Thursday, 25 March 2010
Over 2,000 years ago, the poet Horace wrote “Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero” which translates as “Seize the day, trusting tomorrow as little as possible.” Yesterday, I talked with my students about “deferred learning.” That is the strategy of doing as little work today as possible with the promise that you’ll do a whole lot more work tomorrow (or, more specifically, right before the test). In college, deferred learning is a very popular strategy. “I’ll do it tomorrow” is never far from the lips of most students.
But, let’s be realistic. If a student is going to be tested based on memorization, isn’t this the best possible strategy? Memory tends to fade pretty quickly over time so, for a memorization style test, isn’t it best to memorize as much material as possible the night before the test?
Let’s carry this one step further. From kindergarten on through college, aren’t most tests really based on memorization? So, can you blame a student for using a “deferred learning” approach? They have been well trained over the years; this is a strategy that does work to get good grades. Deferred learning is human nature, I will grant you that, but isn’t it also a result of many years of training by our schools, including their current college?
I want to help my students pick up a different strategy that I refer to as “understand and review.” Before they leave a topic, I want them to actually understand what we are doing – right then. Do the learning today (right now) and don’t put it off until tomorrow. If they do that, the study process for the test should be merely reviewing what they already understand. That review is just to freshen up the knowledge in their brains.
Okay, how does a teacher get a student to learn material as it is covered and not defer the learning process? One thing that I like to do is write a short question right after class and send it to them by email. I always start it off with “if you properly understood what we did today in class, you should be able to work the following problem in 5-10 minutes. I’ll leave the answer on my door for 48 hours so you can check your answer. Before our next class, I want you to make sure that you learned today what I wanted.”
For example, in class tomorrow, we will talk about depreciation: straight-line, double-declining balance, half-year convention. After class, I will probably send a question somewhat like the following to my students by email. If they can answer these questions, then I think they have a pretty good handle on what we covered in that class. They have established a real understanding rather than relying on deferred learning.
Company A buys a machine for $100,000 on April 1, Year One. It has a five-year life and a $20,000 salvage value. It is sold on October 1, Year Three for $79,000. The company uses straight-line depreciation and the half-year convention. Company B also buys a machine for $100,000 on April 1, Year One. It has a five-year life and a $20,000 salvage value. It is sold on October 1, Year Three for $79,000. The company uses the double-declining balance method and does not use the half-year convention. Answer the following questions:
--What does the recognition of depreciation have to do with the matching principle?
--What gain or loss will Company A report at the time of sale?
--What gain or loss will Company B report at the time of sale?
--Why is there a difference in the gain or loss reported by the two companies?
--What is the rationale for using the half-year convention?
--What is the rationale for using the double-declining balance method of depreciation?
“Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero” I want my students to learn this stuff right now. I want the students to understand this material when we cover it. I do not want the students to defer the learning process.
Sunday, 21 March 2010
It the doesn't say anything new, but it does an impressive job of marshaling facts about the CDO markets - the author hand-collected a data set on over 700 CDO deals, and provides a wealth of information.
What's more, she did it within a semester's time.
HT: Marginal Revolution
Friday, 19 March 2010
I haven’t read Lewis’ book beyond this extract, nor do I know Burry personally (though I do know the trade he executed – it was a simple yet powerful idea, and full credit to him for conceiving it). But I do want to emphasize a couple of points that the VF article glosses over:
First, any story of this sort suffers from a huge amount of survivorship bias. For every Michael Burry or John Paulson who foresaw the crash and made money off it, I can name ten – nay, a hundred! – hedge fund managers who knew full well that there was a bubble in the housing market but could not get their timing right, and hence went bust1. (Either they bled to death on the negative carry, or their investors got impatient and pulled their money). Of course none of these other managers got their stories recounted in Vanity Fair, which is where the bias comes in. Lauding survivors for their investment acumen is meaningless without knowing the a priori probability of survival. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty.
And why are the odds of survival so very low? This brings me to my second point. The way the article describes it, Michael Burry was in the perfect position to do the subprime-CDS trade. Over previous years he had outperformed the S&P by huge margins, in good years as well as bad; by not looking to maximize his AUM he could pick and choose his investors; said investors loved him and hung on his every word; and his funds were structured with long lockup periods. If anyone had the wherewithal (deep pockets as well as credibility) to take a few quarters of losses while waiting for the big payout, it was Michael Burry.
