How to make lectures interesting

Follow this advice to be the best “sage on the stage.”
By Dawn Wotapka

Many academics tout active learning approaches as the gold standard to keep students engaged in the classroom. When it comes to accounting, though, many experienced faculty members know that lectures are a proven, tried-and-true way to teach the basics.

Lecturing is an "efficient delivery approach for building foundational knowledge," said Kreag Danvers, CPA, Ph.D., professor of accountancy at Clarion University in Clarion, Pa. Although active learning approaches, such as team-based projects and group presentations, are effective, they can have a limited benefit until students understand the core terms, concepts, and related applications, said Danvers, who has also taught at Penn State University and Wayne State University in Detroit.

However, lectures have a downside: Students can easily and quickly lose interest if lecturers fail to keep their attention. If and when that happens, Danvers said, students will sleep, pass notes, daydream, text, or make excuses to leave early, and "learning outcomes will not be achieved." That's not what any faculty member wants.

How can lecturers be more engaging and effective and not just a "sage on a stage"? Here are some good techniques:

Teach the basics: Think about what you're working with, said Alex King, CPA, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Saint Xavier University in Chicago. "Lectures work best when presenting information that has a correct answer and has less critical thinking involved," he said.

They're more effective for concepts with right or wrong answers, such as discussing how to perform calculations and record journal entries, he explained. Avoid complicated topics such as performing an audit risk assessment or determining the correct discount rate to use when performing a corporate valuation. Those concepts are better suited to team assignments or classroom discussions because the critical-thinking process is as important as the specific knowledge, King said.

Offer advance reading: Distribute information before the class so students can follow along instead of furiously taking notes. "Students are more engaged when they have outlines and read the material in advance," Danvers said. "The lecture becomes more meaningful," promoting greater participation and learning.

Pace yourself: Be sure not to go too fast. "Quickly moving through PowerPoints may also require students to take massive notes," Danvers said.

Break things up: To avoid overload, stop frequently to ask students if they understand or have any questions, King advised. He also suggested sprinkling in some active learning techniques, such as class discussions, group problems, or online quizzes into the lecture. "This allows students to get a mental break from the lecture, as well as practice with the new material being presented," said King, who previously worked in auditing roles.

For those seeking an online quiz, Kahoot! is popular because students can use the free web version or download an app to turn multiple-choice questions into a contest. Jason Cherubini, CPA, CGMA, a lecturer in business administration at Stevenson University in Owings Mills, Md., encourages his students to create Kahoot! quizzes to challenge each other.

He'll even offer bonus points to the student or students who score the highest. "It is amazing what a little competition will do in order to get students to want to study accounting," said Cherubini, who is also founder of Seraphim Associates International, a finance and accounting consultancy firm located in Baltimore.

Use the news: To help students understand the importance of what they're learning during the lecture, Danvers references headlines and topics from The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, and other sources. While this method is not new, it continues to be effective. "Real-life examples and news items help students to better visualize applications of theory," Danvers said.

Reference pop culture: "Using specific media that students are familiar with makes it easier for them to recall the concepts, even years after graduation," Cherubini said. He uses Bob's Burgers, a popular animated series, to teach cost-volume-profit analysis. The show includes special burgers such as "Burger a la Mode" (comes with ice cream on the side) or "Poutine on the Ritz" (includes French fries), so he has students select a few creative burgers and analyze the cost inputs and determine which ones are profitable and which should be discontinued.

Offer concrete examples: King, meanwhile, relates the topic to something more real. "By anchoring examples to companies or experiences about which students are familiar, they are better able to internalize the concepts" that could otherwise seem more theoretical, he said.

When discussing how to evaluate a company's financial performance, for example, he has students examine documents from companies they're more likely to be familiar with, such as Costco, Apple, and Nike. For internal controls, he talks about how the university's registration system prevents students from registering for courses if the student lacks the required prerequisites.

Make it personal: Cherubini relates some of his anecdotes to real life. For example, when it comes to writing off uncollectible accounts receivable, he uses the example of going out to dinner with friends.

If you pay the bill and your friends offer to pay you back, but never do, you may give up on asking for the funds. "This doesn't mean the money isn't technically still owed, but it is 'written off' in their mind," Cherubini said. "By linking the accounting concept to an analogous experience that the students may have had themselves, it is better ingrained in their minds."

When it comes to teaching accounting basics, many faculty members agree that lecturing is an effective tool. However, "until students appreciate how all the accounting pieces fit together to tell a business's story, accounting can seem like an arcane mess of jargon," King said. Therefore, you have to keep students engaged and excited. "Faculty who make lectures interesting are more likely to have interested students with curiosity and drive to learn the material," he said.

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Georgia. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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