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Twenty-four minutes

Last week it was “same thing, different students.” The deja vu I experience each term after the first accounting exam. I took my own advice and provided students an exam wrapper to get a clearer sense of how much they studied and the strategies they used.

The literature is clear that students don’t study as much as we’d like. The complaints about student motivation, ability and effort have a long history.

  • “As a teacher handles more and more freshman and sophomore classes in college, he becomes aware of the deficiencies of our mass education: students lack of interest, poor reading ability, poor writing ability, lack of basic knowledge, and lack of good study habits” (Karner, 1965, p. 38).
  • Marwardt & Sikkink (1970) note “the majority of students in the sample spent far less time in preparation than the assumed two period standard frequently listed by colleges and universities as desirable” p309.

I knew this before I asked. Yet, it’s still a bit unsettling to discover how little time students spent preparing for the first exam. Half the class studied 2 hours or less.

The vast majority used mostly passive tactics, despite my repeated advice to rework problems. About 80% of the class reported “reworking problems” represented no more than 20% of their study time. Put differently, the “typical” student studied no more than two hours and of those 120 minutes, only 24 were spent reworking problems.

As educators, we know reading, reviewing, and “looking over” the textbook or notes are weak, passive learning strategies.  I can tell them that passive strategies aren’t very effective, but telling isn’t as powerful as seeing that for themselves.  I tried a new (for me) strategy last night.

I think I found a winner. One of the topics we’re learning in accounting follows a framework. Altering the variables in the framework leads to different accounting treatment. It’s a perfect context for students to develop their own problem and solve it. In order to develop the problem, you need to understand the variables. Of course, even if the variables are identified correctly, there’s still the issue of recording the transactions (proper treatment of the events).

Here’s what we did. I provided a blank template immediately after we reviewed homework on buyer and seller purchases and sales of merchandise inventory. The template asks students to identify the sales value of the merchandise, cost, credit terms, shipping terms, shipping cost, the amount of any sales returns, and the date the sales transaction is settled. Below the template data are BUYER and SELLER columns. After assigning values to the variables, students must record the activity from both perspectives (buyer and seller). I like this format because it drives home the point that these transactions are two sides of the same coin; one business’s sale is another entity’s purchase.

I assumed (BIG mistake) students would easily fill in values for the variables and then record the transactions, using the homework problems that remained on the screen as inspiration for the template. I estimated it would take about 15 minutes. It was more like 30 minutes as I navigated around the room answering questions.

The time we invested in this activity paid off in two important ways. First, it uncovered misunderstandings. There were some very basic concepts that were cleared up. Second, it very quickly revealed student understanding/confusion to the student. Recording merchandising transactions can be a mechanical process when the information has been provided. Many students follow the textbook examples to complete the homework. Thus, it’s easy to trick themselves into believing they understand the concepts better than they actually do. Having to create a problem requires different thinking, and more understanding.  Some of the “best” performers in the class struggled to complete the activity.

Students who developed and accurately solved a practice problem earned a bonus point. These problems (there are twelve of them and no two are the same) are now available for the entire class to use as practice for the test. Thus, the class created their own practice problems, learning from creating and solving processes. Students whose work had errors  received written feedback from me about their mistakes. Thus, everyone learned from the activity.  It showed students how to “make up their own problem” as a learning strategy, something we often tell students to do, but rarely show them how.

If you teach accounting and are interested in the template/handout, please tweet (@1313lolita) or comment below. I’m happy to share. I’m also interested in learning from my readers… How do you encourage your students to use active study strategies? Please share!


Karner, E.F. 1965. Our Dilemma of Mass Education. Improving College and University Teaching, 13(1): 38.

Marwardt, F. & Sikkink, D.E. 1970. Student Preparation Time. Improving College and University Teaching, 18(4): 308-309.

Exceptional Circumstances

I continue to think about course policies. One consequence of a strict rule about deadlines and makeup exams is that students don’t expect to receive grace from the instructor. If “the rule is the rule,” then there isn’t much point to initiating a conversation with the professor about an extension. The circumstances have to be dire for a student to be willing to plead for an exception and deal with a teacher’s scrutiny.

I softened my makeup exam policy about five years ago. It consists of one line. “Makeup exams are only given under exceptional circumstances.” When I changed the policy I feared many students would seek extensions or request makeups. That hasn’t happened.

Instead, I find myself dealing with the question of how to define an exceptional circumstance. “I know it when I see it” has worked until now. But a few conversations with students this semester suggest I need to clarify my thinking.

Conversation 1: We’ll call this student, Marine. He is stationed overseas. He fell behind in one of my World Campus sections (WC; the online branch of Penn State). WC sets course policies, not the instructor; everyone teaching this course has to follow the same rules. In this case, the course policy is that late work is not accepted. If a student asks for an extension, before the deadline, the instructor may allow an accommodation. Otherwise, late work receives a zero. Marine and I skyped for 40 minutes. I got to know him. I believe his intentions are good but his time management skills need improvement. I suggested he provide evidence that his job precluded him from completing a couple of assignments on time. That would be sufficient to allow him to make up the work. But this will involve superior officers. Marine was loath to put a spotlight on his academic situation.

Does poor planning / time management + military service = exceptional circumstance?

Conversation 2: Let’s nickname this student, Grace. She emailed me the night before the second accounting exam. Our class meets once per week.  She didn’t want to fabricate a bogus excuse, or claim to be sick when she wasn’t. Grace simply knew she wasn’t going to be ready for the test the next night. She acknowledged that failing this exam would mean failing the course since she didn’t do well on the first test. Late-dropping the course is not an option. Grace asked for additional time to prepare for the exam.

Does poor prior performance + feeling overwhelmed/unprepared = exceptional circumstance?

The third student is nicknamed SMH because I was Shaking My Head when he left my office. SMH missed the first accounting exam. He discussed his absence with me, in advance. I agreed with him; he had good reason for being absent from the first test. We scheduled a makeup time. SMH contacted me an hour before the appointment to say he wouldn’t make it. Then he disappeared. When SMH stopped by my office this week, a month had elapsed. He sat down and said very little. Even now, I’m not sure what he hoped to accomplish by visiting me. I asked what happened. He said he wouldn’t lie or make up an excuse. He didn’t have an explanation for his disappearance and he made no request. I asked about his major and career plans to try to draw him out. I got very few details and no insight about his non-performance. He will drop the course.

It’s pretty clear; SMH’s circumstances are not exceptional. What about the other two? How should exceptional circumstances be defined? We often face unique or challenging situations that hinder our personal and professional lives. What is exceptional?

Is the phrase “exceptional circumstances” too vague? Are there better ways to convey the point that makeup exams and deadline extensions should be rare? How might I phrase the policy more clearly?

Beyond the semantics is a more important issue raised by Grace’s request. What’s more important, teaching students a lesson about meeting deadlines or giving students every opportunity to demonstrate learning? If one student is given an extension, is that unfair to the rest of the class? What about students who would have benefited from additional time to prepare for the exam, but didn’t ask? Will the extra time make a real difference?  I wrestled with these issues as I responded to Grace’s email.

I continue to ponder these questions. I’ll share my response to Grace in a future post. In the meantime, I’m interested in discovering what your thoughts are on these issues. Please comment; it would be so helpful to dialogue about this here or on Twitter (@1313lolita).