But no. Quoting Lewis:
[Burry] assumed he’d earned the rope to hang himself. He assumed wrong ... He had told his investors that they might need to be patient ... They had not been patient ... Many of his investors mistrusted him, and he in turn felt betrayed by them ... To keep his bets against subprime-mortgage bonds, he’d been forced to fire half his small staff, and dump billions of dollars’ worth of bets...
If even a trader in Burry’s strong position was forced to the very brink by irrational investor behavior, what hope for lesser souls?
My point here is that traders do not operate in a vacuum. If your investors are myopic and greedy, that forces you to be myopic and greedy as well. If your colleagues are picking up nickels in front of a steamroller, then you have to go after those nickels as well. In Wall Street’s current “quarterly-earnings-are-everything” mindset, you simply cannot afford to sit back and be patient if you want to keep your job.
Of course the equilibrium is unhealthy: decisions that are rational at the micro level for individual traders, add up to an irrational macro market situation. In other words, a bubble. Quelle surprise!
# 1Conversely, I know plenty of hedge fund managers who either did not recognize, or chose not to recognize the bubble. For the most part these folks banked big bonuses pre-crash, and they haven’t had to return the money post-crash. Does this make them any dumber than Burry or Paulson, or any worse traders?
If you are interested in a copy of my second test, send me a note at Jhoyle@richmond.edu. Unfortunately, because of some family issues, I had to write this test very quickly. I really hope that I made it fair and not too confusing. I guess I will find out later today. Always an interesting question on test day.
Thursday, 18 March 2010
Last night, after making the obligatory pass through the Oregon District (a very funky place, with everything from art galleries to martial arts dojos (practicing with katanas) to peep shows), I went to my room to work on class stuff - my students are getting a video presentation on MBS pass-throughs to watch while I'm gone.
In the meanwhile, since it's spring training season, I give you this classic but still funny piece (complete with a mention of a lesser-known greek figure about 2:17).
Wednesday, 17 March 2010
A few years ago I was talking with some of my favorite students about education. I asked them what they liked least. I was surprised that they all expressed the same objection which was verbalized by one as “I hate it when a teacher comes into the room and throws up some Power Point slides and then proceeds to read them to us. I can read for myself.” Is Power Point the equivalent of my teacher reading his ancient notes to us? Yeah, maybe it is.
I have never used Power Point in a college class but I can understand why it is popular with teachers. First, it provides an easy way to organize the material in a logical fashion. Second, once they are made, they can be kept from year to year and save time in the future (hmm, now we are backed to the yellowed notes). Third, many textbook publishers will prepare them for you so the amount of work is slight. Fourth, at many schools, Power Point slides can be made available to the students to serve as study guides.
So, Power Point does have some benefits but what do your students think? I have a couple of suggestions.
--If your student evaluations allow you to do this, add the following question: “Does the teacher use Power Point slides too much, too little, or just the right amount?” Power Point slides can be a lot like bad breath—everyone might know you have a problem before you do. Although I am a heavy critic of student evaluations, I think that kind of question can be very helpful and should be more used on student evaluations.
--If your textbook publisher has Power Point slides available, send those to the students for study purposes. For class, make your own slides. It is your course—for goodness sakes—so design it the way you want. If nothing else, it forces you to think about the material more.
--Never put more than 10 words on a slide. That will break you of the habit of reading them to the students. When I give teaching presentations, I do use Power Point slides but I use them as a prompt for discussion. For example, we discussed inventory today in my Financial Accounting class here at the University of Richmond. If I had used Power Point slides, here are a few that I would have prepared because each of these would have prompted (I believe) some excellent class discussion.
Slide One: Who would possibly use a periodic system in 2010?
Slide Two: Inflation takes place: compare FIFO with LIFO
Slide Three: If you look poorer, why use LIFO?
Slide Four: LIFO conformity – what does it really mean?
Slide Five: You start a business: Would you choose FIFO or LIFO?
Slide Six: IFRS and LIFO - what is going on?
