5 activities for the in-person or virtual classroom

Try these fun and engaging ways of teaching accounting topics.
By Courtney Vien

This year’s AAA Annual Meeting, held online, showcased the creativity and versatility of accounting faculty. They shared a wealth of great teaching ideas, many of which they had to develop on the fly as they transitioned their classes from in-person to online in the spring semester. Here are five ideas for in-class activities that faculty presented, all of which could work either in a face-to-face classroom or online:

Finding movie mistakes. 2020 Cook Prize winner Brigitte Muehlmann, Ph.D., professor of accounting at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., discovered a fun way to teach the articulation of financial statements while watching the 2016 movie The Accountant. She thought there were mistakes in the film’s accounting and, when she read the screenplay online, found her suspicions were correct. Now she gives students a short segment of the movie to watch and four pages from the screenplay (this is covered under fair use, she noted) and asks them to identify the mistakes. This exercise “helps students see connections between cash flows, the balance sheet, and the income statement,” she said. In past years, she had students act out the relevant scene from the film in class; for an online class, they could record videos of themselves doing so. Bringing elements of the film into class, she said, adds excitement to what can sometimes be a dry topic.

Muehlmann and colleagues Virginia Soybel, Ph.D., and Robert Turner, DBA, published this activity as a case study in the Journal of Forensic and Investigative Accounting in 2018.

Mini-presentations on data analytics. Karen Congo Farmer, CPA, lecturer in accounting at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, introduces students in her cost accounting class to the concept of data analytics by having them find an example of how a real company uses data analytics and then present it to the class. She asks that students come up with a working definition of data analytics in a paper and, in a one-minute presentation, talk about a question or query a real business has that they attempt to solve using data analytics. For instance, a student might discuss how Starbucks uses maps and traffic data to choose locations for new coffee shops. Congo Farmer noted that this activity is an easy way to get students thinking about data analytics even if you’re not a “data analytics whiz” yourself.

Station-to-station. To teach concepts with multiple parts, DeAnna Martin, CPA, accounting professor at Santiago Canyon College, in Orange, Calif., creates several “stations” around her classroom, each featuring a different activity. She divides students into groups of four or five and then has them rotate around the room, spending a set amount of time at each “station.” If she is teaching financial accounting, for instance, one “station” might deal with income statements, one with cash flows, one with balance sheets, and so on. The activity can also be readily adapted for Zoom breakout rooms, she said.

The “stations” approach also works well for introducing students to the syllabus, Martin said, when the stations might include a syllabus scavenger hunt, a small group discussion on what constitutes cheating, and an opportunity to ask her their questions.

Find the fraudster. Christie Novak, CPA, DBA, assistant professor of accounting at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, N.Y., develops students’ problem-solving and nontechnical skills through a role-playing activity in which students acting as auditors interview “clients” about internal controls and fraud risk at their company. She divides students into groups of five to seven students, with three students taking on the role of clients and the remaining students acting as auditors. One of the “clients,” unbeknownst to the others, is committing fraud.

The students read through handouts she has prepared for them, and then the auditors interview the clients, with the “fraudster” trying not to get caught. After the interviews, she brings the whole class back together for a debrief and discussion. Usually, Novak said, students haven’t been able to identify the fraudster, and the class talks about why.

Students really enjoy this activity, Novak said, and it teaches them about internal controls while giving them valuable practice communicating and handling an ambiguous situation.

Government accounting scavenger hunt. Jackie Gabrielson, CPA, visiting assistant professor of accounting and finance, and Ben Trnka, CPA, assistant professor of accounting and finance, both at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., use a scavenger hunt approach to introduce junior and senior accounting majors to governmental accounting. Early on in the semester, they give students a list of terms to define and questions to answer using their state’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. For instance, students might answer the question, “What basis of accounting is used for governmentwide financial statements, and does it differ from for-profit accounting?” They then ask students to make inferences based on the information they found. For instance, they might have students list differences they would expect to see between government fund statements and governmentwide financial statements. This activity, the professors said, could easily be adapted into a homework assignment or small-group project.

Courtney Vien (Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com) is a senior editor for magazines and newsletters at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.


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