Time to Get Better

If you have followed this blog for long, you know that one of my primary recommendations is that every teacher should work to get 5 percent better every year.   If all of us could manage to improve by just 5 percent during the next 12 months, imagine how much more effective our educational system would become.   I think 5 percent is a realistic goal.   It would not take radical change.   If every teacher truly pushed for a 5 percent improvement, our schools and students would benefit in unbelievable ways.

As we start each new year, I like to step back and think about how I might achieve my 5 percent improvement.   This is my 44thyear as a college professor and I am no longer a young person.   However, if I am not willing to push myself to improve, then it is probably time for me to retire.   Because I really do not want to retire, I am actively working on my 5 percent.

Are you?

As I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, I have been reading Make It Stick – The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel.  I usually find that such books have some good ideas.  Not all will work for me but some should.   Here are a couple that I liked and have already tried this semester in my quest for 5 percent improvement.

(1) - As a coauthor of both an Advanced Accounting textbook (McGraw-Hill) and a Financial Accounting textbook (FlatWorld), I am always perturbed by how poorly students read textbooks.   Students often seem to go into a trance when they read a textbook and cannot recall even basic information.  Too often, reading turns into the mere marking of passages with a highlighter so that information can be found later if needed.   Such reading does not increase comprehension so it really fails to fulfill its purpose.   Students just note sentences that might prove to be important.  I want students to come into class already knowing something about what the book says.   

In Make It Stick, the authors recommend that students read a passage (a paragraph, perhaps, or a full page) and then look up and explain what they have just read.   This recall process helps to cement the material in the student’s mind and, of course, it forces the student to evaluate what is most important.   Finally, the recitation requires the student to organize the material in some logical way.   Retrieve, Evaluate, Organize.   Yeah, I bet that is helpful.   On page 30, the authors talk about a study that found that “the best results were from those spending about 60 percent of the study time in recitation.”  Read and then recite (or as I say "explain").

I told my students:   “Don’t read the chapters twice.   Read them just one time.   But after every page, look up and talk about what you have just read.   Pretend you are explaining the page to a friend who is in the class.   When you finish, go on to the next page.”   I don’t know how many of the students have followed the advice so far but I will bring up the idea again after our first test when some of them might be more open to the suggestion.

(2) – As I have written before, a lot of this book is about the importance of retrieving information to make understanding better.  They even quote Aristotle “exercise in repeatedly recalling a thing strengthens the memory.”   That makes sense.   I think we all understand that.  

For that reason, I have worked on two things this semester.   First, as often as I can, I walk back to my office right after class and send my students a quick question or problem that always begins “If you fully understood what we talked about in class today, you should be able to work the following problem right now” and then I set out a quick problem that I view as a grade A level question.   As I often do, I try to put it in some type of puzzle form to make it more intriguing to them.   I'm not testing their memory.   I include some check figures.   I want to challenge them to retrieve the information from class almost immediately just to organize and solidify their knowledge.  

Second, I have also returned to my CPA Review roots this semester.   I have suggested that students make 3-10 flashcards after every class.   A question is put on one side with a short answer on the other side that they can review over and over to provide a structured method for the mental retrieval exercise.   The authors of this book point out that students don’t know what they don’t know because they tend to overestimate their knowledge.   That is dangerous; that holds them back.   The flash cards give them a way to judge for themselves what they really do know and what they don’t know.

(3) – And finally, one of my favorite thoughts from this book (page 43):   “We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier; but the research shows the opposite:   when the mind has to work, learning sticks better.   The greater the effort to retrieve learning, provided that you succeed, the more that learning is strengthened by retrieval.”   This semester, I’ve tried to introduce complexity earlier in the process.   Historically, in my classes, the material gets harder and harder but only very gradually.   This semester I’ve tried to throw complexity at them earlier and then help them work their way through the issues.   I do not know, quite yet, whether this is a good idea or not but I like the way it feels.   I have clearly caught the students’ attention with some of the questions.   I guess the key point in the above quote is “provided that you succeed.”  


Will I reach my goal of 5 percent improvement in 2015?   I certainly hope so.   I would really hate to think I had reached a plateau where my teaching ability had stalled out.   I am not quite ready to retire.

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