Wednesday, 26 December 2012

TWO STUDENTS I MISJUDGED


I am now halfway through my 42ndyear as a college teacher.   This semester (like all semesters) had its ups and downs.   There were days when every student seemed brilliant and days when no one seemed to be able to count to four.     I don’t think I taught any geniuses but almost every student appeared capable and, hopefully, gained something of lasting benefit.   I started with 73 students and a total of 16 finished with the grade of A.   I always hope for more excellent work but 21.9 percent was not bad.   I try not to contribute too heavily to grade inflation.

At the end of every semester, there are always a few students that I wish I had handled differently.   I often ponder them long after class has ended.   With 73 students, it can be difficult to get an accurate read on each student at the beginning of the semester.   Some need carrots to do well and some need sticks.   Often, I feel frustrated because I do not have the time needed to determine what buttons to push to get individual students excited about the learning process.    In those cases, I am left wondering if I helped or hindered the student’s learning.

When I travel around the county speaking to teachers, I get to talk with a lot of folks.  One common theme I hear is that students do not always appreciate what teachers do for them.   “If I work them hard, they are unhappy.”   “If I challenge them to go deeper, they rebel.”   “Why should I work so hard when the students prefer the easy way?”   Teaching can be really frustrating.

And, in truth, human beings (even teachers) need motivation.   Everyone needs a pat on the back as often as possible.   It is hard to beat your head against a wall if no one really appreciates what you do.

Occasionally, though, I am brought back to reality and reminded that many (if not most) students really do care about their education.   But, they do not always have an easy way to show their appreciation for what you do.   Last week, I got emails from two of my fall students, two students that I never expected to hear from because I was not sure whether I had taught them anything or not.   Until I got their emails, I would have included them on the list of:   “I didn’t get through to these students very well.”   I guess that is my point:   Sometimes you just never know.

Student A

Student A seemed extremely quiet.   He was a student in my Introduction to Financial Accounting class.   When I called on him each day, he would take a long time to answer and his answers frequently seemed very hesitant and unsure.   As a result, if you had asked me, I would have said that he was not well prepared.  I assumed his hesitancy was because he was not terribly interested in the material.   From my vantage point, that was how it appeared.

The email I got from Student A last week was 1,276 words long.   I cannot remember ever getting such a long email from a student.   All semester, I thought he was a relatively nonverbal student when, in fact, he was just quiet.   He was not uninterested, he was quiet.   If this email was any indication, he was actually a very very verbal student.  

This student that I thought was basically uninterested in financial accounting was, in fact, one of the most interested.   I would have said that he did not appreciate what I did when he really did.   I misjudged him completely.   I am not sure how I should have taken advantage of that knowledge but I judged him incorrectly and probably should have pushed him harder.

Here are just a few (494) of those 1,276 words.

“I wanted to wait to message you until after I received my final numbers so I didn't appear as a brown noser pleading for a better grade. I just wanted to thank you for a great semester. Regardless of whether my letter grade ended as an A, B or C, I can honestly and confidently say that I walked away from your course knowing a great deal of new information about accounting. This class was unique for me- instead of studying just enough so I could pass a test and then forget everything I had learned, the accounting information became ingrained in my head. I began to, actually, like my accounting course. What impresses me most about your teaching abilities is that you instruct a course (accounting) that is considered to be boring/monotonous/dreary by so many people, and you manage to spark an interest within your students. . . . You ran a very tight ship, but that is what you told us to expect from the beginning. From day one, and through each and every email and paper you sent to us, you reinforced the fact that you would expect a lot of time and dedication from us. I appreciate your honesty. I appreciate your strategy of pushing your students to their academic limits. . . .  The thing that had the biggest impact on my thinking was the comparison you made one day between professional athletes and business world professionals. You said that when we look at professional athletes, we automatically assume that they had put in countless hours of perfecting their craft to be where they're at now but, for some reason, the same generalization is not made about those who work in the higher levels of business. This statement was very true and I thought about it for a long time after class. I questioned my own efforts and settled on the fact that I had not previously been putting in the time to my studies that I should have been. I do not lack any work ethic in the athletic department, probably because it is what I love to do the most. A few hundred swings and hours in the weight room are no hassle to me. However, I could honestly say that during my freshman year, and during most of this past semester, I was doing enough to get by and do 'well enough' but was I really pushing myself to become substantially better in the classroom? The answer was no- not at all. Your words that day helped me redefine my work ethic when it came to school. I started taking a little more pride and setting aside a little more time for my studies. I kept my new approach through the end of this past semester and I was pleased with my final grades. I am not saying you are the sole reason why I did well overall this semester, but your lessons definitely helped me.”

