Tips and ideas for teaching Excel

Help students gain the Excel skills employers want most.
By Liz Farr, CPA, and Courtney Vien

Excel skills are an essential part of the accounting curriculum, but they’re not always the easiest topic to teach. For one thing, given the dense content of accounting courses, it can be difficult to find the time to teach anything outside of technical accounting. For another, students usually have varying levels of experience with the software.

“There will always be a wide range of exposure, experience, and competency on the part of students in using Excel,” said Susan Convery, CPA, Ph.D., professor of practice at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “You quickly have to get all the students up to some working knowledge of Excel.”

Grading can also be a roadblock: Excel assignments are often time-consuming to grade, especially when faculty assign each student different sets of numbers to use to prevent cheating.

Experienced faculty, however, have come up with many ways to overcome these problems. Here is some of their best advice for teaching Excel:

Have students get up to speed on their own time. Some instructors ask students to gain the Excel skills they need outside of class, either by using YouTube or other online resources, or by using formal programs. Robert Tepper, CPA, J.D., principal lecturer at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, suggested using “video examples showing step-by-step construction,” which faculty can create by themselves or find on YouTube, “so students can follow along and replay.” Here’s an example of one he recently showed his class that shows the construction of a bond amortization schedule.

Kimberly Church, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, for example, has students use SIMnet, an online Office training platform from McGraw-Hill, to “get up to the same level before the first project.” The SIMnet platform consists of individualized study modules at a variety of skill levels, so students can choose the ones that correspond to their knowledge of Excel, she said during a presentation at the 2018 Conference on Teaching and Learning in Accounting (CTLA) in Washington, D.C. (SIMnet charges a fee, but many universities subscribe to it.)

Input your own data to make grading easier. One way to make grading Excel assignments go faster, according to Barbara Scofield, CPA, Ph.D., professor of accounting at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., is to put your own data into the spreadsheets students create for assignments. “You have the solution, so if they’ve done the spreadsheet correctly you’ll know immediately,” she said during a session at the CTLA.

Use online resources that do the grading for you. Scofield has students complete Excel practice sets from CyberText, an online publisher of accounting textbooks. The practice sets are algorithmic, so every student works with a unique set of numbers, and CyberText’s software grades students’ work automatically.

Teach Excel shortcuts. Church and her colleagues surveyed employers to see what they expected from students in terms of Excel skills. They found that employers wanted graduates to have high proficiency in a relatively basic set of skills — notably, keyboard shortcuts. (“Accountants in the field never use the mouse!” Church noted during her talk.) Church said she now asks students to learn at least five or six of the most common shortcuts and provides each class with a copy of the Excel shortcuts periodic table.  

Stimulate students’ interest. Convery recommends making “the business scenario that you’re using Excel with very interesting.” Over the semester, Convery’s students in her Principles of Management Accounting class work through a set of five assignments that she and her team call “Analyzing Business Issues With Excel,” or ABI-WEs. These assignments require students to complete various tasks using Excel that simulate the work of an accounting intern at a company.

Convery chooses a business scenario that grabs the attention of students, so her latest set of ABI-WEs used the real-world example of a local furniture maker that uses the wood from dead trees on campus. Here students learn about inventory, overhead, labor, and pricing as they work through various worksheets and employ Excel functions such as VLOOKUP, SUMIF, and TRANSPOSE. (Convery has graciously offered to share the ABI-WEs with interested faculty. Please send an email to her at convery@broad.msu.edu if you would like them.)

Repeat, repeat, and repeat. The “pattern of repeating [certain functions] over and over will reinforce and help them make it a tool,” said Convery. As students work through the ABI-WEs, they use the same Excel functions, but in slightly different contexts.

Demonstrate Excel in class. “Having students seeing you set up problems is just critical,” Tepper said. Working problems in class helps students see the practical application of theory and gives them the tools to do the work on their own, he said.

Encourage students to find their own mistakes. Identifying and fixing errors is an important part of Excel proficiency. Maureen Butler, CPA, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Tampa, speaking during the CTLA, said she reinforces this concept by giving students the correct solution to an Excel spreadsheet containing errors. To complete the assignment, they need to find the errors, fix them, and document the corrections they made. (“No one is going to grade them at work,” she observed.)

Church said she allows students who make errors on assignments to identify what they did wrong and resubmit their work to earn some credit back.

Suggestions for in-class activities

Here are ideas for in-class activities that faculty members have found useful in teaching Excel skills:

A business simulation: As Convery’s students work through the ABI-WEs, they use Excel to answer the kinds of questions management might have. For example, in one assignment, the student receives an inventory listing and prices for those items. From that data, the student calculates the value of the inventory and cost of goods sold, and updates the trial balance and income statement for those items. Through these simulations, students learn to use VLOOKUP, PivotTable, the Goal Seek tool, and functions such as SUMIF and NPV.

Students as the teachers: As described in this article, Veronda Willis, CPA, CGMA, Ph.D., associate professor of accounting and director of the Master of Accountancy program at the University of Texas at Tyler, assigns students to small groups to work on a project that they present to the class. Each group is assigned an activity such as PivotTable, macros, VLOOKUP and HLOOKUP, or conditional formatting, as well as an Excel function related to accounting or finance.

The groups are required to develop their own data. For example, one group created a car dealership with group members as the sales team and class members as customers. They used VLOOKUP to find car prices in an inventory list, then “sold” the cars by merging student names with the inventory list. Using PivotTable, they showed sales results by sales team member and location. During the presentation, the group also demonstrated how to use VLOOKUP to the class.

Liz Farr, CPA, is a freelance writer based in New Mexico. Courtney Vien is a senior editor for magazines and newsletters at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact her at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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