Well, you get the idea. I’ve accomplished what I wanted. I have organized the class in some logical manner and I can either explain the meaning of what I have written or I can ask the students about the meaning. Reading is not a real option. And, these slides don’t take long to prepare and I can use them again.
But, if you do choose to use your slides again next semester, I would urge you to always edit and freshen them up. Don’t simply rely on the same slides each semester from now until 2030. Each semester rethink what you want to cover and how you want to do it and change your slides accordingly.
Used correctly, I think Power Point can be great. However, used poorly, I think we are back to 1969 with my political science teacher reading notes to me that he hadn’t revised since the end of World War II. That's what my students were fussing about.
Thursday, 11 March 2010
My students are on Spring Break this week and, although I might dream that they are studying financial accounting, I imagine that few are. They were doing great right before Spring Break but they will have been away from the subject matter for 10 days by the time I see them again next Monday. We had done a lot of good work on the reporting of inventory but it is likely that much of that information is now jello knowledge (a term from an earlier post).
So, next Monday, I will start out with my version of “Previously – in reporting inventory” and try to get them back up and running as quickly as possible. I will do this by starting out with a series of quick questions designed to rebuild the knowledge that may have slipped away. These are reminder questions. There is no new information here. That is not the point. However, I don’t want to simply tell them the information again. They would just fall into their stenographer mode and start copying down notes.
Instead, I start asking people these quick questions designed to “remind” them of what they already know. Here are the questions that I will ask on Monday (as well as the expected answers). They may not get every question right immediately but I would expect that, in ten minutes, we will be up and running.
(Do note that I teach both periodic and perpetual inventory systems. I have friends who question the inclusion of periodic inventory because it is “antiquated.” My response is that a lot of small businesses such as beauticians, kennels, barber shops, restaurants, health spas, and the like still use periodic inventory. Despite the wide scale availability of computers, it is not an obsolete system. More importantly, I think working with the cost of goods sold formula of beginning inventory plus purchases less ending inventory helps students better visualize the interconnected relationship of ending inventory and cost of goods sold.)
“Previously—in reporting inventory”
1 – If you look at a balance sheet and see $124,889 reported for inventory, what are you seeing? (The lower of the inventory cost or its market value.)
2 – What is included in the cost of inventory? (Any amount that was incurred which was normal and necessary to get the inventory item into position and condition to be sold.)
3 – What is the difference in a periodic and perpetual inventory system? (A periodic system does not maintain a record of either the current inventory or cost of goods sold whereas a perpetual system does.)
4 – What are the advantages of a periodic inventory system and a perpetual inventory system? (A periodic system is very cheap to maintain while a perpetual system provides up to date financial information about the inventory on hand and the amount that has been sold this period.)
5 – When inventory is bought, what entry is made in a periodic system? In a perpetual system? (“Purchases” is debited in a periodic system so that a record of the cost incurred is maintained. “Inventory” is debited in a perpetual system so that the current asset balance is available.)
6 – What entry is made at the point of sale in connection with inventory? (In a periodic system, no entry is made because balances are not maintained. The cost is not known. In a perpetual system, cost of goods sold is debited and inventory is credited.)
7 – In a periodic system, no entry is made to record the cost of goods sold when a sale is made. How then is cost of goods sold determined for reporting purposes? (A physical inventory count is taken and cost of goods sold is calculated by formula: beginning inventory plus purchases less ending inventory equals cost of goods sold.)
8 – When is the physical inventory count taken? (In a periodic system, the count is made at the end of the reporting period so that the asset balance and cost of goods sold can be determined. In a perpetual system, the count is normally made at some convenient time to ensure the accuracy of the accounting records. In a perpetual system, a year-end count is not needed unless the accuracy of the records is questioned.)
9 – When is a cost flow assumption such as LIFO and FIFO needed? (A cost flow assumption is needed whenever a company holds inventory items that were bought at different costs. If the costs are all the same, a cost flow assumption is not necessary.)
10 – When is a cost flow assumption actually used in a perpetual inventory system? (In a perpetual system, the cost flow assumption is used at the time of each sale to determine which cost is moved from inventory to cost of goods sold.)
