Tuesday, October 28, 2014



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Monday, October 13, 2014


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

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

To:   Accounting Students

From:   JH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 2, 2014


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, here are a few questions to ponder.  

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

Interesting questions to consider by any teacher.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What data do I look at in assessing my classes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 15, 2014

Two Super Articles About College Teaching

Here is an email that I sent to the faculty of my school (the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond) this morning as we all get ready for a new school year.   Time to get excited about the upcoming challenge.

Greetings -- welcome back for another bright and sunny school year.    Possibly because I am so lost in the classroom, people send me articles about teaching that they have found worthwhile.   I received two within the last 48 hours.   I thought they were both great.   They got me back into thinking about how I might teach my classes better in the upcoming year.   I started getting excited about the opening day of class.  

I might even send these articles to my students.   I find it helpful if students realize that there is some justification to all the weird things I do in class.   (I seem less eccentric to them.)

The first article comes from a buddy of mine in New Jersey who thinks almost as obsessively about teaching as I do.    This article reminds me of my favorite quote about teaching (from the book "What the Best College Teachers Do" by Dr. Ken Bain).   A well-known professor is talking about how he teaches and he talks about puzzling the students:   “Those puzzles and knots generate questions for students, he went on to say, and then you begin to help them untie the knots.”   What a brilliant description of teaching in college:   puzzle the students and then help them solve those puzzles.

Here is the URL for the article I received from New Jersey.


The second article comes from Shital Thekdi who was kind enough to share it with me.    Here is my favorite quote from this one:   "I myself became a decent teacher only when I started to relinquish some control over the classroom―stopped worrying so much about “getting my points across” and recognized that those moments of disorder that would sometimes occur, those spontaneous outbreaks of intelligence, were the most interesting parts of the class, for both my students and myself. We were going somewhere new, and we were going there together."

And the URL is:  


Have a great new school year!!!!   Since I am currently sitting with coffee in hand at a table near Charleston, I will leave you with another of my favorite quotes about teaching.   This comes from the book "Prince of Tides" which is set in this area of the low country of South Carolina.   It is about Tom and Savannah Wingo who are twins:  

“She took my hand and squeezed it.   ‘You sold yourself short.   You could’ve been more than a teacher and a coach.’  I returned the squeeze and said, ‘Listen to me, Savannah.  There’s no word in the language I revere more than teacher.  None.   My heart sings when a kid refers to be as his teacher and it always has. -- I’ve honored myself and the entire family of man by becoming one.”

Later -- after I posted this blog entry, another colleague forwarded yet another fascinating teaching article.   So, here's a third super article for your consideration:


Wednesday, August 6, 2014


Greetings from the annual convention of the American Accounting Association.   One of the plenary speakers was Jimmy Wales who founded Wikipedia.  He is truly one of the most impressive people I have ever seen.  Very inspiring person.   Hope you get to hear him one day.

The following blog entry is, to some extent, an extension of my previous essay on this blog.

Below is a note that I wrote yesterday morning to my intermediate accounting students.   Even before the semester begins, I am trying to stack the odds of success in my favor.   Based on my 43 years as a classroom teacher, I have found that most C students make C’s, most B students make B’s, and most A students make A’s.   Okay, there is always some movement in the ranks but I often get frustrated with the rigidity of this alignment.   Students bring to class a self-image that seems to create an upper barrier that limits how good they can be.   In other words, they live up (or down) to their own expectations.

I want to break that cycle by convincing them that they can be better if they simply take different actions from the very beginning of the semester.   It doesn’t do me (or them) nearly as much good to make these suggestions at midterm.   By that time, they are already into their routines.   I very much want to get the C students and the B students to stop thinking like C students and B students and start reinventing themselves as A students.   I think that is a worthy goal for a college professor (or any other teacher). 

Now, if you are a teacher, you might very well be sitting at your computer screen nodding your head in agreement.   When we talk about students, it is easy to see how they come up short and how they should do better.   “They” (the students) should do better is a constant refrain of teachers.

