Thursday, March 5, 2015


I mentioned in my previous blog posting that I will be leading a panel discussion in April in Asheville, North Carolina, titled “Becoming a More Effective Classroom Teacher.”   During that presentation, I want to have a serious discussion of how college teachers can 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.   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 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 don’t 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 help prepare for the upcoming panel discussion, I 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 1/3 are freshmen) and 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?

And, if you surveyed your students in this way, what would they say?  Hey, maybe you should survey your students.


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

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.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Time to Get Better

If you have followed this blog for long, you know that one of my primary recommendations is that every teacher should work to get 5 percent better every year.   If all of us could manage to improve by just 5 percent during the next 12 months, imagine how much more effective our educational system would become.   I think 5 percent is a realistic goal.   It would not take radical change.   If every teacher truly pushed for a 5 percent improvement, our schools and students would benefit in unbelievable ways.

As we start each new year, I like to step back and think about how I might achieve my 5 percent improvement.   This is my 44th year as a college professor and I am no longer a young person.   However, if I am not willing to push myself to improve, then it is probably time for me to retire.   Because I really do not want to retire, I am actively working on my 5 percent.

Are you?

As I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, I have been reading Make It Stick – The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel.  I usually find that such books have some good ideas.  Not all will work for me but some should.   Here are a couple that I liked and have already tried this semester in my quest for 5 percent improvement.

(1) - As a coauthor of both an Advanced Accounting textbook (McGraw-Hill) and a Financial Accounting textbook (FlatWorld), I am always perturbed by how poorly students read textbooks.   Students often seem to go into a trance when they read a textbook and cannot recall even basic information.  Too often, reading turns into the mere marking of passages with a highlighter so that information can be found later if needed.   Such reading does not increase comprehension so it really fails to fulfill its purpose.   Students just note sentences that might prove to be important.  I want students to come into class already knowing something about what the book says.   

In Make It Stick, the authors recommend that students read a passage (a paragraph, perhaps, or a full page) and then look up and explain what they have just read.   This recall process helps to cement the material in the student’s mind and, of course, it forces the student to evaluate what is most important.   Finally, the recitation requires the student to organize the material in some logical way.   Retrieve, Evaluate, Organize.   Yeah, I bet that is helpful.   On page 30, the authors talk about a study that found that “the best results were from those spending about 60 percent of the study time in recitation.”  Read and then recite (or as I say "explain").

I told my students:   “Don’t read the chapters twice.   Read them just one time.   But after every page, look up and talk about what you have just read.   Pretend you are explaining the page to a friend who is in the class.   When you finish, go on to the next page.”   I don’t know how many of the students have followed the advice so far but I will bring up the idea again after our first test when some of them might be more open to the suggestion.

(2) – As I have written before, a lot of this book is about the importance of retrieving information to make understanding better.  They even quote Aristotle “exercise in repeatedly recalling a thing strengthens the memory.”   That makes sense.   I think we all understand that.  

For that reason, I have worked on two things this semester.   First, as often as I can, I walk back to my office right after class and send my students a quick question or problem that always begins “If you fully understood what we talked about in class today, you should be able to work the following problem right now” and then I set out a quick problem that I view as a grade A level question.   As I often do, I try to put it in some type of puzzle form to make it more intriguing to them.   I'm not testing their memory.   I include some check figures.   I want to challenge them to retrieve the information from class almost immediately just to organize and solidify their knowledge.  

Second, I have also returned to my CPA Review roots this semester.   I have suggested that students make 3-10 flashcards after every class.   A question is put on one side with a short answer on the other side that they can review over and over to provide a structured method for the mental retrieval exercise.   The authors of this book point out that students don’t know what they don’t know because they tend to overestimate their knowledge.   That is dangerous; that holds them back.   The flash cards give them a way to judge for themselves what they really do know and what they don’t know.

(3) – And finally, one of my favorite thoughts from this book (page 43):   “We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier; but the research shows the opposite:   when the mind has to work, learning sticks better.   The greater the effort to retrieve learning, provided that you succeed, the more that learning is strengthened by retrieval.”   This semester, I’ve tried to introduce complexity earlier in the process.   Historically, in my classes, the material gets harder and harder but only very gradually.   This semester I’ve tried to throw complexity at them earlier and then help them work their way through the issues.   I do not know, quite yet, whether this is a good idea or not but I like the way it feels.   I have clearly caught the students’ attention with some of the questions.   I guess the key point in the above quote is “provided that you succeed.”  


Will I reach my goal of 5 percent improvement in 2015?   I certainly hope so.   I would really hate to think I had reached a plateau where my teaching ability had stalled out.   I am not quite ready to retire.

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, 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.   (    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!!!