 
Student B

Student B was in my Intermediate Accounting II class and seemed completely uninterested.   His answers were almost flippant and I kept wanting to ask him why he was in the class if he cared so little.   His work on tests was all over the place from a 71 to a 92.   I fully expected him to make a D or an F on the final exam and perhaps a D in the course.   In my own mind, I had him firmly labeled as “having not one iota of interest in accounting.”

But then, Student B made a strong A on the final exam, a test that I considered incredibly complicated.   I was stunned.   I wondered if he had sent in a clone to take the test for himself.   I would have bet that he did not appreciate one thing about my teaching of that class so I didn’t understand that excellent work on the final exam.

Then, out of the blue, I got the following email.

“I just want to thank you for a fantastic semester. I can honestly say I enjoyed coming to your class every day of the week, as it was one of the only classes where I felt that I could sit and figure things out instead of scrambling to write down every word the professor says, to try and "learn" it later. After this semester I feel that I have grown much as a person, and more than ever find pleasure in things intellectual and thought-provoking. In car rides that used to be filled by whatever mindlessly popular music the radio station chose to broadcast, I now find myself either listening to talk radio or turning off the radio all together and pondering different facets of my life or humanity as a whole.   Not only has this class enriched my ability to think about life, but I feel to have gained a real understanding of financial accounting. While during the semester I may have seemed somewhat uninterested, I promise you this was never the case. My problem was that I easily understood about 85% of the material, and thus didn't feel particularly pressed to immediately work for the other 15%. Interestingly enough, when I sat down to begin studying for the final, I found that going back through the material was not as stressful as I expected it to be. The concepts I had learned throughout the entire semester were clear and seemed to flow together perfectly. I honestly enjoyed the 4 hour final, as it gave me a chance to sit down and think through problems, and the fact that I was able to easily reason through them was actually fairly exciting for me.”

I had 73 students this semester.    Only 3 or 4 chose to write me an email about the semester.   And, much to my surprise, two of the most interesting emails came from students that

(a) I clearly did not understand too well during the semester and

(b) I would have labeled as not at all appreciative of the class.

As I have said before, I write these blog entries for me more than for you.   So, what should I take away from these two emails?

First – don’t rely too much on external appearances.   Work harder to get to know the students as best you can.   One of the absolute great things about teaching is that every student brings his or her own issues and personality to your class.   After all, you don’t teach a class; you teach people.  

Second – don’t waste so much time worrying about whether students appreciate what you do.   You simply may never know.   If you work hard and if you understand what you want your students to learn and if you challenge them (but do so fairly), they will come to appreciate what you do.   Yeah, there may never be a way for them to express that appreciation but it is there.
 

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Apple App Not Apt


Nowadays, people take their cellphones everywhere, to the park, to the store, to the dinner table, to the bathroom. It has become such a huge part of our lives in the past few years, and justifiably so. It's a phone, camera, music player, calendar and computer in the palm of your hand. A more recent feature is GPS. If you're lost in NYC, you pull up the Maps app. If you're driving somewhere new, you pull up the Maps app. Most of you have heard how Apple dropped the ball with iOS 6 and the new Maps app. Some people are still stranded in that park... Fortunately, Google has just launched the much anticipated Google Maps app, previously a default app for all new iPhones before iOS 6, available for free in the App Store.
The consensus is it's in fact more user friendly, accurate, and reliable than Apple's own version, and it has always been so. So one might wonder, why would Apple get rid of the previous, well-functioning Google maps in place of their own? Although Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, says they simply had their own vision of what maps should be like and it could only be done by themselves, it can be deduced that they just did not want to be associated with their highly competitive rival, Google, maker of the increasingly popular android phones. Big mistake. 
Apple seems to have turned the other cheek by permitting Google to launch the new Google maps, but what it comes down to is iPhone sales, and with GPS being an integral part of daily life, it seems they understand that restricting iPhones to the Apple brand, despite how it benefits the competition, will only hurt them.