But let’s turn the tables.   I have always found that most average teachers are average about every semester and most good teachers are good every semester and most great teachers are great most semesters.   Okay, there is always some moving around but not as much as I would expect.   The alignment pretty much holds semester after semester.

Like students, I think most teachers have self-limiting perceptions of their abilities.   “No matter what I do, I’m always going to be an average teacher.”  Or  “I’m pretty good but I’ll never be great.”  

Is that true?  If it is not true for students, then it should not be true for teachers.   I believe firmly that an average or a good teacher should be able to become great.   Every speech I’ve ever given is based on that belief.

Yes, I wrote the following email to my students to push them to consider how to become better students.   I wanted them to cast off any upper limits they perceive and make an A even if they have never done so before.

But, I am sending the same email to every teacher (including myself) with exactly the same message:   YOU CAN BE BETTER.   YOU CAN GROW.   YOU CAN BECOME A GREAT TEACHER.   EVOLUTION IS POSSIBLE.

However, it does not happen by accident.   That is the point of my email below to my students and my message to you.   As I say here, learn to think differently.   Learn to think like a freak.

To:   My Intermediate Accounting Students for the Fall

The semester begins in a few weeks.   I had suggested (with the offer of a bribe) that you read the book Think like a Freak over the summer.   Several of you have written to talk about what you have already uncovered in your reading. 

At the beginning of Think/Freak, the authors talk about the world hot dog eating contest.   Okay, that is a bizarre way to begin a book but they make a good point.   For many years, everyone believed that there was a specific upper limit to the number of hot dogs a person could physically consume in a particular period of time.   That was a barrier that just could not be broken.   Consequently, contestants could never get beyond that number because they did not believe they could get beyond that number.   

A new competitor came along who ignored the so-called limit.   He did something no one else had done.  He took the process apart step by step and analyzed each action carefully.   He questioned how each step was to be performed and whether it could be carried out in a different, more efficient way.   Then, he experimented endlessly with every alternative to see if he could uncover some better way to proceed.   As a result, he blew well past the world’s record.   And, his methods became the new norm.  

Ignore the perceived limits.
Analyze each step in the process.
Question how each step is done and look for better alternatives.
Experiment endlessly
Exceed the upper barrier.

My guess is that every one of you approaches my class with an upper limit buried deep in your mind:

“I will be lucky to make a C.”
“I’ll work hard and pray that I can make a B.”
“I’d love an A but I will be thrilled if I can make a B+.”
“I hear Professor Hoyle is an ogre—I just hope I pass.”

If you have an upper limit in mind, then the chances of your exceeding that limit are probably zero and the semester hasn’t even started.   That upper limit just hangs over you and pushes you down.   “Here is the grade I expect to make by doing X so I will do X and hope I can make that grade.”   That is self-limiting.

There is no upper limit.   You are very bright folks.    You are all smart enough to make an A+.    If you wash the concept of an upper limit out of your head, you and every other student can be excellent in this class.   And, when that happens, you will be thrilled.   You will start to think differently about your own abilities.

What’s the key?   Just like in the hot dog eating contest, look at everything you do in this course:   reading the textbook, setting times to study, working problems that I give out to you, working alone versus working with people, taking notes, reviewing your notes, studying for tests, listening in class—just absolutely everything.   Is there a better way that you can do any of these?   Can you experiment to see what works better and what works worse?   In other words, can you push through that self-imposed limitation and become an A+ student.    Can you evolve?   I believe you can but I think it might require some different thinking on your part:     

Ignore the perceived limits.
Analyze each step in the process.
Question how each step is done and look for alternatives.
Experiment endlessly
Exceed the upper barrier.

Think like a freak.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Time to Think Differently

One of the great benefits of teaching is that the summer is available.   We can do research and writing.  Or, we can work to improve our teaching.   “How can my next class be better than my last class?” is a great question to ponder during the summer break.   You have had a couple of months of break – how often have you addressed that question?  

