Creativity is the key to keeping the current generation engaged in the classroom.
"Today's students have so many more distractions—buzzes and beeps from their cellphones letting them constantly know someone wants their attention," said Agatha Engel, CPA, assistant professor at Northern Virginia Community College in Woodbridge, Va. "You need to drown out the noise and keep the focus on your course topic. In other words, it only works if you keep the course interesting and challenging."
Here, Engel and three other accounting faculty members share their ideas:
Having students make a rap video: Rap videos wouldn't seem to mix well with accounting, but they're exactly the tool Melanie C. Fleming, CPA, assistant professor at Nichols College in Dudley, Mass., used in her ACC238 Financial Accounting class in 2016. She'd shown a YouTube video on credits and debits to previous classes, so she decided to try making her own rap video. She asked the students what topics should go into the lyrics and they began writing during class. Students used the school's green room and cameras to film the video and wore T-shirts with "credit" and "debit" images on them (purchased by Fleming, who spent several hours ironing on the images).
Editing the "Account on Me" video was more time-consuming than anyone expected, so the students opted not to put the final product online. Still, Fleming, who made the project 15% of the final grade, said her department chair and associate dean for business liked it. The students did as well.
"On my faculty evaluations, that was not only among their favorite parts of the class, but they also indicated that it helped them learn accounting," she said. Sometimes, she says, when she spots former students on campus, "we all break into a big smile."
Running a sandwich shop: For two decades, Billie M. Cunningham, Ph.D., has been using peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches to teach a variety of concepts in her introduction to accounting class. You read that right: Sandwiches. Cunningham, EY Teaching Professor Emeritus at the University of Missouri–Columbia, says the lesson remains relevant and popular because it is short, done in class, builds on something students have likely done before, and is fun.
As they decide what types of sandwiches to make—creamy vs. crunchy peanut butter, strawberry vs. grape jelly—students learn a variety of lessons that include putting a cost on raw materials inventory, factoring in overhead, and tackling shrinkage. As they manufacture sandwiches in class, some students don red aprons. Acting as the manufacturing foreman, Cunningham wears a "Kiss the Cook" apron and a white chef's hat. Students get to eat the sandwiches afterward. The project itself isn't graded, but all those tasty lessons end up being about 3% of the final grade through related exam questions.
Cunningham, who used this idea in two classes totaling about 900 freshman and sophomore students each semester, plans to use the idea again in a smaller class. "The most surprising lesson for me is how much all the students get into this activity and how quickly they see the connection between the manufacturing process and the way these products are assigned costs," she said.
Incorporating podcasts into class: Engel credits traffic jams for her creativity. To pass time during her commute, she began tuning into podcasts. During class breaks, she'd use the topics as a conversation starter with students. To her surprise, they were quite interested.
That gave Engel, who left corporate accounting for academia in 2006, an idea. She began using podcasts related to the current course readings in her introductory and intermediate accounting classes. Her current favorite is NPR's How I Built This series. She recently linked one episode of that podcast featuring the story of Crate & Barrel, a housewares store, to cost accounting. Other podcasts she's used have discussed such companies as Aden+Anais, Patagonia, and Atari.
The podcasts "give a nice overview of what business life is about," she said. "And accounting is part of that."
Students listen to the podcasts outside of class and discuss them in class. The conversations aren't graded, but the topics help students "relate theory to practice," Engel explained. "It lets you experience business decisions secondhand."
Having students create personal budgets: Karen Braun, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D., a professor of accountancy at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, tasks students with making a detailed budget for life after graduation.
"Even though I teach in the business school there are so many students who still do not take these kind of financial lessons to heart for their own personal finances," said Braun. "It's kind of my social outreach."
Students research the salary they could make for a given job, the tax rates in areas they're considering living, and how much rent will be. The detailed plan, which takes a minimum of two hours outside of class and ends up being worth 2 percent of the final grade, has to include five realistic budget cuts, with frequent choices including having a roommate, learning to cook, giving up the daily latte, and not having cable.
The lesson comes with an unexpected bonus. Braun notes that students frequently say after completing their budgets: "I had no idea how hard it is to be self-sufficient, and I need to go thank my parents."
"A lot of times they'll go talk to their parents, siblings, and roommates," she said. "I feel good about opening up the lines of communication between students and the important people in their lives about financial-decision making."
Dawn Wotapka is a Georgia-based freelance writer. To comment on this article, email lead editor Courtney Vien.