Jonathan Louie

Friday, 14 December 2012

EVERYONE CHANGES OVER TIME

Happy holidays to all the teachers out there.   This blog just went over 67,800 page views.   I have been thrilled throughout the year to have the chance to interact with so many wonderful educators.  

**

When I give teaching presentations around the country, I am often asked how my teaching has changed during the past 42 years.   Because I stress working for 5 percent improvement each year, that particular question is certainly a legitimate one.   Invariably someone will jump up and ask:   Okay, how are you managing to improve over time?

I actually have a couple of different answers for that question.   But, there is one response that I always give:   During the past decade, I have come to spend a lot more time writing my test questions.   I used to throw tests together hurridly with one goal:   to be fair.   Now, though, I view testing as a much more important element of my class environment, one that requires a significant amount of preparation time. 

I occasionally argue in this blog that the way you test students is the way they will learn.   No matter what you tell them, if you test memorization, they will memorize.   If your tests are purely mechanical, they will only learn the mechanics.   If you only test at a superficial level, they will only learn material to that same shallow depth.   I believe this is the absolute truth.   The type of tests you create has a huge influence on the type of learning that the students do.

I am always shocked by how many well intentioned faculty members turn testing over to a textbook test bank.   I want to run screaming into the night when I hear that.   In my opinion, an overworked graduate student who does not know you or your students is not in any position to write a legitimate test for your students.   When writing this blog, I sometimes discuss what I would do if I were king of education.   Burning all test banks would be one of my first royal acts.

Yes, I know you are extremely busy.   But abdicating this valuable task to a person who might never have taught a single class (or a class like yours) makes no sense.   Any test in your class should be designed for your students based on what you have covered and based on what you want them to know.   It should not be composed of randomly selected questions written by some mysterious stranger.   To me, using a test bank is like asking Mickey Mouse to pinch hit for Babe Ruth.    You are giving away an essential element of the course to someone who might not be up to the task.

Over the decades, I have worked very hard to learn how to write good questions.   During those years, I have written some questions that were horrible.   But, I have learned much from that experience.  

--The first thing I learned about test writing was that a question that everyone could answer was useless.  
--The second thing that I learned was that a question that no one could answer was also useless.  

As with any task, you practice and you look at the results and you get better.   You don’t hand off an essential part of your course to a test bank.

As everyone who has read this blog for long probably knows, one of the things I started doing about 8 years ago was allowing students to bring handwritten notes to every test.   That immediately stopped me from writing questions that required memorization because the students had all that material written down and in front of them.

That was a good start but that was not enough.   Allowing notes pushed me in the right direction but it did not get me to the tests I wanted.   It takes practice and study.  

About 3 weeks ago, I wrote a 75 minute test for my introduction to Financial Accounting class here at the University of Richmond.  This test was the last one of the semester (prior to the final exam).  By that time, I surely believed that everyone in the class had come to understand what I wanted them to accomplish.   So, I wanted to test the material in such a way as to see how deeply they really did understand it.  

I wrote 12 multiple-choice questions designed to take about 4-8 minutes each.   For accounting tests that are often numerically based, I like multiple-choice questions because I can give 6-8 potential answers and, therefore, limit the possibility of a lucky guess.  

In writing the first four of these questions, I tried to envision what an A student could figure out but that a B student could not.   In other words, I wanted these four questions to show me the point between Good and Excellent.   These were tough.   For those questions, I really didn’t worry about the C, D, or F students.   These questions were designed specifically to see if I could divide the A students from the B students.

The next four questions were created to divide the B students from the C students.   They were easier questions but a student would have to have a Good level of understanding to figure them out.  I knew the A students could work these questions and I knew the D students could not work them.   These four were written to split the B students from the C students.

The final four questions were created to divide the C students from those with a lesser level of understanding.   They were easier but still not easy.  I wanted to see who deserved a C and who did not.   If a student could get those four questions correct, that (to me) was average work.   Those students deserved at least a C.   But, if a student could not get those four, they really had failed to achieve a basic level of understanding worthy of a C.  

Then, I shuffled the 12 questions and gave them to my students.

How did this test work out in practice?   Pretty well.   When it was over, I put the papers in order from best to worse to see if I was comfortable with the results.   I genuinely felt like I could tell the A students from the B students from the C students from everyone else.   And, isn’t that a primary reason for giving a test?

