Wednesday, 15 February 2012

How Can You Get Better?

I gave my first test in Intermediate Accounting II last week. As probably most of you know, this is a really difficult course. Every topic, every day, is complex.

For this first test, I gave nine problems. I referred to these problems as puzzles because they were quite verbal. I find that the more numbers a problem has, the more likely it is to be a purely mechanical exercise.

The students had 75 minutes to see how many of these accounting “puzzles” they could solve. It was a challenging test but, heck, it is a challenging course. And, maybe more importantly, it is hard to convince students that they can leap tall buildings in a single bound if you don’t make every test both challenging and fair.

Here’s the good news: 19 percent of the students made an A. For my classes, that’s a pretty good rate. I had 19 percent of the students who did what I judged to be “excellent” work. I was pleased with that.

Here’s the bad news: 48 percent of the students made a C and 12 percent made less than a C. Those aren’t terrible grades but I don’t like C’s and I really don’t like grades of less than a C.

Too often, every student is used to getting an A or a B in every course. (This was the point of the Doonesbury cartoon last Sunday: ) So, the students are not going to be pleased with a C or worse. I get a lot of questions that begin: I’ve never made a grade that low so how can I do better?

“Work harder” and “think more” and “be smarter” really don’t provide much guidance. I think if you are really going to challenge your students you then have a moral obligation to help them figure out how to meet those challenges. I think that is what “teacher” means.

For that reason, when I returned their tests, I talked with them about “the five general points of learning.” In my mind, all classroom learning is built around five key times:
(1) – what the student does to prepare for class each day.
(2) – what the student does during class
(3) – what the student does in the 24 hours following class
(4) – how the student prepares for the test
(5) – how the student reacts during the test.

I explained to them that, from my observation, students tend to put most of their energy and effort into numbers 2 and 4. In other words, during class they will attempt to write down every word that is said and then, the night before the test, they will attempt to memorize all of those words. Many students actually view those two steps as “learning.” They become experts at 2 and 4. I told them that my guess was that they didn’t need to do anything more as far as 2 and 4 were concerned. I think they are pretty good at 2 and 4 already.

I explained that if they really wanted to do better, they probably needed to put more emphasis on 1, 3, and 5. Here’s some of what I had to say as guidance.

(1) – Every class session explores new material, both theoretical and practical. Therefore, class often seems like a helter-skelter mess as we talk and argue about a variety of issues. How do you turn that chaos into an organized picture? How do you start seeing the hidden elephants in the picture? For my classes, the answer is that you prepare very well before you walk into class. Preparation slows the speed of the class down and allows you to hear what is being said and understand the points that are being made. If you are not prepared, there is little you can do but copy down the material in hopes of making sense of it later. If you are prepared, the pieces should come together as we talk. This is not easy but if you really want to make a good grade, you need to become obsessed about preparation. The goal is clear: You need to be the best prepared person in class, not just occasionally but every day.

(3) – Most students leave class each day with the material bouncing around in their heads. Even the best students haven’t had a chance to step back and see how all the pieces fit together. However, at that moment, the urgency is off. We are going to move on to a new topic so there is no reason to worry too much if the material hasn’t quite come together in an understandable fashion. Unfortunately, if you don’t make sure it all becomes solid knowledge right then, the understanding begins to leak out of your brain very quickly. Within 24 hours (preferably within 4 hours) of class being over, you need to go back through everything we cover and make sure you understand how it works and why. On the surface, it may look random but it is not. Then, if you discover gaps in your understanding, you need to see me ASAP. I am convinced that the single most important time in the educational process is right after class as students put the pieces together (in their brains) so that they make logical sense. Without that, you are just memorizing random bits and pieces of information.

(5) – I’m often amazed by how many points students will throw away during a test. Okay, I know you are rushed and I’m sure you are a bit tense. But you can’t just throw away those easy points if you want to do well. When I write a question, I take something we have discussed in class and twist it around in some way and ask a question to see if you understand the concept. I expect you to read the question carefully and ask yourself how those facts connect to our class coverage. Then, hopefully, you can figure out what is the same and what is different from the coverage. Some questions require you to make a small leap from the class coverage while some require bigger leaps. But, I never write a question where I don’t think you are capable of making that leap. It doesn’t prove anything to ask questions that you cannot possibly answer. So, during each test, ask yourself the following: what are the facts, how does this question connect to class, what is different here, and how do those differences impact the solution?

And, of course, have some confidence in your ability to work through the complexities to arrive at a reasonable solution. If you have done the work, your confidence should provide you with a boost.

Will the students take my advice and work more on 1, 3, and 5? Yes, some will. Not all, but some will. And those students are likely to do considerably better on the second test because they have a plan that helps them actually learn the material. I’ve tried to go beyond just exhorting them to “work harder.”

They are 20 years old. They are adults. Should I be taking my time in class to help them learn how to learn? My only goal is academic success. By the end of the semester, I want them to have a strong understanding of the material. If giving them some learning tips is helpful, then – Yes – I believe it is part of my job.

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