Sunday, 23 September 2012


If you have read this blog for long, you must know that I put considerable stress on communicating with my students, often by email. I believe open and honest communication is a key for all successful relationships. These communications give you a chance to guide your students toward the outcomes that you want. They allow you to motivate the students, to keep pushing them forward (“I know this seems hard but you are smart enough to do these problems with a bit of work”). They provide a chance for positive feedback – “the class was especially good today” is never a bad acknowledgement – one that students often never hear. They enable you to correct actions that you don’t like (“not very many of you had worked problem 5 for today; I’ll expect a better effort at the next class”). Communications help the teacher to prepare the students for upcoming material – “we are really going to stress the computation of interest expense at our next class so make absolutely sure you’ve studied pages 456-458 in the textbook.”

Here is an email that I sent out to my students in one of my classes after the third week of the semester. Notice how many things I was trying to accomplish with this one communication. That’s a good test question for you – how many things am I trying to do here?

“To My Students

“Okay, we have finished our first 3 weeks. Our first test is a bit over 2 weeks away (October 1). Not a bad time to stop and evaluate how things are progressing.

“How are you doing? I’m constantly trying to assess how each class is doing. I think about that in general terms – how is the class as a whole doing? I also think about that in individual terms – how are you (yes, you) doing? I only have 23 students in intermediate accounting this semester so I can do some serious thinking about you individually. (A close friend of mine teaches classes of 400-500 at another school – he has no way to keep personal track of each student. I do.)

“In many ways, I’m really interested in how quickly you catch on to what I’m doing so you can get on board with the process. In any intermediate accounting course, I always have a few students who assume it’s still a high school class and treat it that way. I’m glad to say, though, that most of you are beginning to pick up the system. There are many moments when I'm quite pleased with you especially when we get to a point where we start seeing how things in accounting fit together.

“How do I view this class?

--I expect you to prepare very well on a consistent basis. I do my half of the work every day; I expect you to do your half of the work. You have daily questions from me. You have a huge textbook. You have last spring’s test along with answers. You can easily make use of 60-90 minutes between each class. I often say TIME equals POINTS and I believe that is true. The best thing you can do to do better in this class is put in more time. "How can I make use of more time?" is never a bad question to ask yourself. Too many students ask “how quickly can I get finished?”

--Then, you come to class and I throw bizarre questions at you – often different than the ones I have given you to prepare. What I am trying to do is teach you how to take what you’ve prepared and use it (on the spot) to figure out something else. I am teaching you how to answer questions that you haven’t seen before by a quick analysis and a genuine understanding of what’s gone before.

--Then, you go back to the library or your dorm and spend 30-40 minutes assimilating what you’ve learned so that you can use it in answering future weird questions.

--I think all of that is a skill/talent worth developing. That’s something you can use in the real world regardless of your major.

--The four keys to this process as I see it: (1) preparation and (2) “figure it out” and (3) assimilate for future use and (4) consistency.

“When all of the above goes well, the class should be fun. You should look forward to coming to class and be surprised and disappointed that our 50 minutes together has flown by. I know things are going well when people tell me ‘I wish all my classes were this interesting.’

“How do some students seem to view this class?

--These students believe that preparation is a waste of time because the teacher (me) is going to tell them what they need to know in class. Their preparation is, at best, a half-hearted affair.

--In class, they pray they won’t get called on. They write down what anyone and everyone says with the assumption that they’ll memorize it all the night before the test. All real learning is deferred and replaced by a cram system.

--The problem is that when they get to the test and I throw a bizarre question at them, it doesn’t match up with the memorized material in their head and they haven’t determined how to analyze and figure out a reasonable answer.

--This system only works if the teacher is going to ask you to repeat back what you have been told. I won’t do that.

“In addition, that type of class is just flat boring.

“So far, at least in general, I’m not unhappy. Not at all. Oh, I throw out questions occasionally and feel we should get better answers but that always happens. It’s hard to understand gravel or gift cards until you’ve worked through it for a while. Or, I ask something directly from a previous class and get a “deer in the headlights look” that says “I haven’t thought about this one second since we last discussed it.” But, you are getting better each day and I’m not looking for perfection. We've made 3 weeks of progress in 3 weeks.

"That’s sufficient for me.

“I’m just looking for preparation and the willingness to try to figure things out. (A genuine curiosity is a big help in my class and in life.)

“Come see me if you need help.

“And, remember, a good grade on the first test is nice but it isn’t a guarantee of great things to come. And, a bad grade on the first test is not the end of the world. It’s just a first test, a way to gauge how you are doing in this somewhat unusual class.

“If nothing else, enjoy the process.”

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