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Q&A: How to Help Students Fill the Gaps in “Swiss Cheese Knowledge”

Joe Hoyle, MA, has found some surprising ways to help students strengthen their understanding and retain what they learn.

Educator

Joe Hoyle, MA

Associate Professor of Accounting, University of Richmond, Virginia

MA in Business and Education, BA in Accounting

“A lot of students confuse being able to follow what a professor says with actually being able to do it,” says Joe Hoyle, MA, whose blog site Teaching: Getting the Most From Your Students has attracted hundreds of thousands of page views. “For example, I might be able to follow a scene of doctors performing heart surgery on Grey’s Anatomy, but that doesn’t mean I can pick up a scalpel and perform heart surgery myself after watching it! So I call these gaps in student knowledge Swiss cheese gaps because, just like a slab of cheese looks solid from the outside, it’s actually full of holes on the inside.”

As an associate professor of accounting and distinguished teaching fellow at the University of Richmond in Virginia, Hoyle noticed that students were not aware of these knowledge gaps until after they got back their first graded exam. “They will often say, ‘I knew [the material], but my mind went blank!’” Hoyle’s tough-love response? “Minds don’t go blank. You just didn’t know it well enough.”

In the past, Hoyle designed test questions to expose those holes, but he found that approach only served to frustrate students, not help them succeed. “So, I thought, ‘Why wait for the test to demonstrate to them that they don’t have solid knowledge yet? Why not do it sooner?’”

This, Hoyle says, means providing them with tools, strategies, and practice before, during, and after class. “I view education as a learning triangle,” he says. “There are three critical points to learning: before class, class time itself, and after class is over. Most teachers will focus on the in-class point, but I argue that you need to focus on all three.”

Context

“I often say that great education is like a wonderful dance; I will do my half, but you have to do your half. And if you do your half and I do my half, then we will dance like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.”

— Joe Hoyle, MA

Course: ACCT 302 Intermediate Financial Accounting 2

Course description: Instruction on technical aspects and the theoretical development of the income statement, balance sheet, and statement of cash flows. Teaching methodologies include group work, class discussion, computer and written assignments, problem-solving exercises, as well as traditional lectures.

See resources shared by Joe Hoyle, MA

See materials

Filling the Swiss cheese knowledge gap

Recently, this multi–award-winning educator—named a favorite undergraduate professor by Bloomberg Businessweek—sat down with Course Hero to share how he helps students do all three, with targeted emails, three-second questions, and lively class discussions.

Q: Course Hero: How do you inspire students to prepare before class?

A: Joe Hoyle: At the end of each class, I give them a list of questions we will address during our next meeting. Then, during that class, we spend 60 to 90 minutes discussing those questions. They don‘t know where I’ll take the discussion, because it’s conversational, but if they’ve prepared beforehand, they will know the basic information we will talk about. I want each of them to be mentally engaged, so I will call on every student in the class two to three times; every 10 minutes, each student can expect to be called on.

It’s a lively class: I once had a student say my accounting class was the closest thing to full contact sports he’d ever been in, because it‘s so interactive and quick and fast! This is beneficial for students, because this is how it is in the real world, too: You’re going to be in meetings and get asked questions, so you need to be prepared to answer them.

Q: How do you clue in students to Swiss cheese knowledge gaps?

A: After every class session, I’ll go back to my room and email the class a question according to what I think is a hole in their knowledge. I tell them, “I would strongly encourage you to work this problem within six hours of class,” and I include the answer in the email as well. I let them know that if they can solve it correctly in 15 minutes, they are set for the next class. (I give them a time limit because students don’t like things that are time-consuming.) However, if they struggle with it, they need come see me. Almost invariably, I will have a line outside my office the next day. Usually our conversations will last about two minutes, and I explain to them what they hadn’t picked up from the lesson the day before.

Q: What are “three-second questions,” and how do they help?

A: These are questions that should take three seconds or less to answer because they are so basic and fundamental to learning the material. Just like it would take you three seconds to answer, “Who was the first president of the United States?”—it should take that long to answer three-second accounting questions. I encourage them to create hundreds of three-second questions so they can have a basic understanding of topics that they don’t need to figure out or ponder.

Q: What if a student does poorly on the first exam?

A: Before I grade the first exams, I email the students saying, “If you’re happy with the test, don’t read this email. If you’re unhappy, keep reading, because I will give you suggestions—the first being, do you work on the after-class problems I give you within six to 12 hours of the class? If you don’t, my number-one suggestion is to work those problems immediately so you can understand what we covered.”

Students are more interested in a good education after the first test. When they think they made a 98% but got 79%, they are very open to suggestions.

I’m also big on open communication. When they’ve worked really hard, I want them to know I’m not up there to beat on them. But my thing is, if you don’t fuss at students a little bit, they think they are doing great. So you do have to let them know you’re disappointed, and you can’t just send that message via a lower assessment. That will just drive them crazy. And you also can’t just bottle it up and say, “Well, I’m not happy, but I’m not going to tell anybody.” This won’t work anywhere—not at a company, nor in a classroom.

Q: What do you see as the student’s role in this process?

A: A goal is getting students to “take management” of their education. My motto is: We will do this together until you can do this yourself. It’s not my responsibility to spoon-feed them the knowledge. I want to make it as efficient and successful as possible, and we both play an equal role in achieving that.

If there’s an instance where I felt like the class did not do their half, I will come back to my office after class and send them an email saying, “Today I did my half, but you didn’t do your half, and that’s not fair.”

Q: These ideas are very specific in attacking the root of students’ learning challenges. How did you come up with them?

A: Ninety percent of my ideas happen through trial and error. A lot of ideas I’ll try out, and if it doesn’t work, I don’t try it again. My three-second question idea came from my 24 years of teaching a CPA exam review class. We were trying to cover a massive amount of material every weekend, and those students were willing to do anything I could come up with that would help them learn.

My last piece of advice involves getting help from the students themselves. I only give As to the top 20% of performers in the class. At the end of every semester, I ask those students to write one paragraph and tell me what they did to earn that A. I then take each of these responses and compile them in a how-to guide called, “How to Make an A in Professor’s Hoyle’s Class.” It’s worth noting that three-fourths of them stress to their peers to do the email problems. They say it’s the key to succeeding in the class.

If you spend as much time as I do thinking about something, you’ll be amazed at how many ideas you can come up with. If three-tenths of your ideas work, you’ll be great! Now the question is: Are you brave enough to try them?

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