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Innovative approaches to accounting tests and quizzes

Promote critical thinking by changing your exams.
By Dawn Wotapka

In academia, closed-book exams under the eye of a watchful proctor have long been the norm for tests and quizzes. But some accounting faculty are shaking up that model by developing creative new approaches to assessments.

The unusual tests and quizzes they’ve devised are, in some ways, a response to the times. Now that students have widespread and speedy access to information, memorizing facts has become less meaningful. “The internet by itself is a reason to reevaluate what you test and what you value,” said Timothy Fogarty, CPA, J.D., Ph.D., a professor of accountancy at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, who allows students to take open-book exams. Educators need to ask questions that require students to think through their answers, and not just reproduce information they’ve found elsewhere, he said.

Students can easily access many fact-based test questions and answers via test banks, Fogarty pointed out. What’s more, questions that test memorization are less important in preparing students for the CPA Exam, which has been adjusted to require critical thinking. “You have to ask thoughtful questions that the [text]book doesn’t address,” he said.

Here are some ways accounting faculty have rethought tests and quizzes to promote critical thinking:

Open-book (and open-laptop) tests. Fogarty, who has taught accounting for 35 years, revamped his tests in 2018 to allow students to use outside sources, including textbooks and Google searches. The idea — which actually came from students — is to let them showcase deeper learning. In an “open-book environment,” he said, “all the resources of the world won’t help you out because you’ve got to think through what the answer will be. The key thing I want to reward is how well [students] piece the information together.”

Student-authored questions. Joel Lanz, CPA/CITP/CFF, CGMA, a visiting assistant professor at SUNY Old Westbury, lets his students help author the exam. For the past two years, he has had each student submit potential multiple-choice test questions via an online forum. Each submission has to include an explanation of why the answer is right, including documentation from the textbook, video lectures, supplemental material, and/or class activities, as well as a discussion of why other answers are wrong and where the idea came from — the textbook or a lecture, for example.

Lanz shares all the submitted questions electronically with other students to help prepare for the exams. By perusing the online forum “students are able to see how other students are thinking,” he said.

Before each of the semester’s two online 50-question tests, he reviews the submissions to pick up to 25 or so to use. The selected ones earn students a “royalty fee” of half a point added to their overall grade in the class.

To make the cut, though, the submissions can’t be easy. On the class syllabus, Lanz includes this note for students stating that he’ll be more likely to choose their questions if they test peers’ ability to apply knowledge and not just memorize it. “I’m not going to select a question you could look up on Google,” he said. “That defeats the whole purpose. I have to protect the integrity of the test.”

Letting students take quizzes in teams. DeAnna Martin, CPA, an accounting professor at Santiago Canyon College, in Orange, Calif., lets her students take hourlong quizzes in teams of three to five members, either in person or via breakout rooms on Zoom. (Those who can’t meet up can do the work individually.) She allows students to assist each other, though each student’s problems have different numbers to calculate. (She uses software that automatically generates all the different numbers for questions and assists with grading.) The idea behind the group quizzes, she said, is to help students learn by explaining the concepts to one another. “The desire is to get students to connect with each other and to interact,” she said.

Martin saw improved scores after she made the change a few years ago. Students told her that they experienced “light bulb moments” during the quizzes, when they understood the material for the first time when going over it with their group members or explaining it to someone else. “I’m seeing much better success on the quizzes,” she said.

Martin gives some quizzes on material or a problem that she covered within the past 24 hours. Many times, the information or problems are almost identical to what was just presented. The goal is to get students to pay attention during class and to take careful notes. “The quiz content is exactly what we covered in class,” said Martin, who teaches several accounting courses. “I want to set them up for success.”

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. 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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