Okay, I had to create a pretty interesting curve to get the grades to line up with what I thought I was seeing.   But I am the teacher for this class.  That evaluation should be mine.  I tell my students early in the semester that I do not grade on raw percentages.   Getting 66 percent of the questions correct should not automatically be a D.   In fact, in many cases, getting 66 percent of the questions correct might well be a very impressive performance.   It depends on the difficulty of the questions.

After the first test, students will often ask something like, “I only got four questions out of 12 correct and I still got a C, how can that be?”   My answer is simple “by answering those four questions, you have shown me how much you have understood and I thought that level of understanding deserved a C.”

If I take an adequate amount of time and write good questions, I believe I can gain a good evaluation of the knowledge of the student.   And I usually find they will work harder after that to achieve a deeper level of understanding because they begin to see what I am after.   The way you test is the way your students will learn.

 

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The SEC vs. Netflix



Back in July, Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, posted a message on Facebook, which caused the SEC to warn the company last week of a potential investigation into Netflix’s violation of the Regulation Fair Disclosure. The message itself was short, consisting of only 45 words, and a simple exclamation of his excitement to see that the company has hit the milestone of 1 billion hours viewed in June (see above image).

Netflix disclosed that it received a Wells Notice from the SEC last Thursday, meaning that the SEC staff will recommend the full commission to pursue either a cease-and-desist action and/or a civil injunction. The SEC believes that Hasting’s post has violated Reg FD, the brainchild of Arthur Levitt, former chairman of the commission. The regulation was put in place slightly over a decade ago, originally designed to prevent selective leaks from companies to certain analysts and to promote “full and fair disclosure”. In general, Reg FD states that “when a public company gives material nonpublic information to anyone, the company must also public disclose that information to all investors”.

The SEC claims that by posting the fact that Netflix enjoyed over a billion hours of viewing in a month, Hastings released material information to investors and he did so through an unknown and non-public venue to release important company news. However, Hastings argues that, first of all, the information was non-material, especially since interested parties, viewers of the site, and the general public had known previously that the company was close to this milestone. As to the second part of the SEC’s claim, questioning the public nature of Facebook seems almost comical, especially when Hastings has over 220,000 followers and this post probably reached a lot more people than an SEC filing. However, the SEC might have a point in saying that Netflix did not alert its investors that Facebook was an available channel for information.

Currently, the sentiment both on the Street and online is that the SEC is over-reacting and its silly fetish of trying to control companies and their disclosure methods needs to be adjusted and updated to fit the latest trend in the rise of social media. This case still has a long way to go, and it may lead to an evolution of the SEC into a more modern governing body.


- Jennifer Zhang

Big Data Big Money


                What the internet has done to social media will be talked about for the next hundred years, as it has changed the game for so many industries, especially advertising. Take Facebook for example. Everyone has one. Okay, not everyone, but about a sixth of the entire population (1 billion people) are active users, which one can leave up to the imagination the number of people who have simply used Facebook once in their life.
                Facebook users post all types of information on their profile, from photos, personal information, relationship statuses, school, and location, also known as Big Data. To any consumer targeted business such as retail or advertising, this information a goldmine, as they are only a couple clicks away from obtaining information from a billion people. From photos for example, you can see that Person A has recently posted pictures of his snowboarding trip in the Swiss Alps. If companies could obtain this information, stores such as Dick’s Sporting Goods could specifically display ads related to snowboard equipment or discounts, and even airlines can post cheap tickets to other popular snowboard sites.
                The popular TV show Mad Men depicts scotch drinking, heavy smoking advertising kings who utilized their creativity to come up with the best advertisements. 50 years later today, all advertising companies need is access to this data so that they no longer create blanket advertisements singling out a specific demographic, but create advertisements actually single out specific people. Moreover, the number of clicks on any ad can be specifically monitored to track its success in real-time.
                While all of this sounds like a hop, skip, and a jump towards profit, there are some issues that arise such as correctly sifting through data, and privacy. The former is the difficulty associated with knowing exactly what’s relevant to said company, and the latter is more of a moral issue, which is why I said “if companies could obtain this information.” I know I personally wouldn’t want firms snooping around my profile and looking at my pictures, regardless of how much I save on product X. 

