MAKING USE OF THE SUMMER


I hope that many of the folks who read this blog will be attending both the Conference on Teaching and Learning in Accounting (CTLA) on August 6 and 7 and the American Accounting Association (AAA) annual meeting on August 8 through 10.   These conferences will be held in New York City near Times Square.   I am speaking twice at the CTLA on teaching and will serve on two panels during the AAA annual meeting.   Would love to see as many people as possible.   If you are there, grab me and let’s talk.   Tell me where you are from and what you teach and what goes well and what challenges you face.    I am always glad to chat.   On Saturday morning (August 6), I am giving the opening keynote address at the CTLA and will be talking on the topic “Recharging Your Batteries:   The Joys and Importance of Teaching.”   I have decided to subtitle this talk: “Seven Quotes that Changed My Life or, at least, My Teaching.”  
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In this blog posting, I am going to describe one project that I have been working on this summer.   Before I start, I want to mention two things:

  1. When I finish this project, I will be glad to share it with anyone who thinks it might be helpful.  I have high hopes that it will be very beneficial to my introductory students but, in the teaching business, there are never any guarantees.   However, I am happy to pass along the final version if you are interested.
  2. There is still a month left in the summer.   I would urge every reader to think of a project that you can accomplish in the remaining weeks that might help your students be great this fall.  Such projects can be big or small.  The real purpose of this blog posting today is to stimulate your thinking.   I guess you would say it is a call to action.

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I have long believed that a big problem with education is the material that we use when teaching our students.   Textbooks, journal articles, and the like are fine in a limited way.   They do a reasonably good job of conveying content.  But, we need to supplement those resources to help achieve some carefully considered educational objectives.   Teaching is more than the mere conveyance of subject matter.  For that reason, I have spent a good part of my summer creating a supplement that I believe will help my financial accounting students this fall.    

To me, educational supplements should demonstrate some or all of the following six characteristics:
  • They need to be sequential.   Most students don’t learn in a random fashion.   They learn in a tightly structured step-by-step order.   Once material has been learned, sequencing becomes less important.  But, initially, a carefully crafted sequence is essential when showing the core of complicated topics to students.  On their own, students often fail to see the logical sequencing and then struggle to gain understanding of material that is really not that difficult when shown step by step.
  • Those sequential steps need to build layers of knowledge very gradually.   Students rarely have the ability to make giant leaps from one level of knowledge to the next.  Growth in understanding should be at a realistic and sustainable pace.  It is easy to lose students—leave them far behind—if complications build too quickly whenever new material is presented.   I remember sitting in college classrooms, totally lost and confused, as I wondered to myself “How did the teacher just get from Point A to Point B?  It looked like magic to me.”   The transition was clear to the teacher but it certainly was not to me.
  • Supplements need to help students realize that not all material is equal.   Some information is simply more important than others.   At first glance, students see all knowledge as having equal value.   They have trouble identifying the critical areas and, therefore, can wind up bogged down by trivial topics.  A good supplement should help point students in the right direction.  “This is really important so pay close attention.”
  • Material needs to be broken down into chunks that are small enough for a student to absorb.  Students become overwhelmed very quickly by too much material.  When considering a supplement, envision the sequence: “here’s a manageable piece of knowledge and, now, here’s another manageable piece of knowledge that builds on the first piece of knowledge.” 
  • The presentation of additional information must be interspersed with practice.   A teacher cannot simply make a “check off” list of things for a student to learn.  A reasonable amount of material is first presented and then that material is practiced before more material is added.  I have long stressed to my students: “Some amount of study time needs to be spent in learning activities.   The remainder of the study time should be used for practice activities.   Both are essential.”
  • It is important to use both auditory and visual learning.   I believe that some students learn better by hearing material and some students learn better by seeing material.   Some combination is probably ideal.   To me, too much of our educational material focuses on visual learning.

By looking at the above six characteristics, you can easily see why I believe good supplements are so important.   Textbooks and the like often struggle with my list of essential characteristics.   For the most part, textbooks are more content providers and less educational aids.  Content is essential but so are materials that guide student education in a logical fashion.

So, this summer I have been considering those six characteristics as I build a new supplement for my financial accounting course here at the University of Richmond.   I am doing this project in three stages (that I have cleverly named Stage One, Stage Two, and Stage Three).   I am nearly finished with Stage One.   I hope to be entirely finished with the project by the middle of October.

For each of the 17 chapters in the Financial Accounting textbook that I use in class, I am creating my own set of flash cards.   I wanted to develop a supplement that students could easily use with no cost.   So, I am building the flash cards as PowerPoint slides.   Slide One is a question, Slide Two is the answer, Slide Three is the next logically sequential question, and so on.   When the project is finished, I might switch to a more elaborate system of technology but this will work for my fall testing.  I want to keep this simple until I see how it is working.

In Stage One, for each of 17 chapters, I am creating about 30-40 flash cards:  15-20 questions and then the corresponding answers.   I have worked hard to think through each topic and establish a logical sequence of bite-sized information.  

In Stage Two, I plan to go back though each of the 17 sets of flash cards and add audio clips.   So, for a topic that is particularly difficult, I can record a 15-20 second clip to make a suggestion or give encouragement.   I love the idea of talking directly to the student.   I plan to scatter these audio clips all through the flash cards.   If students are not confused, they can choose to ignore each audio clip.   That will be up to them.  But, if things are not clear, they have additional auditory information easily available.  Visual and auditory assistance is available.   

Finally, in Stage Three, I hope to add links to Explain Everything videos that I hope to make (these are the kinds of videos that the Khan Academy has made famous).   As an example, here is a short video that I created a few years ago to help my students understand FIFO and LIFO.  Would 20 or 30 of these help my financial accounting students better understand the textbook material?   I certainly think so.


Notice that I am not eliminating the textbook.  It will still play a central role in my class.  Instead, I’m trying to take information from the textbook and make it easier for students to understand and absorb.   And, I am doing this by (a) sequencing the material in a logical fashion, (b) very gradually making the coverage more challenging, (c) pointing out the most significant material to the students, (d) presenting the material in chunks that are of manageable size, (e) mixing material coverage and practice so the students have an immediate way of learning the material and working with it, and (f) using both auditory learning and visual learning.   

Can you build a supplement like that?   Sure you can!   In fact, it has been kind of a fun experiment for this summer.   But, you need to start by answering an essential question – what are the characteristics that you want to add to your course by means of this supplement?   I started with my six characteristics and the work has flowed from them.   But that was me.   Figure out what characteristics you want and I bet that you will be surprised by how quickly you start coming up with some great ideas.  


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