I am a strong proponent that everyone needs to learn to think differently about the challenges they face.   If you think like everyone else, you will wind up being average by definition.   In my book Don’t Just Dream about Success:   Stack the Odds in Your Favor, I devote an entire chapter to the challenge of learning to “Think Differently.”   Here is just one of the suggestions that I put forward in that book:

“’How could this have been improved?’ is a great question to consider throughout your daily wanderings.   It stimulates critical thinking.   Let your mind expand to consider the widest possible range of answers.   Except for the Ten Commandments, nothing in life is really carved in stone.   Almost any service, product, or arrangement can be helped by a bit of innovative questioning.   I have no proof, but I suspect that the employees at Apple, Google, and Amazon spend more time seeking out better questions and fewer hours defending the status quo.”

“Defending the status quo” – in most operations, there is too little time spent thinking differently and way too much time spent defending the status quo.   I think that is true for teaching just as it is for many other things in life.

So, recently, I was thrilled to read the book Think like a Freak by Levitt and Dubner who had previously written Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics.    I won’t try to boil down Think like a Freak into a few sentences but the authors argue (as I do in my book) that we are too quick to accept the status quo without question.   They stress asking better and better questions and then analyzing all available data to figure out the actual results and what caused them.   They write about taking traditional thinking apart—piece by piece—so that innovative alternatives can be tested.   All of that seems to be inherently obvious but it is very easy to accept “traditional wisdom” and be accepting of the status quo even when the end results are not as hoped.   Is your teaching being saddled by the traditional wisdom and the status quo?   In their book, these authors had two words that I liked especially:   “experiment endlessly.”  

When is the last time, you seriously experimented with your class organization and structure?

I liked Think Like a Freak so much that I wanted to share its wisdom with my students.   I believed they could learn something of value that might carry over into the fall semester and make them better students.   Here was the question I needed to address:    How could I encourage my students to read this book during summer break?   The writing style is lively and fun and the topics (how can a person break the world record for eating hot dogs?) are amusing and insightful.  But students are not inclined to read a serious book during their vacation time.

I wrote my junior students for the fall and told them about the book and why I had liked it.    I figured that would get their attention.   Then, I told them that I would give each person who read the book over the summer 2 ½ extra points on our first test in the fall (out of three tests and a final exam) if they had read the book by that time.   Therefore, they weren’t reading the book for fun.   They were reading the book to earn extra credit on the first test in a difficult course.   That provides motivation.   That is enough points to be helpful to their grade but not enough points to guarantee too much of an improvement.  

Since that time, I have heard from approximately 1/4 of the students who talked about reading the book and how much they were enjoying thinking about thinking.   Here’s a note I got yesterday:

I have been reading the Think Like a Freak book that you had recommended, and this has surely helped me view general problems (even personal ones) differently. I really believe that by the end of the book, I will be able to think through problems more efficiently, and hopefully use it toward the accounting problems this fall. 

Is that kind of insight worth 2 ½ points on one test?  I certainly think so.   Reading is always good for people.   I think this particular reading can be especially helpful to the students which might make them more successful (and my life somewhat easier) in the fall.  I am more than happy to give up those 2 ½ points for that potential benefit.

What are the lessons that I think can be learned from this particular experiment?

--Never stop trying to get your students to do things that improve their chances of reaching your goals for them.   Do not feel confined to the few months that make up a semester.   Many of these students are working hard for me, well before the semester even begins.

--College students need a little push.   They are human beings.   They have a lot of things that need to get done in their lives.   If you ask them to do something without a reward, it probably will never get done.   We all know that.   They are too busy or get distracted and, pretty soon, the time has passed and the opportunity is lost.   Give them a push. 

--Even a small amount of motivation can get good results.    For 2 ½ points on one test, a number of them will read a book that might change their entire way of thinking.   You do not have to give away the bank to get students to do work.   But, it is extremely helpful to have a specific reward system in order to provide a justification for doing the work requested.   It does not have to be much but it does need to be some.

Okay, that is one way I thought differently about the upcoming semester.   What about you?   What kind of innovations have you considered?   What kind of experiments might help your students to work harder and learn more?   That is one of the benefits of summer—you have time to come up with a great answer.