11 – When is a cost flow assumption actually used in a periodic inventory system? (In a periodic system, the cost flow assumption is needed after the physical inventory is taken in order to determine the cost of those items. When the resulting cost of the ending inventory is entered into the cost of goods sold formula, it creates the assumed pattern in arriving at the expense.)
12 – An item is bought for $10 on Monday and a second identical one is bought for $11 on Tuesday. One is sold on Wednesday. Which item was sold? (We don’t know and we don’t care. We are not trying to determine the identity of a sold unit. Instead, we are trying to decide which cost should stay in the inventory ledger account and which cost should be moved to cost of goods sold. That is why we call FIFO and LIFO “cost flow assumptions.” We are making an assumption about the movement of the cost.)
13 - An item is bought for $10 on Monday and a second identical one is bought for $11 on Tuesday. One is sold on Wednesday. Which cost is moved from inventory to cost of goods sold? (If FIFO is the cost flow assumption, it is the $10 [the first cost] that moves to cost of goods sold. If LIFO is the cost flow assumption, it is the $11 [the last cost] that moves to cost of goods sold.
Okay, there are 13 lucky questions here that I will ask my students at the start of class on Monday. Hopefully, there is nothing in these questions that they cannot get pretty quickly. After about 10 minutes, they should be back up to speed (hopefully) and ready to move into new territory.
Tuesday, 9 March 2010
Teaching is serious business. We have wonderfully bright and talented students here at Richmond. They have almost unlimited potential. For most, this is their one shot at college; they deserve nothing less than an excellent education, an academic experience that challenges them to excel from their first day to their last.
Faculty members have a responsibility to the world to coax the very best from their students because they will certainly become the next generation of leaders. Where they go from here, what they accomplish, how they impact the world, depends in large part on how much we are able to push and nurture their development. I want every student to leave my class at the end of the semester saying, “I didn’t know that I could work so hard, and I didn’t realize that I could learn so much.” Anything less is unacceptable.
If a teacher challenges students to think and do their best, word gets around campus quickly, but having a tough reputation is both good and bad. When students walk into my class on the first day, they tend to be very quiet and pay attention right away. On the other hand, I am always so disappointed when a student says to me “I hear you are a good teacher, but I didn’t take your class because I know you are very demanding.” Isn't that just incredibly sad? I think Richmond will be a better school when students sign up only for classes where teachers push them each day to do their best.
Many times during each semester, I point out to my students that the grade of A, according to the University catalogue, reflects “outstanding” work. A student does not earn the grade of A for a good effort, only for consistently outstanding work. Grade inflation has hurt college education across this country and could be fixed simply by faculty members saying, “You earn an A when the work that I see is truly outstanding.” Don’t fool yourself; students are well aware of the difference between “good” and “outstanding.”
I use the Socratic method. I call on every student every day in class. I don't ask them to regurgitate material; I ask them questions that I believe will cause them to think and reason—on the spot. That is what adult life is like, especially in the business world. I then follow my initial question with others based on their answers. If I don’t get good replies from a student, I don’t just nod and smile; I demand better of them. A student once compared my class to a contact sport. Richmond students should be ready, willing and able to discuss and debate issues. This is college, not high school.
I want a reasonable effort from my students because students get back based on what they put in. I expect them to study four to six hours each week outside of class so they’ll be ready to participate in class discussions. I use carrots and sticks. I say, “Good job!” when a student gives me a thoughtful, well-conceived answer, and I say, “Listen, you can do better than that!” when a student gives me a bad answer. I don’t view that as being disagreeable, although I do realize that it injects a bit of tension into the class. But this is not Sesame Street; a bad answer is a bad answer. There is only one primary goal in my class: to improve each student’s ability to think, reason and understand. Our students realize how capable they are, but human nature loves to take the easy path.
A good basketball coach adapts to the talents of his or her players. A good teacher does the same. You cannot take an identical approach with every student. Some love to be pushed and pushed hard. They enjoy “in-your-face” challenges. Others are more fragile. You have to coax and nurture them. So toughness comes into my class where toughness is necessary. You teach each student, not each group. However, every student needs to be willing to prepare and to think. That is not negotiable.
One of the keys to becoming a good teacher is learning to walk into a room of students and “see” what is happening to the individual members: Billy needs a few extra seconds to formulate an answer, Susan loves to be called on, Andy doesn’t know what is happening right now, Ellen is not prepared. You have to be able to adapt to your students on the spot every day.
