Ego and teaching

September 29, 2011 Leave a comment

I think you go through stages as a university teacher.

Stage 1 is fear.  However well qualified we may be in our own discipline area, it is a daunting thing to face a lecture theatre full of students for the first time.  It may not be a popularity poll but it is human nature to want our students to like us in addition to wanting them to understand the field about which we are passionate.

I based my early teaching on the teaching style of the lecturers who had inspired me (thank you Richard Gelski and Michael Blakeney from the Faculty of Law at UNSW) and tried to avoid the teaching practices of those lecturers who had left me uninspired (I’ll keep those names quiet but just say that unfortunately it is a fairly long list).  The only problem with the modeling approach to teaching was that, while helpful, you really need to find your own style of teaching.

Stage 2 is comfort.  We fall into a pattern.  We find our style, our stride and our comfort zone.  It is very easy to be lulled into a false sense of security in this period.  It is also very easy to bore students.  I think we need to not only be challenging our students but we also need to be challenging ourselves.  We do that in our discipline areas through our research but research is only part of what we do.  We also teach.  So we need to challenge ourselves in that area too.

Stage 3 creeps up on you unawares.  I call it the questioning stage.  It is where you start wanting to improve your teaching, to know more about how your students learn, to examine your role as teacher and how you can better facilitate student learning.  This stage can be accompanied by uncertainty because you start questioning everything you do as a teacher and realize what you know is far outweighed by what you want to know.

That’s not such a bad thing.  It was at this stage that I did a university teaching qualification, started engaging with the scholarship of teaching and learning, stared researching teaching issues and attending teaching conferences.

I now know a lot more about teaching but I also know that I will always be learning more.  I don’t think I’ll be moving past stage 3, and I actually hope I don’t because it is important if I am to keep how I teach fresh and I need to do that if I want to keep engaging my students.

One thing I am sure of is that there is no place for ego in teaching, neither in how nor what we teach.  As far as the “how” goes, even a glance at the teaching and learning scholarship shows how much there is still to learn.  And as for the “what” …. We would not be employed in academia if we did not know our own discipline areas.  The challenge is not to teach what we know but what our students need to understand.


Using the Research Literature

September 27, 2011 Leave a comment

As part of an assessment task in Business Risk Management, I ask my postgraduate students to find 6-10 peer-reviewed journal articles and incorporate them into their assignment.  Their assignment involves a case study of their choice with their analysis of how well their chosen organisation has handled the risk management issue that they have selected as the focus of their analysis.  Most students find that the hardest part of the assignment is finding the research literature.

Students tell me that they often have classes where they are expected to read an assigned research article but they do not really know how to select an appropriate article for their assignment  and when they do find articles, many students tend to simply summarise them rather than using the research literature to inform their thinking for their assignment.

Research articles can pertain to the methodology, the method or the particular organisation and its management of the chosen risk area.

Research can tell students how others have thought about:

  1. The theoretical lens through which a problem is viewed.  There are generally many ways to look at an issue, such as a feminist perspective or a Marxist perspective, as an example of monopoly power, or cultural hegemony … or whatever theoretical lens provides a way of approaching the problem.  This is the methodological approach to the assignment.
  2. The method used to tackle the problem.  Will students use a survey, interviews, observation, logic or some other method?  Undoubtedly there will be literature that provides guidance on that method.
  3. The actual problem at hand.  Maybe others have looked at the specific organisation, or for risk management students, the specific risk and perhaps how that risk has been handled in a similar context to the one being analysed.

I suggest to my students that brief do a brief concept map of their assignment outline and work out how the research literature sits within it.

It is important that students see the relevance of engaging with the research literature and that they do not see research as something you read at university but which has no real place in the business world.  In areas such as accounting, finance and business risk management, it is very easy for students to dismiss research in favour of the more technical or practical aspects of the discipline.

I feel that part of our role as educators is not simply to make sure students know how to use the library but to make sure they know why they should use the library.  We look at research from the perspective of researchers but most of our students will not become career researchers.  We have to be able to explain to our students not only why research matters while they are students but also, that it is has a role in their workplace.  It can be a challenge but unless we can explain why research in accounting is important to a practicing accountant, for instance, then we need to question the relevance of that aspect of our work.


