Not exciting? 4 ways to motivate and engage tax students

Demonstrate the value of tax courses with these tips from experienced faculty.
By Megan Hart

Accounting students aren't always excited about tax.

"Most students have made up their minds they won't like it, and I say, 'That's OK. I didn't like it at first either,'" said Bonnie Holloway, CPA, an adjunct accounting professor at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla. Holloway may not have taken to tax immediately, but she has been filing returns for decades and teaching tax for the last few years.

Tax classes aren't like any other accounting courses that students have taken before, Holloway and other faculty members explained. Students may have limited knowledge of tax accounting, see the field as exclusively about compliance issues, or see the courses as irrelevant. The faculty's challenge involves engaging students in the field of tax and demonstrating its value to the students and society.

Without extensive tax experience, students may find the subject intimidating, or they may have other priorities, especially considering many are seniors, said Suzanne Youngberg, an accounting professor at Northern Illinois University. "They're thinking about graduation, and their previous exposure to tax is minimal," she said. "Maybe they've only received a W-2 from a summer job." (Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement, is provided by employers to employees and is filed with the US Internal Revenue Service.)

Given their limited knowledge of tax accounting, many students assume the field focuses exclusively on tax compliance, said Greg Carnes, CPA, Dean of the College of Business and Technology and Raburn Eminent Scholar of Accounting at the University of North Alabama. Faculty members need to overcome students' narrow view of the field, he said.

Some students don't see why tax courses are required or why they're a valuable elective, said professor Brett Freudenberg, who researches the taxation of small and medium businesses at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia. Tax laws are always changing, classes are large, and tax is a tough topic, Freudenberg said. Plus, he has many international students who speak English as a second language.

Tax is often seen as a dry or irrelevant subject, he said: "While these perceptions can be wrong, they are important for teachers to appreciate so they can open their students' eyes to how important tax is — to students personally, their professional careers, and society as a whole."

These faculty agree: It's possible to get through to students and worth the effort, given the opportunities available in tax accounting. They shared these tips:

Make it real. Freudenberg recommended creating an authentic learning environment that reflects situations tax accountants could encounter. He uses an activity called "The Firm," which helps students learn tax and develop their professional identities. During the exercise, each student becomes an "employee" at a firm where they're tasked with advising a client. "Each firm not only has to provide a considered opinion about how the tax law applies to the client but also consider what further facts are required to give complete advice," he explained.

The same advice applies when it comes to teaching personal tax. Carnes and Youngberg recommended incorporating real documents into assignments, including divorce agreements, invoices, self-employment or independent contractor tax documentation, and more. Near the end of each semester, Holloway's students enjoy analyzing presidential tax returns, which typically include lots of complicated factors, she said.

Current events and hot button issues — like student loan forgiveness — can have tax implications, so Youngberg discusses those if they're relevant to students. "Real-world examples help bring tax to life," she said.

Carnes begins his tax courses with a celebrity story that speaks to students. He grew up in Tennessee, where quarterback Peyton Manning played college football. When Manning was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts, he received the largest rookie signing bonus in history at the time. Manning and his agents made sure he signed his contract in his home state of Tennessee instead of Indiana due to tax implications. The decision saved him about $450,000, Carnes explained. "I always give a story like that because it shows tax planning is creative, fun, and helps clients," he said.

Highlight its value. "Professional and societal context is critical when teaching tax," Freudenberg said. "This context will bring to life how important tax is and how it can have a fundamental influence on individuals, businesses, and governments."

Griffith University is now part of Australia's National Tax Clinic Program, which allows students to gain real tax experience while giving back to the community by providing free tax assistance for those who need it. Students are able to see the value of understanding tax law.

It's also important to highlight why tax coursework is important for students to take seriously from a career perspective. At the beginning of each semester, Holloway writes an introductory memo to each student. She asks them to compare the blueprints for the CPA Exam to the table of contents in their tax textbook and asks them to estimate the percentage of the certifying exam they'll cover in her class.

Be enthusiastic. Accounting majors are often serious students who are likely to put pressure on themselves, but tax can be a difficult transition. That's why Youngberg believes it's important to be positive, patient, and engaged. "Students need to know I'm not expecting them to memorize everything. It's a process. You're not going to master tax law in one class," she said.

Australia is facing a skills shortage when it comes to the tax profession, so in addition to preparing students for tax work, Freudenberg also wants to inspire students to follow that path. His own research has shown that enthusiasm goes a long way toward motivating students.

Emphasize the value you can provide for clients. Like Griffith University, Stetson offers a volunteer income tax assistance program. It's an opportunity for students to build confidence and see how tax work can really benefit clients, Holloway said. "We can provide a serious service to people because clients come in and they're terrified of doing taxes. We can tell them, 'It's going to be alright,'" she said.

Unlike auditors, whose role requires impartiality, tax professionals can be advocates for their clients, which may appeal to students, Carnes said. The client may see the tax professional as a friend, he said.

Focus on key areas. It's impossible to teach all aspects of tax in a semester. "I've been doing this for 30 years now, and I would say my advice for those teaching tax is: Many times, less is more," Carnes said. "I think you're giving the students a better experience sometimes if you scale back the amount of facts and topics you're trying to teach."

Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Florida. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at

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