Our students can do amazing things, but if we don’t challenge them fully, they will never realize what marvelous talents they truly possess. Signing up for demanding classes might hurt a student’s GPA, but which is more important: developing a good mind or a good GPA?
Unfortunately, they shave parts of the chest to make sure that the leads for the EKG have good contacts. And I am, shall we say, a bit on the hirsute side (kind of like saying Ed "Too Tall" Jones is too tall). So I came home with a few patches missing.
I took the clippers to the rest, and now I have nubs. TMI, for sure. But I'm all about the sharing.
I now have more sympathy for my wife.
Sunday, 7 March 2010
“An education is not a true education unless it is real, that is to say useful in a student's life outside the classroom regardless of the field they go into. I believe in students coming first and having the right to a great education - an education that encompasses a balance of academics, real-world exposure, high expectancy from themselves and from me their instructor, rigor, and an environment where students have the opportunity to succeed and be the best they can be. If we can help our students succeed, they will thirst for more success which will, in turn, benefit our college, our community, and our society."
I especially liked his comment that students have the “right to a great education.” I think colleges and universities often seem to believe that students have the right to an average education or that a few exceptional students have the right to a great education. I have 82 students this semester and I would love to believe that they all have the right to a great education in my class. That is not an easy goal (in fact, it is probably an impossible goal) but I do think it is a worthwhile goal. If a student walks into my class, regardless of why they signed up for the course, it might well be their only chance in life to learn financial accounting. It is now or never. I want that experience to be as close to great as I can get it. Not for one, or a few, but for all of them.
I sometimes think we make the educational process too complicated. The legendary football coach Vince Lombardi always seemed able to keep things simple. One of his best-known sayings is: “Some people try to find things in this game that don't exist but football is only two things - blocking and tackling.” Being successful often goes back to being good at the very basics. Once the basics are solid then a person should be able to build on them and accomplish great things.
I believe the same thing applies to teaching. No matter whether you lecture or use PowerPoint slides or work problems or (as I do) use a Socratic approach, I think creating a successful class goes back to helping students come up with satisfactory answers to two basic questions:
--What should I learn?
--Why should I learn it?
Virtually all college students have the ability to learn the material at some moderate level. But they have to know what is expected of them and why they should do the work. Very few students are absolutely incapable of learning.
When things break down, it is often—I believe—because of a problem with one of those two basic questions.
If you have students who understand the answers to those two questions, it is likely that they will do well and you and they will both be pleased with the outcome. Students have a shortage of time; they are extremely busy. From my experience, they seem willing to allocate sufficient time to courses but only if they understand what they should be learning and why they should be learning it.
In financial accounting, as you cover accounts receivable, bad debt expense, inventory, FIFO and LIFO, depreciation, contingencies, and the like, the answers to those two questions are not necessarily obvious to students. So, always ask yourself:
--Do your students know what you really want them to learn and understand?
--Do your students know why they should care enough to do the work that is necessary to learn the material?
If you are struggling with a class, one possibility is that the students do not have a good answer for one or both of those questions. They are confused about what you want from them or they don’t believe the benefit is worth the effort that is required.
Or, you can see it in the opposite: When a class is really going well, it is frequently because students understand what you are looking for from them and honestly believe the effort is worthwhile.
Students taking any course often perceive the information as a massive and jumbled blob. That was what it looked like when I was in college. For most of them, it is all new stuff that comes at them at high speed. Patterns and connections that are so obvious to the professor can seem like the Da Vinci Code to students.
For that reason, when I get to the end of chapter, I occasionally ask my student to tell me what I specifically want them to know. We will make a list on the board as they suggest one item or another. After a student makes a suggestion, I will ask a different student whether he or she agrees with the inclusion. If so, I then ask what I think is a key question: “Why would I care enough about this item to include it on a test?” I am surprised by how often students seem mystified by my query. I don't think they've ever thought about the material like that.
If a student responds, “I have no idea” I know that I have not done a good job of explaining the importance of that item. I need to do better or I need to consider whether I should continue to include that material in the course.
