Best practices for teaching case studies

Finding the right case to teach is half the battle.
By Anita Dennis

Case studies are a key tool accounting faculty use to help students grasp how the information they glean from textbooks or lectures applies to real-world settings. While textbook exercises can be fairly straightforward, in the real world, transactions and economic events do not always take an easily understandable format, said Steve Moehrle, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D., department chair and professor of accounting, University of Missouri–St. Louis. Responding to case studies “requires a higher level of thinking and analysis,” he said, which deepens students’ preparation for their careers.

In classes from introductory to master’s level, faculty use case studies to enhance students’ understanding and better engage them in the subject matter. Here are some practices that can help faculty make the most of this technique:

Walk students through the process. Help students succeed with what can be a new way of learning for them, Moehrle said. Many students initially have no idea how to tackle case studies, so faculty should be aware that they will need to help them break down the facts of the situation and develop a strategy for solving the problem. Those skills will be important to their long-term careers, he said.

Encourage holistic thinking. When introducing case studies, Margaret Christ, Ph.D., associate professor and PwC faculty fellow at the University of Georgia in Athens, advises students to pause and think more holistically about the situation they describe. For instance, in one case study she uses on revenues, students must take into account not just the final financial results but also the entire process that leads to recording the revenue. They must consider audit issues as well.

“Students are used to learning something, applying their knowledge on a test, and getting it right,” she said. In a case study, struggling to understand all the elements involved and what they mean is part of the process. When students succeed, “it’s very satisfying for [them],” she said. 

Let your pedagogical goals drive your choice of case. The best way to get started teaching case studies is to “consider your educational goals first,” advised Jeffrey Johanns, CPA, CGMA, senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin, then find a case that will achieve them. When his students asked about the use of data analytics in accounting, for instance, Johanns found a case that would help them see how it works.

Moehrle recommended choosing at least a few forward-looking hot topics that will grab students’ interest and excite them about being part of the profession, such as cryptocurrency. “These topics can stoke a new level of interest in the financial reporting of cutting-edge transactions and financial instruments,” he said. 

Emphasize soft skills. Case studies are a great opportunity for students to enhance their communication skills. Matt Sherman, a manager at Deloitte Financial Advisory Services LLP, in Washington, D.C., who is involved in developing Deloitte Foundation Forensic Accounting Case Studies for faculty, noted that the cases call for students to write and present an executive summary for a hypothetical board of directors. “We want them to get a sense of what it will be like to work in a professional services organization,” he said.

Be aware of the available resources. Some faculty create their own case studies customized to their classes, while others use cases developed by outside sources. Examples include the Deloitte Foundation Trueblood Case Studies and the case studies offered by the EY Academic Resource Center (registration required). Moehrle also recommended the case studies published regularly in the journal Issues in Accounting Education.

Minimize access to solutions. Faculty members should be aware that the solutions to case studies obtained from some sources may be available online, undermining the learning opportunities involved. Moehrle recommended that faculty check to see if solutions are readily available before assigning a case.

Start preparation early. If you use the same case studies more than once, you will need to update or adjust them based on what each group of students may be struggling with or the stumbling blocks they face. Christ advises faculty to be prepared to address a variety of needs and approaches.

Anita Dennis is a freelance writer based in New York. 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.

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