attend the Southeast Regional meeting of the American Accounting Association in beautiful Asheville, North Carolina, (near where I grew up) on April 16 to April 18.   At the meeting, I will be leading a panel discussion on the topic of “Becoming a More Effective Classroom Teacher.”   In fact, if you have any questions that you think we should discuss, drop me a note at Jhoyle@richmond.edu.

Here is the original proposal that was submitted for this panel to give you an idea of the thought behind our discussion.

In “What It Takes to Be Great,” in the October 30, 2006, issue of Fortune magazine, author Geoffrey Colvin makes the following assertion.   “In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly, and then stop developing completely.   Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness.”   In What the Best College Teachers Do, published in 2004 by Harvard University Press, author Ken Bain makes the following assertion.   “Great teachers emerge, they touch the lives of their students, and perhaps only through some of these students do they have any influence on the broad art of teaching.  For the most part, their insights die with them, and subsequent generations must discover anew the wisdom that drove their practices.”

If accepted, this panel will discuss the many assorted problems and challenges that experienced teachers must address in order to continue improving throughout their careers and, hopefully, “go on to greatness.”   The panel will look at teaching from a practical perspective including questions such as the following.  
--How does a teacher get students to prepare for class?  
--How does a teacher test in order to emphasis the development of critical thinking skills?  
--How does a teacher encourage all students to be engaged and interactive during class sessions?  
--How does a teacher stress thinking rather than memorization?

The panel is expected to include Lynn Clements (Florida Southern College), Scott Showalter (North Carolina State University), Eric Bostwick (University of West Florida), and Joe Hoyle (University of Richmond).  This group has decades of classroom experience, a wealth of knowledge that (according to Ken Bain) should be shared with other teachers.   What strategies have each of these teachers used over those years that have worked so very well?  What can other teachers learn that will help them to continue their own improvement?

I hope as many people as possible will join us and participate as we chat about teaching on the day to day level.   One of my long-term beliefs is that we don't have enough conversations about the challenges each of us face each day as a classroom teacher.   

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Prior to today, this blog has had 204 entries.   Over the years, the site has had over 134,500 page views (or roughly 650 views of each of those entries).   As always, thanks to everyone who passes along this link to other teachers who are interested in thinking more deeply about the day to day rewards and challenges of going into a classroom to help students develop and grow as human beings.   Thanks!!!

A few weeks ago my dean sent me a note containing a simple question:   Can anyone learn to become a great teacher?   Unfortunately, I did not have a great answer and did little more than ramble around in response.   It is a question that I have thought about often during the intervening weeks.   Is it possible for anyone to develop into a great teacher or is that goal only available to a chosen few?

What do you think?  If you have thoughts, I would love to hear them.

Let me start the conversation by asking a different question:   Can anyone learn to become a great coach in pro football?   In the NFL, great football coaches get paid millions.  It is truly an exciting profession.   You would think thousands of potential great candidates would be available.   And, yes, there are a few great coaches.   Both coaches in the Super Bowl this year probably qualify.   Bill Belichick of New England meets the definition as does Pete Carroll of Seattle.   They have been proven winners for a long time.   But there are not many other names that come leaping forward.  It is a big world and pro football is huge.   Yet I can come up with just two names of great coaches.   Several other people certainly qualify as good but the jump from good to great is always hard.   

In truth, it has to be difficult to get 50-60 individuals to play at close to maximum capacity over an entire season.   My guess is that guys like Belichick and Carroll probably spend close to 100 hours per week thinking about nothing other than how to maximize the potential of their teams.   And, even then, as Pete Carroll proved at the end of the Super Bowl, they can still do things that cause people to be critical.

Why are there not more great coaches?   I think it is especially difficult to be great when you are responsible for a whole group of people.   Every time you add another person to the mix, you increase the complexity of the process.   One person working by himself (or herself) can be great.   Bob Dylan, Pablo Picasso, Philip Roth, Maria Callas, Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare.   Yes, in each case, other people were involved with these folks but when things got truly serious they had to stretch themselves in order to succeed.   They didn’t have to stretch 55 other people.   Would Bob Dylan or Pablo Picasso have been great if they had been organizing and leading a large group of singers or artists?

Being a great football coach is tough.  But, is it easier to be a great teacher or a great football coach?