While we make this list, I am able to re-emphasize what I felt was important and why. I don’t want my students to view financial accounting as a giant blob to be memorized. Instead, I want them to see it as a logical system that can be understood and that understanding can help them be good decision makers as they go through their lives.
It goes back to making sure we have the simple things, the very basics, under control. If so, then there is no limit to what we can accomplish in class after that.
Last August, the University of Chicago Magazine asked Allen Sanderson to create an NCAA-like tournament with four regions, brackets and seeded teams. But instead of a field comprised of basketball squads, this one - dubbed "Market Madness" - was to contain 16 competitive factors contributing to the global financial meltdown of the last two years. (Their only constraint was that The Chicago School of Economics had to be a competitor.)Read the whole thing here
To get started, each "team" got a name and a brief description as to why it was included in the tourney. Chicago Alumni and friends then participated in on-line voting in Autumn 2009 to select their personal or preferred outcomes for each of the match-ups, which moved from the "Sweet 16" to the "Elite 8," and then to the "Final Four" and the ultimate winner (that is, the person or thing most responsible for the financial crisis and recession).
With permission from the University of Chicago Magazine, the AEA was pleased to offer its members a chance to fill out their own brackets and submit their entries and pick an ultimate "champion." Below you will find the four named regions, the four competitors in each region, and a brief introduction to each team.
Voting is now closed, and here are the results! (click here for a larger version)
HT: Barry Barnitz
Thursday, 4 March 2010
In my discussion with Dr. Phillips, I described a speech that I had given at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia last year. I had decided to speak on “Patterning Student Behavior.” My question to that group was: How do you get your students to do what you want them to do? For example, I want my students to prepare for class, I want my students to find the material interesting and engaging, I want my students to learn both the how and why of the subject matter, I want my students to actively participate in class. Most of all I want my students to develop the ability to think for themselves. How do I go about trying to achieve those goals? Somehow standing in front of them lecturing and working examples doesn’t seem to meet my objectives.
When I was at St. Joseph’s, I talked about some of the things that I do (some of which I have described in this blog) to encourage/push my students along. I try to pattern their behavior. Then, in a 90 degree turn, I started telling the group about a book that I had read shortly before my visit: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. It is a retelling of Hamlet but it is set in the US at a small farm where a family breeds and trains dogs. The author must have known a lot about dog training because he spends many pages describing in detail how this family could get a particular breed of dog to perform so well. Being a teacher, I was fascinated by the techniques they used to achieve successful results.
At St. Joseph’s, I asked the faculty to tell me the secrets to being a good dog trainer. They all looked at me like I was a bit crazy but they quickly came up with a list of eight traits needed to train dogs. What I found most fascinating was that they easily understood how this was done. They clearly knew how to train a dog and do it the right way.
1 – Have a firm understanding of what you want them to accomplish
2 – Get their undivided attention
3 – Consistent treatment
4 – Don’t set them up to fail; build incrementally
5 – Acknowledge proper responses
6 – Correct incorrect action immediately
7 – Repetition Repetition Repetition
8 – Time and Patience
Okay, we are not training dogs to act; we are training humans to think. However, which of these eight does not apply to the teaching of college students? I would argue that if you follow these eight “dog training steps” you will be a pretty good teacher. And, I think that is true whether you are teaching accounting or English or history or biology or whatever. We all teach differently but I think there are some fundamental steps that simply make the learning process work efficiently.
Now, I have two challenges for you.
(1) – Take each of these eight and grade yourself. How did you do? Be honest. To improve, you need to know your strengths and your weaknesses. Where are your As and where are your Cs? How can you turn a C into an A?
(2) – What would you add to this list? The group and I came up with a quick eight to train dogs and then tried to see if we could apply those to college students. If we were going to add one or two more, what should we add?
Monday, 1 March 2010
In other words, a typical guy. But lately, they've been trying to rehabilitqate him by making him eat more fruits and vegetables (he now sings " A Cookie is a Sometime Thing". Were Jonathan here, he'd agree with the unknown daughter - "Dad, that's just wrong in so many ways".
So, in Jonathan's honor, I give you what Cookie Monster says in an unguarded moment:
I still suspect some One Flew Over The Cuckoo's nest type action - look for the scars.