Teaching tips from prize-winning professors

Honorees pass along valuable insights at the AAA Annual Meeting.
By Courtney L. Vien

At the 2018 AAA Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., recipients of the AAA/J. Michael and Mary Anne Cook/Deloitte Foundation Prize for teaching shared insights from their years in the classroom. Here are some of their best tips:

Remind students they’re responsible for their learning — from day one. Carolyn B. Hughes, CPA, instructor in accounting at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in Asheville, N.C., recommended using the word “you” instead of “students” on your syllabus. For example, write “In this class, you will learn . . .” rather than “In this class, students will learn . . .” That slight shift in language reinforces the point that students need to take charge of their own education.

If students dislike an activity, tweak it. When Marsha Huber’s students complained about an end-of-semester tax return assignment, she decided to try a new twist on it. Riffing on the cliché of clients’ bringing in documents in a shoebox, Huber, CPA, Ph.D., a professor of accounting at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio, had students work in teams to create a “shoebox’s” worth of tax documents for a fictional client. They would fill out that client’s tax return and come up with a solution, then trade their shoebox with another group, who would also complete a return and provide a solution. Huber would then grade the assignments to see which group was correct.

Though the project was labor-intensive to grade, Huber said, students enjoyed it and would even email her about it after they graduated. “They like being creative in developing their shoeboxes” and creating fictional documents such as receipts, she said in an email, and preferred having several weeks to work on the project to doing one high-pressure tax problem at the end of the semester.

Observe students during class. “You can learn a lot about your teaching by watching your students,” said Bob Allen, Ph.D., professor of accounting at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “You can tell whether they’re paying attention, whether they understand.” He particularly stressed observing students’ eye contact. “If it’s all over the classroom, that means you need to do better,” he said.

Keep email in check. All three prize winners said the best way to keep from being overwhelmed by students’ emails is to answer them quickly. Huber’s rule for replying to student email is to respond almost immediately if she can do so in two minutes or less. She said she allows students to text her as she finds it faster and easier than email. Allen said that he deliberately replies more slowly to the students who email him too frequently.

Hughes created an FAQ about her classes, partly as a means of quickly replying to emails from students. If students email her with a commonly asked question, she simply refers them to the FAQ. Her other method of keeping her inbox from becoming overstuffed is to answer emails with one-sentence replies when possible.

Set boundaries around device usage during class. Huber said that she asks her students not to use smartphones and other devices at the beginning of class. “I want them to talk to each other and build community,” she said. (However, she noted that this means she often arrives at class to see students on their phones in the hallway!) She does permit device use during breaks, which students appreciate, she said.

Allen had a different perspective on device use. “Sometimes I’ll ask students to put devices away,” he said, “but I find that if I’m being engaging they don’t have them out. If they are using them I take it as a sign that I need to do better.”

Remember the power of words. “If you take hope away from students they will give up,” Huber said. Therefore, it’s important to phrase things carefully, she noted. She recommended not telling students that your class or an assignment is “hard” or “challenging.” “They will hear ‘This is impossible,’” she said.

Instead, she suggested using empowering language. “Tell them, ‘If you work hard you’re going to make it. There’s ways to do that,’” she said. Then, back up your words by telling them about strategies previous students used to excel in your classes, she added.

Courtney L. Vien is a senior editor for the JofA and Extra Credit. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact her at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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