In some ways, it is easier to be a great football coach for one reason.   The teams keep score and everyone can agree on the winner.    The goal is simple and obvious.   And, there is only one goal.    No one seems to know exactly what the goal of a college teacher is.  More frustrating, no one seems to know how to measure whether a specific goal has been achieved.   Greatness is a very vague goal in teaching which is probably why few teachers seem to have great education as a primary goal when they enter the classroom each day.   Most coaches burn deeply to be great.   How many teachers have you met who really wanted to be great?

So, are there really any great teachers?   Maybe it is just a fantasy. 

I think a lot of teachers do a good (maybe great) job with the very best students.   That is an important role in college but, at some point, teaching brilliant students who are highly motivated provides a different type of challenge.  

I think a lot of people do a good (maybe great) job of teaching facts and figures.   Many people grew up in a system where memorization skills were highly valued and that priority flows through into their own teaching style.   Personally, in an era of Google and other Internet resources, I think education needs to be more than that.   But that is just my opinion.

I think a lot of people do a good (maybe great) job of entertaining students.   Such teachers are full of interesting and relevant stories.   That is fun and can be very informative but the emphasis is entirely on the story teller.   The student is merely a passive recipient of knowledge.  

I don’t really know if everyone can become a great teacher.   But I do believe that I know how some people might achieve that goal.

First, I think the teacher has to have clear cut objectives and those objectives have to be challenging.   If all Bill Belichick wanted to do was win the first game of the season, he would never become a great coach.   My guess is that he is a great coach because his one goal is to win the Super Bowl each year and everything he does is designed to achieve that goal.  

I have 77 students.   I want to push all 77 to go beyond what they thought they could do.   And, I want to do that every single day for the entire semester.  I am not out to teach 10 or 20 or 30.   I want to teach them all.   I want them all to learn how to work harder and think deeper.   I want to challenge each person to become better in some fundamental way over the course of the semester.   I know it sounds a bit odd but I want each student to be smarter at the end of the semester.  

Second, every action for the entire semester has to point toward your goal.   When Bill Belichick practices his team, my guess is that every minute is set up to push the team towards the championship.   I am in class with my students 150 minutes each week and every action is designed to help all 77 of them learn to work harder and think deeply.  

Third, students are rewarded for their work by grades and testing.   You cannot challenge people to leap tall buildings in a single bound and then give everyone an A whether they manage to make it or not.   If I want my students to work hard and think deeply, I have to test them in that way.   I cannot claim to teach the development of critical thinking skills and then test my students on memorization.   That simply will not work.  

Fourth, you cannot challenge students to be great and then not be available to help them when they need it.   It is not fair to go into class and tell students that you expect great things from them and then walk away and let them thrash around on their own.   You are the teacher; they are the students.   You have to hold office hours where you show students how to achieve what you want for them.   You have to answer emails that seek assistance.   My guess is that Bill Belichick and his assistants show players over and over exactly what they want from them.   They guide as well as push them.   You cannot challenge students if you are not willing to be there to help them grow into that role.

Fifth, I think you have to realize that most college students have already picked up bad habits before they arrive in your class.   That is not necessarily their fault.   They have been in the school systems for 13-16 years.    They honestly believe that an education means memorization and that cramming the night before each test is a good strategy.   Those techniques have always worked for them in the past.   In some ways, you almost have to break those habits before you can build new and improved ones.  I teach 20 year old students who have been in school since they were five.   For the most part, they are extremely well trained in a particular type of education.   “Highlighting” the textbook is one of their strongest skills (because all you need do is move a magic marker).   If you want students to think more deeply, you have to realize that this is likely a new request for them.   They probably cannot even comprehend what you want.   You will need patience and perseverance.   You will need to show them over and over.

Sixth, don’t get wrapped up in the reward system for teaching.    The complaints I hear from teachers are “no one around here cares about teaching,” “there is no reward or recognition for excellent teaching,” and “the administration only listens to the complainers.”   You should strive to be a great teacher (a) because you want to be a great teacher and (b) because your students deserve a great teacher.   If you must be rewarded or recognized in order to put in the effort, you probably will never get there.   Years later some students might realize how wonderful you were—how much you meant to them and their lives.   Other than that, you will probably never be properly recognized.   Do the work because it is important to you.   Don’t expect anyone else to notice.  

Can anyone become a great teacher?

Here is my real answer.   There are a few days when I think I am a great teacher.   There are other days when I am pretty awful.   No one is great every day.   The secret is to work to get better.   The real question should be:   Can anyone get better as a teacher?   And, I think the answer to that question is a resounding YES.   Forget about being great.   Work on becoming a better teacher.