Innovations in third-level accounting education

Apr 01, 2020
A recent Irish Accounting and Finance Association (IAFA) workshop on teaching and learning accounting at third-level tackled some unpalatable truths to create a vision for an undergraduate curriculum that produces more rounded graduates.

By Margaret Healy, Hugh McBride, Elaine Doyle, Patrick Buckley and Michael Farrell

While the knowledge base of the accounting profession is one of its distinguishing features, educators increasingly face tensions between teaching the breadth and depth of the technical aspects of accounting while also facilitating students’ engagement with the broader context in which the accounting discipline is applied. Teaching the digital natives of today’s classrooms can also leave educators struggling to find ways (other than assessments) to engage and motivate their students.

Future accounting graduates need to be not only technically excellent but also have the ability and confidence to question the status quo, critically evaluate alternatives, think and behave ethically, work effectively as part of a team, and be open to and embrace change. Contemporary accounting teaching must, therefore, create classroom environments that generate enquiry by continually challenging and stimulating students. Educators must strive to develop deep, active and reflective learning experiences that engage this new generation, creating learning platforms that encourage interaction and blend with students’ evolving learning styles.

On 29 November 2019, Chartered Accountants Ireland hosted a workshop on higher-level accounting education run by the Irish Accounting and Finance Association (IAFA).Over 50 participants were involved in the day from numerous higher education institutions (HEIs) on the island of Ireland, representing most of the professional accounting bodies, as well as Institute staff members from the Education and Exams departments. Summarised here are the main themes, issues and innovations arising from the presentations and group discussions.

Catching and holding students’ attention

Learning is arduous and cognitive effort is required. Neither students nor teachers should lose sight of this in the pursuit of quick fixes or using the latest technology for its own sake. Describing learning motivation as being cognitive, situated and dependent on the subject matter, Professor Martin Valcke of Ghent University in Belgium addressed the importance of creating a mental model that draws students into the material by leveraging what they might already know to ‘catch’ their attention and then ensuring that their attention is maintained. Lecturers need to first ‘catch’ and then ‘hold’ students’ attention and focus. Numerous techniques were suggested to achieve this.
Hugh McBride, senior lecturer in business at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, uses various techniques to foster awareness of ethical concepts and considerations in the classroom. The focus is on moving students from ‘confusions of understanding’ to ‘understandings of confusion’ as they grapple with the complexity of dealing with the lack of ‘a right answer’. As a preparation for their ethics module, this approach engages students, builds their confidence and trust in the process, and identifies issues of concern for discussion later, thus acting as a learning mechanism for the lecturer as well as the students.

Dr Emer Mulligan, senior lecturer in finance and taxation at NUI Galway and Dr Kim Key, PwC Professor of Accounting at Auburn University, Alabama, USA, run an intercultural teaching exercise in international taxation. With a shared desire to reflect the reality of tax in practice for their students, their group-based project involving students in the US and Ireland seeks to increase awareness of ethical issues as well as an understanding of international corporate tax planning opportunities and techniques. They recommend that educators start by using a case study that has already been published and is well-validated, with teaching notes available. Keeping the requirements simple at the outset improves the ease of implementation. Trade-offs between traditional teaching methodologies, and a focus on grading, versus the broader, real-world experience their teaching exercise provides must also be considered and negotiated with students. While lecturers will want to ensure that the students engage with real-world issues to enhance the relevance and development potential of the case study, this must also be balanced with how students are graded across different institutions.

It can be challenging to get students to engage with the broader, real-world context of the subjects they study. For example, undergraduate tax students often pay little attention to the national budget, despite its critical importance to the work of tax practitioners. Dr Patrick Buckley, lecturer in information management at the University of Limerick, uses gamification to encourage students to engage with and learn more about this critical real-world event. A group decision-making tool called a ‘prediction market’ requires students to investigate policy debates and make forecasts about the measures that are likely to be introduced in the Budget. While the approach has been effective in motivating students, Dr Buckley notes that not everyone enjoys gamified learning; it must be used as part of a suite of learning interventions to improve engagement and motivation.

Peter Weadack at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dún Laoghaire uses a narrative or ‘storytelling’ approach, involving the five essential elements of a story (characters, setting, conflict, plot and resolution) to help students understand the contents and use of financial statements. After all, he says, “even accountants don’t dream in PowerPoints and T-accounts!”

Doing more with less

Teaching and learning in contemporary higher education take place under numerous constraints, including pressures on time and financial restrictions. More worrying, perhaps, are the increasing administrative burdens imposed on teaching faculties due to evolving bureaucracy and accreditation demands in addition to diversity issues within the classroom, which increasingly involves catering for a broader range of student needs (or demands).

Smaller class sizes, space within modules to cover a broader range of topics in more depth, work placements for students, and the freedom to introduce more research into the curriculum are high on the wishlist for lecturers. Using technology to optimum effect is considered critical in addressing some of these issues. Ensuring that students have ‘skin in the game’ is also a vital means for engaging students, using approaches such as those outlined above, as well as co-creation and self-directed assignments.

Re-thinking the undergraduate curriculum

A third theme that emerged on the day was the nature of the relationship between the professional accountancy bodies (PABs) and HEIs, a key feature of which is the influence PABs have on accounting degree programme curriculum design, delivery and assessment within the HEI context. While this influence and its impact on professional exemptions are considered to be beneficial to the HEIs in promoting their degree programmes, it also has a restrictive influence on the nature of undergraduate education. The high quality of the various professional syllabi benefits the HEIs in designing their programmes and course modules by ‘piggybacking’ on the prior work of the professional bodies. It is of concern, however, that the focus of HEIs on obtaining and maintaining exemptions has skewed the academic curriculum excessively towards a narrow, technical education, including restricting the variety of assessment instruments used and stifling experimentation and innovation in approaches to teaching and learning.

In a contemporary context where there is tension between the demand for technical skills and the need for students to develop transferable skills, broader-based undergraduate accounting education is desirable. It should incorporate an emphasis on understanding the business environment and conceptual frameworks, and on developing a more rounded graduate with a range of interpersonal and self-management skills, affective dispositions (in particular, critical thinking) and professional attributes. The difficulty for individual HEIs, however, is the risk of losing exemptions and damaging the relative attractiveness of their particular programmes in the short-term if they unilaterally redesign their curriculum to incorporate this broader perspective. In this context, it was suggested that there might be scope for the HEIs to approach the PABs to discuss rethinking the undergraduate curriculum collectively. Chartered Accountants Ireland expressed a willingness to engage in such a dialogue.

A date for your diary

Feedback for this event has been extremely positive, with attendees indicating that the content and format was useful and thought-provoking. In particular, the opportunity to interact with other educators and representatives of the various professional accountancy bodies was welcomed. Participants were anxious for this event to become part of the annual IAFA calender. To this end, we are delighted to announce that the second IAFA Teaching and Learning in Accounting Day is scheduled for 27 November 2020 at Chartered Accountants House.