Motivate students to do the assigned reading

Design lessons and class participation so students arrive prepared.
By Samiha Khanna

It can be tough to get students to read their accounting textbooks. But what about piquing their interest with a podcast or an audiobook?

About 10 years ago, professor Brigitte Muehlmann, CPA, Ph.D., was pondering her own enjoyment listening to nonfiction. She thought a similar format could help her busy students come to class better-prepared.

“I’m a design thinker,” said Muehlmann, who teaches financial accounting at Babson College in Boston. “I always look for the pain points. Many of my students were working full time and going to school full time. Many were commuting on public transportation. So I created readings for them.”

About once a year, Muehlmann would spend a couple weeks in front of her MacBook, speaking segments of the required text, intertwined with her commentary and examples, into a snowball-shaped Blue microphone she bought just for this project. The recordings helped her students learn the material. They also helped students whose primary language is not English learn how to pronounce technical terms that were new to them.

“When you’re on a crowded train or bus, you can’t do your reading, but you can still listen to the material,” Muehlmann said. Using this technique in years past, she said, left her students feeling “better-prepared than they realized.”

Of course, not every professor has the time Muehlmann has invested — about 30 to 40 hours a year, she estimates — to record audio lessons. She and other professors shared additional ideas to motivate students to do the assigned reading.

Supplement the text with as many resources as possible. To help students understand the reading they’re supposed to do, professors should bring in as many additional resources as they can, said Stephani Mason, CPA, Ph.D., assistant professor of accounting at DePaul University in Chicago.

“I encourage students to tape my lectures. I write my own notes for lectures and give them to students at the beginning of class in printed form, which gives them a space to write on with their own notes, or to follow along with illustrations,” she said.

She also sends students links to YouTube videos that explain certain concepts, which can be particularly helpful for non-native English speakers or others who need to see the information in different modalities.

Structure class participation so everyone’s on the hook. When Mason convenes her accounting classes for the first time, she breaks the roughly 40 students into groups of three. During each class, any group could be called on to walk the class through a solution. If one member always seems ready to answer, Mason may stop them and have another member of the group continue where their peer left off. Being prepared is how students earn class participation points. Cold-calling on students is not something every professor believes in, she said.

“My method isn’t for everyone,” said Mason, who also serves on the AICPA National Accreditation Commission and the AICPA Financial Instruments Task Force. Often, faculty feel as though they shouldn’t put students on the spot in front of their peers, she said, but she doesn’t agree with this stance.

“We are in a business where people are going to be asked questions and have to defend their ideas,” she said. “And so why not start in a place where absolutely nothing is on the line?” At the beginning of the semester, Mason tells students to prepare to be called on, not because she’s trying to publicly embarrass them, but because she’s trying to prepare them to be successful in the future.

“I try and convince them that if they develop good study habits and come to class prepared, it will carry over into the rest of their lives,” she said.

Design exam questions that combine multiple concepts. If there’s one thing students love to do, it’s to look things up, said Paul Brazina, CPA/CFF, CGMA, an accounting professor at LaSalle University in Philadelphia. “They love to Google things and quickly find the one answer to your question,” he said. “Accounting is made of a lot of factual material, and students aren’t bad at coming up with the rules on how to do things.”

But in Brazina’s class, assignments and exams require more than students simply reciting processes or rules. They have to think critically about everything they have read in order to answer questions about the bigger picture, Brazina said — such as, “Why do we have this rule and what’s the impact on business?” Students learn that they can’t answer Brazina’s questions unless they have read all the material, making reading the textbook essential to succeeding in his class, he said.

Use examples that interest them. Muehlmann said she’s always looking for ways to make learning fun. “I use the Mary Poppins approach,” she said. “With a spoonful of sugar, the medicine goes down.” All three professors interviewed for this article said they pay careful attention to the companies students are interested in and the types of businesses they can relate to when explaining accounting concepts.

When discussing mergers and acquisitions, students tend to gravitate toward examples in the food industry, such as the merger of Kraft and Heinz, or changes at luxury brands, such as the acquisition of Jimmy Choo by Michael Kors, said Brazina, who in his 46-year career has also served as dean of the business school at LaSalle.

“They tend to shy away from some of the engineering companies where they can’t relate to the product or service,” he said.

Muehlmann said the first time her classes meet, she asks students to share what their favorite companies are.

“I listen to the names they bring up and think about what I can bring into my course,” she said. “I am always looking for an element of pleasant surprise. The first step for learning is the attention filter. If I don’t make it through the attention filter, there’s absolutely no way the students will learn this.”

Mason and Muehlmann also said they use any opportunity they can to keep students interested in the class and material, including discussing real-life examples of what they have read, highlighting a local scandal, or bringing in guest speakers, such as professionals from big firms in town or high-profile alumni, to talk about how they use accounting in their jobs. At DePaul, students may have the chance to hear from professionals at United Airlines, which is headquartered right down the street, Mason said. At Babson, Muehlmann has built in-class problems around Amazon’s acquisition of Ring, the video doorbell company founded by alumnus Jamie Siminoff, whose pitch had earlier been rejected on Shark Tank.

Don’t assume students have the book. If Brazina sees students running around at the end of class taking photos of others’ textbooks with their phones, he knows it’s usually a sign they don’t have the textbook.

“We do have quite a few students who don’t have the money,” said Brazina. “It’s not a big percentage — maybe five students out of 30 — but some students can barely put enough together for tuition, and [going to college] is their break in life.” For this reason, he said, he is selective about materials and sensitive to their costs, and avoids requiring anything but one textbook for his classes.

Brazina said he also ensures the library has at least one copy of the text, and that he reminds students of places they can find the used text more cheaply online. (This article has more advice for helping students afford textbooks.)

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. 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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