Accounting education research reveals benefits of active learning strategies in the classroom

Try these active learning strategies in your courses.
By Cynthia Bolt-Lee, CPA

The use of active learning strategies offers educators proven approaches to advance student learning. Trends in the literature point to a continued focus on the benefits of unique student projects, experiential learning, and the use of social media.

I have summarized a sampling of recent research in this area from top-ranked accounting education journals to provide key findings for busy educators. Citations are provided for those who want further details. A list of additional recent articles is included for those interested in reviewing other active learning strategies.

Experiential learning project prepares students for real-world audits

Jelinek, K. (2016). Wax on, wax off: Transfer of learning through an experiential learning project. Accounting Educators’ Journal, (26), 35-39.

The term “transfer of learning” refers to the application of knowledge, skills, or information received in one situation and successfully transferred to another. Author Kate Jelinek states that the theory, developed by Perkins and Saloman in 1992, is infrequently used in accounting education, and supports the use of active learning strategies, such as an experiential learning projects, to prepare students for future careers in the accounting profession.

Jelinek’s research relied on transfer of learning theories in a real-world learning project implemented in a graduate level, advanced auditing course. The project involved a review of attorneys’ expense reimbursements in federal court. The expenses were generated in association with an actual class action lawsuit where over 2,000 cases were filed, with specific restrictions and guidelines for reimbursable costs. Students performed “agreed-upon procedures” to determine if plaintiff attorneys complied with federal court guidelines for $2.5 million in expense reimbursements. The judge in charge of the case spoke to students in their classroom both before and after the project, demonstrating the significance and legitimacy of their work.

Before the project, instructors administered a pretest about student understanding of the project learning objectives. They compared results from the pretest to the test responses of students at the end of the project. The post-test revealed significant improvements in areas such as familiarity with sample selection, specific sampling techniques, and the required reports associated with the engagement, which suggests a strong transfer of learning and indicates increased student knowledge with actual audit techniques. Post-tests showed that students felt more prepared for real-world auditing, which prepared them to enter the profession, thus transferring the “overlapping tasks” of audit or agreed-upon procedures from the experiential class project to future experience with an actual audit.

The article provides several suggestions for classroom use, indicating that projects such as this can be an important way to supplement student internships, which considered the more traditional method of obtaining real-world experience. The author recommends contacting local nonprofit and governmental agencies for potential accounting projects. Jelinek also encourages faculty to stress the importance of real-world projects to students before they begin, possibly through a tour of the project location or, as in this situation, a visit from involved individuals associated with the project.

Active learning assignments improve pass rates and students’ skills

Huber, M., Law, D., & Khallaf, A. (2017). Active learning innovations in introductory financial accounting. Advances in Accounting Education: Teaching and Curriculum Innovations (21) 123–166.

Authors Martha Huber, Dave Law, and Ashraf Khallaf analyzed 10 years of data on student grades and pass/fail/withdraw rates before and after course modifications to their introductory financial accounting courses. They replaced their traditional course grading (such as homework, exams, and quizzes) with three new assignments. First, the “financial statements user interview” required students to explore the different ways financial statements are used in all areas of business. The “internal control paper” required students to select a company they had worked or volunteered for and to provide an analysis of whether it had strong or weak internal controls. Finally, the “financial statement analysis project,” which replaced the final exam, required students to work on a team project examining two publicly traded companies. The authors developed these assignments using the Pathways Commission’s call for accounting education change, the AICPA Core Competency Framework’s list of skills and competencies, and Dee Fink’s significant learning dimensions.

Results of their study showed a 12% increase in passing rates compared to the use of traditional assignments. Additionally, the study revealed that, based on students’ self-assessment at the end of the course, the innovative projects contributed more toward increasing students’ skills and competencies.

Surveys of both faculty and students revealed a more positive attitude in both teaching and participating in the revised introductory financial course. Students not only felt their competencies and skills increased compared to the traditional course, but also showed a greater appreciation for the profession.  

Using social media to enhance managerial accounting courses

Holmes, A.F., & Rasmussen, S.J. (2018). Using Pinterest to stimulate student engagement, interest, and learning in managerial accounting courses. Journal of Accounting Education, 43, 43–56.

Students’ interest in social media presents a unique opportunity to engage them in their coursework. This study, by Amy Holmes and Stephanie Rasmussen, analyzes the use of Pinterest in an introductory managerial accounting course. They required students to “pin” an article, website, video, etc., from the internet to a Pinterest board related to the assigned course content. Each student needed to create one pin along with a description of the pin’s relevance. Additionally, students were required to comment on at least one other pin, with both requirements totaling 5% of the students’ grade.

The article analyzed 783 pins from 258 students attending two universities during the 2016–2017 academic year. It discusses how this assignment builds interest and provides a deeper understanding of managerial accounting concepts. Pins and other social media participation also were found to create interesting topics for class discussion and oral presentations.

