Finding the fun in entry-level accounting

These creative approaches show students accounting is not that intimidating.
By Anita Dennis

On the first day of the term, many faculty who teach entry-level accounting find themselves in front of a room full of students who are taking the course because they have no choice. But there are a variety of creative approaches you can take to make the class interesting and accessible for them — and show them that accounting is not as dull or scary as they might think.

At Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Megan Burke’s financial accounting classes often include students in fashion merchandising because her school has a strong fashion program. “They definitely don’t come in interested in financial accounting,” said Burke, CPA, Ph.D., who is an assistant professor of accounting. However, Burke and other professors have found ways to engage even the most reluctant financial accounting student. Here are some tips for making entry-level accounting courses interesting and accessible to non-majors:

Make the material relatable. It can be hard to know what will resonate with students if you don’t know where they expect their studies to take them. With that in mind, Burke reviews her students’ majors before the term begins so she can determine how best to relate the material to their career plans. With fashion merchandising majors, for example, she discusses how they can use financial information to make decisions on key areas such as purchasing, pricing, and allocation of space within a store.

“I show them why they need to understand the financial part to succeed in their managerial role,” Burke said, which she does by using scenarios that will apply in their careers. “Linking the course to their major shows students you know where they’re coming from”.

To connect with a wide range of majors, John Campbell, CPA, Ph.D., professor and EY Faculty Fellow at the University of Georgia in Athens, starts with the hypothetical example of a T-shirt company, describing its need for material, equipment, quality control, and marketing efforts, all of which involve finances. That leads him to an introduction to bank loans and the bond and stock markets. He then asks the students what they’d want to know if they were going to invest in the company, which leads to a discussion of financial reporting. “No matter what job you have in business, the key is to understand the financial statements,” he tells students.

Get personal. Kyle Anderson, CPA, CGMA, senior lecturer in accounting at Clemson University in South Carolina, gets students’ attention by asking them to perform a reconciliation of their own checking accounts, which many have never done before. He then relates their work and their own financial choices to the ways that businesses keep track of and make decisions about their income and spending. “I tell them that if they can understand how to buy a car or a house, they can understand the finances involved in running a business,” he said.

Have fun. Burke recommends upending students’ assumptions of what an accounting course will be like by using fun activities. To reinforce their knowledge of accounting terms and concepts, for example, she lays out a large piece of paper with various vocabulary words on it. She then reads word definitions, and students, using fly swatters, compete to be the first to swat the word that matches them.

Her students also play Monopoly while recording the game’s transactions and following them through the accounting cycle. Game winners get one extra credit point. “They get excited about learning about accounting because it’s different from what they expected,” she said.

Flip the class. In a traditional setting, a faculty member presents the content during class, then has the students work on related assignments outside of the classroom. In a flipped classroom, that approach is reversed. Anderson, using his own video channel called KyleTV, asks students to watch his discussions of a specified textbook chapter online before each class. That allows non-majors, whose schedules may include labs and other non-accounting courses, to access lectures at any time. In class, they can work together in small groups and as a class to understand how they would apply what they’ve learned in a business.

“They don’t spend the entire class trying to understand concepts or get answers,” he said. “Instead, we talk about what the information means in a real-world business setting.” If students struggle with the material in the videos, he offers help in Skype meetings. Anderson also uses class time to introduce students to related online sources, such as websites for professional associations like the AICPA or Association of Certified Fraud Examiners or standard setters like FASB.

Help students help each other. Anderson requires students to use a discussion board midway through the semester to exchange information on what resources have been most helpful to them so far and what they would change if they could start the semester over. At the end of the term, students must post an online letter for the next term’s students offering advice based on their experiences. The effort helps crystallize what they’ve learned and can offer valuable insights to fellow students.

Worth the hard work

Entry-level accounting courses may seem daunting to students who are new to accounting, but there are ways to prove to students that they will be worthwhile.  

“On the first day of class, I set expectations by telling students what it will take for them to do well in the class,” Campbell said. “Then it’s my job to convince them that it’s worth working hard for.” Faculty can accomplish that goal by using creative approaches to learning and showing students how the knowledge they gain will help them in their careers.

— Anita Dennis is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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