'Engagement triggers' help students learn and remember

Try these easy ways to create relatable lessons in accounting.
By Samiha Khanna

Need help keeping your students interested in class? Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Anna Kendrick, and Ben Affleck may be able to help.

The famed Hollywood actors star in films about accounting that some professors are using to lock in students’ attention as they learn about ethics, forensic accounting, and other concepts.

Movie clips, novels, news stories, and even memes circulating on Facebook can serve as “engagement triggers,” or activities that form a bridge between course materials and students’ interests, views, and experiences, said Kiren Dosanjh Zucker, J.D., professor of accounting ethics and accounting communications at California State University, Northridge.

Whether it’s the accountant protagonists in movies such as The Accountant or The Big Short or in a novel such as Accosting the Golden Spire, these narratives take accounting principles out of a vacuum and put them into a broader context, she said.

“Students will form connections between the concepts and their purpose, logic, and application,” Zucker said. “Not only does this support the achievement of learning objectives, it makes the student a partner in learning instead of a passive recipient of ideas.”

Engagement triggers don’t necessarily have to be a form of media. The term generally applies to any tactic faculty use to grab students’ attention and get them actively engaged in their own learning, said Zucker, who conducted a small trial in which students who read a forensic accounting novel said it helped them better understand professional ethics. She presented the findings last year at the American Accounting Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

Zucker and two other accounting professors share their tips on engaging students:

Learn what students like. Don’t assume that what you find interesting and what students find interesting are the same.

“What we're trying to do is teach in a way that catches the students’ attention,” said William “Bill” Black, CPA, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of North Georgia. “And that's not the all-seeing, all-knowing talking head up in front of the classroom, saying here's the collected wisdom of the ages. That doesn't work. You have to be looking for additional ways to connect with them.”

This may mean illustrating accounting principles through a company students can relate to or follow, said Eric Mlynarczyk, CPA, a clinical assistant professor of accounting at Purdue University Northwest in Indiana.

In his course on financial statement analysis, Mlynarczyk draws upon financial documents from Apple. The company manufactures products students understand and hear about often, he said.

“Constantly, I have people talk to me during or after class about not just what’s going on with Apple, but what Tesla reported, or asking, ‘Did you see what happened with Netflix?’,” Mlynarczyk said. “These are the companies that people are watching.”

Through a five-year, comprehensive forecast on Apple in which students learn numerous Excel formulas and shortcuts, students in Mlynarczyk’s classes were also recently excited to learn that, by their calculations, Apple should have been trading at about $330 a share when it was selling for $300, he said.

Finding what students like may also mean letting them choose how to demonstrate their mastery.

“For example, when asking students to make a presentation on a current event relevant to the course, allow the students to not only select the topic, but to choose among options for presentation format: a quiz show, role-play, or a formal presentation,” Zucker said. “In writing assignments, offer students the option of creating their own prompt, which can be submitted for prior approval.”

Think beyond accounting. Engagement triggers don’t have to be about accounting to illustrate key principles.

“You’ve got to show the students that they should be thinking more deeply,” Black said. “And you should be trying to have fun with it.”

For instance, Black was teaching a class in which he discussed the value in accounting of recognizing patterns. As he set up passwords for students to access assignments, some noticed what they had in common: they were all song titles from the same band: Talking Heads.

“If they missed the pattern, that was fine, but the ones who got it had more fun with it. It’s a way to encourage them to use their minds a bit more and give them another avenue to exercise their creativity,” he said.

Students also found the exercise memorable. “On the last exam, one student said, ‘I didn’t really know the answer to this one, but here’s a link to a great Talking Heads video,’” Black recalls. “I gave him credit for creativity.”

To teach students about fixed and variable costs, Mlynarczyk plays the infamous infomercial for the Slap Chop, a small chopper marketed as an amazing, does-it-all food prep device.

“You get some laughs out of it, but then when we’re building a break-even analysis, that’s what those infomercial people need to do,” he said. “Shooting the commercial is a fixed cost. Once they start taking orders, those individual products and the shipping and handling will be variable costs.”

If it doesn’t exist, create it. In many cases, there may not be a perfect example somewhere on the internet for a concept faculty are trying to teach. In those cases, professors can introduce a concept and ask students to point out examples of it in everyday life or in their experiences, Zucker said.

Above all, faculty should strive toward authenticity, she said. For instance, don’t feel pressured to search for memes on social media platforms you don’t typically use.

“You don’t have to stretch and be down with the kids’ slang and all that,” Zucker said. “Rather, treat them as partners in learning. And if you kind of go at it with that energy, then there’s going to be authentic connections between the material and the students and authentic engagement on the part of the students.”

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest and idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.  

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