Jonathan Louie

Saturday, 8 December 2012

10 Year Treasuries Trade in Tightest Range Since July on Fed Speculation



      What seems to be somewhat of a surprise recently is the fact that US treasuries are trading at their tightest ranges since July, which most believe is due to Fed speculation.  10 year US treasuries have been trading within a quarter percent point, a record low, as potential forecasted job growth failed.  This is leading to speculation that the Federal Reserve will, as a part of QE3, announce another round of bond purchases and further increase their balance sheet. Yields on the 10-year treasury note benchmarks have risen from the least in more than 2 weeks after the United States Labor department showed figures that the US has added approximately 146,000 jobs in November, causing the unemployment rate to drop to 7.7 percent.  Federal Reserve officials have expressed that they will continue to buy bonds until the job market improves greatly.  Industry leaders expect easing to continue, guaranteeing that we will “see more balance sheet operations,” expecting the Fed to continue to be “hyper active.”

      Hedge fund managers and other speculators have increased their long positions in 10-year treasury notes according to the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission according to recent data.  As expected, volatility in these treasuries dropped further this week to the smallest value in over 5 years.  Bank of America’s volatility index, the MOVE, touched just 51 basis points on Dec 3, the lowest it’s been since April 1988.  Looking at all these numbers, the obvious question that follows, especially to us students is – who cares? In all actuality, this is a great sign for the Untied States economy.  What these numbers demonstrate, and what can be seen in the market, is a sense of stability.  The volatility that has been plaguing out economy over the last year and a half is finally leveling off. Confidence in the markets, it seems, has finally been restored.

- Vivek Shah

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Foreign Retailers Poised to Enter Indian Market


                 The lower house of India’s parliament, the Lok Sabha, today voted to allow foreign supermarkets to conduct business in India. The Congress Party backed government managed to push the measure through, after to minority parties abstained from voting. India badly needs Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) as its once booming economy has slowed to around 5.5% percent growth in GDP and is suffering from high inflation.
            The move to open the retail sector to foreign investors was first approved in September, and did not need parliamentary approval. However in the face of opposition protests, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh decided to put the measure to vote in both houses of parliament. The vote passed with 253 members for and 218 against while 74 abstained. The measure has been largely contended because many believe that it will put many small stores out of business. However, the passage of the measure in the lower house raises hopes that it can also be passed in the upper house, where it faces a tougher challenge.
            Allowing foreign retailers would enable the likes of Wal-Mart, Tesco, and Carrefour to enter the market. India’s retail sector is expected to grow to $725 billion by 2017. The entry of supermarkets would greatly change India’s retail sector, which has traditionally been dominated by small owner manned shops.
            The government and many economists applauded the vote, believing that investments made by foreign retailers would bring much needed capital into the economy. Under heavy pressure due to high inflation, the rupee has fallen 18% against the dollar. Foreign retailers could also help improve India’s supply chain, where many agricultural products spoil before they can reach the market. India’s SENSEX stock index increased by 0.2% to 19391.86, a 19-month high, riding investor confidence that the measure will pass through the upper house of parliament as well. 

-Ashish Sathe

Monday, 3 December 2012

Cash-Trapped Companies







Recently, we’ve heard a lot about companies holding excess cash on their balance sheets. Many claim that if these companies invested some of the cash they’re been hoarding, the US economy would get the boost it needs. Ironically, even though American companies currently hold near record amounts of cash, many of them are “cash poor” in the US. This is because a majority of their cash is trapped in foreign countries, mainly in Europe and Asia. The list of companies with cash aboard is extensive and includes some major US companies such as Johnson & Johnson, GE, Whirlpool and Microsoft.

So why can’t they just bring the cash back to the US? This mainly has to do with the fact that these companies would incur a 35 percent tax rate on corporate profits from the cash they bring back. A recent WSJ article mentioned the company Emerson Electric, which holds almost $2 billion in cash abroad, has only been able to bring back $500 million to the US. This meant that the company had to resort to borrowing money in the US for share buybacks, to pay out dividends and even to pay its taxes. This impact is being seen on many American companies that claim they would gladly bring more cash holdings back to the US if the effect of taxes were minimized. They state that being able to move their funds back will definitely boost capital spending in the US and help improve the job market. The Obama administration is proposing a lower tax rate, but a solid plan has yet to be developed. 


-Ritika Gawande