Categories: Assessment, Research

Wikipedia: Spawn of the Devil?

September 25, 2011 1 comment

Let’s be honest … Students will look at Wikipedia.  Hopefully, it isn’t the only place they look but there are plenty of times when I couldn’t swear to that.

I have colleagues who will not accept anything from students that is from Wikipedia.  I respect their view but I don’t share it.  I once knew someone who didn’t own a television set because he did not want his children to be exposed to poor quality television programs.  My view is that children should be exposed to television.  It is ubiquitous in our society.  I see no point in pretending it doesn’t exist by ignoring it.  But our children need to learn to be selective and discriminating in their viewing and they will not learn that unless they are exposed to television and that includes making mistakes in their viewing selection; it is all part of the learning process.

My view of Wikipedia is similar.  There is no point in pretending it does not exist, in telling students not to look at it and then expecting that they will accept that.

In finance, Wikipedia covers some topics very well.  Others are not covered very well.  It can be a useful part of student learning to ask them to look at Wikipedia’s explanation of a topic and comment on it.  Can they discriminate between a good Wikipedia article and a poor one?  Do they consider the quality and range of the references, the description of the topic, the dugout of any definitions, the thoroughness of the explanation?

Early in the semester, I tell my students when a topic is well or badly covered by Wikipedia and I explain why.  Later in the semester, I ask the students to tell me what they think.  I have found that some students use Wikipedia as a textbook substitute, or combine it with the textbook and perhaps some other Internet sites.  It would be unrealistic for me to ignore that.

Learning does not only have to come through an assigned textbook.  I want my students to be able to look at a reference, assess and explain whether it is good, bad or mediocre; what is included or excluded from it; and the extent to which it has supported their learning, or failed them.  That does not only apply to sources such as Wikipedia.  I want them to be equally discriminating when reading their textbook.  Textbooks are not always of consistently high quality.  If students can become astute readers, they have taken an important step towards understanding.  You need to understand something to be able to effectively critique it.

If my students want to look at Wikipedia as part of their learning, if that works for them, then I would encourage it, but only if they read widely enough and gain a sufficient level of understanding to be able to become selective and discriminating.  And like children learning about appropriate television selection, I expect some errors in the process.

Categories: Research, Textbooks, Wikipedia

Teaching debits and credits – unnecessary complications

September 21, 2011 Leave a comment

In returning to teaching transaction processing, I have been struck by the unnecessary complications created by the variety of way appropriation transactions are recorded depending on the legal structure of the entity.

In proposing a reduction in these complications, I am assuming two points:

  1. Most accountants who are involved in the recording of transactions will be working for companies
  2. Pedagogy must overrule practicality when teaching

The key area of confusion is the accounting for distributions to owners:

  • In sole traders, the drawings account is closed to capital
  • In partnerships, each partner’s drawings account is closed to their current account
  • In companies, the dividends account is closed to retained earnings

While there may be some merit in retaining the terminological distinction between drawings and dividends, I can see no merit in using different closing entries.  All entities could close their appropriation accounts to retained earnings; albeit in the case of partnerships, each partner would need a separate retained earnings account.

Preparing students for answering exam questions

September 19, 2011 Leave a comment

I used to allow students to bring in one A4 page of summarised notes because I thought that it would increase their confidence by allowing them to write down key memory joggers, thus freeing them to focus in the exam room on demonstrating their understanding.

I was wrong. The A4 pages were crammed with microscopic print as students tried to cram a semester’s notes onto them. Exam answers looked like a competition: the one who writes the most facts in the least amount of space wins.

The problem was that my exam questions are not written to elicit a shopping list of facts. In exams, I want my students to show me that they can think about what they have learnt, critique it, then select and apply relevant information to answering a question.

Every year I would tell students that the one exam question I can guarantee they will not get is “Regurgitate everything you know about ….” (fill in a topic). Yet every year I continued to see exam answers to this question, irrespective of the actual questions set. And every year, students would ask me why they had done poorly in their exam “because I studied all the facts”.

