Lots of Teaching Tips for the Next New Semester

My good friend Paul Clikeman (University of Richmond accounting professor) forwarded the following quote to me.   It is from the poet Robert Frost and was recently mentioned in the CPA Letter Daily:  

“I am not a teacher, but an awakener."  

Isn’t that just a wonderful quote?   Most importantly, doesn’t that put a fabulous spin on what we do every day in the classroom?   In many ways, we are working to awake the natural curiosity of our students.   I am convinced that, somewhere deep down inside, virtually all students really do want to learn.   They seek inspiration and guidance (from us).   I think a great quote such as this one can change our entire outlook in a positive manner.

I recently gave a teaching presentation here at the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond.   I wanted people to think about teaching as we near the end of the current semester so I asked the members of our Business School faculty to respond to the following scenario:    

   “Let’s assume that a brand new Ph. D. shows up to join our faculty and asks you the following 
   question:   ‘I want to be a really good teacher here at Richmond.   I don’t have much teaching 
   experience so far.  What one piece of advice would you give me to help me get started on my 

Seems like a valid question.   What really are key points to becoming a better teacher?   I received quite a number of great responses from my fellow teachers.   They are listed below.  

Okay, other than read this list of suggestions, what should you do with them?   Well, I am a big believer in the power of evaluation.   Here is my advice:   Read through them all carefully and then pick the three that seem most appropriate for you and your teaching.   You cannot possibly follow everyone’s advice.   You need to evaluate, rank, and choose.   Read them all, pick three, and try to work those three into your teaching in some way during the spring semester.  See if they really do work.

You can never improve without experimenting.   Here are some suggestions that might lead to some worthwhile experimentation during the coming semester.

And, of course, I’ve picked my top tips.   If you are curious about my selections, drop me an email at Jhoyle@richmond.edu and I’ll tell you which ones meant the most to me.


---Keep experimenting and make at least one change (e.g., new case; new assignment; new pedagogical approach) each semester.  Even if the “experiment” fails, you’ll still very likely learn something from it, and it keeps boredom and burnout at bay.

---Cold call. It's simple, but it works. Students will be more prepared and more engaged.

---Know yourself and be true to who you are.  Celebrate your students for who they are as unique persons. 

---The starting point is being prepared and enthusiastic. Don't be too ambitious; not everyone in your class is going to graduate school! 

---Mix up the floor plan. When discussing more personal topics, I move the tables to the side and make a circle with chairs. This changes the tone of the class.  

---My advice is to avoid using Power Point supported formal lectures to present materials.

---Understand the material so well that you can take it apart from the students' perspectives.   

---At the end of each week of teaching, ask students to answer two questions on a sheet of paper. “What was the most important thing you learned this week? What is it that we covered but you still don't understand?”  Then collect the papers. During the next class, go over the topics where there was some consensus that they didn't get it.  You will be a better teacher and your students will also recognize that they learned something! 

---In Week One, give students a simple example of a typical problem covered in the course. In finance, I tell them that this course is about making investment decisions which is a creative process based on assumptions, intuition and experience. Accounting and mathematics are tools that we use to help make good financial decisions.

---Be enthusiastic and creative.  It's pretty basic, but it works for me.

---Some use of the Socratic Method - Asking a lot of questions and guiding students to solve problems on their own. 

---Making students do the problems - helping them to learn by trial and error.

---Balance - Trying to find the right balance between me doing a lot of the work such as using power points / diagrams / charts / explanations to frame out the key issues and thus simplifying things for them vs. teaching the students to start doing this type of analysis / thinking on their own.  Want to turn them from simply "regurgitating" information into learning how to become problem solvers, which will be a key to future success in business.

---Vary your voice level - a monotone is the worst! - but if you add what are called "paralinguistics" or what I call "peaks and valleys," - word emphasis, loudness, body language - you are more likely to keep students' attention.  You can then use the old—and extremely effective—trick of dropping your voice to a whisper all at once or stopping completely.  The absence of sound wakes even the heaviest sleeper!

---I think my advice to a new professor would be to make one's expectations of the students very clear at the outset and emphasize them repeatedly.  For example, I post my notes, take my exam questions from my notes, and post a review sheet for each exam that clearly outlines topics that will be covered.  I also explain in class and on the syllabus that this is my methodology.  For their group presentations, I post the score sheet that I will use (and that their peers will use) in grading them.   By using this approach, I have found that most students meet my expectations, and it is VERY clear which ones are not applying themselves. 

---Ask for feedback from your students regularly during the semester and take is seriously.  Be willing to modify syllabus or schedules or assessment, based on what is helping students to be engaged and to learn.  I learn a ton from listening to my students—and have almost always made modifications (well-communicated to the students) over the course of the semester, based on how a given class learns. 

---Here is a method that I’m trying to use in my intro classes since students may not have enough background to understand how businesses work. I try to start with an appropriate real life example for the topic. For example, when I cover accounts receivable in introductory accounting, I use a short 5-minute video showing how ZZZZ Best Carpet Cleaning Co. recorded faked sales using receivables.   Tomorrow, I will be teaching variance analysis in 202 and I start with an example from McDonald’s.  It is about the significant price variation (90¢ vs $2) in chicken wings after McDonald’s introduced its McWrap menu.  

---I think most college students aren't adventurous thinkers.  I want the students in the class to think boldly so I've tried two things:   1. Ask them to and 2. Give them support when they do.  A student recently responded adventurously to an assignment about a marketing idea. The idea he presented to the class was silly, but it was clear he was stretching.  After talking through the merits and shortcomings of the idea, the class and I gave him a round of applause for boldness.   The compulsion to be correct inhibits bold thinking.  I think we should fight that. 

---Assign seats in the 3rd week of class. I did this for the 1st time this semester and it helps a lot with the classroom atmosphere, in my opinion. It splits up the various groups and lets them know that you are serious.  I spend 15 minutes after doing so and have them introduce their seat mate. They get one extra credit point on the final for filling out a questionnaire that I give them (so perhaps they don't see it as punitive). I am also going to do it again tomorrow because the class needs waking up. I assign the seats using excel and the random number generator in it. 

---Make a written plan for every class with specific goals and activities to achieve those goals.  Immediately after class, review how that class went within the context of the plan and make notes of what worked and what did not.  In light of this information, make a list of the changes that you will make so that this particular lesson will be more effective the next time when you teach the class.

---Don't waste the first day of class - it is the most important day of the semester. Don't tell them you use the Socratic method - start asking them questions. Don't describe what they will learn in class - put a question from last year's final exam on the board and ask them to answer it. Don't hand out the syllabus until the last 15 minutes.

---Resist the temptation to give them the answer too soon. It's hard to watch people struggle, but it's worth the extra (eternity-seeming) minute. 

---I find I'm most effective as a teacher when I remember what first got me excited about an idea or a topic and I am able to transfer that excitement and enthusiasm to my students.  Enthusiasm and true excitement are contagious or at least do not go unnoticed, and students seem to respond positively to it.  

---I've scrapped power point and I couldn't be happier. Students look at me and each other rather than trying to frantically scribble everything on the slide. 

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