Student surveys showed 71% of students thought the project was worthwhile with comments ranging from those that showed increased interest and impact, to negative feedback that the assignment was busy work, pointless, and too time-consuming. ESL (English as a second language) students showed the greatest interest and expressed the strongest positive benefits from the assignment, consistent with research on the learning styles of this student population. Based on the results of the study, the authors suggest that the use of a social media platform for course assignments enhances student interest and provides a positive impact on student understanding of complex accounting concepts.

Additional articles published on active learning strategies in accounting education

Accounting Education: An International Journal

Wynn-Williams, K., Beatson, N., & Anderson, C. (2016). The impact of unstructured case studies on surface learners: a study of second-year accounting students. Accounting Education, 25(3), 272–286.

Adelopo, I., Asante, J., Dart, E., & Rufai, I. (2017). Learning groups: the effects of group diversity on the quality of group reflection. Accounting Education, 26(5/6), 553–575. 

Mihret, D.G., Abayadeera, N., Watty, K., & McKay, J. (2017). Teaching auditing using cases in an online learning environment: the role of ePortfolio assessment. Accounting Education, 26(4), 335–357.

Sithole, S. (2017). Instructional strategies and students’ performance in accounting: an evaluation of those strategies and the role of gender. Accounting Education, 27(6), 613–631

Bautista-Mesa, R., Molina Sánchez, H., & Ramírez Sobrino, J.N. (2018). Audit workplace simulations as a methodology to increase undergraduates’ awareness of competences. Accounting Education, 27(3), 234–258.

Coetzee, S.A., Schmulian, A., & Coetzee, R. (2018). Web conferencing-based tutorials: Student perceptions thereof and the effect on academic performance in accounting educationAccounting Education, 27(5), 531–546.

Cloete, M. (2018). The impact of an integrated assessment on the critical thinking skills of first-year university students. Accounting Education, 27(5), 479-494.

Peng, J., & Abdullah, I. (2018). Building a market simulation to teach business process analysis: effects of realism on engaged learning. Accounting Education, 27(2), 208–222. 

Seow, J.L., & Shankar, P.L. (2018). Effects of team-skills guidance on accounting students with lone wolf tendencies. Accounting Education, 27 (3) 309-332

Sridharan, B., Muttakin, M.B., & Mihret, D.G. (2018). Students’ perceptions of peer assessment effectiveness: an explorative study. Accounting Education, 27(3), 259–285. 

Advances in Accounting Education

Downen, T., & Hyde, B. (2016). Flipping the managerial accounting principles course: effects on student performance, evaluation, and attendance. Advances in Accounting Education (21) 61-87.

Wooten, T. (2016). Leveraging online testing to enhance student learning. Advances in Accounting Education (21) 141-163.

Issues in Accounting Education

Phillips, F. (2016). The power of giving feedback: Outcomes from implementing an online peer assessment system. Issues in Accounting Education, 31(1), 1–15.

Sudhakar, A., Tyler, J., & Wakefield, J. (2016). Enhancing student experience and performance through peer-assisted learning. Issues in Accounting Education, 31(3), 321-336.

Lento, C. (2017). Incorporating whiteboard voice-over video technology into the accounting curriculum. Issues in Accounting Education, 32(3), 153–168.

Riley, J., & Ward, K. (2017). Active learning, cooperative active learning, and passive learning methods in an accounting information systems course. Issues in Accounting Education, 32(2), 1–16.

Journal of Accounting Education

Bergner, J., Filzen, J.J., & Simkin, M.G. (2016). Why use multiple choice questions with excess information? Journal of Accounting Education, (34) 1–12.

Chan, S. H., Song, Q., Rivera, L. H., & Trongmateerut, P. (2016). Using an educational computer program to enhance student performance in financial accounting. Journal of Accounting Education, (36) 43–64.

Calabor, M.S., Mora, A., & Moya, S. (2018). The future of “serious games” in accounting education: A Delphi study. Journal of Accounting Education, (46) 43-52.

McCarthy, M., Kusaila, M., & Grasso, L. (2018). Intermediate accounting and auditing: Does course delivery mode impact student performance? Journal of Accounting Education, (46) 26-42.

The Accounting Educators’ Journal

C. Harrington, W. Smith, R. Bauer (2016). Influencing business student intent to use a personal budget. The Accounting Educators’ Journal, (26) 135-153.

Solsma, L.L., Njoroge, J., & Bartlett, G.D. (2018). The efficacy of online homework systems in introductory financial and managerial accounting courses. The Accounting Educator’s Journal, (28) 33-51.

Cynthia Bolt-Lee, CPA, is head of the department of accounting and finance and professor of accounting at The Citadel, Charleston, S.C. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

Where to find June’s flipbook issue

The Journal of Accountancy is now completely digital. 





Leases standard: Tackling implementation — and beyond

The new accounting standard provides greater transparency but requires wide-ranging data gathering. Learn more by downloading this comprehensive report.