I find that students who appear in classes to understand course content but whose exam performance is below the quality expected fall down in three main areas:

  1. Too much time is spent giving background information. Students then think they have written a lot so must have answered the question. This is the student who feels every term must be described at length … with an example … but only gives a passing nod to answering the set exam question.
  2. A key word in a question triggers an outpouring of every fact connected with that word which the student can recall. The actual exam question is largely ignored.
  3. Students write without planning their answer. Freely flowing writing is wonderful and cathartic in personal journals but can be hit and miss when used as a style for answering exam questions.

So I started giving my students “mini exams” with no prior warning. I would ask them to spend 5 to 10 minutes outlining an answer to a question using dot points or a mind map. They compared answers in groups of 2-3 students then we discussed their responses as a group. Students were then asked to give their answer a mark out of 10 and reflect on why they selected that mark. Initially, that was the part they found hardest until they realised, to quote one student, “it’s not just what I write … it’s what I don’t write that really counts”.

I also provide examples of “good” and “poor” answers I have prepared and ask my students to explain why one answer is better than another.

I find it takes about 2 weeks for my undergraduate students to become adept at critiquing an answer I have given them and 4-6 weeks to become adept at critiquing their own answers. Since introducing this approach, student writing both in assignments and exams has become more structured and focused. An unanticipated bonus is that many students tell me that in learning to write more focused answers, they have become more discriminating readers.

Teaching debits and credits – gripe about account names

September 16, 2011 Leave a comment

The texts I am using to teach transaction processing complicate matters by the way they name some accounts.  I’m not going to incite a defamation suit by naming the texts.

My pet hates are:

  1. Using the word “revenue” in a liability account or the word “expense” in an asset account
  2. Not clearly indicating the classification in the account name

First, “unearned sales revenue” is a liability account; “sales revenue” is a revenue account.  How is a first-year student meant to recognise the difference?  Similarly, “prepaid insurance expense” is an asset account while “insurance expense” is an expense account.

This source of confusion can be overcome easily by adopting some simple rules:

  1. Never using the word “revenue” in an account name unless it is a revenue account.
  2. Never using the word “expense” in an account name unless it is an expense account.

“Unearned sales revenue” could be called “deposits received”; “prepaid insurance expense” could be called “prepaid insurance”.

A related gripe which, fortunately, seems to have disappeared from modern texts is using the term “provision” in the name of contra-asset accounts.  The term “provision” now seems to be restricted to liability accounts which is the way it should be.

Second, some account names fail to indicate the classification of the account.  For example, an account named “supplies” could be either an asset or an expense account.  While I can determine which it is from context, a first-year student is likely to struggle to make this determination.  This problem can be overcome by including the classification in the account name when there is any ambiguity; this means the account would be named “supplies asset” or “supplies expense”.

Some may argue that the account names which are used in the texts are the account names commonly used in practice.  This may well be so.  However, when writing texts, pedagogy must always overrule practicality.

I hope some textbook authors, editors and publishers are reading this.

Seeing is believing – the value of thinking before writing

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment

I can tell my students to plan an exam answer before commencing to write the answer and I can even provide them with statistics to demonstrate that students who plan an answer tend to perform better in exams but I find that many students need to see the difference planning makes before they internalise my message.

Dividing a class and asking half to immediately start writing an answer to a “mini exam question” while the other half spend half the allotted time planning the answer and the other half of their time writing up their answer, discussing the correct answer then asking them to self-assess their answer always shocks about one-third of my students.  I have done this many times with many different groups of students and those who prepare the answer before writing average a score of 2 to 4 marks more out of 10 than those who start writing without any forethought.

Exams can constitute a substantial percentage towards a student’s overall grade yet most students only face exams at the end of a semester when they are so concerned with revising everything covered during a semester that they are unlikely to spend time on developing the skills that allow them to perform at their best in their exams.

Both learning how to plan an answer that is succinct, well-structured and addresses the question asked, and being able to critically reflect on and evaluate the quality of one’s own writing are important generic skills transferable both to the workplace and other areas of study.

Categories: Assessment, Essays, Exams Tags: